"Weapons of Mass Deception"


The Rise and Fall of Chalabi: Bush's Mr. Wrong Part 2

Page 2: The Bush Administration's Source of Dubious Intelligence

By Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball

Chalabi is an expert manipulator who knows how to work the press as well as congressmen, lobbyists and think-tankers. He began coming up with Iraqi defectors who told reporters stories of Saddam's allying with terrorists and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. After lurid stories appeared in the press (and softened up bureaucratic skepticism in the government), Chalabi would pass on the defectors to American intelligence agencies. Thus, in December 2001, Chalabi produced a defector who told The New York Times that he had seen biological- and nuclear-weapons labs hidden around Baghdad, including one underneath a hospital. The defector later became a source for the Defense Intelligence Agency. To Vanity Fair, Chalabi peddled another defector, a supposed former general in the Iraqi secret police, who told of terrorists-in-training practicing to hijack passenger aircraft at a secret base near Baghdad. (The defector, Abu Zeinab, was dismissed by the CIA as a "bullsh----er," according to an intelligence source; newly coached by the INC, he went back to the CIA and was again rejected.)
When American spooks proved resistant, Chalabi cozied up to their counterparts in foreign intelligence services. To the Germans, Chalabi provided a source code named "Curveball" (appropriately, as it turned out), who told of Saddam's building mobile bioweapons labs. Another defector sent to the DIA by Chalabi supported Curveball's tale. DIA labeled this defector a "fabricator" and attached a warning notice to his report, but the notice was so highly restricted that other intelligence officials never saw it. Both defectors' reports—apparently pure fiction—worked their way into official pronouncements and became part of the Bush administration's building case for war. Months later, when Colin Powell was feeling burned for having dramatically presented "facts" to the United Nations Security Council that turned out to be shaky at best, the secretary of State privately, but bitterly, blamed Chalabi.
Powell also faults the neocons in the Bush administration who swallowed Chalabi's phony stories and pushed them into speeches by the president and vice president. With his clever sense for bureaucratic gamesmanship, Chalabi fed the neocons' hunger for raw intelligence. If the CIA and other spy services weren't going to come up with the goods on Saddam, then Chalabi would. He found a receptive audience in the office of the vice president and at the Pentagon. I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the veep's chief of staff, and Wolfowitz were eagerly looking for links between Saddam and Al Qaeda. With his media friends, Chalabi hyped a story, often cited by the neocons, about a secret meeting in Prague between Muhammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, and a high-level Iraqi intelligence officer. (After months of investigation, the CIA and FBI determined that the meeting had never taken place.)
Much of Chalabi's dubious intelligence was funneled to the DIA through top Pentagon civilians. Under Secretary Feith himself signed a long and detailed summary of the intelligence linking Saddam to terrorists and WMD. The Feith memo, stamped secret, submitted to Congress and leaked to the conservative Weekly Standard magazine last summer, reads like a conspiracy theorist's greatest hits. Interviewed last week by NEWSWEEK, Feith was a little defensive about his relationship with Chalabi. "The press stories would have him as my brother. I met him a few times. He was very smart, very articulate," Feith said. Feith allowed he has always been drawn to the stories of exiles who come back to save their countries. But he rejected the idea that he had been Chalabi's tool or dupe.
Over at the State Department and CIA, career bureaucrats viewed Chalabi with a jaundiced eye. State Department auditors found that Chalabi had not always kept the most meticulous records of the funds flowing into the Iraqi National Congress. Diplomats suspected Chalabi was using taxpayers' money to fund his own war-propaganda campaign, which was barred by law. In the summer of 2002, the State Department moved to cut off Chalabi's funding, but he was rescued by his friends at the Pentagon. That fall the Defense Department began picking up the check using secret intelligence funds. All told, Chalabi's INC has been paid about $33 million by State and some $6 million by the DIA. (Not all of Chalabi's intelligence operation was dodgy; last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers told Congress that some of the information turned over by the INC had saved the lives of American soldiers.)
With his eye on Saddam's soon-to-be-empty throne, Chalabi took an active interest in planning for postwar Iraq. In retrospect, his involvement was unfortunate. At best, it contributed to government paralysis and fed a standoff between the ever-feuding State and Defense departments. Chalabi's closest ally, Richard Perle, vigorously denied to NEWSWEEK that the neocons wanted to "install" Chalabi as the new head of Iraq. "No one installed by the United States could survive," said Perle. But the neocons did want to help train and equip Iraqi exiles loyal to Chalabi who could be airlifted into Iraq and take over as a security force (or as Chalabi's private army, depending on your point of view).
The State Department stood against this plan. A team of diplomats and Arab experts worked up a 15-volume Future of Iraq project that Defense Department officials dismissed as overly academic and "nonoperational." At Feith's office in the Pentagon, charged with postwar reconstruction, the Future of Iraq documents were consigned to the dustbin. When various Iraqi-exile groups met outside London in the fall of 2002 to try to compromise on a post-Saddam government, the outcome was the mild anarchy of dueling press conferences to announce vague and uncertain plans.
Doomed by bureaucratic infighting and a notable lack of enthusiasm among the community of potential freedom fighters, the plan to build an Iraqi-exile force fizzled. Something like 100 Iraqi men showed up to be trained as soldiers at a camp in Hungary. Nonetheless, Chalabi and his INC entourage were airlifted into southern Iraq by the Pentagon shortly after the American invasion in April 2003.
As soon as Saddam's statue was toppled, Chalabi moved into Baghdad to become, in effect, the new nation's first warlord. He set up office in the Baghdad Hunting Club, a comfortable, vaguely colonial-sounding establishment in a posh neighborhood, and then moved his operation into an edifice with outlandish pagoda-style turrets and vast corridors, known as "the Chinese House." Through associates, he took over the old Finance Ministry and later his clan set up one-stop shopping for foreign companies that wanted to do business in the new Iraq.
Chalabi was not universally endorsed in the upper echelons of the Bush administration. True, when President Bush went to the United Nations last September to proclaim a free Iraq, the man sitting in Iraq's seat at the General Assembly was Ahmad Chalabi. But when Chalabi was first flown into Iraq by the Defense Department, national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice was visibly startled when reporters gave her the news that Chalabi was on the ground and had rounded up a 700-man local army. Even Rumsfeld was less than a totally committed Chalabi partisan. "Why do people keep saying that Chalabi is my candidate?" Rumsfeld would wonder aloud at meetings of the Defense Advisory Board, according to Perle, who was a member. But a quick and sure Chalabi takeover offered Rumsfeld the one thing above all he wanted: a fast way to get American troops out of Iraq. No fan of "nation-building," Rumsfeld wanted a new Iraqi government that could take over and run the place.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

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