Inside The Secret War Council

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Rumsfeld: Saddam could strike here

If you could slip past the soldiers toting M-16s at the door, the Pentagon's 17 miles of corridors might remind you a little of an inner-city apartment building: every other door is plastered with alarms, fortified latches and ugly combination locks. You would buzz past signs bearing mysterious acronyms — WELCOME ABOARD J3/SMOO — that blur rather than clarify what's cooking behind those doors. Asked what goes on inside, officers get that "Don't ask, don't tell" look — and don't even reply.

So it was alarming when one secret agency's work spilled into the open recently, only to be dismissed by almost everyone involved. Meeting last month in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's private conference room, a group called the Defense Policy Board heard an outside expert, armed only with a computerized PowerPoint briefing, denounce the Saudis for being "active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader." Such claims have been on the rise since Sept. 11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Relatives of those killed in the attacks filed suit last week seeking $1 trillion from, among others, three Saudi princes who allegedly gave money to groups supporting the terrorists. But the Pentagon briefer's solution to the Saudi problem was provocative in the extreme: Washington should declare the Saudis the enemy, he said, and threaten to take over the oil wells if the kingdom doesn't do more to combat Islamic terrorism. "I thought the briefing was ridiculous," a board member said, "a waste of time, and the quicker he left the better." When the briefing leaked to the press, it sent diplomatic tremors ricocheting to Riyadh.

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This is the kind of outside-the-Pentagon-box thinking that routinely takes place inside the Defense Policy Board, the Secretary's private think tank in a building where helmets often trump thinking caps. Chaired by Richard Perle — a Reagan Pentagon official whose hard-line views won him the title "Prince of Darkness"--the board gives its 31 unpaid members something every Washington player wants: unrivaled access without accountability. Perle uses his post as a springboard for his unilateralist, attack-Iraq views to try to whip the Bush Administration into action. But despite its name, the board does not make policy. As the Saudi episode shows, it can do something far scarier: give a false impression of it.

That wasn't the point when the Pentagon set up the board in 1985 to advise the Defense Secretary on key issues of the day. Unlike many of the department's ancillary agencies, it toils in the shadows. Its classified sessions combine outsiders' briefings with internal discussions on military deep-think. Is the Pentagon buying the right weapons? Is the U.S. cozying up to the right nations? Is the U.S. military pivoting properly in the wake of Sept. 11? Each member's access to top-secret U.S. intelligence gives the board's opinions a cachet not enjoyed by Washington's public think tanks, which churn out reports on such topics.

Beneath the brass plating, the board's impact is harder to discern. Though its quarterly, two-day sessions take place in Rumsfeld's inner sanctum, the board's two full-time employees run the operation from another floor. Perle sets the agenda and briefers. The members take no votes, do not strive to reach a consensus and write no reports. Instead, they wrap up each session sharing what they have learned with Rumsfeld, who is free to ignore what he is told.

Rumsfeld has given some of the Republican right's most outspoken (and forsaken) hawks a place to nest. Among them: former Vice President Dan Quayle, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and ex-CIA and Pentagon boss James Schlesinger. True, there are also centrist Republican members, like Henry Kissinger. But the board has an undeniably hard-nosed tilt: seven of the 31 members have ties to the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Previous boards had at least a few members with views sharply opposed to the incumbent Administration — Perle was on the board through Clinton's two terms — but this one lacks Democratic firepower. The sprinkling of Democrats includes token moderates and those, like former CIA chief James Woolsey, who are hawks within their own party.

In effect, the board has become Perle's podium. It rarely achieved any notice before he assumed the chairmanship last year, but now his position there lends weight to his public pronouncements. His recent column in the London Daily Telegraph titled "Why the West Must Strike First Against Saddam Hussein" identified him as "chairman of the Defence Policy Board."

But board members, serving at Rumsfeld's pleasure, are like a choir preaching to the pastor. The board "is just another p.r. shop for Rumsfeld," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert with the Brookings Institution. "It gives his ideas more currency." O'Hanlon admits, though, that he would "jump at the chance" to serve on it for the access to the nation's top Defense officials. But Lawrence Korb, a Reagan-era Pentagon official, thinks the board is "a net loss for the Administration because many people think it represents the Administration's views."

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