Did Secret Wolfowitz Meeting Violate Federal Advisory Committee Act?

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET
  • Steve Clemons Washington Editor at Large of The Atlantic and founder and senior fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

paul wolfowitz.jpg

The Federal Advisory Committee Act was enacted to formalize disclosure requirements and make transparent those who advise on federal government policy.

Vice President Cheney was in a substantial tug-of-war with the Legislative Branch and the Supreme Court for a while about not submitting to FACA and disclosing participants in an important advisory session he convened on national energy policy. But his refusal to submit did not make FACA disappear.

It seems to me that the secret advisory meeting called by Paul Wolfowitz on November 29, 2001 that brought various public intellectuals together to help marshall the best arguments for an Iraq invasion was possibly a violation of FACA.

This secret meeting was disclosed in Bob Woodward's new book State of Denial. No one has yet raised the question of whether this meeting was a violation of FACA rules.

It was the kind of shadowy, secret Washington meeting that Bob Woodward is fond of describing in detail. In his new book, "State of Denial," he writes that on Nov. 29, 2001, a dozen policy makers, Middle East experts and members of influential policy research organizations gathered in Virginia at the request of Paul D. Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defense. Their objective was to produce a report for President Bush and his cabinet outlining a strategy for dealing with Afghanistan and the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11.

What was more unusual, Mr. Woodward reveals, was the presence of journalists at the meeting. Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and a Newsweek columnist, and Robert D. Kaplan, now a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, attended the meeting and, according to Mr. Kaplan, signed confidentiality agreements not to discuss what happened.

While members of policy research groups often dispense advice to administration officials, journalists do not typically attend secret meetings or help compile government reports. Indeed, many Washington journalists complain that the current administration keeps them at an unhealthy distance.

I am not a fan of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, as written and enforced, because it some how has been interpreted to allow the sort of secret sessions that Cheney held -- but acts as a huge inhibitor of normal, useful, and mulitiple interactions between policy entrepreneurs and practitioners with government officials.

That said, however, after reading the contents of FACA, I cannot find an exception for the kind of meeting that Paul Wolfowitz convened.

What makes it worse is that Julie Bosman notes that a report was produced, with the names of all 12 participants, and that the report influenced President Bush. This is exactly the kind of influential meeting that FACA was designed to make transparent.

Bosman writes:

Mr. Zakaria takes issue with Mr. Woodward's account, saying that while he attended the meeting for several hours, he does not recall being told that a report would be produced.

"I thought it was a brainstorming session," he said. "I was never told that there was going to be a document summarizing our views and I have never seen such a document." (Mr. Woodward wrote that the report, which supported the invasion of Iraq, caused Mr. Bush to focus on the "malignancy" of the Middle East situation.)

Mr. Kaplan said much of the meeting was spent drafting and reworking the document, which in the end carried the names of all 12 participants and was "a forceful summary of some of the best pro-war arguments at the time." Could any of the participants have been unaware there was a document in the making? "No, that's not possible," he said.

Mr. Kaplan, who was then a freelancer at The Atlantic Monthly, said he spoke to his editor before attending, and was given approval to attend because "everybody was in a patriotic fervor."

Truth in disclosure.

I am friends and well-acquainted with both Robert Kaplan and Fareed Zakaria and hold neither of them accountable for enforcement of the FACA legal guidelines. There may be other issues with which they need to deal, but FACA was the responsibility of the government officials involved.

But this incident does, perhaps, demonstrate another case of serious disregard for America's system of checks and balances by Paul Wolfowitz and other of his administration fellow travelers.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note