In normal times, the chief of the Pentagon's office for Middle Eastern policy toils in obscurity, a third-level functionary hardly noticed inside the building, let alone outside it.
Not so Deputy Undersecretary William J. Luti. The day-to-day manager of the Defense Department's Iraq policy, he has the highest profile of anyone to ever hold his post.
A recent Google search uncovered 1,340 Internet hits mentioning him, many of them depicting him as a stealthy Svengali of Iraq policy, operating at the center of a network connecting Vice President Cheney, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith -- all people for whom Luti has worked in the past seven years. Some Web sites associated with fringe political player Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. attack him in lurid terms as an "ignoble liar" and "Satan."
The critics are especially suspicious of his Office of Special Plans, which was created last year. The purposely ambiguous title -- it was an office to work on policy for invading Iraq -- gave rise to speculation that Luti was running a shadowy intelligence operation intended to second-guess the CIA and provide the Pentagon with findings that supported its policies. The office has since been closed.
"The conspiracies out of this are quite stunning," Luti said in a recent interview in his crowded office in an unfashionable inner corridor of the Pentagon. "We are a consumer of intelligence rather than a provider."
He insists that he is not as influential as some of his critics suspect. "To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of my power are greatly exaggerated," he said.
He has been attacked, he said, because "we work tough issues, we work controversial issues." But he insisted he does not preside over a secret miniature version of the CIA. "For the umpteenth time," he said, showing a bit of exasperation, "we do policy work." What that means, he said, is developing defense policy options and monitoring their implementation -- not collecting intelligence, planning wars or implementing policy.
But he also seems to have attracted attention because of his zealous manner. "I know he's a lightning rod," said Richard Shultz, Luti's doctoral thesis adviser at Tufts University. "That's partly because he is so passionate, and partly because he is so devoted to policies that have been divisive."
Defense intelligence experts say Bruce Hardcastle, a senior Defense Intelligence Agency official for Middle Eastern affairs, began avoiding meeting with Luti after sharply disagreeing with him over the past 12 months about the imminence of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
"It's very difficult to inform people who already know it all," said one Pentagon official familiar with the strained relationship between Luti and Hardcastle.
"Basically, he [Luti] didn't like other people's information if it didn't agree with his opinion," a former DIA analyst agreed.
Hardcastle declined to comment for this article.
Overall, Luti said of his critics, they are "either confused, malicious, or both."
He added, "Policy people and intelligence analysts perform different functions, but what's important is that they work together, not that they agree on everything."
Those critical views are hardly universal. John Trigilio, a former DIA official who works with Luti on defense policy issues, described him as "a straight shooter, professional, honorable," and called the notion that he manipulated intelligence "ridiculous." Adm. William J. Fallon, who commanded Luti when Luti was skipper of the USS Guam, remembers him as an extremely competent leader who did not skew data.
"I've heard the allegation, and I've kind of chuckled at it," said Fallon, who recently became commander of the Atlantic Fleet. "I never saw anything along those lines."
Luti's 26-year Navy career was an unusual mix of sea duty and high-level Washington policy positions. After serving as a weapons officer for EA-6B Prowlers -- aircraft that jam enemy electronics -- he studied strategy and diplomacy at Tufts University. He went there for a master's degree, "but he was such a damned good student that we admitted him to the doctoral program," recalled Shultz, an authority on international politics and military operations.
In the early 1990s, while deputy director of the chief of naval operations' executive panel, a civilian advisory group, Luti became interested in the views of one member, strategy guru Albert Wohlstetter. A mentor to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, Defense Policy Board member Richard N. Perle and several other prominent conservative defense thinkers, Wohlstetter became Luti's entree into their world.
From there, while still in the Navy, Luti became a congressional fellow in the office of then-Speaker Gingrich. His time there, in part spent working on legislation related to arming and training Bosnian Muslims, again brought him into contact with interventionist conservatives.
"We were talking with people like Perle and Wolfowitz about doing the right thing in Bosnia," recalled Randy Schuenemann, who then was a foreign policy aide on the Hill, and later, as a lobbyist for an organization that advocated toppling Hussein, worked with Luti on Iraq issues.
Gingrich, who has stayed in touch with Luti through meetings of the Defense Policy Board, described his former employee as "very smart, very aggressive, slightly impatient, and . . . with a very deep feeling that the world is more dangerous than many of his colleagues in the Pentagon, in the services, understand."
Luti's last major Navy assignment was as captain of the USS Guam, an aging helicopter carrier with a crew of 700. "Guam was one of the oldest ships in the fleet," recalled Fallon, but Luti kept it in "marvelous condition."
When the Bush administration came into office, Luti was asked to work for Cheney on Middle East policy. A few months later, he retired from the Navy to take his current position.
He was in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2001, and, with commercial traffic stopped, got back to the United States aboard an Air Force KC-135 refueling jet. On the way home, he recalled, the plane flew over New York City, escorted by F-16 fighters, and the pilot lowered a wing so those aboard could get a full view of the smoke plume rising from the rubble of the World Trade Center.
When the jet finally landed, he recalled, "we had this war on our hands." Since then, he has had a total of 12 days off.