Steve Emerson has the latest allegations against the high-ranking Pentagon official accused of running an "influence operation" on behalf of U.S. Muslim groups fronting for the radical Muslim Brotherhood.
At the urging of a subordinate, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England scheduled at least two meetings with foreign emissaries in direct contradiction of U.S. policy at the time. The meetings date back to 2005. They involved a Lebanese ambassador considered a proxy for the Syrian government and a leading member of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood.
U.S. policy at the time was not to engage in talks with either man, because they represent groups with whom the United States was not to communicate. The meetings were organized by England's special assistant for international affairs, Hesham Islam.
An invitation to Muslim Brotherhood official Husam al-Dairi was canceled in late 2005 after a senior State Department official heard about it and insisted it not take place. That official, J. Scott Carpenter, told IPT News he was shocked that such an invitation was issued, let alone that it was done without anyone consulting the State Department.
Carpenter was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs at the time and knew the meeting went against U.S. policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood.
"I said, ‘what are you talking about?'" he remembered in an interview last week. "It was a bad idea."
Without due deliberation, it is easy to send the wrong message "broad and near," Carpenter said. "If something like that were to come up and be blindsided … it's not just a procedural foul up. It could unwittingly create bigger problems for the United States government."
"When you have somebody who has a controversial background," Carpenter added, "you don't want to give the impression that the United States government is standing behind them."
Two discussions should have taken place, he said. One would debate whether the meeting should take place at all. If it was agreed it should, the next question should determine the level of government appropriate to meet someone from the Brotherhood. Deputy Defense Secretary is far too high, Carpenter said.
After Carpenter relayed his concerns to England's office, a staff member called back. She told him it would be "a huge hassle to postpone it" and if that happened, England's office would make it clear this was the result of the State Department "putting its foot down and [saying] the meeting should not take place."
Carpenter said that was fine by him. The episode, including the serendipitous way he learned about it, made him wonder whether other meetings like that took place without State Department consultation, he said.
"When the United States is meeting with dissidents, it is important to know who those dissidents are and what message we send by meeting with them. It is incredibly important that the wrong signal not be sent," Carpenter said.
That may have happened earlier in 2005, when England met with Farid Abboud, a Lebanese ambassador to Washington. Viewed as a proxy for the Syrian government, Abboud was frozen out by U.S. government officials working to isolate Syria, especially as tensions rose following the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The attack is widely suspected of having been orchestrated by Syria.
David Schenker, a former adviser in the Secretary of Defense's office on Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestinian affairs, described Abboud's influence in Washington in an article column published last March in the Weekly Standard. Schenker described Abboud as "unabashedly pro-Syria, pro-Hezbollah" and explained his diplomatic isolation resulted from that perception.
"Essentially, Abboud has spent the last six years of the Bush administration largely isolated, having little or no contact with executive branch personnel. Since 2003 Abboud has met with only one senior administration official--then Deputy Secretary of Defense-designate Gordan England--but the meeting happened only because of negligence on the part of one of England's junior staffers. As a matter of policy, the administration has treated Abboud as a Syrian official and has studiously avoided contact."
Schenker declined to discuss the controversy in England's office or Hesham Islam. But he confirmed that Islam is the "junior staffer" referenced in his article.
U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who chairs the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said news of the invitations was a cause for concern.
"You have to wonder, what do you have, freelancers out there?" Hoekstra asked. "Clearly it's sending a conflicting message to some of these groups. When you have a lack of clarity it always creates problems."
Emmerson is also reporting that the dismissal of Pentagon Islam expert Stephen Coughlin and Islam's role could soon be the subject of a Congressional hearing.
Whatever the cause, Coughlin's pending departure from the Pentagon has generated concern on Capitol Hill. U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-NC, indicated she may try to organize an inquiry by the bipartisan House Anti-Terrorism Caucus.