Life in academia for a planner of Iraq war

WASHINGTON - Imagine former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger teaching a course on the Vietnam War - while the conflict was ongoing.

Students in Douglas J. Feith's Georgetown University seminar may have that feeling as they listen to the controversial former Pentagon official's account of Iraq war planning.

Feith, 53, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, headed a group that, among other things, was charged with developing prewar intelligence about Saddam Hussein's regime.

Critics, including Sens. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D., W.Va.), instigated several investigations into whether Feith's office exaggerated connections between Hussein and al-Qaeda to justify the war.

In one of a handful of interviews he's given in the last six years, Feith, a mild-mannered, silver-haired native of Philadelphia, said the debate over prewar intelligence had been "distorted and politicized." He is writing a book, tentatively titled War and Decision, to be published by HarperCollins this fall, which Feith hopes will be a "scholarly" attempt to set the record straight.

"I don't know whether serious works are going to make a dent in the conventional wisdom," he said. "But it's worth a try."

One controversy is over whether the Pentagon anticipated the insurgency.

"It now appears that there may have been substantial preparation by Saddam's regime for an insurgency of this kind," Feith said, "and yet the intelligence community didn't find it.

"None of the things the intel community produced before the war talked about the ability of the Baathists to recruit and finance and command an insurgency once Saddam was overthrown," he added.

Hussein "left such a thick residue of fear" in Iraq that many people until recently believed his regime would return, said Feith, who served for four years until August 2005.

"When I saw that he was executed, I thought it might help allay this fear, because the fear was a problem for us," Feith concluded.

During the 90-minute interview, Feith said that it was "difficult, but not impossible" to achieve a "reasonable degree of success" in Iraq. He defined success as reducing the magnitude of violence and related problems in Iraq while increasing the capacity of Iraqis to handle their own problems.

The goal, he said, is having those two tasks reach a "crossing point" before the United States "pulls the plug."

"I think the United States has a strong interest in getting to that crossing point before Congress or a new administration says we don't even want to make an effort anymore and we're willing to leave the place in complete disarray," Feith said.

Feith said the administration, renowned for its message control, failed to rebuff misconceptions and "serious misinformation" about the war effort.

Feith spoke in a small office tucked away in the upper recesses of a building housing the School of Foreign Service, where he holds the title of "distinguished practitioner in national security policy."

His appointment last spring raised a mini-ruckus on the Georgetown campus, with some professors, administrators and graduate students signing a petition in opposition because of Feith's war role or because he was hired without a faculty vote.

Protest leader Mark Lance, a philosophy professor, who termed Feith a "war criminal," said last week that he had yet to meet Feith, but hadn't changed his view. "This was a hiring that went outside normal faculty hiring procedures," Lance said.

Dean Robert Gallucci of the School of Foreign Service has the authority to hire practitioners without a faculty vote and has done so with former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former CIA chief George Tenet, among others.

Feith had 18 graduate students last fall for his course on the Bush administration and the war on terrorism and an equal number of undergrads for a Wednesday seminar this term.

"I've been very happy with the way people have received me," Feith said.

Feith grew up in Elkins Park and attended Philadelphia's Central High School. His father, Holocaust survivor Dalck Feith, who died in 2005 at age 91, was an electronics manufacturer and an early investor in Comcast Corp. who helped found Washington's Holocaust Museum.

Feith is awaiting the results of a review by the Pentagon's Office of Inspector General on the operations of his Office of Special Plans and other units in his organization.

The probe was pushed by Levin, now chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, when he served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence with Rockefeller.

Levin said in a 2004 report that "intelligence was exaggerated to support administration policy aims primarily by Feith's policy office, which was determined to find a strong connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, rather than by the intelligence community, which was consistently dubious of such a connection."

Investigations by the intelligence panel under former chairman Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) and by the WMD commission led by former Sen. Chuck Robb and Judge Laurence Silberman previously cleared Feith of wrongdoing.

The probe by the panel led by Roberts is incomplete, however. One potentially explosive issue remaining is what the administration said about Iraq's weapons program, compared with information in classified intelligence reports.

Partisan bickering last year derailed the investigation. In a recent interview with McClatchy Newspapers, Rockefeller said that Vice President Cheney exerted "constant" pressure on Roberts to drag out the probe on prewar intelligence.

Cheney's spokeswoman declined to comment directly on the charge.

Meanwhile, a person knowledgeable about the Pentagon Inspector General's forthcoming review, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the report concluded that Feith's office did nothing "unlawful or unauthorized."

Feith's neoconservative views and his unwavering support for Israel have made him a lightning rod for critics.

Last year, Lawrence A. Franklin, who worked for Feith, pleaded guilty to passing secrets about U.S. policy toward Iran to Israel's main lobbying group. He was sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison.

Feith said his forthcoming book would examine the key decisions that were made in the war on terrorism and the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He conceded there were "lots" of things he wished had been done differently, including the scheduling of a prewar Iraqi political conference, which was delayed by more than half a year in 2002.

"The loss of that time to resolve certain constitutional issues was a costly failure," he said.

As to whether he thought he and the Bush administration would ultimately be vindicated in the decision to invade Iraq, Feith said it was "hard to evaluate the situation when we're in the middle of the fight and passions are very high and politics very bitter.

"Once our fighting has ended and people look back," he went on, "I think there will be an appreciation that Saddam's regime was terrible and threatening and there was real benefit in removing him - for us, the Iraqis and the region."

Feith allowed himself a hint of a smile.

"Policymakers," he said, "have to look at these problems in advance."


Contact staff writer Steve Goldstein at 202-408-2758 or slgoldstein@phillynews.com.