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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

An architect of the Iraq war wants you to rethink the Bush administration's early mistakes. Former Pentagon official Douglas Feith wrote a book called "War and Decision." Yesterday, he told us the administration deadlocked over post-war security plans. Today, we'll focus on a controversial exile leader. Feith was accused of quietly promoting that leader. That's the story told by journalists like George Packer of the New Yorker magazine.

Mr. GEORGE PACKER (Journalist, Author): Douglas Feith was very close to Ahmed Chalabi, was a great supporter of his, and Feith and the others around him knew that they could not be seen to be pushing a single person on the president. It had to be done in subtle, back-channel ways.

INSKEEP: Other officials suspected Ahmed Chalabi of peddling bogus information, or even corruption.

Mr. PACKER: You had horses pulling in every direction, and it didn't take much for Iraq to begin to come to pieces with the U.S. government itself unable to get its own act together.

INSKEEP: So that's the common story. Douglas Feith acknowledges that the U.S. could not get its act together in 2003, yet the former Pentagon aide contends that the rest of this story is wrong.

What was your vision, if any, for the role of Chalabi?

Mr. DOUGLAS FEITH (Former Pentagon Aide): Well, the - he was one of the so-called external leaders that the United States worked with. And, I mean, we use the term externalist because it covered the Iraqi exiles and the Kurds. And at the Pentagon, our view was we should be working with all of the external leaders.

INSKEEP: Including this man who many people in the U.S. government didn't trust.

Mr. FEITH: He had a long standing bad relationship with the CIA and with some people at State. And antagonism to him actually wound up having a major affect on the shaping of U.S. policy, because every time people in my office purposed working with the externals to try to implement a liberation, not occupation strategy - in other words, get the Iraqis more deeply involved in all the political planning and the military planning and the like - the people who were very antagonistic to Chalabi said we don't want to do that because that could redounded to the benefit of Chalabi. And my office and the Pentagon in general were accused of wanting to promote Chalabi.

INSKEEP: Well it - let me just ask that as a yes-no question. Was it your plan to make Ahmed Chalabi the president of Iraq?

Mr. FEITH: No, it was not. Absolutely not. And I think the clinching proof of that was that there were two main officials responsible on the ground for the political transition in Iraq for the United States. One was…

INSKEEP: First Jay Garner, then Paul Bremer.

Mr. FEITH: …Jay Garner and then Paul Bremer. And they both have testified that they were never told to anoint Chalabi. It was never the policy.

INSKEEP: If you weren't trying to promote Chalabi and he seemed to be causing all this dissent and trouble within the U.S. government, why not just cut him out? Say to the rest of people in the government, okay, we're not going to deal with Chalabi. We'll deal with other guys.

Mr. FEITH: That was, in fact, what some people at State and the CIA wanted to do. It happens to be that that was not the policy that the president wanted. I mean, I tell a specific story where…

INSKEEP: The President said I want Chalabi left in it?

Mr. FEITH: No, no, let me tell you a specific example of what you're talking about.

INSKEEP: Okay.

Mr. FEITH: Early in 2002, there was a proposal to create an Iraqi political conference so that the Iraqi externals, the Democratic opposition to Saddam could meet and begin to talk about the principles for forming a government in post-Saddam Iraq. And Rich Armitage came in and proposed that all groups be invited except Chalabi.

INSKEEP: This is Richard Armitage, top State Department official.

Mr. FEITH: The deputy Secretary of State.

INSKEEP: Why not just take that offer?

Mr. FEITH: Well, Steve Hadley…

INSKEEP: Hadley being a top official in the National Security Council…

Mr. FEITH: He was Condi Rice's deputy.

INSKEEP: …in the White House.

Mr. FEITH: And he said we should not be picking and choosing the leaders. Anybody who agrees with the president's vision of a free Iraq should be invited to participate. Otherwise, you get into this situation where the United States is moving exactly into the occupation rather than liberation frame of mind that the president wanted to avoid.

INSKEEP: Help me understand one item that is in the published record on this. If you weren't backing Chalabi, there was an occasion in March 2003 when General Jay Garner was the man who was supposed to be in charge of the post-war of Iraq, gave a news conference. He was asked about Iraq exiles. He was asked about Chalabi, and he said I do not have a candidate.

Mr. FEITH: Absolutely right. Jay Garner was there, reflecting in that statement, the position that Secretary Rumsfeld said over and over again. We don't have a candidate. We're not proposing individuals.

INSKEEP: And then in his book, "The Assassins' Gate," George Packer recounts that that evening, Mr. Garner received phone calls from you saying, why are you running down Ahmed Chalabi?

Mr. FEITH: That's not - it's not correct that…

INSKEEP: You never called him that night to say that?

Mr. FEITH: I don't remember every conversation. I did not ever try to push Chalabi as the leader of Iraq.

INSKEEP: Do you believe now that if this group of Iraqi friendly leaders, mostly exiles going back to Iraq, had been given a chance right away to run the government of Iraq, which was your favorite solution, do you believe that many of the disasters of the last several years would have been avoided?

Mr. FEITH: Yes, more or less. I think that it - looking back, we had serious problems in Iraq. But 14 months later, after we had run the country as an occupying power, we had a full-blown insurgency. I think the idea of setting ourselves up as the occupying power for over a year was a mistake, and I think it helped stimulate many Iraqis to believe that they had to fight us in order to get us out of their country.

INSKEEP: Douglas Feith's book is "War and Decision." Thanks for coming by.

Mr. FEITH: Thank you.

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