The Rise and Fall of Ahmed Chalabi

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This article was first published as "Our Man in Iraq: The Rise and Fall of Ahmed Chalabi", PR Watch, Volume 11, No. 2, 2nd Quarter 2004. The original article was authored by Laura Miller and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

The political fortune of Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress and the most prominent exiled Iraqi to return home in 2003, appear to have gone up in smoke. After the White House-approved raid on his Baghdad home in May and charges that he gave U.S. intelligence to the Iran, and after all but the staunchest of his neoconservative backers had distanced themselves from him, Chalabi and the INC were beginning to finally receive the public scrutiny that they deserved.

Chalabi and the INC's major contribution over the past dozen years is a vast ouvre of camera-ready "intelligence" concerning Saddam Hussein's human rights abuses, his connections with al-Qaeda terrorists, his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and the ease of transition to a US-friendly government in Iraq. But what's disturbing - and what calls US democracy into question - is that a good deal of the INC's "product" was financed with US taxpayers money. Former CIA counter-terrorism specialist Vincent Cannistraro told the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, "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."

In the Beginning, The CIA Created INC

The INC got its start in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. With Saddam still in control of Iraq, the senior George H.W. Bush authorized a covert CIA operation to "create the conditions for removal of Saddam Hussein from power." The agency - unequipped to execute the President's "lethal finding" itself but with access to ready money - outsourced the job to the Washington, DC-based PR firm the Rendon Group, which was headed by a former Democratic Party director John Rendon.

There were at least two arms to Rendon's INC operation: a London-based media campaign that publicized the Iraqi dictator's human rights abuses, and a behind-the-scenes effort to create an opposition group within Iraq that would "gather information, distribute propaganda, and recruit dissidents." Working with the CIA, the Rendon Group created an umbrella organization for Iraqi dissidents, naming it the Iraqi National Congress. The polished and charming international financer Ahmed Chalabi, who had just been convicted of bank fraud in Jordan, was a CIA favorite and assumed a staring role in the organization.

Between 1992-1996, the Rendon Group funnelled millions of US dollars to the INC. "We tried to burn through forty million dollars a year," Francis Brooke, who worked for Rendon in London, told the New Yorker's Mayer. Reportedly, Rendon's secret contract with the CIA guaranteed the firm a ten-percent "management fee" in addition to operation expenses.

"We had a real competitive advantage. We knew something about the twenty-four-hour media cycle, and how to manage a media campaign. . . . Rendon was great at issue campaigns," Brooke told Mayer. The London office offered stories of Saddam's atrocities to British journalists. According to Brooke, when too many of the stories would get picked up the US press, the Washington office would reprimand the London staff for violating US rules on domestic propaganda. But, Brooke told Mayer, "It was amazing how well it worked. It was like magic."

In northern Iraq, Rendon set up two anti-Hussein broadcasting operations and provided them with media training and propaganda. Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who covered Iraq, told Mayer that Chalabi had a "forgery shop" set up in Kurdistan. But as far as being a viable opposition to Saddam, the INC's operation was "just a Potemkin village," Baer said. "[Chalabi] was reporting no intel; it was total trash."

When the operation fell apart, a deep rift developed between the INC and CIA. While both blamed each other for being ineffective, the operation's failure did not receive much public or Congressional attention. Unchecked, many of the key players stayed in the game.

Mr. Chalabi Goes to Washington

For the next two years, Chalabi lived in Washington, making new friends and securing financing for the group. Joined by Brooke, an American whose pre-Rendon experience including lobbying for the beer industry, the two shared a Georgetown row house, owned by Chalabi's family, and cultivated Republican Congressmen. Chalabi impressed neoconservatives like Dick Cheney, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, befriending them and gaining support for his plan to achieve a Saddam-free Iraq.

Chalabi and Brooke's lobbying paid off with the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which promised $97 million in aid to the INC and other opposition groups for "establishing a program [to] support a transition to democracy in Iraq." But the State Department under Clinton held up funding for the INC. Once George W. Bush ascended to the Presidency, Chalabi and the INC had guaranteed funding and very well positioned friends in the White House and Pentagon.

