I will talk
Censored ex-CIA analyst on options towards Tehran
December 19, 2006
Transcript of Flynt Leverett's remarks at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC, on U.S. diplomatic options toward Tehran. Leverett, who is a former CIA analyst and National Security Council official, as well as another former U.S. government Mideast expert, have accused the White House of "abusing secrecy rules to block the publication of an article they had written for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times that criticized Bush administration policy toward Iran." >>> Read story
18 December 2006
SPEAKER: FLYNT LEVERETT, DIRECTOR, GEOPOLITICS OF ENERGY INITIATIVE, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION
(JOINED IN PROGRESS) LEVERETT: ... not to publish it because the White House intervened in the CIA's prepublication review process and has threatened me with criminal prosecution if I publish this op-ed based on the Century Foundation paper because in the White House's view that op-ed contains classified information.
That claim is false. Indeed, I would say that claim is fraudulent. The people making that claim know it is not true.
The White House is using the rubric and of protecting classified information, not to protect classified information, but to limit the dissemination of the views of someone who is very critical of their approach to Iran policy.
The White House intervened in the clearance process to excise whole paragraphs from the draft op-ed, paragraphs that deal with things like the fact that after the 9/11 attacks we had a dialogue with Iran over Afghanistan. This was -- it was cleared for me to write about this in the Century Foundation paper. I have mentioned U.S.-Iranian cooperation over Afghanistan in two op-eds I've published previously in the New York Times, both of which were cleared.
The fact that we had a dialogue with Afghanistan has been talked about in public by Secretary Rice, by Secretary Powell when he was in office, by Deputy Secretary of State Armitage when he was in office, and it's been extensively reported in the media.
There is no way that our having a dialogue with Iran over Afghanistan can be considered classified information that is not already in the public domain, but I am being threatened with criminal prosecution if I publish this in a New York Times op-ed right now at a time when the White House is under maximum political pressure over its mishandling of American policy in the Middle East.
LEVERETT: Similarly, the White House intervened in the clearance process to excise whole paragraphs from the draft op-ed that deal with the fact that in the spring of 2003, the Iranians offered to negotiate a comprehensive grand bargain of the sort that I just described. They offered to negotiate that with the United States. And this administration rejected that offer.
Now, this, too, has been talked about by Secretary Rice in public. It has been extensively reported in the media. Enterprising journalists have managed to obtain copies of the document that the Iranians sent in to us, proposing these negotiations.
But for me to write about this and the way that the administration blew this opportunity in 2003, for me to write about that now, at this critical moment, on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, for that, the White House threatens me with criminal prosecution for disclosing classified information.
Again, the claim is not just false -- it is fraudulent. It is fraudulent. It is an abuse of the pre-publication review process to silence an established critic of their policies at a time when they are under maximum political pressure to change those disastrous policies.
In terms of the politicization of the process, it is interesting to me, not just the timing of this White House intervention in the CIA's clearance process and not just that they are out to silence a critic, but it's also interesting to me the way in which they will also use the clearance process to promote the views of those who write in support of their policies.
LEVERETT: A former colleague at the Brookings Institution, Kenneth Pollack, like me a former CIA analyst, former NSC official, who used his experience and background in the intelligence community and at the NSC to write a best-selling book that made a deeply flawed and flat-out wrong case regarding the WMD threat in Iraq, to argue that going to war in Iraq was the, quote/unquote, "conservative option," he's not threatened with criminal prosecution for making that argument.
After the war was fought and Saddam was overthrown, and David Kay and the inspectors were in Iraq, and they weren't finding any WMD, Ken writes an op-ed in the New York Times in which he uses his intelligence experience, his experience at the NSC to detail, blow-by- blow, how if we just stay the course on the ground in Iraq, we're going to find the WMD.
The White House doesn't threaten him with criminal prosecution for that.
Now he's doing it on Iran. On December 8th, Ken Pollack published in the op-ed pages of the New York Times as op-ed that essentially supports the Bush administration's resistance to engaging Iran over Iraq.
LEVERETT: He talked in that op-ed about how Iran provided the United States with intelligence, logistical support, on-the-ground help with Afghan politics in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks -- the same stuff that I've written about and that I wanted to write about in my New York Times op-ed, but because he uses this to support the administration's policies, they don't threaten him with criminal prosecution.
It is an abuse of the pre-publication review process for the White House to intervene in this way and for it to have politicized the process in order to silence critics and promote the views of cheerleaders for their disastrous policies. But that is precisely what the White House is doing in this case.
I also have to say it is very disappointing to me that former colleagues at the CIA have proven so spineless in the face of this kind of tawdry political pressure from the White House. Officials of the CIA's Publication Review Board told me that in their view, on their own, my draft op-ed, the draft op-ed that I wanted to publish as a co-authored piece with my wife, did not contain classified information, but they had to bow to the wishes of the White House.
