Ex-NSC Official Says White House Is Stifling His Criticism of Iran Policy

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A former top White House official accused the Bush administration yesterday of trying to muzzle his criticism of its Iran policy and of falsely alleging that his writings contained classified material to prevent them from being published.

Flynt Leverett, a former CIA analyst who became a senior director for Middle East policy for the National Security Council before leaving the administration in 2003, said the White House decided that substantial passages of an opinion article he had written for the New York Times involved classified information. Leverett said the article was only a summary of a longer paper he had written a few weeks earlier -- which had been cleared by the CIA as containing no classified information.

He said no fact in the proposed Times article differed from the earlier paper, which he wrote for the Century Foundation.

The assertion that the Times article contained classified information "is false," Leverett said yesterday in a speech about his policy proposals at the New America Foundation. "Indeed, I would say that claim is fraudulent. The people making that claim know it is not true."

Leverett voted for George W. Bush in 2000 but since leaving the White House has emerged as a fierce critic of administration policy, particularly toward Iran. His paper for the Century Foundation made the case for engaging with Tehran on a comprehensive basis to seek a "grand bargain" with the Islamic republic -- at a time when administration officials have resisted pressure to enter in talks with Iran on Iraq and other issues.

"The White House is using the rubric 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," Leverett said. The Times article was written with his wife, Hillary Mann Leverett, an Iran specialist who is also a former NSC staff member in the Bush administration.

White House and CIA spokesmen adamantly disputed Leverett's charges. NSC spokesman Gordon Johndroe said that career staff members on the access and records management staff, who determine whether classified material is involved, made the ruling without political appointees being involved.

Johndroe and CIA spokesman Mike Mansfield said that, in a lapse, the CIA did not circulate the Century Foundation paper to the White House. Johndroe said sections of that paper probably would have been deemed classified. "It was an oversight," Mansfield said. "It should have been shared with them."

As a former CIA official, Leverett is required to submit his writings for pre-publication review. Mansfield said that the CIA reviews the material only to determine whether it is classified but decided to send the proposed op-ed article to the White House, which had an interest because Leverett had once served there.

Leverett said it is his understanding that this is the first time the White House has reviewed his writings, and that it occurred because the White House had complained to the CIA about other articles. Mansfield declined to comment on whether any of Leverett's previous articles had been sent to the White House for review.

"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," Leverett said. He said CIA officials told him that they felt the article "did not contain classified information, but they had to bow to the wishes of the White House."

Leverett said the CIA ordered two sections concerning U.S. dealings with Iran in his article to be heavily redacted, even though the material had appeared in news reports or had been discussed publicly by administration officials.

One section described Iran's cooperation in helping create a new government in Afghanistan, which Leverett said in his Century Foundation paper led Iranian officials to believe the two countries were on the cusp of a diplomatic opening. But that ended when Bush named Iran as part of the "axis of evil," he said.

The other section concerned his description of an offer the Iranian foreign ministry sent the administration in 2003, through Swiss diplomatic channels, to resolve outstanding bilateral issues with the United States. The White House rejected the approach, which has been widely described in news reports since then.

"The administration's handling of Iran policy has been the strategic equivalent of medical malpractice," Leverett said.

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