White House accused of censorship

Times Staff Writer

A former National Security Council official said Monday that the White House tried to silence his criticism of its Middle East policies by ordering the CIA to censor an op-ed column he wrote.

Flynt Leverett, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, or NSC, and a former CIA analyst, said the White House told a CIA censor board to excise parts of a 1,000-word commentary on U.S. policy toward Iran that he had offered to the New York Times.

Leverett, who has criticized the administration for failing to deal directly with Tehran, said the board wanted to remove references to prior U.S. contacts with Iran.

Leverett said the events he wrote about were widely known.


He said the agency’s action “was fabricated to silence an established critic of the administration’s foreign policy incompetence at a moment when the White House is working hard to fend off political pressure to take a different approach.”

Leverett said that in discussing the case with a CIA official, he was told that “the White House has equities” in the issue, meaning it was concerned about potentially classified material.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Leverett speculated that senior NSC officials, such as deputy national security advisors Elliott Abrams or Meghan L. O’Sullivan, had authorized their subordinates to intervene.

But U.S. officials said the move was taken by lower-level staff members at the CIA and NSC. “There was nothing political here,” a White House official said, addressing Leverett’s claims.

Tom Crispell, a CIA spokesman, said the agency’s review of Leverett’s column remained an open case.

He said that in such cases, the writer and the agency can come to an agreement on language that will convey what the writer wants without compromising sensitive material.

Sometimes this can be accomplished by quoting the public comments of officials. “More often than not the issues are worked out,” Crispell said.

Leverett said there were two key paragraphs that the CIA board wanted to cut. The first was about U.S. cooperation with Iran concerning Afghanistan about the time of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

The second dealt with an offer by Iran to the United States in early 2003 to discuss the possibility of a “grand bargain” that would settle several disputes between the two countries.

He said both episodes had been publicly discussed by former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his former deputy, Richard L. Armitage.

“There is no basis for claiming that these issues are classified and not already in the public domain,” he said.

Leverett, who worked at the NSC during President Bush’s first term and is now with the New America Foundation, a liberal-leaning think tank, said he had written a lot about Iran and had spoken often about the Middle East since leaving government.

Like other former CIA employees, he is required to submit manuscripts for articles, books and speeches to the agency for review. Until last week, the CIA’s review board “had never sought to remove or change a single word in any of my drafts.”

He said his op-ed column was distilled from a much longer article that had not been challenged by the agency.

Leverett said the United States lost a promising opportunity to resolve its issues with Iran in 2003, when Tehran made its overture.

He said any deal that Washington made now would be on less favorable terms, because Iran had gained strength in the region and the United States was tied down in Iraq.