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Chicago Tribune August 18, 2002

Advisory board pushing Iraq attack

By Stephen J. Hedges

WASHINGTON - A once-obscure Pentagon board is playing an influential, little-noticed role in pushing the Bush administration toward an invasion of Iraq, generating support for military action as members seek to transform a controversial idea into a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy.

Since 1985, the Defense Policy Board has offered advice to top Pentagon officials on a range of military issues, usually providing a diversity of views. During the Bush administration, though, members of the innocuous sounding board have used inside access and outside voices to press a long-held belief that the U.S. should oust Saddam Hussein.

And they have done it from their very first meeting under this administration, held just a few days after Sept. 11.

"It was an issue, of course, all along," Richard Perle, the Defense Policy Board's chairman, said in an interview. "The way it became involved in the war on terrorism, I think the origin was the president's speech on Sept. 11, when he said we will not distinguish between those who are terrorists and those who harbor terrorists. He kind of looked around the world and asked, 'Who is harboring terrorists?'"

The answer, argues Perle - a military analyst and a former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan - is Hussein: "Clearly, his involvement in terrorism goes back a long time."

But that is not so clear to detractors of the attack-Iraq strategy. They argue that Hussein cares less about helping Muslim extremists like Osama bin Laden than he does about acquiring chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in a bid to become the dominant power in the Middle East.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, they add, has purged all but four of the previous board members and replaced them with a group of unabashed Iraq hawks, changing an advisory panel into a virtual war council.

"It's never been anything like this," said Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton national security aide and now a Brookings Institution senior fellow. "The Defense Policy Board was always a very quiet sort of panel that served the secretary. It certainly was not a lobbying organization. This has become a lobby, with a particular point of view where the neo-conservatives of the world, the democratic imperialist point of view, holds sway."

Even some of the board's members - who range from Henry Kissinger to Newt Gingrich to Dan Quayle - acknowledge a similarity in their views.

The board is "rather conservative," said panel member Kenneth Adelman, a former assistant defense secretary who served in the Ford and Reagan administrations. "We have Democrats, Republicans, and we're all kind of hard-line and therefore, yes, we generally agree on these things."

That hard line caused controversy recently when news reports revealed that the board had received a briefing from an outside analyst who argued that Saudi Arabia supports terrorism and should be a U.S. enemy. Rumsfeld quickly declared Saudi Arabia a loyal ally and said that the analyst's view was not U.S. policy.

"Unwanted publicity" is how Perle summarized the episode.

The board's beliefs on Iraq, however, track closely with the prevailing White House position, one the administration has been pressing hard recently. Last week Bush invited leaders of the Iraqi opposition to Washington for talks and pledges of U.S. support. Opposition leaders met with Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, and held a video conference with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in Wyoming.

On Thursday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the BBC that Hussein is "an evil man, who, left to his own devices, will wreak havoc again on his own population, his neighbors, and, if he gets weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, on all of us."

The administration has also made new overtures to the two primary Kurdish groups in northern Iraq who have long opposed Hussein's rule and who are now protected by a no-fly zone.

That tough line on Iraq is intended to address a lapse that conservatives like Perle have long bemoaned. They say a lax approach to Iraq over the last decade has allowed Hussein to wriggle free of United Nations weapons inspections and other concessions he agreed to after his defeat in the Persian Gulf war.

At the same time, Iraq hawks note that Hussein allegedly tried to kill Bush's father after he left office, has continued to shoot at planes patrolling the no-fly zones and has stepped up his efforts to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

"I wish we had gone in months and months ago," Adelman said. "He's got billions of dollars and gobs of labs. It's not like it's four guys in the jungle somewhere."

At least by its charter, the Defense Policy Board was never intended to play a central role in setting defense strategy.

The board was formed during the Reagan presidency to "serve the public interest by providing the Secretary of Defense, Deputy Secretary and Under Secretary for Policy with independent, informed advice and opinion concerning major matters of defense policy," according to its charter. Its members are to be "primarily private sector individuals."

