Jon Stewart conducted a thoughtful interview with former Bush administration propagandist Douglas Feith on The Daily Show May 12 that went far beyond “fake news” to grapple with very real issues. However, in the end Stewart, perhaps inadvertently, let Feith off the hook.
As Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Feith was one of the key people who built the “link” between 9/11 and Iraq, and orchestrated the momentum that led to the war. The facts are available in several books, including Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and Richard Clark’s Against All Enemies. But the strongest evidence appears in James Bamford’s A Pretext for War.
As Bamford explains, Feith and Richard Perle developed their blueprint for the Iraq operation while working for pro-Israeli think tanks. Their plan, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” centered on Israel taking out Saddam and replacing him with a friendly leader. “Whoever inherits Iraq,” they wrote, “dominates the entire Levant strategically.” The subsequent steps they recommended included invading Syria and Lebanon.
In the 1990s, Feith churned out anti-Arab diatribes in Israeli newspapers. In those articles, he urged Israel to establish more settlements and end the Oslo peace process. When George H.W. Bush was president, Feith organized a group to denounce him for “mistreatment of Israel.” What he wanted was a full-scale war against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
In the Defense Department, Feith created the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) after 9/11. Senior officials called it a disinformation factory. Torie Clarke, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, warned about “blowback” and said that OSI would undermine “the trust, credibility, and transparency of our access to the media.”
But the worst was still to come: Feith’s Office of Special Plans (OSP), which Stewart did mention and discuss. Officially, its job was to conduct pre-war planning. But its actual target was the media, policy-makers, and public opinion. Feith’s partner, Abram Shulsky, liked to call their operation “the Cabal.”
According to London’s Guardian newspaper, the OSP provided key people in the administration with “alarmist reports on Saddam’s Iraq.” In particular, holdouts like Powell needed to be persuaded. To do that, the OSP obtained cooked intelligence from its own unit and a similar Israeli cell. There was also a close relationship with Vice President Cheney’s office. In the end, the public heard what Feith’s unit wanted them to hear.
OSP’s intelligence unit cherry-picked the most damning items from the streams of US and Israeli reports. “Then the OSP would brief senior administration officials,” Bamford writes. “These officials would then use the OSP’s false and exaggerated intelligence as ammunition when attempting to hard-sell the need for war to their reluctant colleagues, such as Colin Powell, and even to allies like British Prime Minister Tony Blair.” Senior White House officials received the same briefings. It was clearly music to their ears.
The final step was to get Powell to make the case to the UN. This was handled by the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), a secret office established to sell the war. WHIG provided Powell with a “script” for his speech, using information developed by Feith’s group. Much of it was unsourced material fed to newspapers by the OSP. Realizing this, Powell’s team turned to the now-discredited National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. But some of Feith’s handiwork ended up in Powell’s mouth anyway.
Stewart conducted a serious interview, one that put most of TV’s talking heads to shame. Nevertheless, it also allowed Feith to spread more disinformation and wash his hands of responsibility.