Published on Monday, August 11, 2003 by the Inter Press Service
by Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - As Karl Marx might have said, ''A specter is haunting Washington -- the specter 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 group of officials based in the National Security Agency (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that ran an ''off-the-books'' operation to secretly sell arms to Iran in exchange for hostages.
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 U.S. policy, suggest 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 his NSC director, 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 the terrorist attacks of Sep. 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.
The 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 Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, as if the CIA or the Pentagon's own Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) 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.
Item: 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 the NSC's Oliver North, the operational head of Iran Contra, 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 Teheran and the State Department on co-operation over 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''.
Item: U.S. aircraft and Special Operations Forces (SOF) intercepted and destroyed a residential compound and two small convoys that were heading from Iraq into Syria in mid-June, killing as many as 80 civilians. They 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 of the State Department for five days.
For what purpose? The Pentagon says it thought senior Hussein officials were trying to make a run for it on a 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, the CIA and the State Department in the campaign against al-Qaeda.
Item: Certain ''high-level circles within the administration'' were reported by the right-wing 'Washington Times' Friday to be hoping to persuade Chinese military officers to co-sponsor a coup d'etat with their North Korean counterparts against leader Kim Jong Il.
While it is not clear the proposals have been acted on concretely, the Times noted that 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 non-aggression 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 what was seen by analysts here as a deliberate provocation.
Item: Anonymous ''senior administration officials'' informed a prominent conservative columnist of a covert CIA operative (whose name he then published) jeopardizing her career and possibly exposing numerous ongoing covert actions and agents who worked with her.
To what end? The agent is the wife of 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 U.S. 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 about the administration's manipulation of intelligence.
No one knows yet whether such intimidation will work, but recently retired intelligence and foreign service officials and 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 war against Iraq and, more recently, efforts to hype evidence about the alleged unconventional 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 centered 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 ”Scooter” Libby, also enjoys exceptional access and influence.
Indeed, the two men's frequent visits (as well as those of another DPB member, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich) to CIA headquarters before the Iraq war have been cited by retired and anonymous intelligence officers as having exercised 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.
According to one career military officer who worked for eight months in the Near East/South Asia bureau (NESA) in that office, the political appointees assigned there and their contacts at State, the NSC, and Cheney's office tended to work as a ''network'' and often deliberately cut out, ignored or circumvented normal channels of communication both within the Pentagon and with other agencies.
''I personally witnessed several cases of staff officers being told not to contact their counterparts at State or the (NSC) because that particular decision would be processed through a different channel,'' wrote retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowsky last week. ''What I saw was aberrant, pervasive and contrary to good order and discipline.''
In an interview with IPS, she insisted that her views of Feith's appointees and operations were widely shared by other professional staff, and quoted one veteran career officer ''who was in a position to know what he was talking about'' as telling her before the Iraq war: ''What these people are doing now makes Iran-Contra look like amateur hour.''
''I think it's time for a serious investigation (of Feith's office),'' she said. ''I just hope Congress will take it on.''
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