Crossing The Line?
Former Pentagon Employee Peter Probst May Have Used His Position and Access to Non-Public Information to Help Lobby and Shape US Policy in the Middle East.
by Daniel Forbes
July 24, 2003
As the house of cards propping up the case for war against Iraq collapses under the weight of almost daily revelations, it seems likely that much of the pre-war politicization of U.S. intelligence centered on Donald Rumsfeld's office.
The politicization of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) is nothing new. Its political influence has been felt as early as the Vietnamn-era, as well as in the 1990s, when then-Pentagon employee Peter Probst served on an advisory board of the Middle East Forum, a political lobby group that advocates U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. His involvement with the Middle East Forum, which ran concurrently with his tenure at the OSD, raises questions about whether he used his position and access to non-public information to help the forum promote its political agenda to shape U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Probst was no small figure in national security circles, particularly those that focused on terrorism.
Grant Lattin is a former chief ethics counselor for the U.S. Marine Corps and current chair of the military law committee of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia. Speaking generally about someone in a job like Probst's advising a think tank, Lattin said that when he was a Marine Corps lawyer, he certainly would have advised that person to shun such involvement. "It doesn't pass the smell test," he said.
Probst left the CIA, where he had worked as an analyst, in the early 1990s to become a special assistant for concept development at the Defense Department, reporting to the Assistant for Terrorism Policy. In June 1994, Probst co-authored a report entitled Terror-2000: The Future Face of Terrorism. Until his retirement from the Defense Department in March 2000, Probst focused on what was known as "special operations and low intensity conflict." He now works as a private consultant on security issues.
According to biographical information posted by the U.S. Air Force, Probst represented "the Office of the Secretary on [international terrorism] issues at meetings with senior U.S. and foreign government officials." What's more, he "participated in meetings with senior Russian government officials in Moscow... on combating catastrophic terrorism," according to the National Academy of Engineering's Web site. In addition to spending some 20 years at the CIA -- where he prepared reports for senior officials, including the president -- Probst served in the U.S. Air Force Intelligence Service, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He was no small figure in national security circles, particularly those that focused on terrorism.
Most significantly, further information on Probst can be found at the Air Force Web site, the National Academy of Engineering Web site, and a Los Alamos National Laboratory site (he spoke at a Los Alamos conference). All three sites name Probst as a member of the Advisory Board of the Investigative Project on Religious Extremism, which has been sponsored by the Middle East Forum. Daniel Pipes runs the forum; Pipes' colleague, journalist and advocate Steven Emerson, heads the investigative project.
Probst says he joined the Middle East Forum advisory board during the 1990s. Probst regularly spoke with both men while employed by the Defense Department, though he adds that he had more contact with Pipes than with Emerson. Praising them as prescient, original thinkers on terrorism, Probst added, "They were beating on doors in the federal establishment. They beat their knuckles bloody."
Emerson said his advisory board was composed of people who said they would like to talk to him on a regular basis. Either he or a board member would initiate a phone call in which the board member would give him advice. Members might also speak at informal briefings, Emerson added. Probst was among the sources Emerson contacted regularly when "pursuing a story." Declaring Probst someone "in the know," Emerson said the two might discuss "what U.S. policy should be."
Though the advisory board was loosely organized -- lacking legal incorporation or letterhead -- its approximately 25 members were certainly aware that they were members of a semi-formal body, said Emerson, who adds that he hasn't spoken with Probst in a few years. (As noted, Probst retired from the Defense Department in 2000.)
For more on Pipes, see my discussion of the Middle East Forum's link to The New York Times reporter Judith Miller. As discussed in that article, Pipes is a prolific author and regular columnist in The New York Post who operates in a highly-charged political manner to attempt to influence U.S. policy.
This week, most likely on Wednesday, Pipes' controversial nomination by the Bush administration to serve on the board of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) will be considered by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Founded by Congress and publically funded, the USIP seeks peaceful means to resolving international conflicts. Pipes' nomination has been opposed by Muslim-American organizations and such groups as The Interfaith Alliance.
Reached on his cell phone, Pipes twice hung up rather than discuss either the advice Probst said he'd regularly offered him or the Middle East Forum's advisory board in general. A message on Pipes' office voice mail was not returned.
When consulted generally about the propriety of a Defense Department employee serving on an advisory board, Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense, called it "very unusual." Col. Roy Jonkers, executive director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, said, "It's not something most people would do."
Asked about the propriety of Probst being an advisory board member while employed at the Pentagon, Emerson said, "There's no reason he can't be a member of the Rotary Club doing work with orphans at the Pentagon. He doesn't give up his rights to civic association or free speech." But the Rotary Club doesn't seek to influence foreign policy.
Given that certainly Pipes and arguably Emerson sought such influence, Probst's actions also raise questions about whether or not he violated federal regulations that restrict Federal employees from using their public position and government resources to advance personal or political interests. For example, Title 5 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 2635.703, states, "An employee shall not... allow the improper use of nonpublic information to further his own private interest or that of another, whether through advice or recommendation, or by knowing unauthorized disclosure." [Emphasis added.]
According to the group's Web site, the Middle East Forum "seeks to help shape the intellectual climate in which U.S. foreign policy is made." Indeed, Pipes has been a firm advocate.
Pipes testified in March 1995 before a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations subcommittee, when he discussed "containing" Iran and Iraq; he also testified about Lebanon in June 1997. He appeared before the Senate to talk about Lebanon in June 2000. He also appeared before the House to discuss Saudi Arabia in June 2002 and immigration in October 2002. Furthermore, he has appeared regularly on television and issued numerous public exhortations to invade Iraq.
