No. 3 Civilian Ruffles Feathers at the Pentagon
By Thomas E. Ricks and Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 8, 2002; Page A08
As the Pentagon's policy chief -- the third-highest ranking civilian job in the Defense Department -- Douglas J. Feith plays a key role in everything from developing Iraq policy to waging the war on terrorism to smoothing relations with China's military.
The way he has handled those responsibilities has made him one of the Pentagon's most controversial figures, praised by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in an interview yesterday as "a real talent, . . . very bright, . . . forward-looking."
At the White House, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice agreed, saying: "Doug is a very creative person. He provides a lot of intellectual leadership."
Yet Feith is disliked by many people who work with him on a daily basis. Officers on the Joint Staff report that policy officials are slow to respond, keeping the military hanging on key issues such as the rules of engagement for an imminent deployment. Civilian underlings say Feith sometimes returns memos to have the grammar tweaked, delaying the implementation of policy for as long as a week.
Feith responds that a lot of those complaints stem from a massive retooling of his staff of more than 1,000, which had to be done over 18 months to make it responsive to the needs of Rumsfeld, a stickler for clarity.
"I share his passion for precision," Feith said in an interview Friday evening. So, he said: "We had to train hundreds of people to work differently. They were good people who worked in a certain way. And in order to work for this secretary, they had to be trained to work on the current issues in the way that this secretary needs."
But assessments from generals, Pentagon officials and civilians who have left the Defense Department are harshly critical, questioning Feith's management style and his priorities. The criticism comes when the performance of the Pentagon policy organization is perhaps as important as it has ever been, with the military engaged in Afghanistan and the Bush administration threatening a war in Iraq.
"I think the policy shop is completely broken," a former Pentagon official said. This matters, he noted, because the policy organization needs to be quick and intellectually and politically nimble at a time of possible war, and prepared to deal with a war's unintended consequences across the Mideast.
"There is a tremendous amount of frustration" in the policy operation, concluded a foreign policy conservative who worries that the problems in Feith's office could impede the implementation of the kinds of policies he supports. "These guys are trying to do the right thing, but in a disorganized way."
Feith, 49, graduated magna cum laude from both Harvard in 1975 and Georgetown Law Center in 1978. Within three years, he was on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan White House before holding a variety of jobs at the Pentagon. He left the Defense Department in 1986 as deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy to serve as managing attorney at his own law firm, Feith and Zell.
To be sure, Feith is hardly alone in being criticized at the Pentagon, where over the past two years there has been friction resulting in part from Rumsfeld's determination to reassert civilian control over the military. "It's bureaucratic chaos," another former Pentagon official said. "The . . . senior management team is as indecisive and confused as anything we've seen since Les Aspin."
Even in that context, military and civilians at the Pentagon said the policy operation stands out for its Byzantine ways and rock-bottom morale. Last summer, feelings were running so high that senior policy officials met in rural Virginia to discuss their problems. Lisa Bronson, a respected career specialist in weapons counterproliferation issues, stood and said, "This is the worst-run policy shop I've ever seen." (Bronson could not be reached for comment about this encounter, first reported in part in the Washington Times. Asked about the incident, Feith and a subordinate said they think Bronson was actually talking more about the day-to-day administration of the office.)
After that session, Feith returned to the Pentagon to hold a mandatory "all-hands meeting" of his staff. He talked to the crowded room for 45 minutes -- and then walked out without taking questions, recalled one subordinate. "It was surreal," she said.
Then, when a top deputy confronted Feith, saying he was being abusive of subordinates, Feith is said to have responded that he treated those underlings just the way Rumsfeld treated him.
Feith said in an earlier interview that remark was misinterpreted around the Pentagon. What he was trying to do was improve standards so that Rumsfeld did not reject his office's paperwork, he said.
"When they are getting that treatment from me, it is because if we don't have the highest quality control on those memos, then they will get bumped by the secretary," he said. Effective, precise, lucid communication is the key product of his office, he said.
Rumsfeld agreed, saying, "What Doug is doing is reflecting the importance of clarity."
Some of the unhappiness in the policy operation was caused by that "training process," Feith conceded.
But it was necessary, he continued, to bring about changes. "The policy organization is a very successful organization," he said. He said Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz "have very high standards," and have expressed confidence in his office.
As for the occasional slowness in turning around paper to the Joint Staff within the expected 48-hour deadline, he said that there sometimes are serious policy issues, such as questions about rules of engagement on a deployment, that require additional consideration. He also said he thinks his office has better cooperation with the Joint Chiefs staff than existed in the Clinton administration.
But Rumsfeld hasn't eased off on his demands, he said.
"We're seeing a secretary and a deputy [Wolfowitz] who are very smart and very demanding and active -- and have the ambition to accomplish things and do new things," Feith said. "They invite and even demand creativity. They are very demanding, and they are not shy about expressing dissatisfaction."