Intelligence officers are supposed to behave better than that.
LEVERETT: And it is sad to me that this is yet one more instance where people in the intelligence community who know better are not prepared to speak truth to power, which is the whole point of having a separate intelligence agency like the CIA.
But that is the state of the intelligence community in our country six years into the Bush administration.
So with that, once again, thank you all for coming. I look forward to your questions and the discussion.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much, Flynt. I'm sure that there will be a lot of questions, and I promised him the first, but I'm going to go first with mine. And I know he's probably going to ask you -- I anticipate you'll ask about the White House bits, so I'll ask to go back to Iran.
MODERATOR: But let me just open up, as people think about their questions -- when you do pose your questions, please identify yourself. And, apparently, we don't need microphones to run around the room. Just speak loudly in case there's some technical malfunction out there that I don't know.
The first question is -- I just got back from the Middle East. And there is no doubt, particularly among the Gulf state region, that there is a sense that Iran is an ascendant power and not being challenged compellingly. And there is a great worry about the perception of American decline in the region and the sense that, if America withdraws -- as some have suggested -- in Iraq, that states in the region will have to redefine their loyalties as being either vassals of some sort of Talibanized Al Qaida network or of Tehran.
And it occurred to me that Tehran is, of course, growing. It does see an opportunity. Of course, we knocked out their chief rival.
MODERATOR: But one doesn't need to be an ascendant power quite as noisily as Iran is doing, if they wanted to ascend. And Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, is committed to a nuclear program, which he says for peaceful purposes, and then hosts Holocaust denial conferences.
In other words, I'm interested in how you deal with your formulation with Iran and dealing with a president of Iran who seems to be saber rattling in wild ways that seem unnecessary and counterproductive if Iran wanted to signal to the regions that: We are a great ascendant power in the region and you shouldn't all be worried about that.
But I get the sense that Iran wants to send shockwaves through its neighbors, and I wondering what reaction you have.
LEVERETT: I think that, first of all, to some degree, you need to disaggregate the President Ahmadinejad from the leadership structure as a whole. He is obviously an influential and important player in the Islamic Republic, but he is not the sole or even necessarily the most important voice, particularly on foreign policy issues.
Secondly, I think it is a gross misreading to view Ahmadinejad as some kind of -- should we say -- dangerous flake. I think that this guy has shown himself to be an extremely adroit and astute populist politician. He does sometimes, I think, make tactical misjudgments.
The results of the Assembly of Experts elections, as they have come in, in the last 24 hours, would suggest that his political position is certainly not unassailable.
LEVERETT: But still, if you look at how he came to be the president of Iran and how he has functioned since he's been president, I think you would have to say this is an extremely smart and tactically competent politician.
Now, he obviously has an agenda that, in many ways, we find problematic. And he uses rhetoric about parts of that agenda that many in the United States and in other places find -- quite understandably -- find offensive.
That being said, I think it is a serious mistake to use Ahmadinejad's presence as an excuse for not trying to engage Iran in a manner that, in the end, would serve American interests and would solve the security problems that we see coming from Iran.
QUESTION: Actually, it was about Iran. There's been a lot written on this grand bargain offer.
QUESTION: Did you meet this guy from the Interior Ministry? And did you go with anybody else? And what was your understanding of the meeting at the time? Can you kind of walk us through the details of that?
LEVERETT: To the best of my knowledge, I've never met with any official from Iran's Interior Ministry.
QUESTION: OK. So you talked with him. Who offered this? You had a meeting with someone who said they wanted a grand bargain. When did you meet? Who were you with from the U.S.? And was the assessment at this time that this was a serious offer?
LEVERETT: I think you're confusing a couple of different stories. First of all, there is a written offer to negotiate a grand bargain that comes in through Swiss intermediaries. It comes from Tehran through Swiss intermediaries to the State Department here in Washington. That is a written document presented to us.
LEVERETT: It was presented to the Swiss diplomats who passed the paper by a senior official of the Iranian foreign ministry. And according to those diplomats, it was presented as having the blessing of all of the major power centers in Iran, including, at the time, President Khatami and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Within a few weeks after I had left government, I did, indeed, have a meeting with a very senior Iranian official. I was not a government official at the time, and I made clear to the Iranians in the room that I was not a government official and was not representing anyone other than myself.
But with those disclaimers on the table, I did have an extremely interesting conversation in which it did -- I was persuaded that the offer which had come in through the Swiss channel was serious.
I've had, since then, over the last three years, other opportunities to talk with senior Iranian officials about the offer, and I -- in all of those conversations, I have become ever more persuaded that the offer was serious.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up? There are clearly people who at the time thought the fax from the Swiss was nonsense. Can you describe -- did you argue at the time? Can you describe -- you know, I mean, there wasn't a consensus, obviously, in the administration. And wouldn't they have already had the channel through Khalilzad or somebody else to have said we'd like to make a grand bargain?
