WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 (UPI) -- A former White House staffer says the administration is using spurious claims of secrecy to stifle an embarrassing critique of its Iran policy, but officials say they are still working through a routine classification review of the piece.
An op-ed drafted for the New York Times by Flynt Leverett, who was senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council from March 2002 to March 2003, and Hilary Mann, a former foreign service officer detailed there, is at the center of the developing censorship row, which threatens to spotlight what critics say is President Bush's botched record on Iran.
Leverett, who has written before on U.S. Iran policy, notably a recent paper for the Washington-based Century Foundation think tank, told United Press International he had sent the piece to the CIA's Publication Review Board "as I have dozens of other pieces I've written since leaving the government three-and-a-half-years ago."
Like all former CIA employees Leverett, who worked at the agency on Mideast issues before going to the State Department and then the White House, is required by contract to submit anything he writes to the board for a so-called classification review to check it does not reveal any secrets.
But he said this time, the board checked with the White House, which had recently complained about not being consulted during the classification review process for his work.
"I was told by (Publication Review Board) officials on the phone their own review had not found any classification issues, but that they had to bow to the preferences of the White House," said Leverett.
He charged that the White House "entered the (publication review) process and politicized it, not to protect national security but to suppress criticism of their Iran policy at a difficult and embarrassing moment."
He said that "identical language" to that redacted from the piece at the White House's insistence had been cleared before and used by other serving and former officials in discussions of Iran policy.
CIA Spokesman Mark Mansfield confirmed that that the National Security Council, part of the White House, was consulted about the draft op-ed but told UPI that "The notion that this was done to stifle criticism is simply without merit."
"I am not going to comment about what (board) officials did or did not say to him on the 'phone," added Mansfield.
He said the White House referral was routine. "As a matter of course, submissions to the (board) are coordinated with other U.S. government entities that have equities in the material being considered."
But a National Security Council official authorized to speak to the media told UPI that the referral followed the publication of the Century Foundation paper earlier this month, which was cleared by the CIA without reference to the NSC. "That did not come over to us, and frankly it should have," said the official, adding that NSC staff felt they "should have had a crack at the classification review" for it.
The CIA had been made aware the NSC had equities in some of the matters discussed in the paper, said the official.
But the redactions required to the draft op-ed by the White House were made by career-level staff in the NSC's Office of Access Management, stressed the official. "This never made it up to a political level."
The office "identified passages in the piece which contained information that was classified ... and only could have been obtained through prior government service."
The official said that there had been some back and forth about the piece, and that a second draft from Leverett had been returned to the CIA's Publication Review Board with some additional redactions last week.
Mansfield said that the review process was "still ongoing," and that the board "hoped to be able to reach a conclusion that satisfies everyone's concerns."
"This is false," stated Leverett. "I have had no communication from CIA since Friday morning ... Their last statements, written and otherwise, to me are that they are refusing to clear the piece because of the 'equities' of other agencies."
Steve Clemons, director of foreign policy programs at the New America Foundation, where Leverett now works, said a researcher there had provided the board with open source references for everything that was in the article.
"The New York Times is still trying to get this published," said Clemons. No one answered the phone Monday evening at the Times' corporate communications department.
At the White House, Leverett was involved in developing policy on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and advised President Bush and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on relations with Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
Prior to joining the National Security Council, Leverett was a Middle East and counter-terrorism expert on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff. Before that he was the senior CIA analyst on Syria and Middle East affairs.