"Weapons of Mass Deception"


The Manipulator

Ahmad Chalabi pushed a tainted case for war. Can he survive the occupation?
Issue of 2004-06-07

Ahmad Chalabi, the wealthy Iraqi Shiite who spent more than a decade working for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, prides himself on his understanding of the United States and its history. “I know quite a lot about it,” he told me not long ago. It was after midnight in Baghdad, but he was still in his office in the new headquarters of the Iraqi National Congress, the exile opposition group that Chalabi helped found in 1992. As a young man, he said, he spent several years in America, earning an undergraduate and a master’s degree in mathematics from M.I.T., and a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago. Chalabi began studying the uses of power in American politics, and the subject developed into a lifelong interest. One episode in American history particularly fascinated him, he said. “I followed very closely how Roosevelt, who abhorred the Nazis, at a time when isolationist sentiment was paramount in the United States, managed adroitly to persuade the American people to go to war. I studied it with a great deal of respect; we learned a lot from it. The Lend-Lease program committed Roosevelt to enter on Britain’s side—so we had the Iraq Liberation Act, which committed the American people for the liberation against Saddam.” The act, which Congress passed in 1998, made “regime change” in Iraq an official priority of the U.S. government; Chalabi had lobbied tirelessly for the legislation.

Three days after our conversation, Chalabi’s Baghdad home was raided at gunpoint by Iraqi police, who were supported by American troops. His offices were also searched. Chalabi had sensed that a confrontation with the Bush Administration was imminent. As he put it, “It’s customary when great events happen that the U.S. punishes its friends and rewards its enemies.” For years, he had been America’s staunchest Iraqi ally, and he had helped the Bush Administration make its case against Saddam, in part by disseminating the notion that the Baathist regime had maintained stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, and was poised to become a nuclear power. Although Chalabi developed enemies at the C.I.A. who disputed his intelligence data and questioned his ethics, he forged a close bond with Vice-President Dick Cheney and many of the top civilians at the Pentagon, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Under-Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, and Under-Secretary of Defense William J. Luti. Yet now that the occupation of Iraq appeared to be headed toward disaster, he said, many in the Administration had united in making him the scapegoat. As Chalabi saw it, he had understood America too well, and had been too successful in influencing its foreign policy. “There is a smear campaign that says I am responsible for the liberation of Iraq,” he said. Then he added with a chuckle, “But how bad is that?”

Between 1992 and the raid on Chalabi’s home, the U.S. government funnelled more than a hundred million dollars to the Iraqi National Congress. The current Bush Administration gave Chalabi’s group at least thirty-nine million dollars. Exactly what the I.N.C. provided in exchange for these sums has yet to be fully explained. Chalabi defined his role simply. “I clarified the picture,” he said. His many critics, however, believe that he distorted it. Diplomatic and intelligence officials accuse him of exaggerating the security threat that Iraq posed to the U.S.; supplying defectors who offered misleading or bogus testimony about Saddam’s efforts to acquire nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons; promoting questionable stories connecting Saddam to Al Qaeda; and overestimating the ease with which Saddam could be replaced with a Western-style democracy.

Vincent Cannistraro, a former C.I.A. counter-terrorism specialist who now consults for the government, told me, “With Chalabi, we paid to fool ourselves. It’s horrible. In other times, it might be funny. But a lot of people are dead as a result of this. It’s reprehensible.”
The humiliating raid on Chalabi’s home was authorized by the White House, as was a recent decision, by the Defense Department, to eliminate an I.N.C. stipend of three hundred and forty-two thousand dollars per month. Chalabi’s allies at the Pentagon were not notified of the raid in advance, although some knew that it was under consideration. The raid took place amid allegations that Chalabi or other members of the I.N.C. had engaged in numerous misdeeds, including embezzlement, theft, and kidnapping. After Baghdad police began investigating these charges, several of Chalabi’s top lieutenants fled Iraq.