One could argue that "even regular phone calls" cross the line on a prohibition against using government information.
During his June 2000 Senate testimony, Pipes urged Congress "to condemn and repulse the Syrian occupiers" of Lebanon. He referred lawmakers to the forum's May 2000 report, which was signed by then Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.); current Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith; Richard Perle, now a member of the Defense Policy Board; and former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. The report advised that should non-lethal forms of pressure fail to induce Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, "the use of force needs to be considered." And any such force should be applied "sooner rather than later."
To prime this high-profile pump, the Middle East Forum has received significant financial backing. Philanthropic Research Inc. placed the forum's annual revenue at $2.64 million in 2001.
Emerson was responsible for the award-winning 1994 documentary Jihad in America. Though his star dimmed following his declaration that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing originated in the Middle East, he returned to prominence after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In fact, after 9/11, every member of Congress received a copy of the documentary. And he regularly graced MSNBC's airwaves during the Iraq War.
A January 2002 Philanthropy Roundtable article noted that Pipes and Emerson have collaborated on "several articles." And an August 1999 IViews.com article quoted material from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that "described Emerson as 'Executive Director' of 'Middle East Forum/The Investigative Project.'"
Despite Pipes' history of attempting to influence U.S. foreign policy, Probst said he believes his discussions with Pipes and Emerson while working for the secretary of defense were appropriate because his "analytical duties" at the Defense Department concerned overseas terrorism -- and, Probst maintained, Pipes and Emerson focused on terrorism within the United States. Nevertheless, Probst stated that part of his Defense Department work focused on such domestic threats as the possibility of a biological agent being released in an American subway system.
Although Probst volunteered that he did not disclose "classified" information, there is a legitimate question about whether his conduct was "improper" under Title 5. It defines nonpublic information as any "that the employee gains by reason of Federal employment and that he knows or reasonably should know has not been made available to the general public."
As Korb, who is currently director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes, one could argue that "even regular phone calls" cross the line on a prohibition against using government information.
The federal code provides a telling example: "An employee of the Army Corps of Engineers is actively involved in the activities of an organization whose goals relate to protection of the environment. The employee may not, other than as permitted by agency procedures, give the organization or a newspaper reporter nonpublic information about [the Corps'] long-range plans."
Pentagon spokesman Navy Commander Chris Isleib answered a few preliminary questions by e-mail, but refused to discuss the application of federal law in this case. Another Pentagon spokesman referred questions to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, which declined comment.
Regarding nonpublic information, a staffer at the Defense Department's Inspector General Hotline said one test is whether someone in a position like Probst's discussed information that is considered for official use -- that is, analysis meant only for the Defense Department or another federal agency.
This staffer also stated that only authorized individuals, almost always coordinated through the public-affairs office, should have regular communication with a think tank or political lobby. According to the inspector general's office, "The think tank may not have a need to know. You don't want to give out specific information that might harm the government, especially on a [Defense Department] matter."
Another Title 5 regulation, Part 2635.802, governs "[c]onflicting outside employment and activities." It states that an "employee shall not engage in outside employment or any other outside activity that conflicts with his official duties."
This section of the law also offers a general scenario as a formal example of what not to do: An Environmental Protection Agency employee has been promoted to a position writing regulations on hazardous waste. The employee must stop serving as an officer of a nonprofit organization that "routinely submits comments on such regulations." That's because, as the law states, "His service as an officer [in the nonprofit] would require his disqualification from duties critical to the performance of his official duties on a basis so frequent as to materially impair his ability to perform the duties of his position."
Both Emerson and Pipes are ideologues of the first order.
Along with the federal code governing all executive branch employees, the Defense Department has its own Joint Ethics Regulations. Section 3-301 of the JER covers "Personal Participation in Non-Federal Entities." It states, "DoD employees may become members and may participate in the management of non-Federal entities as individuals in a personal capacity provided they act exclusively outside the scope of their official position." [Emphasis added.]
Speaking generally about someone like Probst advising a think tank like Pipes' forum -- and referring to JER 3-301 -- ex-Marine Corps lawyer Grant Lattin said, "That's the one he would have problems with." Referring to an organization like the forum, Lattin said, "This organization's function is to affect the policy of the DoD. I think it's a conflict."
Probst would not name anyone at the Department of Defense he might have told about serving on Pipes and Emerson's advisory boards. He said, "I serve on any number of advisory boards. As long as it's not a unit of Al Qaeda advisory board, it's OK."
Speaking generally about government employees who serve on outside boards, Ivan Eland, who worked for Congress for many years and now directs the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, said, "You're supposed to be doing your job, not advocating particular causes." He added that the point of the civil service is to "take partisan politics out of it."
Both Emerson and Pipes are ideologues of the first order. And Probst, who was helping to forge the Defense Department's response to terrorism during the second half of the 1990s, regularly fed them both advice.
Probst has since retired from public service and now works as a consultant on terrorism and security issues for the federal government among other clients. Should his relationships with Pipes and Emerson have surfaced during his Defense Department employment, his actions might well have invited further scrutiny and possible official sanction.
Daniel Forbes writes on social policy and has testified before both the U.S. Senate and the House about his work. You can contact him at DDanforbes@aol.com. This article first appeared ion TomPaine.com (www.tompaine.com)