In 2001, Chalabi appeared on the surface to be blowing his second chance as an Iraqi opposition leader. "Despite millions of dollars in U.S. aid, the leading Iraqi opposition group has proved so hapless in making use of the money, accounting for it, finding recruits for Pentagon training and preventing its own fragmentation that the State Department is searching for alternatives," the Los Angeles Times reported in March. But the State Department's doubts about the INC failed to dampen the group's support in the Pentagon, the Vice President's office and with some Republican members of Congress, including members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

It should have come as no surprise: Chalabi and the INC racked up big bills for PR and lavish accommodations on the State Department's tab with little to show for it. The group's poor bookkeeping drew a State Department audit in 2001. Released in January 2002, the audit looked at funds spent on the INC's Information Collection Program.

"Among other things, it questioned $2.2 million of $4.3 million in expenditures between March 2000 and May 2001, including items such as $2,070 to pay for a Washington health center membership, money paid to the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm, and lack of documentation for $101,762 spent on travel and badge distribution for attendees at a human rights conference," the Washington Post reported.

Between 1999-2003, the INC retained PR giant Burson-Marsteller's Washington lobbying arm, BKSH & Associates. Despite restrictions on taxpayer money being spent on to influence public and Congressional opinion, K. Riva Levinson, a managing director at BKSH, did media work and lobbying for the group. According to Brooke, BKSH received $25,000 a month from the State Department.

Some would say the money was well spent. Burson-Marsteller and the INC won PR Week's 2003 public affairs division award for getting the INC's message out and building the its "profile with key political decision makers in the US, Europe and the Middle East. Of particular importance was positioning INC founder Dr Ahmad Chalabi and other Iraqi opposition spokespeople as authoritative political leaders. With teams working in Washington, New York, London and Europe, B-M compiled intelligence reports, defector briefings, conferences and seminars on the transition of Iraqi society post-Saddam," PR Week wrote.

Same Old Dog, Same Old Tricks

While Chalabi may have failed as an Iraqi opposition leader, he succeeded at spearheading a "sophisticated marketing operation" to topple Saddam. Brooke told the New Yorker, "This war would not have been fought if it had not been for Ahmad."

Brooke may not have been overstating the success of Chalabi. Without his neoconservative supporters in the Pentagon and White House, the INC and Chalabi would not have had an eager, war-hungry audience for the fruits of the group's Information Collection Program. Receiving $340,000 per month - first from the State Department, then from the Pentagon - until May 2004, the program was the source of much of the key intelligence used by the White House to make its case for the Iraq invasion.

The INC's influence, however, remained mostly below the radar until March 2004, when Democratic Senators John Kerry and Carl Levin requested the General Accounting Office investigate the group's use of State Department money between 2001 and 2002. The Senators were concerned about a June 2002 letter from the INC to the Senate Appropriations Committee that took credit for placing a 108 news stories based on information provided by the INC's Information Collection Program. "The assertions in the articles reinforced President Bush's claims that Saddam Hussein should be ousted because he was in league with Osama bin Laden, was developing nuclear weapons and was hiding biological and chemical weapons," Knight Ridder reported.

Brooke told Newsweek in 2003 that "State Department money had been used to finance the expenses of INC defectors who were sources for some of the listed news stories. Brooke said there were 'no restrictions' on the use of U.S. government funds to make such defectors available to the news media." But in March 2004, a different INC spokesman contradicted Brooke, claiming, "None of [defector] expenses was related to meeting journalists."

The Defector's Tale

One such defector sponsored by the INC was Adnan Ihsan Saeed al Haideri, who left Iraq in 2001. He claimed to have knowledge of hundreds of chemical, biological and nuclear research sites throughout Iraq. Haideri's story appeared in the New York Times front page on December 20, 2001 under Judith Miller's byline.

In her story, Miller acknowledged the INC's support of Haideri, but only after giving his story credibility. "Government experts said yesterday that he had also been interviewed twice by American intelligence officials," Miller wrote. "The experts said his information seemed reliable and significant." Haideri's credibility may have, in fact, been in question at the time of the interview. "The INC reportedly provided Miller with the exclusive Haideri story three days after he had shown deception in a polygraph test administered by the C.I.A. at the request of the Defense Intelligence Agency," the New Yorker reported.

