Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for fiascos.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 20 2004 6:56 PM

Douglas Feith

What has the Pentagon's third man done wrong? Everything.

Listen toChris Suellentrop discuss this article on Day to Day here. Listen to Douglas Feith's response here.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Of all the revelations that have surfaced about the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal so far, the least surprising is that Douglas Feith may be partly responsible. Not a single Iraq war screw-up has gone by without someone tagging Feith—who, as the Defense Department's undersecretary for policy, is the Pentagon's No. 3 civilian, after Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz—as the guy to blame. Feith, who ranks with Wolfowitz in purity of neoconservative fervor, has turned out to be Michael Dukakis in reverse: ideology without competence. 

It's not that the 50-year-old Feith is at fault for everything that's gone wrong in Iraq. He's only tangentially related to the mystery of the missing weapons of mass destruction, for example. (Though it's a significant tangent: An anonymous "Pentagon insider" told the Washington Times last year that Feith was the person who urged the Bush administration to make Saddam's WMD the chief public rationale for going to war immediately.) Nor was it Feith who made the decision to commit fewer troops than the generals requested. (Though Feith did give the most honest explanation for the decision, saying last year that it "makes our military less usable" if hundreds of thousands of troops are needed to fight wars.) But if he isn't fully culpable for all these fiascos, he's still implicated in them somehow. He's a leading indicator, like a falling Dow—something that correlates with but does not cause disaster.

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Start with Abu Ghraib. Feith's office was in charge of Iraq's military prisons, but that's not the only reason his name keeps turning up in newspaper reports about the scandal. It was Feith who devised the legal solution for getting around the Geneva Conventions' prohibition on physically or psychologically coercing prisoners of war into talking. As a Pentagon official in the 1980s, Feith had laid out the argument that terrorists didn't deserve protection under the Geneva Conventions. Once the war on terrorism started, all he had to do was implement it. And even more damning than his legal rule-making is Feith's reported reaction to complaints by military Judge Advocate General lawyers about the new, looser interrogation rules. "They said he had a dismissive, if not derisive, attitude toward the Geneva Conventions," Scott Horton, a lawyer who was approached by six outraged JAG officers last year, told the Chicago Tribune. "One of them said he calls it 'law in the service of terror.' "

Abu Ghraib is only the latest of the Pentagon's Feith-based problems. During the buildup to the war, Feith oversaw the two offices that have since been criticized for politicizing intelligence and for inadequately planning for the occupation. The first group was known as the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Unit, and it was established to find links between terrorist organizations and their state sponsors. The group issued a report about connections between Iraq and al-Qaida that Rumsfeld had Feith deliver to CIA Director George Tenet in August 2002. This was reportedly the same report that Vice President Cheney recently called "your best source of information" on the links between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

But the report has been widely discredited. Tenet told a congressional committee in March that Cheney was mistaken about its reliability. And Daniel Benjamin, former director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council, wrote in Slate that, far from proving Saddam-Osama ties, "the document lends substance to the frequently voiced criticism that some in the Bush administration have misused intelligence to advance their policy goals."

The other office Feith oversees, the Office of Special Plans, probably wrought even worse damage that the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Unit: Its job was postwar planning, which even many conservatives now admit has been a disaster. As USA Today's Walter Shapiro put it this month when he summed up a one-year anniversary panel discussion on Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute (hardly a bastion of the antiwar left): "An easy summary of the overall impression fostered by the panel would be: Right war, wrong postwar plan."

Why is Feith involved with all these foul-ups? How could one man be so consistently in error? Nearly every critique of the Pentagon's plan for Iraq's occupation blames the blinkers imposed by ideology. For example, TheNew Yorker reported last fall that Feith intentionally excluded experts with experience in postwar nation-building, out of fear that their pessimistic, worst-case scenarios would leak and damage the case for war. In the Atlantic earlier this year, James Fallows told a similar story: The Pentagon did not participate in CIA war games about the occupation, because "it could be seen as an 'antiwar' undertaking" that "weakened the case for launching a 'war of choice.' " The State Department's Future of Iraq Project, an effort that accurately predicted some contingencies that the Pentagon overlooked, was dismissed by Feith and company out of hand.

And while the Pentagon's assumptions of an ecstatic, sweets-and-flowers-bearing populace that would welcome the occupiers as liberators may have been understandable in February 2003, Feith continued to let ideology rule his decisions long after the "major combat operations" ended. Last September, Knight Ridder reported that Paul Bremer's request for more than 220 employees for the occupation had yet to be approved. Guess who was to blame? "It is taking forever because Feith only wants true believers to get through the gate," a senior administration official said.

Some of the vitriol directed at Feith by anonymous sources may be due to personal animus. A 2002 Washington Post profile of Feith noted that he is "disliked by many people who work with him on a daily basis," and in March 2003 the National Journal noted that "it is hard to overstate how utterly Feith is reviled in certain circles." The latest manifestation of this is the juicy quote by Gen. Tommy Franks in Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, in which Franks calls Feith "the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth."

Franks shows a military man's ability to get to the heart of the matter. But Feith isn't dumb. His defenders, in fact, frequently stand up for him by citing his brilliance. But Franks' lament is a blunter, less eloquent version of what Fallows wrote in the Atlantic of the office of the secretary of Defense, particularly Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith: "What David Halberstam said of Robert McNamara in The Best and the Brightest is true of those at OSD as well: they were brilliant, and they were fools."

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