RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Osman Ashai is taking a college class with a professor who initially seemed frightening.
Mr. OSMAN ASHAI (Student, Georgetown University): Just Googling him before taking the class and you come across hundreds of hits that almost scare you enough to death. I mean so much is written out there about him in such a negative way.
MONTAGNE: Negative because, as student Jeremy White knows, the professor was an architect of the war in Iraq.
Mr. JEREMY WHITE (Student, Georgetown University): And it's particularly, you know, interesting and amusing to sort of see your professor mentioned in the news several times a week.
MONTAGNE: Most recently, because of the way his office used intelligence information before the war. Yesterday on this program, we met an Iraqi exile who's rethinking what went wrong in Iraq. Today we meet a former official determined to explain what happened.
Steve Inskeep paid a visit to former Pentagon official Douglas Feith.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Or rather Professor Douglas Feith. He's been stepping in front of a class at Georgetown University in Washington.
Professor DOUGLAS FEITH (Georgetown University): This is a course about terrorism.
INSKEEP: The proper title is "The Bush Administration and the War on Terror," material he knows from experience.
Prof. FEITH: Let me give you a thought that occurred to some of us as we were grappling with this question, because we're...
INSKEEP: More recently, he's been grappling with bad publicity. Scores of Georgetown professors signed a letter of protest against his hiring. The Pentagon investigated his role before the war. And its findings became material for Comedy Central talk show host Stephen Colbert.
(Soundbite of show, "The Colbert Report")
Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host): A new report by the Pentagon's inspector general says that intelligence linking to Iraq and al-Qaida was manipulated by the administration, specifically by the former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith.
INSKEEP: According to the inspector general, Feith's staff gave briefings about Iraq intelligence. His staff used information that intelligence agencies discounted.
Mr. COLBERT: Inappropriate. That's the word the inspector general used to describe Feith's manipulation of intelligence. I'd say calling Douglas Feith's actions inappropriate is a compliment. It just means that in the run up to the war, he was thinking outside the box.
INSKEEP: None of which prevented critics of the war, like Georgetown student Jeremy White, from signing up for the class to see what Feith had to say.
Mr. WHITE: Oftentimes Professor Feith will come in and - did you see me mentioned on "The Colbert Report," or do you know what he had to say about me? And I'd say about half the time he actually responds to a lot of the things that are being about him in the media, which makes class all the more interesting.
INSKEEP: Professor Feith has graying hair and rounded glasses. He looks comfortable on campus. Though on the day we attended class, he mentioned that communism has died out.
Prof. FEITH: Everywhere, outside of the American university. Just a joke. Sorry about that.
INSKEEP: You can see this class as Feith's lengthy explanation of how the Bush administration made controversial decisions.
Prof. FEITH: Often all of the choices that face the decision-makers are problems. Basically you're faced with a whole range of options all of which have some reasons, but some serious disadvantages. And you're basically picking among the problems that you want to deal with.
INSKEEP: Which is exactly how Feith explains the war in Iraq - the best choice, in his view, despite the problems it caused. Outside class, Feith is telling his side of the story on a Web site. It includes a section called Media Myths Versus Facts. He's also writing a memoir that's now about 400 pages long.
Prof. FEITH: Shorter is better. So I'll probably add another hundred or so and then try to cut it back a bit.
INSKEEP: He's writing at his home library, where he welcomed us after we attended class. Busts of his heroes studded the bookshelves.
Prof. FEITH: That's Winston Churchill.
INSKEEP: And on a chair was a stack of best-selling books on Iraq, books with titles like "Fiasco" and "State of Denial." Feith insists that many accounts misstate the reasons the U.S. chose war against Saddam Hussein.
Prof. FEITH: He had demonstrated that he was interested in WMD, and the danger was that he could take action in the future that would get him in a major fight with us, at which point he might use the combination of WMD capabilities and connections to terrorists to hurt us.
INSKEEP: Is there any point in that that you ended up assuming too much?
Prof. FEITH: I think that - I think that was a reasonable assumption under the circumstances.
INSKEEP: Still you do. Okay.
Prof. FEITH: I mean, do you not?
INSKEEP: It sounds reasonable the way that you put it.
Prof. FEITH: Well, that's what we're worried about. I don't think there's anything unreasonable in...
INSKEEP: But of course there were analysts making an entirely different...
Prof. FEITH: No, there weren't. No, there weren't. I mean, that's just false. I hope you can do something to clarify this point. I mean, this notion that there where analysts who were saying that Saddam Hussein was not a threat; there was nobody saying that.
INSKEEP: The argument was about the degree of threat.
Prof. FEITH: The argument was about the degree of threat, exactly. And the president - the president's main job is weighing threats, weighing risks.
INSKEEP: Of course the White House weighed those risks based on intelligence information. Douglas Feith was accused of bending that intelligence to link Saddam more tightly to al-Qaida. His staff gave briefings to White House officials in 2002. They described evidence of an alleged contact between Iraq and a 9/11 hijacker.
INSKEEP: Weren't those pieces of evidence that the intelligence community had looked at professionals and didn't include them in the reporting because they didn't believe they were true?
Prof. FEITH: No, there were some that were in that category, and then there were some that weren't.
INSKEEP: Douglas Feith contends that he simply brought forward evidence that intelligence officials were wrong to obscure. The man who once battled over the evidence about Iraq now battles over the evidence about what he did. Yet he does concede one thing about the run up to the war.
Prof. FEITH: One thing that I have talked to the class about is - however well-conceived your strategy might be, if you've done a really bad job of explaining it and confused people about it, and undermined public confidence in what you're doing - if you haven't done as good a job as you need to do to explain the policy to the public, you can wind up taking an operation that is really important and is worth the effort and losing it because the public stops supporting it.
INSKEEP: Is that happening here?
Prof. FEITH: Well, it's a risk. It's clearly a risk. I mean, you see that with the congressional debates. I mean you have a large number of people who are talking about pulling the plug. And what's interesting is it's not simply a matter of what the administration says now. The debate has a lot to do with what are all the things the administration has been saying for years.
INSKEEP: So if the administration had put public support for the war on a stronger foundation at the beginning, there might be...
Prof. FEITH: They would be in a stronger position now.
INSKEEP: It's a problem reflected in the class that Douglas Feith has been teaching at Georgetown University. As the semester ends, the class still includes many students who think the war was wrong. They think that even though, like Osman Ashai, they've come to respect their professor.
Mr. ASHAI: The reason why I'm here is for a dialogue and for a mutual understanding, and this has been one of the most enlightening classes.
INSKEEP: Is there anything that comes to mind where he's persuaded you?
Mr. ASHAI: No, he hasn't. He hasn't essentially persuaded me. But he's demonstrated to me that it's okay to disagree with him.
INSKEEP: As professor, Douglas Feith writes his book on the war. He concedes his version of events is very different from the popular view. It's so different that he says he'll have to provide lots of evidence to back up every part of his case.
MONTAGNE: Douglas Feith teaches at Georgetown University. Previously, he was the undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.