WASHINGTON: As Karl Marx might have said, “A spectre is haunting Washington – the spectre of Iran-Contra.”
Even some of the people and countries are the same. And the methods – particularly the pursuit by a network of well-placed individuals of a covert, parallel foreign policy that is at odds with official policy – are definitely the same.
Boiled down to its essentials, the Iran-Contra affair was about a small network of officials based in the National Security Agency (NSC) and the CIA that ran an off-the-books operation to secretly sell arms to Iran in exchange for hostages and use the proceeds to sustain the Nicaraguan Contras in defiance of both a Congressional ban and of official US policy as enunciated by the State Department and President Ronald Reagan. It was never clear whether Reagan understood, let alone approved, the operation.
The picture emerging from the latest reports about the manipulation of intelligence in the drive to war with Iraq, as well as efforts by administration hawks to deliberately aggravate tensions with Syria, Iran, and North Korea in defiance of official State Department and US policy suggests a similar but much more ambitious scheme at work. As with Reagan, in this case, too, it is difficult to determine whether Bush – or even National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice – fully understands, let alone approves, of what the hawks are doing.
There was some hint of a parallel policy apparatus dating back just after Sept. 11, 2001. It was known early on, for example, that the Pentagon leadership, without notice to the State Department, the NSC, or the CIA, convened its advisory Defense Policy Board (DPB), headed by Richard Perle, to discuss attacking Iraq within days of the attacks. Those three agencies were also kept in the dark about a mission undertaken immediately afterward by former CIA director and DPB member James Woolsey to London to gather intelligence about possible links between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, as if the CIA or the Pentagon’s own Defense Intelligence Agency could not be trusted.
While Woolsey’s trip recalls the more-benign shenanigans of the Iran-Contra crowd, consider some of the more recent press reports.
l Iran-Contra alumnus Michael Ledeen (and close Perle associate) has renewed ties with his old acquaintance, Manichur Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms merchant who became the key link between Oliver North’s National Security Council and the so-called “moderates” in the Islamic Republic.
To what end? It appears that certain elements in the Pentagon leadership, specifically Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, are trying to sabotage sensitive talks between Tehran and the State Department on co-operation on Al-Qaeda and other pressing issues affecting Afghanistan and Iraq. They think Ledeen’s old friend Ghorbanifar can help, according to Newsday, which reported Friday that two of Feith’s senior aides, without notice to the other agencies, have held several meetings with the Iranian, whom the CIA has long considered “an intelligence fabricator and nuisance.”
l US aircraft and special operations forces intercepted and destroyed a residential compound and two small convoys that were heading from Iraq into Syria in mid-June, and then subdued and arrested five Syrian guards across the border, taking them back to Iraq where they were held and interrogated over the strong objections by the State Department for five days.
For what purpose? The Pentagon says it thought senior Iraqi Baath officials were trying to make a run for it on a suspicious smuggling route. But an expose last month by The New Yorker suggested that the raid and arrests may have been part of a deliberate effort to inflame tensions with Damascus and thus put an end to remarkably close co-operation between Syria and the CIA and State Department in the campaign against Al-Qaeda.
l Certain “high-level circles within the administration” were reported by the Washington Times Friday to be hoping to persuade Chinese military officers to co-sponsor a coup d’etat with their North Korean counterparts against Kim Jong Il. While it is not clear that those proposals have been acted on concretely, the Times said the Pentagon leadership disagrees strongly with the State Department’s efforts to engage Kim in talks to persuade him to abandon his nuclear-weapons program in exchange for a nonaggression pledge. Just before Korea agreed to resume talks last week, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, widely considered to be much closer to the Pentagon hawks than his superiors at State, delivered a blistering attack on Kim in Seoul in what was seen by analysts here as a deliberate provocation.
l Anonymous “senior administration officials” informed a prominent conservative columnist identified by name (which he then published) of a covert CIA operative, thus jeopardising her career and possibly exposing numerous ongoing covert actions and agents who worked with her.
To what end? The agent is the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a retired career foreign service officer who publicly exposed President George W. Bush’s now-infamous assertion that Iraq had tried to buy uranium yellowcake in Africa as a fabrication. While some analysts have said the disclosure of his wife’s identity, a felony under US law, was an attempt to discredit him, he charged this week that the move “was clearly designed to intimidate others from coming forward” to tell what they know of the administration’s intelligence manipulation.
No one knows yet if such intimidation will work, but recently retired intelligence, foreign service, military officers and a growing number of anonymous active-duty officials, have indeed been coming forward with consistent stories about the manipulation and exaggeration of intelligence in order to justify the Iraq war and, more recently, efforts to hype evidence about the alleged nonconventional threat posed by Syria.
Taken collectively, what these officials describe and what is already on the public record suggest the existence of a disciplined network of zealous, like-minded individuals centred for operational purposes in Feith’s office and around Perle in the DPB and operating with the approval of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, and Vice-President Dick Cheney.
This network includes high-level political appointees, such as Bolton, who are scattered around several other key bureaucracies, notably in the State Department, the NSC staff, and, most importantly, in Cheney’s office. Cheney, of course, has a direct link to Bush (and all the heads of agencies) independent of Rice, while his powerful chief of staff and national security adviser, I. Lewis Libby, also enjoys exceptional access and influence.
Indeed, the two men’s frequent visits (as well as those of former Speaker Newt Gingrich) to CIA headquarters before the Iraq war have been cited by retired and anonymous intelligence officers as having an intimidating influence on analysts who disagreed with the more sensational assessments about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al-Qaeda produced by Feith’s office. Newsday’s disclosure that Feith’s office has been used for secret contacts with Ghorbanifar suggests that its work goes well beyond assessing intelligence and making policy recommendations.