WASHINGTON: Although it will still take weeks, if not months, to sort out precisely who was responsible for what increasingly appears to have been the systematic abuse by US soldiers of Iraqi detainees, it should be no surprise if the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith, is found to have played an important role.
Feith, who according to Bob Woodward's new book, "Plan of Attack," was described by the military commander who led last year's invasion, General Tommy Franks, as "the ... stupidest guy on the face of the earth," has been at the center of virtually everything else that has gone wrong in Iraq.
It was his office that shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, created the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group and the Office of Special Plans that trawled through 12 years of raw intelligence and Arab newspapers to find evidence of ties between Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. They then "stovepiped" their conclusions straight to Vice-President Dick Cheney's office, unvetted by professional intelligence analysts, for use by the White House.
Similarly, it was his office, along with the Defense Policy Group whose members Feith appointed, that served as the point of entry for Iraqi National Congress (INC) chief Ahmed Chalabi and his "defectors" who provided phony intelligence about Saddam's "vast" stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
His office was charged with planning the post-war occupation and reconstruction process, and in so doing, effectively excluded input from experts on Iraq from the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Iraqi-American community who had participated in a mammoth project that anticipated most of the problems the occupation authorities have since encountered.
And it was his office that housed the future Undersecretary for Intelligence, Stephen Cambone, who facilitated the transfer to Abu Ghraib prison of Major General Geoffrey Miller, the commander of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, in the interests of extracting more intelligence from detainees about the insurgency in Iraq.
Both Cambone and Miller, who brought with him from Guantanamo high-pressure interrogation tactics that are barred by the Geneva Conventions, are considered prime targets for ongoing Congressional investigations into the prisoner abuse scandal. But the announcement Tuesday by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner, that he is seeking testimony in the coming weeks from Feith may have unwittingly cast new light on the reasons why Secretary of State Colin Powell is alleged by Woodward to have referred to Feith's operation as the "Gestapo Office."
Evidence of Feith's involvement in the prisoner abuse scandal rests primarily on reports that have appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. They have reported that even before the Iraq war top officials in the Pentagon, acting on the advice of civilian lawyers, authorized a reinterpretation of the Geneva Conventions to permit tougher methods of interrogation of prisoners of war.
This effort was strongly resisted by Powell when it came to his attention and by the Judge Advocates Generals (JAG) Corps, the formal name given to the military's lawyers. They argued that the introduction of "stress and duress" techniques, sleep deprivation and other methods that violate the Geneva Conventions, would not only result in dubious intelligence but could also be cited as a precedent for use against US soldiers who fell into enemy hands.
Dissenters, however, were essentially excluded from the discussion, and according to Newsweek, new techniques were formally approved during the Iraq invasion in April 2003, although Feith's immediate superior, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz testified last week he was unaware of such a decision.
At the same time senior Pentagon officials authorized the exclusion of military attorneys from interrogations - a major departure from the 1991 Gulf War when JAG officers were present in all interrogation facilities and could intercede if they witnessed violations of the Conventions.
According to a number of accounts, a delegation of senior JAG officers contacted Scott Horton, a former high-ranking military attorney and chairman of the Committee on International Human Rights of the New York City Bar Association, to see if he would intervene.
"They were extremely upset," Horton told the LA Times. "They said they were being shut out of the process and that the civilian political lawyers, not the military lawyers, were writing these new rules of engagement."
According to Horton, the JAG officers identified Feith as the main force behind loosening the rules, along with the Pentagon's general counsel, William Haynes - another political appointee.
Indeed, the accounts given by JAG officers are fully consistent with what is already known about Feith's policymaking practices. As with the pre-war intelligence and planning for the occupation, the experts and professionals were systematically excluded from participating in the policy process so civilian ideologues would not have to address informed criticism before plunging ahead.
Like his mentor, former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, Feith has long been a hard-liner on foreign policy, arms control issues and Israel. As a youth in pre-World War II Poland his father, Dalck Feith, was an active member of Betar, a militant Zionist movement and forerunner of Israel's Likud Party. His parents perished in the Holocaust according to the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal, which last week demanded a public apology from Powell for his reference to Feith's operation as the "Gestapo Office."
Feith worked for Perle in the Pentagon under Ronald Reagan and the two teamed up in the late 1980s to lobby on behalf of the Turkish government and build military ties between Turkey and Israel. In 1996, he participated in a private study by a right-wing Israeli think tank that called for ousting Saddam Hussein in Iraq as a means of transforming the balance of power in the Mideast in such a way Israel could ignore pressure to trade land for peace with the Palestinians or Syria.
In 1997, he argued in Commentary magazine for Israel to retake the Occupied Territories and repudiate the Oslo accords, and the next year signed an open letter to President Bill Clinton calling for Washington to work with Chalabi's INC to oust Saddam. In May 2000 he signed a report calling for the US to prepare to attack Syria unless it withdrew its troops from Lebanon.