Pentagon Iran Office Mimics Former Iraq Office

The Pentagon has created a new desk to work on Iran policy. That worries some at the CIA, who point out that many of the new Iran-desk staffers are the same people who staffed the now-notorious Office of Special Plans in the run-up to the Iraq war.

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The Pentagon recently created a new desk, focused on Iran policy. It's a small outfit - five people. But there are concerns that its influence may soon outpace its size. That is because several of the people staffing or advising the desk are veterans of the Office of Special Plans. That's the now-disbanded Pentagon group that critics say was set up to influence policymakers on Iraq.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: To understand the Pentagon Iran desk and its ability to rile people here in Washington, you do have to go back a few years to the Office of Special Plans at its height. It, too, was a small office - 18 people at its largest - but many believe the OSP wielded disproportionate clout, and that it did so by shooting flawed intelligence from Iraqi exiles straight up to the White House, bypassing the CIA. The Pentagon has consistently denied that, but suspicions have persisted about a secret back channel of intelligence flowing from the Pentagon. Thus, the uneasiness that's greeted this Iran team - a new team, but with several familiar faces. One former CIA official with extensive experience in the Middle East says, they've taken the OSP and made them the Iran desk. It's Iraq, déjà vu, all over again.

We took this concern directly to John Negroponte. He's the nation's top intelligence official. He told us lessons have been learned since the run-up to Iraq.

Mr. JOHN NEGROPONTE (Director for National Intelligence): The intelligence that is being provided to our policy makers is all-source, vetted intelligence that has been coordinated throughout the entire community. And that is the way both the president and the vice president would want it to be.

KELLY: Would you know, as director of national intelligence, if there were an Iran desk that was coming out with it's own…

Mr. NEGROPONTE: Well…

KELLY: …product and analysis, and…

Mr. NEGROPONTE: …I'd just be…

KELLY: …distributing that?

Mr. NEGROPONTE: …very surprised if, sort of uncoordinated intelligence of that kind - I'd be terribly surprised if any information of that kind were reaching our policy makers without my knowledge.

KELLY: But several officials interviewed for this story are not convinced. They question, for example, the ongoing prominence of Abram Shulsky. He ran the Office of Special Plans when it was analyzing intelligence on Iraq. Today, he's closely involved with the Iran desk, as senior advisor to the undersecretary of defense for policy, focusing on the Mideast and terrorism.

One former Pentagon official sighs, the more things change the more they stay the same. It's basically the same team, identical. The question, he adds, is will they do business the same way.

But this official, and three others we spoke to, said they fear the Bush administration has not learned form the process that led to war in Iraq. They cite recent remarks from Vice President Dick Cheney, who struck an unrepentant note in an interview with ABC's Tim Russert.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: The world is better off because Saddam Hussein is in jail instead of in power in Baghdad. It was the right thing to do, and if we had it to do over again we'd do exactly the same thing.

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Reporter, ABC): Exactly the same thing?

Vice President CHENEY: Yes, sir.

KELLY: But Iran is not Iraq, argues Ruel Gerecht, a conservative writer and former CIA officer. Gerecht scoffs at the notion that a five-man Pentagon desk is about to hijack U.S. policy on Iran.

Mr. RUEL GERECHT (Writer, former CIA officer): The Pentagon, so far, has been playing almost no role whatsoever on Iran. There really is only one shop in town that Iran policy is being made in, and that is at state, in the office of Nick Burns, the undersecretary for political affairs.

KELLY: In general, peoples' views on the Pentagon's Iran directorate appear to be tied to their views on whether the U.S. might launch military strikes against Iran. Ruel Gerecht believes that's not in the works anytime soon.

Paul Pillar disagrees. Pillar was, until last year, the CIA's top analyst for the Middle East. He believes the drumbeat is getting louder.

Mr. PAUL PILLAR (Former Middle East Analyst with the CIA): If we look back just a few months earlier, I would've said the prospect of a military strike against Iran would be very low. But just over these past few months, the tone of discussion seems to have shifted in the direction of use of armed force against Iran being a viable real option.

KELLY: Until recently, the man who oversaw policy for the Pentagon was Douglas Fife. He declined to comment on the Iran desk, but he defends the work of the Office of Special Plans. In a telephone interview, Fife called public criticism of the office, nonsense.

Mr. DOUGLAS FIFE (Former Pentagon Policy Official): Part of the reason I think that we became lightning rods was because, in general, the work that was done there was creative, it was good quality, it was, you know, influential. And we came up with a lot of ideas that the interagency process found merit in. Now that did generate resentment among those people who didn't support the policies that we supported.

KELLY: In fact, a review is now underway, into the Pentagon's conduct in the run-up to war in Iraq. The Defense Department's inspector general is looking at whether the offices that reported to Fife conducted any unlawful or inappropriate intelligence activities. Meanwhile, the lack of a full accounting has left the door open to questions about whether the past may be repeating itself - with the focus this time on Iran.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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