Famed Prince of Darkness Richard Perle is a political animal unique to Washington. He has successfully melded personal, ideological and commercial entrepreneurship into a polished package that looks kosher just so long as no one examines its particulars. Too bad for Perle, Rabbi Sy Hersh decided to take a look in the March 17 New Yorker.

Together with Paul Wolfowitz, Perle is the primary intellectual architect of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. Exercising his influence through his many protégés, whom he’s placed in key jobs throughout the Pentagon and elsewhere, Perle’s only official role is as voluntary chair of the President’s Defense Policy Board. This leaves him free not only to say what he pleases but to do what he wants.

Having spent decades in and out of office, feeding journalists and seeing his “genius” promoted in return, Perle has employed his semi-oracular status to promote war with Iraq while consistently underestimating its likely costs. As Perle told US News & World Report: “The Iraqi opposition is kind of like an MRE [meals ready to eat, a freeze-dried Army field ration]. The ingredients are there and you just have to add water, in this case U.S. support.” Testifying before Congress in 2000, Perle insisted, “We need not send substantial ground forces into Iraq when patriotic Iraqis are willing to fight to liberate their country.” Last year, he conceded that the US troop requirement might go as high as 40,000.

The above sounds quite incredible, given that 250,000 troops are poised for invasion as we go to press. But credibility was never the point; provocation was. In August of last year, Perle told the New York Times, “The failure to take on Saddam after what the president said would produce such a collapse of confidence in the president that it would set back the war on terrorism.” He also frequently insults US political opponents in intensely personal terms, complaining that France has lost its “moral fiber” and Germany is headed by “a discredited chancellor.” Perle serves the valuable function of giving voice to the Bush Administration’s genuine goals and emotions while remaining distanced from official responsibility. That’s why Perle, almost alone in Washington, is allowed to goad the President in public and yet remain in the good graces of his loyalty-obsessed Administration.

Not satisfied with helping to inspire a war–not that big a deal, really, to a guy who’s had a hand in derailing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and upending US-Soviet arms control agreements–Perle apparently thought it would be glorious to be rich as well. In his spare time, it turns out, he is also managing partner in a venture-capital company called Trireme Partners, which invests in companies “dealing in technology, goods, and services that are of value to homeland security and defense.” In his New Yorker piece Hersh raised questions about whether Perle had violated the terms of his service on the Policy Board and noted the confluence of his business interests with his government work.

Hersh dug up details of a business meeting Perle held in Marseilles with Saudi arms merchant and Iran/contra figure Adnan Khashoggi. Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar, who had spoken with meeting participants, told Hersh that “there were elements of the appearance of blackmail–‘If we get in business, he’ll back off on Saudi Arabia.'”

Perle responded by telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Hersh was “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist.” He told the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz that Hersh “ignites bombs” and doesn’t care “whether the victims are innocent civilians.” He claimed to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that Hersh’s article was “full of inaccuracies.” To the conservative New York Sun Perle insisted it was “all lies, from beginning to end” and said he was seeking counsel to sue for libel in London. Few if any of his interviewers appeared much interested in forcing Perle to back up his incendiary (and ridiculous) statements.

Kurtz, amazingly, sought to portray Perle’s self-interested slander of America’s most indefatigable investigative reporter as “at bottom, a clash between two old Washington warriors who have tangled over the years.” When I spoke with Hersh, he characterized Kurtz’s reporting as not only wrong but “a goddam walking cliché.” True, for his role as a staffer for Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson in the 1970s, Perle earned a minor mention in Hersh’s monumental Kissinger book for allegedly passing along classified information to the Israelis. But Perle has remained a valuable source for him. “Anybody writing about Henry Kissinger has to talk to Richard Perle, because almost no one understands arms control the way Perle did,” Hersh told me. “The fact is, I like Perle. He’s smart, tough and competent. He has always been open and honest with me. I am not one of his regulars, but he has called me with ideas that I relay faithfully to [New Yorker editor David] Remnick. But from the moment Perle began to attack me I knew I’d get a Howie Kurtz piece saying, ‘Food fight.'”

The Sun–which is partially owned by Hollinger International, where Perle is a director–made an odd choice in mounting its defense of Perle, quoting an ally named Stephen Bryen. Bryen’s primary claim to fame was the late-1970s Justice Department investigation he earned as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for allegedly passing classified documents to the Israelis during the 1970s. The investigation was dropped and no charges were filed. Such connections, alas, provide fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. So, too, the fact that in 1996, working with another protégé, Douglas Feith, now Donald Rumsfeld’s third in command, Perle co-wrote a study for then-Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu terming Saddam Hussein’s removal “an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right.”

Perle’s libel case will almost certainly be tossed as without merit, even in London, with its relatively low standards of proof by the plaintiff. Meanwhile, where are the standards of American journalism? Perle’s ability to enlist so much of the media in his McCarthyite slander of Hersh must be counted as merely a minor victory for a man who has helped to convince his country to embark on an unprovoked and likely counterproductive war.