In recent years, boards have taken to meeting for two-day sessions, about four times a year. The government covers travel and administrative costs for members - about $225,000 last year, according to the Pentagon. The sessions are held in a Pentagon conference room, usually one adjacent to the defense secretary's office.

Since Sept. 11, the board under Perle has met five times. Rumsfeld's office declined to discuss the board's role specifically, but in a press briefing last week, the defense secretary said that he relies on its advice "a lot."

"We have former secretaries of defense and state, national security advisers," Rumsfeld said. "We have people who are very thoughtful and knowledgeable - former speakers of the House of Representatives, a couple of them. We have academics, people who think about these things full-time. And I have always benefited from a competition of ideas."

The board's roster is drawn from the heart of the conservative defense establishment: Five board members served under President Richard Nixon, six in the Reagan administration and four under Bush's father. Many are affiliated with conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation. Stanford University's Hoover Institution has seven fellows on the defense board.

Aside from Perle and Adelman, the board includes James Woolsey, who was CIA chief under President Bill Clinton and Richard Allen, Reagan's national security advisor. Elder statesmen include James Schlesinger, a former defense and energy secretary; former House Speaker Thomas Foley, a Democrat; and Harold Brown, defense secretary under President Jimmy Carter.

The policy board's sessions are closed and confidential; its members have security clearances and review classified material. But many are also veterans at pressing their causes both inside and outside of government, in ways that would be impossible for those who currently hold office.

Perle has written opinion pieces on Iraq for The New York Times and London Daily Telegraph. Just a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Gingrich told an American Enterprise Institute briefing that, "We have to talk about replacement, not about punishment" of Hussein. Adelman hosts a Web site where he posts his own thoughts on Iraq and includes others who favor action.

Last week Kissinger wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post that suggested action against Iraq was a plausible objective. Another board member, Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot Cohen, wrote in The Wall Street Journal this year: "Overthrow Saddam Hussein and the U.S. not only rids itself and the world of a menace and a monster. It may bring about a regime that will serve as a moderate influence on the region and increase the world's oil supply."

Perle, Adelman and Woolsey have for years used their media access to express the dangers of Hussein. All three support a theory posited by Laurie Mylroie, a well-known terrorism expert and author, who argues that Hussein was behind the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and has been a vital ally to terrorists like bin Laden.

Woolsey even made a personal trip to London last fall - misreported, Perle said, as a Defense Policy Board mission-to examine possible links between al-Qaida and Hussein.

Because their beliefs on Iraq have been so public for so long, Rumsfeld's appointment of Perle and company has been viewed as a sign that he favors a hard line against Iraq. By putting these Iraq hawks on the board, experts say that Rumsfeld has given them an official megaphone through which to broadcast their beliefs. "It's one thing to be Richard Perle, a former assistant defense secretary during the Cold War," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "No one remembers that anymore. It's another thing again for him to be the chair of the Defense Policy Board. I think it has been an extraordinarily effective means for building a political consensus for their views."

But Perle and other members say the board's influence over administration policy has been exaggerated. As a member of the board for two decades, Perle said this version functions only slightly differently than past panels.

"I hadn't realized that when you call something a policy board, people think it hands down rulings," he said. "It's not that at all. There are quite freewheeling discussions, people interacting, and when the board's done they come to conclusions. But it doesn't have findings, and the views expressed when the secretary is present are expressed by individuals."

And as the next chapter in the war on terrorism, there is no doubt in Perle's mind that a military operation to remove Saddam Hussein is the proper choice.

"It was clear to a number of us," Perle said, "Because Saddam has harbored terrorists, tried to assassinate a former president, had all kinds of links to terrorist organizations, and was writing checks to terrorists in the West Bank, had all these terrorist links. We needed a new strategy."


Copyright 2002 Chicago Tribune