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Interview: Douglas Feith Defends Bush Policies


Douglas Feith: "There was a broad rationale for why we went to war in Iraq."
Douglas Feith: "There was a broad rationale for why we went to war in Iraq."
Douglas Feith was central to planning for the U.S. war in Iraq. Among his tasks as undersecretary of defense for policy from July 2001 until August 2005 was overseeing the Pentagon Office of Special Plans. Feith's book "War And Decision: Inside The Pentagon At The Dawn Of The War On Terrorism," was published in 2008. RFE/RL's Gregory Feifer spoke with him from London.

RFE/RL: After the publication of his memoir "Decision Points" this month, President George W. Bush said he's still "dismayed" no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. But he also declined to apologize for launching the war in Iraq under those pretenses. As head of the Pentagon's Office for Special Plans at the time, you were central in the effort to bypass the CIA's intelligence gathering, which produced no such compelling evidence....

Douglas Feith:
What you're saying is not correct. I mean, that wasn't what the Office of Special Plans did. It wasn't an attempt to bypass the CIA. There are an enormous number of articles written on the subject that say that, but they're wrong. So, I'm sorry to quarrel with the premise of your question, but the premise isn't correct.

RFE/RL: Nevertheless, the war was launched under the premise Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and there wasn't any evidence for it, and, unless I'm gravely mistaken, your office was central in gathering the intelligence....

Yes, you are gravely mistaken, because my office didn't do intelligence gathering at all. We were consumers, not producers, of intelligence. We were a policy office. And, as I said, there's been an enormous amount inaccurately written about that, so I understand where you get the thought, but it's not correct. Our office was a policy office within the secretary of defense, and we were responsible for supporting the secretary in interagency national policy making.

Now, on the substance of the question about Iraq and the reason that we went to war, there was a broad rationale for why we went to war in Iraq, and it had to do with Saddam Hussein's record as a recidivist launcher of aggressions. It had to do with his hostility to the United States, his record of defying the United Nations regarding economic sanctions, regarding weapons of mass destruction. It had to do with the fact that Iraq forces were shooting, virtually daily, at the American and British aircraft that were patrolling the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq. There was a general view, before 9/11, that Saddam Hussein was an extremely serious threat to international peace. That's the reason that the UN Security Council passed 16 resolutions to try to contain Iraq from the period of the Gulf War back in 1991 up to 2003.

And then came the 9/11 attack, and the 9/11 attack made all of the Iraq problems look more threatening and more urgent, not because Iraq was involved in the attack but because Iraq was part of the broader international terrorist network and had connections with various terrorist groups, not so much Al-Qaeda, but others, and had this record of aggression and hostility and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction [WMD].

So there was a broad rationale for the effort. The war did not hinge entirely on this issue of WMDs, let alone on the issue, which the CIA had gotten wrong, that we would find WMD stockpiles in Iraq. That was a serious error by the CIA, but it was an error that they had made for years -- the intelligence did not change from the Clinton era to the Bush era. So, that was a serious error, but I don't think it negated the entire rationale for the war.

RFE/RL: But the allegation is that in selling the war to the American public, regardless of the possible merits you just stated, that there was a great deal of cherry-picking going on, and that after the war was launched, it was billed as "a war on terrorism," at a time when 60 percent of the American public believed that Iraq was somehow involved in planning the attacks on September 11, which the White House did nothing to dispel, if not actually encourage.

That's not true either. I don't know where you're getting your information from, but I suggest that you try to look at more authoritative sources. I mean, what you're saying is the kind of things one reads in highly politicized accounts but not in the accurate accounts of what occurred. The administration did not encourage the view that Iraq was connected to the 9/11 attack. As a matter of fact, when we were interviewed on the subject, myself and others, we said we don't have any information connecting Iraq to the 9/11 attack, except for a period the CIA reported on a possible meeting between an Iraqi and one of the hijackers -- the CIA eventually changed its opinion about that report. But in any event, nobody said that that report was proof.

It's simply false to suggest that the rationale for the war presented to the public was based on a linkage of Iraq to the 9/11 attack. So I think if you go back and you look at what officials said before the war, you find that this broader rationale that I described was, in fact, discussed by American officials. And it was not a rationale focused exclusively on weapons of mass destruction, let alone the stockpile element of the weapons of mass destruction problem.

RFE/RL: At the time, you said that you were interested mainly in removing a dictator and in restoring power to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible. But you've also been criticized as "living in a parallel universe" -- not my words -- for dismissing warnings from regional experts at the time, who predicted a quagmire there, which is essentially what happened. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of people have died in Iraq after the attacks of 9/11 in which fewer than 3,000 people died, and we're still in the country seven years on. How can that be called a success by any measure?

