Inside Job

If you've caught much of the TV commentary about the "war
against terrorism," you've probably seen a lot of Richard Perle, the portly,
Ronald Reagan-era assistant secretary of defense who kept the defense-hawk home
fires burning throughout the Bill Clinton years from a perch at the American
Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. On such shows as MSNBC's
Hardball with Chris Matthews and CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, Perle
advocates taking our fight against Osama bin Laden to the next level and using
American military power to overthrow Saddam Hussein. And if the president's
recent comments are any indication, his media blitz is having an effect. Politics
is a rough business, so it's no surprise that Perle--a veteran of vicious turf
battles during the Reagan administration--is hitting the airwaves to push his
point of view. But that's not the whole story.

Though Perle draws no government salary, he holds a Pentagon appointment
and he has an office in the Pentagon's E-Ring, a short hop from that of Defense
Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. He has access to all manner of classified
information; he's in the loop on war planning. Rumsfeld recently told CNN's Bob
Novak that Perle is "not a government official." But by most commonsense
definitions, Perle isn't a former member of the Reagan administration; he's a
member of the current administration.

Early last summer, Rumsfeld appointed Perle chairman of the Defense Policy
Board (DPB), a Pentagon advisory panel charged with overseeing military
preparedness and engaging in defense policy big-think. Perle's Defense Department
supporters had been eager to bring him back to the Pentagon, but they knew that
his controversial Reagan-era record would make it difficult, if not impossible,
for him to get confirmed by the Senate. The DPB chairmanship looked like the
perfect solution. And since his appointment in June, Perle has transformed the
once-obscure sinecure into an important advisory position.

Perle's media campaign is part of the larger and much-publicized debate among
Republican defense and foreign-policy hands over how the war on terrorism should
be conducted: a worldwide attack on al-Qaeda and its supporters or a broader
ranging, Godfather-like settling of accounts with all of America's
enemies. Nongovernment hawks, like William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly
Standard,
can rally the troops from the outside. But supporters of the latter
strategy who can't escape their administration ties, like Deputy Secretary of
Defense Paul Wolfowitz, can't be publicly critical of the targeted policy: It's
the one backed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, after all.

So how is Perle able to play both sides of the street? One prerequisite is the
continued acquiescence of Rumsfeld. "I think Rumsfeld has loved this stuff," says
one of Perle's former Reagan-administration colleagues, though whether Rumsfeld's
go-ahead for these rants is explicit or implicit is anyone's guess.

But Perle's own chutzpah and simple media sloppiness play even more important
roles. Overseas and in defensecommunity publications like Defense Daily
and Air Force Magazine, Perle is routinely identified as what he is:
the chairman of the Defense Policy Board and one of Rumsfeld's senior advisers.
But producers and reporters in the mainstream press almost always identify him as
a "former assistant secretary of defense," as he was dubbed on Hardball in
late November. Hardball producer Noah Oppenheim equivocates as to whether
Perle's misdirected identification served Perle's purpose or the show's
own: "It's the kind of thing we would probably mention if we knew." In any case,
Oppenheim continues, it's not as though Perle was on to talk about administrative
policy.

Perle's foreign-policy freelancing first raised eyebrows on October 5, when he
chided the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in The Daily Telegraph for
a "failed" and "embarrassing" mission to Iran in which Straw sought to enlist
Tehran's assistance in the war against terrorism. That evening, Perle proved that
his beef with foreign secretaries isn't limited to the United Kingdom. Appearing
(again, as "former assistant secretary of defense") on CNN's Crossfire, he
attacked an insufficiently hawkish member of Bush's National Security Council,
called Colin Powell's coalition building "foolish," and charged the State
Department with bucking the president's policy by pushing Israel to make a deal
with the Palestinian Authority. Leaning on Israel "was a change in policy," said
Perle, "a very undesirable change in my view; and I don't believe it was the
president's policy. I think it originated, it began, and it ended in the
Department of State."

Those are pretty strong words about the State Department and Powell, coming as
they do from a senior adviser to one of Powell's senior cabinet
colleagues--Rumsfeld. But Perle has kept up his efforts, giving numerous print
and television interviews as ringleader of the anti-Saddam Hussein, anti-Colin
Powell cabal. Of late, he's become a frequent guest on CNN's nightly wartime chat
show War Room, one of the few programs to correctly identify his current
Pentagon affiliation.

Perle's have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too punditry may be getting more difficult.
Executives at CNN are now discussing whether they have adequately disclosed
Perle's advisory role at the Pentagon. (After all, how much sense does it make to
have one of the defense secretary's policy advisers analyzing administration
policy on the evening news?) They plan to identify him more accurately in any
future appearances. But even if Perle's double game gets shut down at CNN and
other news outlets, it may have already accomplished its mission: President Bush
issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein in late November. As the fighting in
Afghanistan moves toward a conclusion, senior administration officials have been
sending out messages that Iraq is moving to the top of the list of targeted
regimes in the war against terrorism. If Perle can no longer make the case
against Saddam, maybe he can leave it to another defense appointee, like
Rumsfeld.

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