LEVERETT: You have to recall the paper from the Swiss came in almost literally as I was leaving government. So other than seeing the paper, I really was not in a position to argue with anyone about how it should be handled -- and I'm not really in a position to comment on that.
MODERATOR: I can comment that people from the Department of State who have spoken at New America Foundation have said that they perceived it to be a serious offer, which has been public. I can fill you in later on those.
QUESTION: I agree with you that the U.S. (OFF-MIKE) Iran and will ultimately have to engage with Iran (OFF-MIKE) engagement would (OFF-MIKE).
Now, a part of this package would be basically to recognize Iran's role as a major regional player and to allow it to actually pursue its interests in the region.
This is something that is obviously bothering the traditional allies of the U.S. in the region, whether it's the gulf, or if you go beyond that, Egypt, Jordan, other such countries, who are now actually pushing against such an engagement.
What would you suggest to allay the fears of these players and to actually get them on board such a process and not to oppose such a process?
LEVERETT: I mean, first of all, I don't think -- I would say, first of all, I don't think that the views of the gulf states on this issue are monolithic. Yes, you certainly -- I was just in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain within the last couple of weeks, and, yes, it's certainly not hard to get people to convey these kinds of concerns to you.
But I would also note that earlier this year the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, gave a speech in London. And it was timed to coincide when the P-5 foreign ministers were meeting to discuss how to move the Iranian nuclear issue in the Security Council, and Prince Saud gave a speech in London in which he departed from literally years of standard Saudi rhetoric on creating a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, which the traditional position was it had to be for the whole region, meaning it had to cover Israel, which meant that it was a nonstarter as far as the United States was concerned.
LEVERETT: And Saud modified that position to say that while ultimately, yes, you'd want a nuclear weapons free zone to cover the whole region, why couldn't we start with a nuclear weapons free zone in the Gulf?
And I thought that was sufficiently important public statement that I actually wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about it. And I guess, you know, Elliott Abrams and others in the White House didn't get word of it in time to try and kill it.
But in any event, I argued that this was actually an important opening and that one way that we could try and square this circle between needing to engage Iran on a broad range of regional issues while also standing by our traditional allies in the Gulf would be by creating a regional security framework, a kind of OSCE mechanism for the Gulf and perhaps, you know, wider in the Middle East that would provide some very important rules of the road; provide some forums for making sure that conflicts didn't get out of hand, that states had a place where even though their interests were conflicting and there was considerable distrust, there was still a common forum where they could try and deal with regional issues of importance to everyone.
And this is also something that I argued in the Century Foundation and argued lay out how as part of a strategy for engaging Iran on a comprehensive basis, I think it would also be useful for the United States to push for the establishment of a regional security mechanism in the Gulf.
QUESTION: Granted that the Iranians were interested in May 2003, when the U.S. had just gone into Iraq (OFF-MIKE) what makes you so sure that they still are when it seems to me they are in (OFF-MIKE) and all they have to do is to sit back and watch the U.S. (OFF-MIKE)?
LEVERETT: I think that's a very important question.
LEVERETT: And I think it is undoubtedly the case that it has become harder to do this now than it might have been three years ago, that the price we're going to have to pay in terms of what we accept from the Iranians has gone up and the leadership picture on the Iranian side has become more challenging to manage on these issues. All of that is true.
And certainly, you're right, I think you're right, that the Iranians see themselves on a roll in the region, see things as going in their direction. This is part of why I say they're not going to repeat in Iraq what they did in Afghanistan, unless we are prepared explicitly to put it on the table as part of a broader process in which they're going to get a fundamentally different relationship with us, and from that fundamentally different relationship, they're going to get things from us that I think they still want, like what they would call acceptance of the Islamic republic.
I think if we are willing to put that on the table, there is still an appreciable chance that we could get Iran into a serious process. If we're not prepared to put that on the table, there's no way we get Iran into serious process.
And it demonstrates, in a way, the cost of delay. If we had pursued this Iranian offer three years ago when it came in, you know, the Iranians weren't spinning centrifuges, they weren't enriching uranium, Khatami was the president of Iran, not Ahmadinejad.
You know, the region was looking a lot better from our standpoint than it is now. The relative position of the two players, the United States and Iran, was much more favorable to us than it is now.
LEVERETT: The relative position of the two players, the United States and Iran, was much more favorable to us than it is now. And there is a real cost to delay.
It is not just: Well, if we don't want to do it now, we can do it three years from now or four years from now or five years from now. No. The longer you wait, the harder this gets, the less certain the outcome, and the higher the cost that the United States is going to have to pay.
This is why I've said in some settings that I think the administration's handling of Iran policy has been the strategic equivalent of medical malpractice. It is not just they're not doing something that would be useful; it's by not doing it they are contributing to further erosion, further damage to the American strategic position in the region.
