Will the Pentagon wire up Henry Kissinger, Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich–that is, submit them to lie detector tests? And do the same with all other members of the Defense Policy Board? It seems that someone connected with this advisory panel–a neocon-tilting group of prominent ex-government officials chaired by former Reagan Pentagon official Richard Perle–leaked word to The Washington Post of a private briefing. In that session, RAND analyst Laurent Murawiec maintained that Saudi Arabia, due to its support of Islamic terrorists, ought to be considered an adversary of the United States and that Washington should demand that Riyadh cease funding Islamic fundamentalist outlets. If the Saudis do not comply, he argued, its oil fields and overseas financial assets should be “targeted.”
After news of this briefing hit the front page, administration officials rushed to put out the firestorm. This was not the message the White House wanted to send to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations, as the administration was trying to win support for a military move against Saddam Hussein. And with the White House in the process of establishing an Office of Global Communications to improve the image of the United States overseas, now was not a good time for stories reporting that senior advisers to the Pentagon–former defense secretaries James Schlesinger and Harold Brown, former CIA director R. James Woolsey, and ex-House Speaker Thomas Foley sit on this board–were discussing strikes against Arab oil wells. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell quickly explained that Murawiec’s views did not reflect official US policy.
At a Q&A session with Pentagon employees, Rumsfeld criticized the leak. “I just think it’s a terribly unprofessional thing to do and clearly harmful,” he said. “It’s harmful in this case, for example, because it creates a misimpression that someone then has to figure out a way to correct.” Rumsfeld did later say the briefing was not classified, but he was adamant that the leak harmed US interests. So what is he going to do about it?
Recently, classified information spilled from the 9/11 investigation being conducted by the House and Senate intelligence committees. In response, the chairmen of the committees called in the FBI to find the leaker. But when the FBI asked the 37 members of the committees to undergo lie detector tests, nearly all of the legislators refused, citing the inaccuracy of polygraphs and the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. Conservative pundits–and a few members of Congress–derided the committee members for this. The argument was, in time of war, any patriotic citizen should do what he or she can to plug leaks. Will the Defense Policy Board members accept such reasoning?
The leak about the briefing not only demonstrated that slips-of-the-lips come from all directions. It showed how reckless this board could be under the leadership of Richard Perle, a hawk who earned the sobriquet “Prince of Darkness” when he served in the Reagan Pentagon. Not that geopolitical correctness ought to prevent the group from considering any and all theoretical possibilities. But Perle should have stopped to wonder what might happen if word got out Pentagon advisers were pondering a move against Saudi Arabia. The Defense Policy Board is a prestigious outfit, and Rumsfeld has paid attention to its membership–a sign that it is important to him.
The briefing reflected growing sentiment within neocon circles that a US-Saudi showdown is inevitable–and, moreover, somewhat desirable. (Both The Weekly Standard and Commentary have published pieces to this effect recently.) From a historical perspective, this is peculiar, for it was the hawks who have pushed policies in the past that enabled the odd-couple relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration encouraged the Saudi government to finance the Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. (A Saudi named Osama bin Laden earned his stripes in that war.) In the early 1990s, the first Bush Administration partnered up with Saudi Arabia to wage Saddam War One and ignored the regime’s human rights record (including its institutionalized misogyny). Oil mattered more, as Washington fought a war to protect the interests of the kleptocratic regime of the Saudi princes.
Well, things do change. And now the neocons are promoting Saudi Arabia as a looming adversary in the region. (Kissinger, though, calls this “reckless.”) The unfinished war in Afghanistan, the war to come in Iraq, the other two-thirds of the “axis of evil” (Iran and North Korea)–you’d think that would be enough to keep the neocons busy for the time being. Instead, they’re committed to expanding the enemies list. And they even maintain that once Washington takes care of Saddam and installs a democratic government in Iraq (it will be a snap!), the United States will be better positioned to confront the Saudis.
Ultimately, the leak is less important than the briefing itself. But why does Rumsfeld–the decrier of all leaks–not vigorously pursue the leaker in this instance? Doing so would be a signal to all government employees. Imagine Perle, Gingrich and Quayle on the box. (Could they also ask Kissinger about his role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in Chile in the 1970s?) The war on terrorism deserves nothing less.