Doug Feith, Flimflam Man

In Washington, there are no outcomes. There is only process.

Douglas Feith. Click image to expand.
Douglas Feith

Like a vampire shielding himself from daylight, a government official publicly identified with a failed policy will do everything he can to avoid accepting responsibility. The vampire raises his cloak against the sun. The government official steers discussion away from the outcome and defends the process by which decisions got made. The current master is Douglas J. Feith.

Feith is former undersecretary of defense for policy, and today, despite Gen. Tommy Franks’ famous assertion (in Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack) that he’s “the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth,” Feith is “visiting professor and distinguished practitioner in national security policy” at Georgetown. About the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, Feith is magnificently unrepentant. “I’m not going to be making some Oprah-like confessions,” he toldTheNew Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg two years ago on the eve of his retirement. More recently, Feith has been speaking out defiantly against a Pentagon inspector general’s finding that Feith’s pre-war intelligence briefings alleging a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein were “inappropriate.” Feith is archiving this self-defense on a Web page established for this sole purpose.

The inspector general and especially Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who is Feith’s chief nemesis on Capitol Hill, have made Feith’s job easier than it should be by searching for improprieties and illegalities rather than incompetence, which appears to have been Feith’s true failing. In his book Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post reports that at a meeting during the summer of 2001, a proliferation specialist and longtime Pentagon employee named Lisa Bronson stood up and complained, “This is the worst-run policy office I’ve ever seen.” Ricks also quotes Gary Schmitt, executive director of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, saying of Feith: “He can’t manage anything, and he doesn’t trust anyone else’s judgment.”

Feith may or may not be evil, but the salient point is that he was wrong. Iraq and al-Qaida weren’t collaborating against their common enemy, the United States. Like his hero, Winston Churchill, Feith sounded the klaxons when others were silent. But today Churchill is lionized not because he was a lonely voice, but because he was right. Churchill was right to believe that war against Hitler was necessary. Feith was wrong to believe that war against Saddam was necessary. That’s his true crime, and it’s left blood on his hands.

Feith successfully obscures this vulnerability again and again by arguing that he was following proper procedures for a serious-minded policy-maker. Was his office hawking weak intelligence alleging a link between Saddam and Osama? Absolutely not, Feith says. He was merely critiquing the CIA’s analysis, and “professional criticism of intelligence by policy officials is a good thing.” (Slate contributor Daniel Benjamin demolishes this defense  here.) Did Feith’s Pentagon office trump up al-Qaida’s purported alliance with Iraq? No, it was merely following the lead of Central Intelligence Agency chief George Tenet, who in a 2002 letter to the Senate cited several points of contact. (This sounds pretty good until you click on the link Feith provides to that letter and notice that Tenet prefaced his examples with the disclaimer, “Our understanding of the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida is evolving and is based on sources of varying reliability.”)

Feith’s Web site links to a transcript of a Feb. 11  interview  with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, hardly a hostile forum. Yet Feith’s resolute refusal to answer Wallace’s outcome-based questions reduces the exchange to a latter-day version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” Wallace quotes a PowerPoint briefing unambiguously titled, “Iraq and al-Qaida: Making the Case.”  One slide said: “Intelligence indicates cooperation in all categories, mature symbiotic relationship.” Another said: “Some indications of possible Iraq coordination with al-Qaida specifically related to 9/11.” In addition, Wallace notes that Feith said the 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi agent in Prague in April 2001.

“Mr. Feith, all of that—all of that was wrong, wasn’t it?”

“No, not at all. There was substantial intelligence. I mean, evidence is a legal term, not really appropriate here. There was a lot of information out there. …[T]he people in the Pentagon were giving a critical review. They were not presenting alternative conclusions. They were presenting a challenge to the way the CIA was looking at things and filtering its own information.”

“I have to tell you, I mean, when I—I mean, I read these as ‘mature symbiotic relationship,’ ‘known contact’—that sure sounds like conclusions.”

“You’re plucking language out of a briefing. … It was a criticism. It’s healthy to criticize the CIA’s intelligence. What the people in the Pentagon was doing was right. It was good government.”

Again and again, Wallace tries to yank the subject away from Feith’s First Amendment right to question CIA intelligence, from the good-government virtue of skeptical rethinking—from process—to the obvious fact that Feith was in error. But Feith won’t have it. This is government. We follow procedures. We address the topics at hand. And, apparently, there are no conclusions and no outcome. Government is a Mobius strip. There is only process, and process never reaches an end point.

With a wave of his hand, Doug Feith can make the big, dumb questions like, “Weren’t you wrong to push your country into a tragic failure of a war?” go away. Then it’s just a matter of parrying the small, subtle ones. The “stupidest guy on the face of the earth”? I’d say Feith is a genius.