An odd thing happened in February when a European television station approached Richard Perle for an interview. Millions of antiwar protesters had rocked the globe a week prior, and the station badly wanted Perle, as chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board, to articulate the Pentagon's Iraq policy. But Perle, as he continues to do today, demanded a fee. Though startled by the request, the news station violated its strict no-pay policy for interviews and obliged the chairman.
The station's experience was not unique. During and after his chairmanship, Perle used his insider status to demand fees for appearances on a number of foreign broadcasts, which included British, Canadian, Japanese and South Korean television. While paying interviewees is common practice in some countries, a number of media outlets made exceptions for Perle. "We did pay Perle because of his position [in a] prominent advisorship to the Secretary of Defense," says a European correspondent who, like most journalists interviewed, requested anonymity because of network discomfort at publicly discussing payment policies. Fees ranged from under $100 to $900--minor sums to someone like Perle, but federal regulations covering officials in his capacity make no distinctions based on amount.
Nor is this the first assertion of dubious dealings by Perle. In the past few months, The New Yorker and the New York Times have both raised serious questions about whether Perle has used his government post for private gain.
Perle heatedly denied suggestions of impropriety regarding the broadcast payments. "There is no law, regulation or ethics guideline that would preclude my being compensated for articles, speeches or interviews," he said. "When I agreed to serve on the Defense Policy Board I agreed to its rules and I abide by them. I couldn't care less how many of your left wing friends you can quote, by name or anonymously, in support of standards of conduct that would be far more restrictive than anything in the current rules and regulations."
According to the Pentagon, all thirty members of the Defense Policy Board--which advises the Defense Secretary--though unpaid, are considered "special government employees" (SGE) and are banned from using their public office for private gain. Meetings are confidential, and board members obtain classified intelligence, receive security clearances and file internal financial disclosures that only the Defense Department views.
Several current or past officials with knowledge of the Defense Policy Board raise concerns about Perle's requests for payment. "It's naïve to say [TV stations] weren't more interested in Perle because he was chairman," says Barry Blechman, a Democratic appointee to the board. "If [TV] says we want the chairman and from that basis he wanted a fee, it would be prohibited." Blechman also notes that "it would never occur to me to charge for interviews." Harold Brown, another member of the board and former Defense Secretary under President Jimmy Carter, said Perle was "monetizing his reputation." Larry Korb--an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan and now director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations--labeled Perle's actions "a problem."
Though a sympathizer has described Perle as "not a financial creature," a correspondent says that when he approached Perle's assistant for an interview he was immediately asked, "Do you know there's a fee?"
In some of his past interviews on television, Perle attempted to skirt legal problems by declaring that he was appearing as a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. Often though, he has discarded that disclaimer. Regardless of how Perle presents himself, journalists say that he is paid because of his working knowledge of Pentagon strategy. "When we break the rules, it's for heavy-hitting individuals like Richard Perle," a Japanese news producer explains.
A typical Perle appearance came on April 4, 2003, on Canadian Television's morning news show, Canada AM, for which--according to a CTV news producer--Perle was paid $900. The host introduced Perle as a lead architect of Iraq policy and "one of the closest advisers of Donald Rumsfeld and a member of the influential Defense Policy Board." In the interview, Perle described the war in Iraq as certain to be "a quick war by any standards" and asserted that "we will find weapons of mass destruction when the people who know where they are are free to talk to us." On May 29 he was invited back and was paid for discussing Bush's Middle East policy.
Not all international media seemed comfortable with Perle's juggling act. "Nobody would pay a member of the Defense Policy Board for an interview [in Germany]," says Jan-Cristoph Wiechmann, a correspondent for the German magazine Stern. "It would, in fact, be considered a scandal."
Federal laws place restrictions on the behavior of SGEs like Perle. Regulations Code 5 CFR 2635.702--barring the use of public office for private gain--also warns of the "appearance of government sanction," and cautions against using public standing "in a manner that could be reasonably construed to imply that his agency or the Government sanctions or endorses his personal activities." Section 5 CFR 2635.807 bans SGEs from receiving money for speaking on matters in which the SGE "has participated or is participating personally and substantially" for the government. "Experts have to make a livelihood," a government ethics specialist explained, "but they're prohibited...if there's a nexus between public and private."
Perle's high-profile articulation of Administration strategy blurs this line. Before the Iraq war, members of the Defense Policy Board acted as unofficial spokesmen for the Pentagon, with Perle charging networks while aggressively promoting the DOD stance. "It's misleading to be charging money [for] selling policy," says Bill Allison of the Center for Public Integrity. "It creates the problem of asking to profit off of your government connection."
Said Perle: "The suggestion that being paid for work I do is somehow an abuse of my role as a member of a government advisory board is the sort of slander I expect from The Nation which, since the collapse of regard for the vision of its founders, and the paucity of ideas to replace it, has been reduced to impugning the character of those whose ideas have prevailed over yours."
Financial controversies are familiar to Perle. In early March in The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh exposed how one of his holdings, Trireme Partners, sought to benefit from an Iraq war. A week later, the Times reported that Global Crossing hired Perle to help win Pentagon approval for the telecom company's sale. Subsequently, Representative John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, requested that the DOD's Inspector General investigate Perle's conduct. On March 27 Perle resigned his chairmanship of the board, but he remains a member. The DOD, responding to Conyers's letter, initiated an investigation, promising its findings by July 11. So far, Conyers has heard nothing. "These new revelations about Richard Perle are shocking but not surprising," Conyers told The Nation. "From his involvement with Global Crossing to this new information about speaking fees, Perle has only fueled speculation that he may be using his government position for private financial gain."