One of them, Aras Karim Habib, the I.N.C.’s intelligence chief, escaped just before the serving of an arrest warrant. He is under investigation for passing classified U.S. government information to Iran—a member of what President Bush calls “the axis of evil.” According to a Chalabi aide, the I.N.C. has heard that it will be accused of telling Iran’s intelligence service that the U.S. had cracked one of its internal codes. Chalabi has denied any wrongdoing, and claims that the spying charge is politically motivated. “They are charges put out by George Tenet and his C.I.A. to discredit us,” he told Tim Russert, on “Meet the Press, ” referring to the C.I.A.’s director. Meanwhile, according to Cannistraro, two Pentagon officials connected to Chalabi are being investigated by the F.B.I., to determine whether an American official gave Chalabi classified intelligence on Iran.

The spying charges have forced Chalabi’s patrons at the Pentagon to distance themselves from him. Paul Wolfowitz, who was one of the earliest and most outspoken proponents of an invasion of Iraq, and who has been friends with Chalabi for years, spoke of him with studied detachment at a recent congressional hearing. He praised the I.N.C.’s effectiveness in providing battlefield intelligence since the war began, but he said, “I think there’s quite a bit of street legend out there that somehow he is the favorite of the Defense Department, and we had some idea of installing him as the leader of Iraq.”

But a prominent State Department official told me that he saw numerous documents that had been prepared by the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, which devoted considerable effort to planning the war. The office was overseen by Douglas Feith. “Every list of Iraqis they wanted to work with for positions in the government of postwar Iraq included Chalabi and all of the members of his organization,” the State Department official said.

Chalabi has consistently denied having any personal political ambitions, or any desire to lead Iraq. As early as 1994, he told the Los Angeles Times, “Anyone who wants to take power in Baghdad is crazy. I’m just in this to get rid of Saddam.” In our conversation, however, Chalabi said that he could no longer uphold his promise that he would never seek office in Iraq. “Never is a very long time,” he said. Scott Ritter, a former weapons inspector for the United Nations, who has known Chalabi for seven years, said that Chalabi had confided to him his plans to run Iraq once America had liberated it. Ritter, who strongly opposed the war and produced a controversial documentary in 2001 asserting that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, also said that Chalabi spoke of benefitting financially from Iraq’s oil reserves, which are the second largest in the world. (Chalabi’s office denies this.)

Chalabi’s admirers claim that he has been demonized by his political enemies. Jim Hoagland, a columnist at the Washington Post, argued that the raid on Chalabi’s home was in retaliation for his candid criticism of the occupation. “By coming out in open, bitter opposition to the latest U.S. transition plan and its rehabilitation of senior Baathists, Chalabi seems to have crossed a final red line,” he wrote.

Peter Galbraith, a former Ambassador to Croatia and a human-rights activist, who has long supported Chalabi’s efforts to depose Saddam, suggested that if the Administration was unhappy with the outcome in Iraq it had only itself to blame. “Chalabi is one of the smartest people I know,” he told me. As Galbraith put it, Chalabi “figured out in the eighties that the road to Baghdad ran through Washington. He cultivated whom he needed to know. If he didn’t get what he wanted from State, he went to Capitol Hill. It’s a sign of being effective. It’s not his fault that his strategy succeeded. It’s not his fault that the Bush Administration believed everything he said. Should they have? Of course not. They should have looked critically. He’s not a liar; he believed the information he was purveying, and part of it was valuable. But his goal was to get the U.S. to invade Iraq.”

Since 1996, the Washington headquarters of the I.N.C. has been situated in a million-dollar brick row house in Georgetown. The house looks as stately and manicured as its neighbors, but, inside, the carpets on the front stairs are filthy. The day I visited, piles of newspapers were strewn alongside half-empty coffee mugs, and ants carried cookie crumbs across a leather couch, giving the place the atmosphere of a frat house. Padding around in socks and an untucked T-shirt was a sandy-haired, boyishlooking man named Francis Brooke.

For most of the past decade, Brooke has functioned as Chalabi’s unofficial lobbyist in Washington. Brooke, his wife, Sharon, and their children live for free in the town house, which is owned by Levantine Holdings, a Chalabi family corporation based in Luxembourg. Part home, part office, with a succession of Iraqi exiles camping out in the basement, this was the place from which Chalabi spearheaded a sophisticated marketing operation that Brooke described proudly as “an amazing success.” As he put it, “This war would not have been fought if it had not been for Ahmad.”