QUESTION: Are you risking criminal prosecution by saying in public what you can't write in the New York Times op-ed? And can you say a bit more about who it is in the White House -- who in the White House is trying to silence you?
LEVERETT: I am not saying -- in what I've said here today, I am not saying anything that I have not already written in pieces that have been cleared by the CIA and for which I have pieces of paper that say: We've reviewed this and it does not contain classified information, go ahead and publish it.
I am not saying anything that has not already been publicly reported on in the media and publicly discussed by U.S. officials.
Now, because of the secrecy agreement that I signed, I am not going to publish the op-ed in the New York Times unless and until I have another piece of paper from the CIA telling me that I'm cleared to publish it.
I have an obligation to respect that process. And I will not publish the op-ed, even though, as I'm saying, the White House is intervening in the process not to protect classified information, but to limit the dissemination of critical views.
LEVERETT: But I took on a binding lifelong legal obligation when I signed the paper that I would not publish something which the government is saying I can't publish. And so I won't publish that. Because then I would be subject to criminal prosecution if I were to publish the op-ed.
But in terms of what I've said here today, I am not saying anything that I've not already had cleared multiple times by the CIA and that is extensively covered in the media and extensively documented by statements from senior U.S. officials.
QUESTION: I'm sure the White House is watching, and we'll soon hear whether they agree with your comment.
QUESTION: Is the White House normally involved in this kind of vetting process for such a piece?
And if the answer to that is no, how did they see it in the first place?
LEVERETT: My understanding is that this is the first time that the White House has intervened in the CIA pre-publication review process regarding one of my drafts. If they've done this with other people, I don't know about it.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that they've intervened in a pre-publication review process for one of my drafts.
My understanding is the White House has complained to the CIA that I've been writing pieces, publishing pieces in which the White House -- the phrase that is used with me by the publication review board is that: "The White House has equities here." Not that there's classified information, but, "The White House has equities here," and, you know, we've been told we have to let them review this.
QUESTION: You mentioned in your observations that he shared on his blog that Meghan O'Sullivan and Elliott Abrams were specifically involved in the decision to excise paragraphs from your draft, and someone working for them.
Can you talk more about who that might be and why that...
LEVERETT: Yes. Yes. My understanding, and it is consistent with my own experience when I worked at the NSC, is that the people who are actually doing the dirty work at the White House of going through my draft and blacking out whole paragraphs about stuff that Deputy Secretary Armitage has talked about in public and testified about in front of Congress, the people who are doing that are director-level people, not the most senior staff people.
But they work in the shops in the directorates that are run by Michael Duran, the senior director for Middle East affairs, and by Meghan O'Sullivan and Elliott Abrams, both of whom are politically appointed deputy national security advisers, deputies to the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on her question and to ask very specifically: What should the U.S. be seeking to gain from Iran, from any sort of engagement with Iran that Iran might actually, at this point of time, be willing to give us?
LEVERETT: The question about what should we want from Iran and why would they be willing to give it to us -- the part about why they would be willing to give it to us is contingent on what we are willing to put on the table in return.
LEVERETT: You know, I think there are things of significance that Iran would be prepared to reach agreement with us on as part of a package that resolves some very, very important national security and -- national security problems and foreign policy problems for them. But it's all going to be part of a package.
What I think we would want out of that package is, first of all, a resolution to the nuclear issue, basically an understanding with Iran about limits on their nuclear activities, such that we and others in the international community were confident or comfortable with the level of proliferation risks associated with those activities.
We would want cessation of Iranian support for what we consider terrorist activities by groups like Hezbollah, Hamas. We would want cooperation in stabilizing a post-Saddam political order in Iraq and on other regional issues.
And in return for that, what I think we would be offering would be what I have described as a security guarantee bolstered by the prospect of normalization of relations with Iran and a lifting of U.S. sanctions. That's the package.
And Iran isn't going to do those things unless our part of the package is also on the table.
QUESTION: Without getting too deep into the legalese, what exactly does your vetting agreement with the CIA prevent you from doing? Is it case by case? Does it involve public speaking as well as publication in a newspaper?
MODERATOR: So the question is -- just for others; make sure they can hear it -- is: What does the vetting agreement involve?
Can you go into any cases in the past in which you have been told to modify your statements?
LEVERETT: Up until this point, up until last week with regard to this particular op-ed at this particular time, the CIA, their Publications Review Board, they have cleared on order of 30 drafts that I have sent them in three and a half years out of government and up until last week they never asked to change a word.
LEVERETT: Up until this point, up until last week with regard to this particular op-ed at this particular time, the CIA, their publications, review board, they have cleared on order of 30 drafts that I have sent them in 3.5 years out of government. And, up until last week, they never asked to change a word.
MODERATOR: So this looks like a new change.
QUESTION: Just to clarify, you mentioned that the paragraphs they wanted excised involved cooperation on Afghanistan and also this...