Well, I didn't use the term "success." But there have been important recent successes, as President Obama has pointed out. We did put in place a political process, and I'm quite critical of how the political transition occurred in Iraq. I think the United States did make some serious errors, the principal error being that we set up an occupation government, which was not what we had planned to do, and I think it was a mistake. And a large part of my book is devoted to understanding how we went from what I thought was a sensible plan -- to try to transition quickly to Iraqi control of their own country -- to the mistake that was made of establishing a protracted U.S.-led occupation government.

But even noting that there were serious errors made along the way, the fact is there's now a political process in place in Iraq that has involved a series of very successful national elections. The Iraqis, in the recent months, have had some political stalemate about the formation of a new government. It now appears that maybe they're overcoming that stalemate. But they do have a government; it's functioning. The Iraqis are running their own country; it's a sovereign country, and the United States is in the process of reducing our military role.

President Obama announced the end of combat operations for U.S. forces, and the threat from Saddam Hussein and his sons has been removed, and the Iraqis are building institutions for themselves that are working. I think the main thing that we were concerned with back in 2003, when President Bush decided to start the war, were the threats posed to the United States by the Saddam Hussein regime, and those threats have been removed. And I think the world is better off for the removal of Saddam Hussein.

RFE/RL: By your own admission, you played a large role in 2002 arguing for curtailing the application of the Geneva Conventions to inmates of Guantanamo Bay and other so-called unlawful combatants.

That's not true either. On the contrary, I made a strong argument in favor of the application of the Geneva Conventions. I would urge you to take a look at my book where I explain that.

RFE/RL: Those were your own words published in an article in "Vanity Fair," in which...

That interview is a falsehood, OK? That interview is just flat wrong. It misquoted me. I have to tell you that that interview is a disgrace. I mean, the way that that interview was presented, it was a gross misquotation and distortion of my views. (Read Feith's version of the "Vanity Fair" incident here.)

RFE/RL: So would you argue that waterboarding and other such practices should not have been used?

I wasn't involved in the waterboarding issue. That was a matter that was not handled by the policy organization.

RFE/RL: But speaking as a private citizen, do you think waterboarding should not have been used?

The president made his decision. He wanted the most effective interrogation techniques that were recommended by the professionals who do interrogations. He checked with the lawyers properly, who are the people responsible for making legal judgments for the use government in Justice Department. And they told him that the techniques that were recommended by the interrogators were lawful. And the president said that all the detainees should be treated lawfully and humanely, and within those bounds, he was advised that waterboarding was allowed, and so he said then "do it."

I know that lawyers dispute this matter, and there are some lawyers who disagree with the U.S. government's lawyers, who said that waterboarding was lawful. Bu the fact that lawyers dispute it doesn't mean that the president made an unlawful decision.

RFE/RL: Aside from the moral arguments for and against waterboarding, do you think the decision can be defended against the widespread belief it played a very large role in sinking U.S. moral authority in the world, precisely by hurting American ability to stand up for rights such as those held up by the Geneva Conventions?

No, I do not think that argument is correct. I don't think we lost our moral authority when the president decided in the face of very serious threats, which by the way persist. I mean, the threats of Muslim extremist terrorism still exist. I mean, we recently had somebody who tried to blow up a car bomb in New York City and somebody who just tried to blow up an airplane in Detroit, and the Fort Hood shooter. I mean, all these things happened recently and were part of the same phenomenon that we were worried about. It's an extremely serious threat.

President Bush said that the strategic goal of the United States after 9/11 was to prevent the next attack. And the key to preventing the next attack was intelligence. The only good source of intelligence was terrorists that we captured. We had to interrogate them effectively. The president said, "I want them interrogated effectively, but lawfully and humanely." And he was then given recommendations from professionals, which came not from my office but from intelligence professionals and military interrogation professionals.

I think the president of the United States had an obligation to ask his government to interrogate as effectively as possible, within the bounds of law and considerations of humanity, the terrorists that we captured so we could prevent future attacks. And I believe it's quite clear from the record that the interrogations did yield information that saved numerous lives.

RFE/RL: President Obama inherited two wars from his predecessor. His attention now is on Afghanistan, where many believe the war was neglected for eight years under the Bush administration. Can you defend against the criticism that by launching the war in Iraq, the White House essentially dropped the ball in Afghanistan, where the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11 were trained?

I don't think it's true. The war in Afghanistan was prosecuted. The United States is a large country with interests around the world. We don't have the luxury to do only one thing at a time. We have responsibilities not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in East Asia and South America, Africa, Europe, around the world. And the notion because we did Iraq, we necessarily were ignoring things everywhere else in the world is not true.

The Afghanistan situation has gotten worse recently, but there was a period after the Taliban was overthrown when the situation was not as bad as it's been recently. As so to argue that it was neglected because it was not as serious a problem in the 2002, 2003, 2004 period is a mistake.

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