"Weapons of Mass Deception"


Exile group crossed line on lobbying, U.S. believes


By Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay

Knight Ridder

WASHINGTON - An Iraqi exile group may have violated restrictions against using taxpayer funds to lobby when it campaigned for U.S. action to oust Saddam Hussein, according to documents and U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

If the charge -- which is the subject of an upcoming probe by Congress' General Accounting Office -- is borne out, it means that U.S. taxpayers paid to have themselves convinced that it was necessary to invade Iraq.

Officials of the Iraqi National Congress, which played a central role in building support for last year's invasion of Iraq, deny that the group crossed the line prohibiting lobbying, or that it broke any other rules.

But officials at the State Department, which managed the group's U.S. government grant, said they believe it did, despite what a senior official said were repeated warnings to the group to avoid lobbying ``or even the appearance of same.''

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the government's dealings with the Iraqi National Congress, a favorite of some Pentagon officials and advisers, remain controversial. State Department officials, along with many intelligence officers, have been longtime critics of the group and want to minimize the group's role in post-Saddam Iraq.

Federal law prohibits the use of U.S. government funds for lobbying on financial matters, such as government contracts. A grant agreement between the Iraqi group and the State Department prohibited lobbying and propagandizing.

In this case, individuals who held senior positions with the Iraqi National Congress set up a non-profit group to lobby for U.S. action in Iraq. The group, composed largely of Iraqi-Americans, relied on private funds and was not subject to the same lobbying restrictions.

Even so, the formation of the group surprised and angered U.S. government officials, some of whom suspected it was an attempt to sidestep the lobbying restrictions.

The incorporation papers of the spinoff group, the Iraq Liberation Action Committee, say it was founded ``to work in support of United States and international efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq'' and to help in ``drafting resolutions, legislation and regulations'' to advance democracy there.

Principal founder

The group's principal founder was Francis Brooke, the INC's Washington representative, according to the corporate documents obtained by Knight Ridder.

Brooke, in a telephone interview, acknowledged a ``professional relationship'' with the lobby group. But he said there was ``no crossover between that and anything else.''

Two senators, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, to determine whether the Iraqi National Congress violated lobbying rules.

In a March 3 letter, the senators asked the GAO to determine whether taxpayer funds were used to arrange meetings between Iraqi defectors and journalists, to influence Congress regarding funding or legislation, or to propagandize the U.S. public. Their request was first reported by Newsweek magazine.

Kerry, who voted in favor of an October 2002 resolution to authorize the Iraq war, and Levin, who voted against, cited a State Department funding agreement with the Iraqi National Congress.

Agreement terms

``The functions of the INC office and personnel in the U.S. will strictly exclude any business associated with, or that could appear to be associated with, attempting to influence the policies of the United States Government or Congress, or propagandizing the American people,'' that agreement said.

A GAO official said the agency would look into the matter to see if a full-scale review is warranted.

The role of outside groups and advisers in the decision to invade Iraq and in postwar planning has come under growing scrutiny since it was revealed that much of the intelligence on Saddam's weapons programs and terrorist ties that President Bush relied on was inaccurate or fabricated. Some crucial pieces of intelligence found to be bogus were supplied by Iraqi defectors made available by the Iraqi National Congress and other groups.

The Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella group for anti-Saddam Iraqi exiles, received at least $18 million in U.S. funds from 1998 to 2003, according to a January report by the Congressional Research Service.

Its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, is a member of the Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad and has been pushed by some Pentagon and White House officials as the next leader of Iraq.

Dubious insiders

On numerous occasions, the Iraqi National Congress made Iraqi defectors available for interviews to U.S. and foreign news organizations.

The Iraqi National Congress boasted, in a June 2002 memo to the Senate Appropriations Committee, that it helped get the defectors and their allegations into at least 100 stories in the U.S. and international news media. As Knight Ridder reported March 15, the defectors' information, which has since proved faulty in many cases, was gathered and disseminated under a U.S. government-funded effort called the Information Collection Program.

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Milton Frihetsson, 01:18


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