LEVERETT: The 2003 offer.
QUESTION: Were there any other paragraphs they asked to have excised?
LEVERETT: Not whole paragraphs. They had some individual sentences which they wanted excised, but the big chunks were whole paragraphs that dealt with the topics that I indicated.
In a second round of edits, they also came back, it's interesting to note, they came back with, at one point we basically paraphrased a public statement by Secretary Rice, and they came back insisting on an edit to the way that we characterized her public statements.
QUESTION: The way you used that information, was there anything different from what was in here?
QUESTION: There was the exact same information presented...
LEVERETT: Yes. With regard to the cooperation in Afghanistan and the 2003 offer.
MODERATOR: It would be kind of cool. You won't be able to see the classified parts, or these so-called classified parts, but maybe I could convince you later to let me put a photostat of the returned item on the blogs.
LEVERETT: I'm very much looking forward to...
MODERATOR: The washingtonnote.com (ph). It will be an exclusive in about half-an-hour. QUESTION: You said you're just back from the Gulf. Could you talk about the concern among U.S. allies there and perhaps in the wider Middle East, the failure, so far, for the White House to lay out its new way forward in Iraq?
QUESTION: And what is the response to various ideas that are floating around, not just from the White House, but the Iraq Study Group, McCain, the idea of a sort of a faster U.S. withdrawal?
LEVERETT: I think that you're quite correct, that not only are our allies in the Gulf concerned about what they see as rising Iranian influence and power in the region, but they are also concerned about what they see as a drift -- incompetence in the way this administration is dealing with the Iran problem and with other aspects of Middle East policy.
I would say that is universal, across the board, in the Gulf. People are just completely dismayed at the way this administration has bungled so many important parts of its Middle East policy.
And I think, as much as they are worried about Iran, they are at least as worried about what this administration is going to do now.
I think, across the board, I certainly had the sense that people in the Gulf believe that an American military strike on Iran would be disastrous -- would be disastrous for them, for U.S. interests and the U.S. position in the region. But they are worried the administration will, over the next year or so, opt to go down that road.
They are very concerned about what we're going to do in Iraq. They are certainly worried about what they would see as an overly precipitous withdrawal.
In that regard, I love the line of now former Saudi ambassador, Prince Turki, who says the United States entered Iraq uninvited; it should not leave Iraq uninvited.
They are worried about an overly precipitous withdrawal, but they're also deeply worried that we will stay without any serious plan for how to make things better.
And they think that our effective abandonment of Palestinian issue just compounds the negative political and strategic consequences of our mishandling of Iran and Iraq.
QUESTION: Many of these policies you described as disastrous were authored or originated or heavily influenced by Elliot Abrams himself. To what extent do you suspect his fingerprints on this and is it a sign of desperation from the administration, or an indictment of him personally, and do you see that that is why he is in fact acting?
LEVERETT: It is very hard for me to imagine that some director at the NSC is going to take it upon himself or herself to intervene in the CIA's pre-publication review process in what, at least in my experience, is a completely unprecedented way, that a person at that level would do that on their own without the support, encouragement of superiors.
And the relevant superiors at the NSC would be the people that I identified: Elliott, Michael Duran and Meghan O'Sullivan.
MODERATOR: No one in the Vice President's Office?
LEVERETT: The vice president's staff is extremely influential and extremely interventionist with regard to the workings of the NSC staff. It would not surprise me at all if people from the Vice President's Office had been those who kind of adopted the "we have to stop Leverett from publishing again" position, which apparently is what prompted the CIA to send this op-ed draft to the NSC in the first place. But I have no direct knowledge that people in the Vice President's Office are involved.
QUESTION: I'm just curious: What was the public statement of Condi Rice that you were accused of misrepresenting?
LEVERETT: It was the one in which she described why we rejected the offer from the Iranians in the spring of 2003. She only recently acknowledged that that offer had come in and that we had rejected it.
LEVERETT: And in an interview...
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to NPR, coming back...
LEVERETT: I believe it was. Thank you. It was an NPR interview and her argument was, essentially, that: Well, that would have been one-on-one negotiations and we're much better off, you know, working together with our European and P-5 allies.
And the way that we paraphrased this statement in the draft op-ed was considered unacceptable.
QUESTION: My question is to ask whether -- I'm wondering: Is there a possible parallel with the legal case that rocked the nation 35 years ago; namely, the Pentagon Papers?
Let me say what I mean and ask a specific question. I am working in the presidential campaign of former United States Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska.
It was Gravel who, 35 years ago, joined with Dan Ellsberg in fighting the Nixon administration attempt to use prior restraint. We all know the particulars of that case.
Gravel was actually criminally prosecuted by the Justice Department; won his right at the Supreme Court level to publish what is known as the "Mike Gravel Edition" of the Pentagon Papers that Beacon Press published.
