Dual Loyalties

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Friday, October 01, 2004

Philadelphia Inquirer | 09/28/2004 | As Iraq struggles, critics zero in on Pentagon aide

Philadelphia Inquirer | 09/28/2004 | As Iraq struggles, critics zero in on Pentagon aide: "As Iraq struggles, critics zero in on Pentagon aide

By Steve Goldstein

Inquirer Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON - For a mild-mannered guy who grew up as a ham-radio enthusiast and whose chief passion is collecting history books, Douglas J. Feith inspires fierce emotions.

Critics paint Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, as the hawkish boss of a neoconservative cabal in the Pentagon and the architect of a failed postwar strategy in Iraq.

Feith supporters call allegations like that "character assassination."

Feith is accused of exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and of being unduly swayed by Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi. An official working under Feith is under investigation for allegedly passing classified information to Israel, whose security Feith has championed.

As the war and its troubled aftermath have assumed a central role in the presidential election, Feith has been blasted by both Democrats and Bush administration officials - the latter almost always anonymously - for a flawed strategic vision.

"By all accounts, things in Iraq have gone very, very badly," disarmament expert George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said recently on National Public Radio. "Doug Feith should have been fired a long time ago for incompetence."

Feith, 51, blames much of the negative attention on "misconceptions" about his purview and his power. Many of the personal attacks, he said, have derived from policy disagreements between the Pentagon and the State Department that have produced, in his words, "a certain amount of electricity."

Feith, a Philadelphia native with close family ties to the area, rejected the allegation that postwar planning for Iraq had been disastrous. He said history would vindicate much of his group's decision-making.

"We made mistakes, but we did a lot of good things," he said in a rare two-hour interview at his Washington-area home.

Feith heads what is called the Policy organization - 1,500 people inside the Pentagon who have helped shape post-9/11 policy on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the war on terror.

Like most neoconservatives, he is a former liberal who feels the Democratic Party abandoned him. Neoconservatives advocate the hawkish "peace through strength" philosophy of the late Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D., Wash.) and his foreign-affairs chief, Richard Perle, with whom Feith has been associated since 1975.

Sitting in a wood-paneled library, clad in khakis and a polo shirt, the bespectacled Harvard and Georgetown Law graduate animatedly described accounts of his power as "wildly unconnected to reality."

He cited one report attributing to him the ability to choose which Baghdad neighborhoods received electricity and water. "I had no authority over the Coalition Provisional Authority," he said. "We decide virtually nothing. We provide advice to the secretary [Donald Rumsfeld] and he decides things."

Retired CIA counterintelligence chief Vincent Cannistraro said Feith's policy and planning office became controversial by getting involved in operations.

Joseph Cirincione, a weapons of mass destruction expert with the liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Feith, with Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, Feith's boss, went to war "after pushing aside the more cautious assessments of the State Department, the military and the intelligence community."

Feith has often been singled out. Why?

"This is character assassination... by people at State and CIA who have been diminished by Doug's effectiveness," said Frank Gaffney, head of the conservative Center for Security Policy and a Feith friend since they served together in the Reagan administration.

In wartime, Feith said, the Pentagon assumes a larger role "in matters it might not otherwise have a voice" in. This upsets officials in other agencies who suddenly have to seek Pentagon approval, he said, adding that: "You get a certain amount of resentment because the situation is not what they enjoyed before.... When those arrangements get disturbed, people feel their oxen have been gored."

Gen. Walter L. Sharp, Feith's counterpart in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "I think Doug has gotten a bum rap. The criticism is coming from people who have not been through the [planning] process with Doug."

As for the reliance on Chalabi, who helped convince officials of the existence of stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Feith said his organization did not "run the program" with the exile leader.

"It was a program within the intelligence community run by the Defense Intelligence Agency" in the Pentagon, he said.

Feith became defensive when asked to describe his mistakes. His office, he said, was always questioning and reevaluating "assumptions and immediate objectives" in strategic reviews on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the war on terror.

One strategic plan he advocated was putting Iraqis in positions of authority and responsibility as soon as Baghdad fell.

"We had a theme in our minds, a strategic idea, of liberation rather than occupation, giving them more authority even at the expense of having things done with greater efficiency" by coalition forces, he said.

U.S. military officials and others shot the plan down, Feith said.

Another source of interagency "tension," he said, was a proposal that the military train 5,000 Iraqi soldiers to be interpreters and guides during the war.

Gen. Tommy Franks, field commander, and his deputy, Gen. Michael DeLong, opposed the idea. "A waste of time and energy for us," DeLong said of the plan in his book, Inside CentCom.

A halfhearted effort ensued, and by the start of the war, only 70 Iraqis had been trained.

Franks, now retired, described Feith both in his own book and in one written by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward as the "stupidest guy on the face of the Earth."

This took Feith by surprise.

"We never had anything in our personal dealings that led me to believe... he would say something like that," he said.

Sharp said he was mystified by Franks' remark. But he added that Feith "pushed very hard" to reassess strategies for training Iraqi security forces. "That can be very frustrating for people who aren't part of the process," he said. "They think, 'There they go again.'"

In Woodward's book Plan of Attack, the author quotes Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as describing Feith's group as a "Gestapo office." Powell, in a phone call and a letter, denied making the comment, Feith said.

Feith grew up in Elkins Park and attended Philadelphia's Central High School. He is the son of a Holocaust survivor who lost his parents and seven siblings to the Nazis.

Dalck Feith, now 90, owned a sheet-metal business that supplied parts for Jerrold Electronics, a firm founded by former Gov. Milton J. Shapp that made set-top boxes for cable TV. Through this connection, Dalck Feith got to know Ralph Roberts, founder of Comcast. Today, the Feith family is one of Comcast's largest private shareholders.

Douglas Feith's brother, Donald, runs Feith Systems & Software in Fort Washington, which sells computer programs that store huge numbers of documents. It has contracts with the Defense and Commerce Departments and other government agencies, as well as Comcast, AT&T, Toll Bros. and others. In the last two years, Feith family members have contributed at least $14,500 to President Bush, the Republican Party, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), according to campaign records.

The family also has strong ties to Israel. Feith's former law partner, Marc Zell, lives and works near Jerusalem.

This month the FBI began investigating Pentagon employee Larry Franklin, who works in Feith's organization, for allegedly passing memos to Israel. Feith has declined to discuss the probe.

James Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute, a Middle East lobbying group, said Feith was too close to Israel's right-wing Likud Party.

Said Gaffney: "To construe Doug as this sort of running dog of the Jewish state, a Zionist proxy in the Pentagon, is totally false and deeply offensive."

Feith is often identified as the author of a 1996 policy paper written for incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Feith said he was simply one of six people solicited for ideas by the author, David Wurmser, now a State Department official, who wrote the paper as an "open letter" to the Jewish leader.

Although he said he was inured to criticism, Feith remains noncommittal about staying in the job if Bush is reelected. With a workday that begins at 4 a.m. and runs for 14 or more hours, he said he had about 90 minutes "to do my life and see my wife and four kids."

"It's not much of an existence," he said, "outside of the work.""

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