(New America Foundation Middle East and Energy Policy expert Flynt Leverett; photo credit: The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer)
John Bolton when he served as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security was famous for pounding intelligence officials hard until they coughed up intel reports and “frames” that fit the political objectives he had in mind.
The practice of politicizing intelligence in the Bush White House seems to be continuing with “friends lists” and “enemies lists” determining who should be rewarded or punished in the “secrets-clearing process” in cases where former goverment officials publish materials on U.S. foreign policy debates.
In an unprecedented case, the White House National Security Council staff has insinuated itself into a “secrets-clearing” process normally overseen by the CIA Publications Review Board which screens the written work of former government officials to make sure that state secrets don’t find their way into the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, or in other of the nation’s leading papers, journals, and books.
Flynt Leverett, a former government official who worked at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, and on the National Security Council staff of the George W. Bush administration, is now a senior fellow and Director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative at the New America Foundation.
He has written numerous books, manuscripts, working papers, and many dozens upon dozens of some of the most important public policy op-ed commentary on American engagement in the Middle East and has always dutifully submitted his materials to the CIA’s review process. Never — not even once — has been a word or item changed in anything submitted.
The White House has now forced the CIA to heavily censor a 1000 word op-ed draft planned for the New York Times that is based on a much larger product he produced under the sponsorship of the Century Foundation titled “Dealing with Tehran: Assessing US Diplomatic Options Toward Iran.” (A pdf of the article can be downloaded here.)
Leverett believes that the White House is now politicizing the “secrets review” process and is rewarding those who support Bush’s policies and punishing those don’t.
Flynt Leverett’s official statement — sent to this blogger tonight — follows:
Since leaving government service in 2003, I have been publicly critical of the Bush administration’s mishandling of America’s Iran policy — in two op-eds published in the New York Times, another published in the Los Angeles Times, an article published earlier this year in The American Prospect, and a monograph just published by The Century Foundation, as well as in numerous public statements, television appearances, and press interviews.
All of my publications on Iran — and, indeed, on any other policy matter on which I have written since leaving government — were cleared beforehand by the CIA’s Publication Review Board to confirm that I would not be disclosing classified information.
Until last week, the Publication Review Board had never sought to remove or change a single word in any of my drafts, including in all of my publications about the Bush administration’s handling of Iran policy. However, last week, the White House inserted itself into the prepublication review process for an op-ed on the administration’s bungling of the Iran portfolio that I had prepared for the New York Times, blocking publication of the piece on the grounds that it would reveal classified information.
This claim is false and, I have come to believe, fabricated by White House officials to silence an established critic of the administration’s foreign policy incompetence at a moment when the White House is working hard to fend off political pressure to take a different approach to Iran and the Middle East more generally.
The op-ed is based on the longer paper I just published with The Century Foundation — which was cleared by the CIA without modifying a single word of the draft. Officials with the CIA’s Publication Review Board have told me that, in their judgment, the draft op-ed does not contain classified material, but that they must bow to the preferences of the White House.
The White House is demanding, before it will consider clearing the op-ed for publication, that I excise entire paragraphs dealing with matters that I have written about (and received clearance from the CIA to do so) in several other pieces, that have been publicly acknowledged by Secretary Rice, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and that have been extensively covered in the media.
These matters include Iran’s dialogue and cooperation with the United States concerning Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and Iran’s offer to negotiate a comprehensive “grand bargain” with the United States in the spring of 2003.
There is no basis for claiming that these issues are classified and not already in the public domain.
For the White House to make this claim, with regard to my op-ed and at this particular moment, is nothing more than a crass effort to politicize a prepublication review process — a process that is supposed to be about the protection of classified information, and nothing else — to limit the dissemination of views critical of administration policy.
Within the last two week, the CIA found the wherewithal to approve an op-ed — published in the New York Times on December 8, 2006 — by Kenneth Pollack, another former CIA employee. This op-ed includes the statement that Ã¢â‚¬Å“Iran provided us with extensive assistance on intelligence, logistics, diplomacy, and Afghan internal politics.”
Similar statements by me have been deleted from my draft op-ed by the White House. But Kenneth Pollack is someone who presented unfounded assessments of the Iraqi WMD threat — the same assessments expounded by the Bush White House — to make a high-profile public case for going to war in Iraq.
Mr. Pollack also supports the administration’s reluctance to engage with Iran, in contrast to my consistent and sharp criticism of that position. It would seem that, if one is expounding views congenial to the White House, it does not intervene in prepublication censorship, but, if one is a critic, White House officials will use fraudulent charges of revealing classified information to keep critical views from being heard.
My understanding is that the White House staffers who have injected themselves into this process are working for Elliott Abrams and Megan O’Sullivan, both politically appointed deputies to President Bush’s National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley.
Their conduct in this matter is despicable and un-American in the profoundest sense of that term. I am also deeply disappointed that former colleagues at the Central Intelligence Agency have proven so supine in the face of tawdry political pressure. Intelligence officers are supposed to act better than that.
Flynt Leverett will also be speaking at the New America Foundation on Monday, 18 December, 12:15 pm EST on the subject of “Dealing with Tehran.” I will be moderating the meeting and also offering comments.
This event will air live on C-Span at the same time.
I am positive that Leverett will comment extensively on this unprecedented and disturbing policy of punitively censoring former government officials of the Bush administration engaged in constructive policy debate.
— Steve Clemons
Update: Larisa Alexandrovna and Juan Cole weigh in.