My question is this -- you're not going to fight the attempt to squash your views, you say. That is, you're not going to tell the New York Times to go ahead and publish. But have you contemplated filing a lawsuit and trying to bring the case into a jurisprudence?
LEVERETT: You're right. And, first of all, I hope you didn't just describe my future. I really hope.
LEVERETT: Second of all, I really don't mean for this to be an analogy to the Pentagon Papers case, because, as I said, I am going to play by the rules of the pre-publication review process -- which means, as long as the CIA is sending me letters that say, you know, because we've consulted with other agencies and they object to these various parts of your op-ed, we have concluded it contains classified information and you can't publish it, I won't publish it.
LEVERETT: I'm not going to defy the rules, break the rules that way. But I am going to talk about stuff that is in the public domain and which I have been cleared, multiple times before, to publish, write about.
And I will continue to talk about it, but I'm not going to do a Pentagon Papers and give it to the New York Times to publish anyway.
MODERATOR: What I see as one of the more interesting corollaries that hasn't been discussed -- I do a lot with the National Archives at George Washington University, where declassified documents go and are organized. And what you see is the federal government going back and reclassifying declassified documents.
It's why -- for those of you who are writing the bigger story of what's going on, that is what is interesting, and why the White House may call that it disagrees with your view. But, anyway, we'll see.
QUESTION: Question with respect to what you said early on about the 20-year history of the U.S. seeking limited engagement with the Iranians; the Iranians coming back for a more comprehensive engagement; and then, if I quote you correctly, you said that this all foundered, always, on domestic political considerations and other foreign policy interests.
Could you spell that out a little bit?
LEVERETT: Yes, I can give a few specifics on that. Well, here we go -- Elliot Abrams again. You know, the Reagan administration obviously tried to engage Iran to get Iranian assistance with the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon.
That came to grief, not because of anything that the Iranians did, but because Elliott and his cohorts in the Reagan administration decided also to use this as a channel for subverting congressionally mandated limits on funding the Contras.
LEVERETT: And you have the Iran-Contra scandal. So, you know, the effort to engage Iran there fell apart because Elliott and his cohorts don't take the Constitution very seriously.
In the case of the first Bush administration, you had renewed contacts with Iran to secure the release of the last American hostages in Lebanon. That was successful. But then the Bush administration made a calculated decision not to push for further rapproachment with Iran until after President Bush won re-election in 1992. It didn't quite work out.
The Clinton administration, you know, acquiesced to Iranian supply of weapons to Bosnian Muslims starting in 1994. But then, when that leaked to the press in 1996, then the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for that year, Bob Dole, began to criticize the administration for dealing with Iran. The Clinton administration then backed off.
And then, you know, we know the saga of this Bush administration in cooperation with Iran over Afghanistan.
MODERATOR: I'll give the floor to Hillary Mann for a moment. You had -- did you...
LEVERETT: Yes, my co-author.
MODERATOR: The censored co-author, Hillary Mann.
QUESTION: Thank you.
Flynt, two questions. First on this point in terms of the history: Was the piece censored at all to excise any of the context of the history of any of the negotiations that the Clinton administration did or that the first Bush administration did or that the Reagan administration did?
LEVERETT: No, not a word of that was...
QUESTION: Or were the deletions only about what this administration this time?
LEVERETT: Oh yes, absolutely -- only about what this administration has done.
QUESTION: The second question is -- two years ago you wrote an op-ed about Libya where you similarly had a case where most Americans perceived Moammar Gadhafi to be a madman bent on the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and engaged in supporting terrorist groups worldwide.
QUESTION: You wrote in that piece a blow-by-blow of the negotiations that this administration did to get Libya out of the terrorism business and off the WMD path.
What is the difference between what you wrote then about the blow-by-blow of negotiations involving Libya with what you're presenting today on Iran?
LEVERETT: I guess the big difference is that in that op-ed you're referring to -- which I published in January of 2004 -- once again, cleared without changing a word by the CIA -- in this op-ed, as you say, I went through the blow-by-blow of the dealings with Libya and essentially said that the administration had done the right thing; that it had applied a conditional engagement, carrots-and-sticks model, aimed at basically a grand bargain with Libya; and that this policy had worked.
We got Libya out of the terrorism business. We got them out of the WMD business. And this was a good thing.
Now, then I went ahead and criticized the administration for not applying that model to other cases like Iran and for attributing their success in Libya to something that I considered basically extraneous to the outcome with Libya, namely the Iraq war.
But, essentially, to some degree, I was giving the administration credit for having done something that I thought was constructive and for having an approach that I thought was strategically sound.
And the White House didn't seem to have an objection to that one.
MODERATOR: You must have known the answers to those questions.
QUESTION: Over the last few days, we've been reading in the press that the White House is considering a plan -- considering to substantially increase the number of troops in Iraq along the lines of a plan released by the American Enterprise Institute last Thursday.
