A Bigger, Badder Sequel to Iran-Contra

The specter of the Iran-Contra affair is haunting Washington. Some of the people and countries are the same, and so are the methods -- particularly the pursuit by a network of well-placed individuals of a covert, parallel foreign policy that is at odds with official policy.

Boiled down to its essentials, the Iran-Contra affair was about a small group of officials based in the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that ran an "off-the-books" operation to secretly sell arms to Iran in exchange for hostages. The picture being painted by various insider sources in the media suggests a similar but far more ambitious scheme at work.

Taken collectively, what these officials describe and what is already on the public record suggests the existence of a disciplined network of zealous, like-minded individuals. Centered in Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith's office and around Richard Perle in the Defense Policy Board in the Pentagon, this exclusive group of officials operates under the aegis of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.

This network includes high-level political appointees, such as Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who are scattered around several other key bureaucracies, notably in the State Department, the NSC staff, and most importantly, in Cheney's office.

Cheney, of course, has a direct link to Bush (and all the heads of agencies), while his powerful chief of staff and national security adviser, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, also enjoys exceptional access and influence. Indeed, the two men's frequent visits (as well as those of another DPB member, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich) to CIA headquarters before the Iraq war have been cited by retired and anonymous intelligence officers as having actively intimidated analysts who disagreed with the more sensational assessments about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda produced by Feith's office.

Oliver North and his cohorts used the proceeds to sustain the Nicaraguan contras -- U.S.-sponsored rebels fighting Managua's left-wing government -- in defiance of both a congressional ban and of official U.S. policy as enunciated by the State Department and President Ronald Reagan. It was never clear whether Reagan understood, let alone approved, the operation. As with Reagan, in this case, too, it is difficult to determine whether Bush -- or even his NSC director, Condoleezza Rice -- fully understands, let alone approves, of what the hawks are doing.

There was some hint of a parallel policy apparatus dating back just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was known early on, for example, that the Pentagon leadership, without notice to the State Department, the NSC, or the CIA, convened its advisory DPB, headed by Richard Perle, to discuss attacking Iraq within days of the attacks. The three agencies were also kept in the dark about a mission undertaken immediately afterward by former CIA director and DPB member James Woolsey to London to gather intelligence about possible links between Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, a move that suggested that the CIA or the Pentagon's own Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) could not be trusted.

While Woolsey's trip recalls the more benign shenanigans of the Iran-Contra crowd, consider some of the more recent press reports.

Item One: Iran-Contra alumnus and close Perle associate Michael Ledeen has renewed ties with his old acquaintance, Manichur Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms merchant who became the key link between the NSC's Oliver North, the operational head of Iran-Contra, and the so-called "moderates" in the Islamic Republic. But to what end?

It appears that certain elements in the Pentagon leadership, specifically Douglas Feith, are trying to sabotage sensitive talks between Teheran and the State Department to promote cooperation over al-Qaeda and other pressing issues affecting Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon clique thinks Ledeen's old friend Ghorbanifar can help, according to Newsday, which reported Friday that two of Feith's senior aides -- without notice to the other agencies -- have held several meetings with the Iranian, whom the CIA has long considered "an intelligence fabricator and nuisance."

Item Two: U.S. aircraft and Special Operations Forces (SOF) intercepted and destroyed a residential compound and two small convoys that were heading from Iraq into Syria in mid-June, killing as many as 80 civilians. They then subdued and arrested five Syrian guards across the border, taking them back to Iraq, where they were held and interrogated for five days, despite strong objections from the State Department.

The Pentagon, for its part, claims that it suspected senior Hussein officials of trying to make a run for it on a smuggling route. But an expose last month by the New Yorker suggests that the raid and arrests may have been part of a deliberate effort to inflame tensions with Damascus in an effort to put an end to the remarkably close level of cooperation between Syria, the CIA and the State Department in the campaign against al-Qaeda.

Item Three: The rightwing Washington Times reported on Friday that certain "high-level circles within the administration" are hoping to persuade Chinese military officers to co-sponsor a coup to overthrow North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. While it is not clear whether concrete action has been taken, the paper noted that the Pentagon leadership disagrees strongly with the State Department's efforts to use diplomacy and the promise of a non-aggression pledge to persuade Kim to abandon his nuclear-weapons program.

Just before North Korea agreed to resume talks last week, Bolton delivered a blistering attack on Kim in what was seen by analysts here as a deliberate act of provocation.

Item Four: Anonymous "senior administration officials" informed a prominent conservative columnist of a covert CIA operative (whose name he then published) jeopardizing her career and possibly exposing numerous ongoing covert actions and agents who worked with her. The agent in question is the wife of Joseph Wilson, a retired career foreign service officer who publicly exposed as a fabrication President George W. Bush's now-infamous assertion that Iraq had tried to buy uranium yellowcake in Africa.

While some analysts have said the disclosure of his wife's identity, a felony under U.S. law, was an attempt to discredit him, Wilson charged this week that the move "was clearly designed to intimidate others from coming forward" with information that would expose the administration's manipulation of intelligence.

No one knows yet whether such intimidation will work, but recently retired intelligence and foreign service officials and military officers, and a growing number of anonymous active-duty officials, have indeed been talking to the media about the shenanigans within the administration. Recent stories expose a consistent pattern of manipulation and exaggeration of intelligence in order to justify the war against Iraq and, more recently, efforts to hype evidence about the alleged threat posed by Syria.

Newsday's disclosure that Feith's office has been used for secret contacts with Ghorbanifar suggests that the work of this small group of officials goes well beyond assessing intelligence and making policy recommendations. According to one career military officer who worked for eight months in the Near East/South Asia bureau (NESA) in that office, the political appointees assigned there and their contacts at State, the NSC, and Cheney's office tended to work as a "network." Feith's office often deliberately cut out, ignored or circumvented normal channels of communication both within the Pentagon and with other agencies.

"I personally witnessed several cases of staff officers being told not to contact their counterparts at State or the (NSC) because that particular decision would be processed through a different channel," wrote retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowsky last week. "What I saw was aberrant, pervasive and contrary to good order and discipline."

In an interview with IPS, she insists that her views of Feith's appointees and operations were widely shared by other professional staff. Quoting one veteran career officer "who was in a position to know what he was talking about," Kwiatkowsky says, "What these people are doing now makes Iran- Contra look like amateur hour."

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Services.

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