Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.
With the invasion of Iraq still three years in the future, Ahmad Chalabi would step into the lobby of the modern granite office building at 1801 K Street in Washington–the heart of the nation’s lobbying corridor. He would walk past the security guard and ride the elevator up to the ninth floor. The ride was, in some sense, one small vertical leg of Chalabi’s journey back to Iraq. This particular way point was the office belonging to Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey (BKSH), one of the most powerful lobbying firms in the United States, owned by public relations powerhouse Burson-Marsteller.
No one could have guessed, back in 2000, what would come of Chalabi’s efforts in Washington. Few people knew who “neoconservatives” were, and even those who did could not have grasped their remarkable affection for and loyalty to Chalabi, a shrewd Iraqi Arab from a family of Shiite bankers. No one could have predicted that Chalabi’s group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), would go on to push false stories about terror and weapons of mass destruction with such great success as the group campaigned against Saddam Hussein’s quite sadistic regime. Nor, certainly, was it possible to foresee that the massive propaganda campaign run by Chalabi to encourage the United States to invade Iraq would be fully paid for with US taxpayer funds.
One thing people did know, even in 2000, was that Ahmad Chalabi, whose thickly accented English seemed only to enhance his charisma, had lots and lots of friends on Capitol Hill. Congress had passed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, written largely to achieve Chalabi’s vision for toppling Saddam. And every year Congress was earmarking money for him. But he had opponents, too, in the government: American diplomats who were skeptical of him, despite his charm and his claims of inside knowledge about Iraq. These Americans knew all about his murky past: a bank embezzlement conviction in absentia in the Kingdom of Jordan years earlier. They knew that the Central Intelligence Agency considered him a phony and a liability and, after working with him for years, had cut all ties with him.
So it is important, when considering Chalabi’s relationship with BKSH, to ponder that this elite firm was hired in part as a result of a feud in the American government. It was in the late 1990s, when Congress was earmarking funds for Chalabi’s INC and charging the State Department with spending all the cash, that State enlisted BKSH’s services. The State Department diplomats, under veteran Frank Ricciardone, were among the skeptics on the subject of Ahmad Chalabi and were concerned about the accounting challenges posed by their obligation to dole out the earmarked funds. They figured that through BKSH, they could funnel support to the INC while complying with Congressional intentions and normal accounting procedures, and moreover that an American firm could be controlled and monitored and would have the expertise in PR and organizing that was necessary. They put a contract out for bid; PR giant Burson-Marsteller won the award and quickly handed the work over to its subsidiary BKSH.