If you put that together with the resistance -- White House resistance to changing the policy on Iran, which you've noted, and the suppression of your op-ed, what does all of that tell you about the mental state inside the White House?
LEVERETT: Well, it tells me something that I've been arguing for a while, which is that reports of the return of realism and rationality to this administration are greatly exaggerated.
You know, I don't think this administration is going to change course in any fundamental way. They have embarked on a disastrous course for U.S. interests in this region. Iraq is part of it. Their mishandling of Iran is part of it. There are other components to it.
LEVERETT: But, you know, Baker-Hamilton, the victory of the Democrats in the congressional elections, you know, plunging polls for the president -- that doesn't matter. They're not going to change. They are not going to alter course in a fundamental way on these issues.
MODERATOR: It's always strange when I feel more optimistic than Flynt Leverett.
QUESTION: First, I want to thank you for what you're doing in terms of bringing these issues to the forefront of public.
Secondly, I remember that Colonel Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary Powell, publicly has said that this offer did come through in 2003, that the State Department really thought it was serious. They passed it on to the White House. And it was the vice president himself who said no. He has publicly said this.
So I don't know what the big secret is on this.
And since none of these characters have changed -- and I think in your last answer to the last question, you already answered mine, how you get them to listen? What do you do to sort of shake them out of this stupor that they're in about what is in the best interest of America and the way we should go ahead in the Middle East?
LEVERETT: I have to tell you, frankly, I don't have an answer to that.
Look, I was the senior director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council. You know, I had many opportunities -- opportunities which I consistently took -- to argue for different kinds of policies, different sorts of strategic approaches, all of that. And basically I reached a point in the spring of 2003 where I thought there were just so many mistakes being made and so many wrong directions been taken that I couldn't stay.
Obviously, I've tried to write and speak about these issues since I've been out of government. But I don't have any real optimism that the administration is going to change course.
My role, at least as far as I see it, is to try and inform public discussion and debate.
I don't think the an administration is censoring my op-ed in the New York Times so that they can actually adopt it as the basis for their new diplomatic strategy toward Iran, you know. I don't see that.
MODERATOR: There is someone who is very senior in these circles who told me -- I asked before -- I didn't know whether Flynt Leverett was overreacting to something that happened. I had to go get a benchmark.
I'm just joking, really, here. I know you don't overreact.
But I wanted to go find out. And this person I spoke to, whom I can't identify, said one of two things has happened in his view.
MODERATOR: Either Vice President Cheney's Office has decided that they've had enough of you and thus engineered a time to basically rein you in, with putting the pressure on -- it was his identification of Cheney in the process, because it would reflect risks too higher even for Elliott and others as they sought to play that role; but in his view -- or that there was, and this is a more positive story, a piece of fragile diplomacy that was at hand.
And I don't know fragile diplomacy toward what, but I would be interested in what you think about that. Is there, in your scope of things, a kind of fragile diplomacy out there that you could imagine might be going on that your writing could disrupt?
LEVERETT: I mean, I, you know, like the hypothesis about the Vice President's Office. I mean, I do know that at least some of the pieces that I have written and published since I've been out of government have apparently engendered some anger within the Vice President's Office, which is just fine with me.
I mean, I really don't know what could be going on in terms of delicate diplomacy that this op-ed would somehow be putting at risk.
MODERATOR: I just wanted to get it out there, because it was...
LEVERETT: And in the end -- you know, look, in the end, even if that were the case, I would still say this pre-publication review process is not supposed to be about making life comfortable for an incumbent administration. It is supposed to be about the protection of classified information and nothing more.
There is no classified information in the draft that I submitted, but the White House is intervening in the process to use that rubric of protecting classified information to keep a critical view from coming out. That's what's going on.
QUESTION: Could you take a step back and look at the region and try to identify where it's going, provided no serious change of U.S. policy, or maybe articulate that window?
QUESTION: How much time do the U.S., Israel, others, have to change reality in a significant way to, fundamentally, save the region?
LEVERETT: I'm not very good at timelines, but the trends are all running in the wrong direction.
You do have Iran emerging as a more powerful, more influential state in the region.
You do have U.S. leadership and effectiveness in the region declining at the same time.
I think you have a number of radical actors in the region, whether it is Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas in the Palestinian context, whose influence and political standing has risen dramatically over the last two years.
You have Iraq, basically, in civil war, and no prospect on the horizon for the U.S. doing anything that might put that situation on a more positive trajectory.
You have other external players; China, for example, emerging as more influential players in the region.
You have long-standing American allies and partners, such as the Saudis, questioning the durability of U.S. leadership in the region and hedging their bets, strategically, in some significant ways.
I do not yet, in my own view, reach a point where I would say the U.S. position is an unrecoverable.
