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.
Then Chalabi moved on to other reporters. Moments later, David Shuster of Hardball followed up. He noted that Chalabi had denied deliberately misleading the US government but Shuster observed that “much of the information” Chalabi’s INC had provided was “bogus, false and not true.” Would Chalabi, Shuster asked, apologize for passing on information “used to frighten the American people into war?” Chalabi stuck to the reply he had given me: “Read the Robb-Silberman report.” Shuster shot back: “Do you regret it?” Chalabi stood firm: “Read the reports.” In other words, no.
When Barbara Slavin of USA Today asked if Chalabi was still under active investigation for allegedly leaking US secrets to Iran, he said, “I have no knowledge of any investigation concerning me except what I read in the papers.” (His lawyer doesn’t tell him anything?) And when a CNN producer questioned Chalabi about his turbulent relationship with the US government, he remarked, “My relationship with the Bush administration is friendly. We have a multi-dimensional relationship. This relationship is developing and growing.” He noted that Konrad Adenauer was arrested in Germany after World War II by the British but went on to become the first chancellor of West Germany. A role model?
Before Chalabi had to skedaddle to another meeting with another high-level Bush official, he faced one more question on the WMD issue. What do you believe happened to the WMDs? a reporter asked. Were they taken out of Iraq, buried in the desert, hidden, or did they never exist? “This question,” Chalabi replied, “is pregnant with implications. Too many people have said too many things….It is not useful for me to comment on it….We are not engaged in this debate in Iraq.”
And he was not engaging in it now. Moreover, he had not told the truth about page 108. On that page, the Robb-Silberman commission does claim that “INC-related sources had a minimal impact on pre-war assessments,” but it says that the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (the major prewar intelligence summation compiled by the CIA)
relied on reporting from two INC sources, both of whom were later deemed to be fabricators. One source…provided fabricated reporting on the existence of mobile [biological weapons] facilities in Iraq. The other source, whose information was provided in a text box in the NIE and sourced to a “defector,” reported on the possible construction of a new nuclear facility in Iraq. The CIA concluded that this source was being “directed” by the INC to provide information to the U.S. Intelligence Community.
Does this passage debunk what Chalabi called the “myth” that the INC supplied bad information to the US intelligence? Instead, the report states that the INC “directed” a fabricator to give information that was false to the CIA. What “directed” means in this instance is not specified. Perhaps Chalabi and the INC did not realize these sources were making it up. But wouldn’t sending along a fabricator–wittingly or not–warrant an apology?
Don’t forget about DAVID CORN’s BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the Rove/Libby scandal, Corn’s appearance with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the slow Phase II review of prewar intellience, Samuel Alito and other in-the-news matters.
After Chalabi’s speech was done, Francis Brooke, Chalabi’s Washington adviser, told me that the INC had supplied “good-faith information” to Washington and that it was “the responsibility of the United States to evaluate that information. We have no way of evaluating that information.” That is a convenient escape for the INC: we send you the fabricators, you do the vetting. But Chalabi, for some reason, did not deploy this defense when the television cameras were trained upon him and he was called to explain his prewar activity. He cited a report that no reporter had in front of him or her at the time. How canny.
As I headed for the elevator, a white-haired woman whom I did not know yelled at me, “You should be paid by the CIA!” She apparently thought my questioning of Chalabi was too rough. Her jeer was a demonstration of how the Iraq war has twisted the ideological lines in Washington. Yes, I said to her, only a CIA provocateur working for a left-of-center magazine would dare question Chalabi in that manner, and I cannot wait to get back to my office and receive my payment from Langley. As the elevator doors closed, I noticed in the lift my former colleague Christopher Hitchens, who moments earlier I had spotted planting a kiss of greeting upon the cheek of one of Chalabi’s many spokespeople. Hitchens noted that it was indeed odd that The Nation was now in the business of protecting the CIA. He was referring to the magazine’s–and I presume my–coverage of the Plame/CIA leak scandal. There was nothing wrong with the leak, he said. The public had the right to know that the CIA was out to sabotage the administration and undermine its case for war. And that right-to-know, he explained, included being told all about Valerie Wilson because she had participated in this underhanded plot by dispatching her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, to Niger on a mission to discredit the allegation Saddam Hussein had been uranium-shopping there.
Hitchens’ affection for the Iraq war and its architects–notably, Paul Wolfowitz–is well advertised. But, as I pointed out to him, his justification of the leak was a step beyond. He clung to his position, as he is good at doing. And as we descended, our debate over the leak turned into an argument over the war. I asked him what he thought of his comrades’ use of mischaracterized intelligence to grease the way to war. Outside the AEI building, as a few people gathered to watch our exchange, he maintained that Bush et. al. had prudently based their decision to go to war on worst-case assumptions. But, I countered, that is not what Bush had told the public he was doing; Bush had claimed that the intelligence indicated there was “no doubt” that Iraq possessed WMDs. There was much doubt, I noted, and provided several examples. Oh, Hitchens replied, I was being too literal and had missed the nuances of Bush’s position. My retort: Bush being nuanced? Christopher, you would not trust Bush to review a single death penalty application, yet you were happy to hand him the keys to this invasion and now you make excuses for how he misrepresented the intelligence he did not even bother to read. Our sidewalk debate fizzled out; Hitchens drifted off to chat with well-wishers.
Chalabi did not make much news at AEI, which, no doubt, was the point. It was not surprising that he ducked responsibility for helping to push the United States to war on the basis of misinformation (or disinformation) and refused to express remorse for sending fabricators into the arms of US intelligence. (I assume his no-apologies stance covers the INC’s prewar dissemination of false information to friendly reporters.) This appearance was just another step for him on the road to rehabilitated statesman. “I always knew he would reach this sort of position,” said a former US official who was present and who worked with Chalabi years ago. “He knows where the skeletons are for many people. That has always made him very hard to stop. And he hasn’t been stopped yet.”