WASHINGTON - Although it will take weeks, if not months, to sort out precisely who was responsible for what increasingly appears to have been the systemic abuse by U.S. soldiers of Iraqi detainees, it should be no surprise if 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, Gen Tommie Franks, as ''the f---ing stupidest guy on the face of the earth'', has been at the center of virtually everything else that has gone wrong in Iraq, so there is no reason to think he was very far from this one.
It was his office, for example, that created shortly after 9/11 the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group and the Office of Special Plans (OSP) which re-assessed 12 years of raw intelligence and the Arab press, to find evidence of ties between the regime of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda terrorist group.
US Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith
The OSP then ''stovepiped'' that information, unvetted by professional intelligence analysts, straight to Vice President Dick Cheney's office for use by the White House.
Similarly, it was Feith's office, along with the Defense Policy Group (DPG) whose members Feith appointed, that served as the point of entry and influence for Iraqi National Congress (INC) chief Ahmed Chalabi and his ''defectors'' who provided phony intelligence about Hussein's vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
It was Feith's office that was charged with planning the post-war occupation and reconstruction process, and, in so doing, effectively excluded input from Iraqi experts from the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and even from the Iraqi-American community, who had participated in a mammoth project that anticipated most of the problems occupation authorities have since encountered.
And it was Feith's office that also housed the future undersecretary for intelligence, Stephen Cambone, who facilitated the transfer of Maj Gen Geoffrey Miller, the commander of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp that houses suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners, to Abu Ghraib prison in the interests of extracting more intelligence from detainees there about the fast-growing insurgency in Iraq.
Both Cambone and Miller, who brought high-pressure interrogation tactics barred by the Geneva Conventions with him from Guantanamo, are considered prime targets of ongoing congressional investigations into the prisoner abuse scandal.
But the announcement Tuesday by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman 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 (POWs).
This effort was strongly resisted by Powell, a retired army general, 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, among other things, that the introduction of ''stress and duress'' techniques, sleep deprivation and other methods that violate the Conventions would not only result in dubious intelligence, but could also be cited as a precedent for use against U.S. 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 also authorized the exclusion of JAG officers from observing interrogations to ensure they complied with the Conventions. That was a major departure from the practice in the 1991 Gulf War, when JAG officers were present in all interrogation facilities and could intercede if they witnessed violations of the Conventions.
Even after the new orders came down, senior JAG officers did not give up. According to a number of accounts, a delegation of officers contacted Scott Horton, a former high-ranking JAG officer and chairman of the Committee on International Human Rights of the New York City Bar Association, to see if he and like-minded attorneys would intervene.
''They were extremely upset'', Horton told the 'Los Angeles 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 the main forces behind loosening the rules as Feith and the Pentagon's general counsel, William Haynes, another political appointee.
''If we -- 'we' being the uniformed lawyers -- had been listened to, and what we said put into practice, then these abuses would not have occurred'', Rear Adm Don Guter, the Navy JAG from 2000 to 2002, told ABCNews.
Feith, who was also interviewed by ABC, denied there was any disagreement from JAG officers concerning rules and practices authorized by his office, but the issue is unlikely to rest with his word alone.
Indeed, the accounts given by JAG officers are fully consistent with what is already known about Feith's policy-making practices. As with the pre-war intelligence and pre-war planning for the occupation, the experts and professionals were either circumvented or systematically excluded from participating in the policy process, so that civilian ideologues with ideas about how to extract information from uncooperative Arabs, for example, 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 hardliner on foreign policy, arms control issues and Israel.
As a youth, his father, Dalck Feith, was active in pre-World War II Poland in Betar, a militantly Zionist movement and forerunner of Israel's Likud Party. His parents perished in the Nazi 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 as a means to transform the balance of power in the Middle East in such a way that Israel could ignore pressure to trade ''land for peace'' with the Palestinians or Syria.
In 1997, Feith argued in 'Commentary' magazine for Israel to re-occupy the Occupied Territories and repudiate the Oslo accords, and the following year he signed an open letter to then-President Bill Clinton calling for Washington work with Chalabi's INC to oust Hussein.
© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service