Wolfowitz turned not to the roster of career specialists in the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs bureau, but to a political appointee in the bureau: Elizabeth Cheney, coordinator of a Middle East democracy project and daughter of the vice president; she recruited a State Department colleague who had worked for the International Republican Institute.
While responsibility for developing an occupation plan resided with Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith -- along with the National Security Council -- a small defense policy shop called the Office of Special Plans was given a key role in developing policy guidance for on-the-ground operations.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, right, attends a meeting on postwar Iraq. Garner, who headed the reconstruction effort, said his staff spent a lot of time planning for humanitarian crises.
(Tim Sloan -- AFP Pool Photo)
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Its staff was hand-picked by William Luti, a former aide to Cheney and Newt Gingrich who headed the Pentagon's Middle East and South Asia policy office; they worked in a warren of offices on the Pentagon's first floor. The office held its work so closely that even members of Garner's office did not realize its role until February, a month after Garner was appointed.
That month, 30 people showed up at a meeting called to share the Special Plans work with Garner's office and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
There, the Special Plans staff handed out spreadsheets on four dozen issues, all policy recommendations for key decisions: war crimes prosecution, the elimination of the Baath Party, oil sector maintenance, ministry organization, media strategy and "rewards, incentives and immunity" for former Baath supporters.
Once a policy was approved by the defense secretary's office and the interagency principals, it would become the operating guidance for the U.S. Central Command, whose troops would occupy Iraq.
To the outsiders at the meeting, it looked like a fait accompli. "We had had no input into the Special Plans office," said one reconstruction official who was there.
A senior defense official, however, played down the office's role in occupation planning. He said Special Plans "had influence into the process. We were not the nerve center."
As for complaints that the office was secretive or exclusive, he said: "There are a lot of crybabies everywhere. . . . I cannot account for people's hurt feelings." To say the office was isolated, he added, "is laughable."
Garner worked closely with Rumsfeld and Feith and met about once a week with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Only seven weeks before the war began, Garner's staff members could be counted on one hand, but he eventually assembled a staff that drew from a number of agencies. He said they spent 30 to 40 percent of their time planning for humanitarian crises, refugees, hunger, chemical weapons attacks and oil field fires.
By March, after Garner arrived at a staging site in Kuwait, members of his own team believed that the administration had poorly prepared both Iraqis and Americans for what was to come.
One U.S. official recalled, "My uniformed friends kept telling me, 'We're not ready. We're going into the beast's mouth.' "
'It Was Just Chaos'
As war drew nearer, the matter of Iraq's political future became more urgent.
Despite Pentagon support for a provisional government led by Chalabi, Bush rejected that option. Instead, he took the State Department's view that exiles and internal Iraqi figures should be given an equal chance to prove themselves in an Interim Iraqi Authority to be created immediately after the war.