A staff shake-up at the National Security Council is likely to mean the United States will take a harder pro-Israel stance in the Middle East, several serving and former intelligence officials tell United Press International.
According to these sources, Elliott Abrams, the controversial former Reagan administration official who President Bush last December appointed to the NSC to take charge of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has removed several staff members who were regarded as even-handed on the issue.
Ben Miller, who was on loan from the CIA and who had the Iraqi file at the NSC, was "abruptly let go," according to former long-time CIA Middle East analyst Judith Yaphe.
Yaphe, whose account was confirmed by administration officials speaking on condition of anonymity, said two other officials, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann, have also been removed from the NSC. Leverett, who was also seconded from the CIA, had worked at the NSC since February 2002 and was appointed senior director for Middle East initiatives on Dec. 3, 2002 -- the same day that Abrams took up his post.
Mann was on loan to the NSC from the State Department where a colleague described her as a "a pure Foreign Service Officer type."
A White House official said that the moves were part of the usual staff turnover at the NSC.
Leverett was an advocate of the so-called "roadmap" for a Palestinian-Israeli peace, according to former CIA counter-terrorism chief Vince Cannistraro.
NSC spokesman Sean McCormack told UPI that there had been no firings, but acknowledged that Miller was changing assignments. He said Miller had been detailed to the NSC from the CIA and his tour had come to an end. He said that Leverett was still at the NSC, but was also coming to the end of his tour.
Asked why he would be leaving a post to which he was only appointed Dec. 3, McCormack said only that staff rotations at the NSC were standard.
Neither Mann nor Miller returned phone messages. Staff in Leverett's office said he was on long-term leave and could not be reached for comment.
Josef Bodansky, the director of the Congressional Task Force on Terror and Unconventional Warfare, confirmed that Miller had been fired. He said Miller's leaving was very abrupt. He said Abrams had "led Miller to an open window and told him to jump," adding, "that's his (Abram's) management style."
Bodansky confirmed that Mann and Leverett had also been told to leave.
He said that Abrams believes "a strong Israel will prove to be the U.S. cornerstone in the Middle East." As a result, Abrams "is not going to yield to those who want to pressure Israel over the Arab-Israeli peace process." Bodansky said Abrams will "impose a policy and administer it very vigorously."
Yaphe added, "The clean sweep would indicate Abrams is going to bring in his own people."
Elliot Abrams was appointed Dec. 3, 2002, to be the NSC's senior director for Near East, Southwest Asian and North African affairs with responsibility for Arab-Israeli issues, according to the White House.
Until his new appointment, Abrams had been the senior director of the NSC's Office of Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations, a post he took up in June 2001, according to the White House.
In 1991, Abrams was indicted by the Iran-Contra special prosecutor for giving false testimony before Congress in 1987 about his role in illicitly raising money for the Nicaraguan Contras. He pleaded guilty to two lesser offenses of withholding information to Congress in order to avoid a trial and a possible jail term.
He was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush along with a number of other Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas night 1992.
Cannistraro said that the shake-up means Abrams and the White House, "are getting rid of people willing to compromise on the Arab-Israeli dispute." Referring to the 1993 land-for-peace deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, he said, "It's pretty well known that Abrams is no friend of the Oslo Accords."
According to one State Department official, Abrams was critical of then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for withdrawing from Lebanon and hailed the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister, being "enamored of Sharon's security through strength line."
Tony Cordesman, Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was critical of the changes, saying that Miller, Mann and Leverett "were among the saner minds discussing the Arab-Israeli issue."
Abrams, he said, "is remarkably unqualified for his job."
In a recent New York Sun article, a commentator on Iraq who follows the Iraqi opposition movement, Laurie Mylroie, called Miller's leaving "very important."
She added: "You need people there who will carry out the administration's policies. He was reflecting the CIA's position, which is to be hostile to a democratic future for Iraq."
Mylroie did not respond to repeated requests for comment from UPI. But Yaphe called her assertion "ridiculous."
"The agency is in no way opposed to a democratic Iraq," she added.
Incoming officials in Washington often appoint subordinates with whom they see eye-to-eye. There is no information available as to who will replace the three officials.