Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader whose Iraqi National Council peddled bad intelligence on WMDs prior to the war and who is now a deputy prime minister of Iraq, had just finished speaking for close to an hour in a crowded conference room at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that has been Central Command for neocons favoring the war. Before an audience loaded with journalists, camera crews, policy wonks, admirers and his own entourage, Chalabi had detailed the challenges currently facing the Iraqi government. He gently criticized the post-invasion occupation. He had cheered the new constitution (even its treatment of women). He had tried to position himself as a populist, citing the constitutional provision that declares that Iraq’s oil wealth belong to the people of Iraq. He had claimed the present government has stopped “95 percent” of government corruption. He had maintained that Iraq is “not out of the storm” but that it is at “the threshold of a new era.” This was a triumphant moment for him. His AEI appearance was the major public event of a trip to Washington during which he was scheduled to see five Cabinet members (including Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld), the national security adviser, and the vice president. Not bad for a guy whom the CIA and State Department booted from the payroll and a fellow (once charged with bilking a Jordanian bank of nearly $300 million) who is under investigation for supposedly leaking classified US information to Iran that may have compromised the United States’ ability to read intercepted Iranian communications. Before Chalabi started talking, several reporters were pondering if any head of state–let alone a deputy prime minister–would rate such attention and so many high-level meetings (though not one with the president). The answer: none come to mind. Despite the troubles and accusations of the past, Chalabi was receiving the royal treatment.
During his talk, Chalabi had avoided all mention of the unpleasant business of the past, such as when Iraqi troops backed by US forces raided his home in 2004. And he had said nothing of weapons of mass destruction–the main reason George W. Bush gave for invading Iraq. So now that it was time for questions, I thought he should be granted the opportunity to address the gorilla in the room.
In 2004, I said to him, you were asked if you had misled the US government by providing it bad intelligence on WMD, and you said you and the INC were “heroes in error.” Given that over 2000 American lives have been lost so far, would you today defend yourself the same way–particularly to a relative of someone who has been killed in Iraq? What errors did you have in mind when you said that? And can you provide a direct answer to the question of whether you misled the US government?
Chalabi was ready for this. “The quote is false,” he stated. “I never said that.” (This direct quote was reported in February 2004 by Jack Fairweather, a correspondent for the Telegraph newspaper of London.) He then went on: “We are sorry for every American life that is lost in Iraq. As for the fact that I deliberately misled the US government, this is an urban myth. I refer people to page 108 of the Robb-Silberman report that debunks this entire idea.” That report was produced by a commission appointed by George W. Bush to investigate the prewar intelligence flaws; the panel’s cochairmen were former Senator Chuck Robb and Judge Laurence Silberman. And I’ll get to page 108 in a moment.