I think if we were to begin to pursue different kinds of policies on all of these fronts, we could repair and bolster our strategic position in the Middle East; and, by the way, along with that, do much to improve Israel's strategic position.
LEVERETT: I mean, does anybody want to argue that Israel is today in a more secure position, that its political standing in the Middle East is better today than it was five years ago?
I think that would be a hard argument to make.
We could still recover from this, but it's going to take new policies.
I don't know exactly when the window for changing course closes. But that window is not going to be open forever.
I can only hope that things don't get so bad over the next two years that whoever succeeds President Bush doesn't have the opportunity to try and put things on a better trajectory.
QUESTION: Flynt, you've criticized Baker-Hamilton for wanting to take a piecemeal approach and have argued all that is possible isn't all or nothing right now. Let me probe that just for a second.
I don't understand Baker-Hamilton as wanting to exclude a grand bargain, but rather to analyze that the situation in Iraq is so dire that there's a timeline project. When a grand bargain will take more time than a piecemeal approach, then you're going to have to concentrate on first things first.
And when the Iranians have an interest in seeing the U.S. fail in Iraq, it doesn't necessarily mean they have an interest in seeing Iraq disintegrate.
So there may be an argument for a shared interest in a very limited way that could lead to a shared outcome.
What do you say to that argument?
LEVERETT: I think, as I said, it really tries to impose a different context on the Iranians from the one that they think they're actually living in.
And that context is that -- and Secretary Baker said it when he was testifying before the Armed Services Committee after the report was released, he said, "They helped us in Afghanistan because they wanted to get rid of the Taliban and avoid instability there, and they may help us in Iraq for the same reason, because they don't want chaos there."
LEVERETT: And my argument is simply that I don't think they helped us in Afghanistan primarily because they hated the Taliban. They helped us in Afghanistan because they thought that was the way to get a better relationship with us.
And I don't think they will help us in Iraq unless we, in some way, put on the table that, "This is not just about cooperation on one issue where we have, maybe, some shared interests; this is about a bigger process that will ultimately get you a different relationship with us."
QUESTION: Are you then implicitly saying that Iran can deal with chaos and disintegration; it doesn't care about it as much as it needed to to embark on a course (ph)?
LEVERETT: I'm saying that Iran is, in my view, very well positioned right now on the ground in Iraq to defend its interests in Iraq without cooperating with the U.S. They don't need us to protect their equities in Iraq.
QUESTION: If the security guarantees from the U.S. were important enough to Iran for them to satisfy us on all these issue areas, one of them would be that they would withdraw support for violent resistance against Israel.
Do you think that would actually promote -- that would require a two-stage solution, for them. Do you think that would promote a two- state solution, their willingness to reach a grand bargain?
And if there wasn't a two-state solution and they couldn't withdraw support for Hamas and Hezbollah, would that torpedo the rest of the grand bargain?
LEVERETT: I think that Iranian -- first of all, there been a number of serving and former Iranian officials who have said that if there were to be a two-state solution that the Palestinians were to negotiate freely with Israel, that Iran would not, in a sense, be more Palestinian than the Palestinians about it.
LEVERETT: Yes, I think it would be possible, as part of a grand bargain, to modify significantly Iran's position toward the Arab- Israeli conflict, toward a negotiated resolution of that conflict and toward violent and terrorist activities that have had the effect of making a negotiated settlement far more difficult to reach. I think that is possible, yes.
QUESTION: Do you think that would help bring about such a settlement?
LEVERETT: It would certainly remove one of the obstacles and sources of difficulty.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) that potentially would could be going on is that there could be some fragile piece of diplomacy that we don't know about that this op-ed could derail.
And as I agree with Flynt that I don't think that this administration could pivot on the fundamental issues involving Iran and the region at this point, what is problematic about the op-ed is that if they wanted to pivot -- either on the fundamental issues are even on piecemeal diplomacy involving Iraq or anything else -- what this op-ed argues and makes a solid case for is that this administration embarrassingly decided to squander those opportunities that it has had over the past five years to do so repeatedly.
So if they decide to do it again, they inevitably are going to be paying a much higher price than they would have at any point over the past five years, and that is politically embarrassing.
MODERATOR: So what you're basically saying is if my friend is correct that there may be fragile diplomacy -- as one of the options; he didn't say there was -- that amnesia is needed?
MODERATOR: For those of you who don't know, I keep a big firewall between my blog -- the Washington Note -- and my work at the New American Foundation. Sometimes that firewall works better than at other times.
But I want to thank Flynt Leverett not only for being a great colleague here at the New American Foundation, but also for just pumping up my blog hits.
(LAUGHTER) So in about 30 minutes we'll have the stat of the CIA response with lots of black lines...
MODERATOR: ... 1,000 thousand words, which we'll get up on the blog at thewashingtonnote.com.
I want to thank Flynt. Please help me in thanking him for, I think, a very brave and important talk.