Brooke, who is a devout Christian, has brought an evangelical ardor to the cause of defeating Saddam. “I do have a religious motivation for doing what I do,” Brooke said. “I see Iraq as our neighbor. And the Bible says, When your neighbor is in a ditch, God means for you to help him.”
After graduating from Duke University, in 1983, Brooke worked briefly for the unsuccessful Georgia senatorial campaign of Hamilton Jordan, who had been Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff. Brooke then became a representative for the beer industry. (“If you want to understand constituent politics, you should try mobilizing opinion against a beer tax,” he said.) But in 1991 he took a public-relations job with an American firm in London called the Rendon Group, which described its specialty as “perception management.” The company had been founded by John Rendon, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee. It didn’t take long for Brooke to realize that the project he was assigned at Rendon was funded by the C.I.A. Brooke, who at the time was thirty years old, said that he was paid twenty-two thousand dollars a month.

The genesis of Brooke’s assignment was the decision not to unseat Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War. In May, 1991, President George H. W. Bush signed a covert “lethal finding” that authorized the C.I.A. to spend a hundred million dollars to “create the conditions for removal of Saddam Hussein from power.” Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. officer who was assigned to Iraq at the time, said that the policy was all show, “like an ape beating its chest. No one had any expectation of marching into Baghdad and killing Saddam. It was an impossibility.” Nonetheless, the C.I.A. had received an influx of cash, and it decided to create an external opposition movement to Saddam.

The C.I.A. had been forced to abolish domestic operations after a series of scandals in the nineteen-seventies, and it had folded many of its overseas programs when the Cold War ended. So it outsourced the Iraq project to the Rendon Group. According to Brooke, the company signed a secret contract with the C.I.A. which guaranteed that it would receive a ten-per-cent “management fee” on top of whatever money it spent. The arrangement was an incentive to spend millions. “We tried to burn through forty million dollars a year,” Brooke said. “It was a very nice job.”

From an office near Victoria Station, the Rendon Group set out to influence global political opinion against Saddam. Given Saddam’s record of atrocities against his own people, it wasn’t a hard sell. “It was a campaign environment, with a lot of young people, and no set hierarchy,” Brooke recalled. “It was great. We had a real competitive advantage. We knew something about the twenty-four-hour media cycle, and how to manage a media campaign. CNN was new at that point. No one else knew how to do these things, but Rendon was great at issue campaigns.” The group began offering information to British journalists, and many articles subsequently appeared in the London press. Occasionally, he said, the company would be reprimanded by project managers in Washington when too many of those stories were picked up by the American press, thereby transgressing laws that prohibited domestic propaganda. But, for the most part, Brooke said, “It was amazing how well it worked. It was like magic.”

In addition to generating anti-Saddam news stories and creating a travelling “atrocity exhibit,” which documented the human-rights abuses of Saddam’s regime, the Rendon Group was charged with the delicate task of helping to create a viable and unified opposition movement against Saddam. “That is when I first met Dr. Chalabi,” Brooke said.

Chalabi, who had become an international banker and financier, had surfaced almost immediately as the C.I.A.’s favored opposition figure. As Frank Anderson, a former agency official, said, “Chalabi had rare administrative competence.” A secular Shiite who was passionately dedicated to overthrowing Saddam, he spoke excellent English, dressed elegantly, and was well organized and impressively connected. He also displayed a facility for backroom political maneuvering. He wasn’t popular with other exiles, however. According to a former I.N.C. member, in June, 1992, the Iraqi National Congress held one of its first organizational meetings, in Vienna; Chalabi didn’t win enough backing to qualify for a seat on the fifteen-member board. By the time attendees returned from the meeting, however, Chalabi’s name had somehow been added to the list of members. (Chalabi claims that support for him was unanimous.) His management of the group, other exiles complained, was similarly impervious to the democratic will.

The C.I.A.’s sponsorship of Chalabi came at an opportune moment. He had recently been convicted, in absentia, by a military court in Jordan for his part in a spectacular bank fraud that imperilled the country’s fragile economy. With the help of the U.S. government, Chalabi was able to recast himself from an accused swindler to a charismatic political leader and a champion of liberal democratic values.

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Milton Frihetsson, 19:55


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