In a January 2003 story, Miller again refers to Haideri, claiming, "Intelligence officials said that some of the most valuable information" had come from him. She did report that some in Washington doubted INC's defectors, but relying on Richard Perle, her article belittled the CIA's concerns. "Until recently, CIA officials were so hostile to defectors brought out of Iraq by the Iraqi National Congress," Miller wrote, "that they refused to interview them and even tried to discredit their information. 'But ultimately, the flow of information was so vital and so overwhelming that they could no longer ignore it,' Mr. Perle said."

Miller wasn't the only journalist given an exclusive with Haideri. The INC also called upon an old friend from the Rendon days to tape a television interview, which aired on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Paul Moran, an Australian freelance cameraman under contract with the Rendon Group, had worked with INC members in Tehran, training them in the "use of hidden cameras to covertly film military activities," according to the Adelaide Advertiser.

On March 22, 2003, Moran became the first journalist casualty of the Iraq war, when he was killed by a suicide car bomber in Northern Iraq. He had been on assignment for ABC. Rendon Group head John Rendon attended Moran's funeral in Adelaide. The Advertiser reported that Moran, according to family and friends, had worked with the INC on a CIA-funded propaganda campaign to destabilize Saddam Hussein. "The fact that Mr. Rendon took the time to fly out here during what must be an incredibly busy time for him shows just how highly Paul was regarded," a close friend of Moran's told the Advertiser.

Moran continued to work on and off for the Rendon Group until shortly before the Iraq War, including jobs on at least two occasions for the US government, including preparation for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Advertiser reported. The paper also revealed that Moran had been "involved in the defection of an Iraqi scientist." Dateline, a program on Australia's SBS network, looked into Moran's INC and Rendon connections in July 2003.

Haideri's story "was a huge worldwide scoop for Paul," INC's Zaab Sethna told Dateline. Sethna, a US citizen, and Moran had met in 1990 while working for the Rendon Group on a media campaign against Saddam paid for by the Kuwaiti government. After the Gulf War, Rendon rehired Moran and Sethna for more anti-Saddam work, this time on the CIA's tab.

"The information that al Haideri provided went directly to President Bush, it went to Tony Blair, might even have gone to PM Howard as a member of the coalition," Sethna told Dateline. "The information that al Haideri provided was very, very significant, in terms of proof that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction. And then the other information al Haideri provided was targeting information for the coalition, because he knew the locations. He knew 300 different facilities that the Iraqis were using for weapons of mass destruction."

INC defectors were routinely channelled to the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, an intelligence office created in early 2002 by the Defense Department neoconservatives to collect intelligence that supported an invasion of Iraq. The OSP has been accused of being a "shadow agency within an agency," cherry-picking pieces of uncorroborated, anti-Iraq intelligence to fulfill a "narrow, well-defined political agenda," Richard Dreyfuss and Jason Vest reported for Mother Jones.

"According to multiple sources, Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress sent a steady stream of misleading and often faked intelligence reports into U.S. intelligence channels," Dreyfuss and Vest wrote. Vincent Cannistraro called INC intelligence "propaganda. Much of it is telling the Defense Department what they want to hear, using alleged informants and defectors who say what Chalabi wants them to say, [creating] cooked information that goes right into presidential and vice presidential speeches."

After the Iraq invasion, the DIA leaked a report that concluded that nearly all of the informants produced by the INC were worthless. Knight Ridder reported that Haideri had returned to Iraq with American officials after the invasion and was unable to locate any weapons production facilities.

Whether it was spoken or unspoken, Chalabi and Brookes came to understand the kind of intelligence their contacts in Washington wanted. "I'm a smart man," Brooke told the New Yorker. "I saw what they wanted, and I adapted my strategy. . . . I sent out an all-points bulletin to our network, saying, 'Look, guys, get me a terrorist, or someone who works with terrorists. And, if you can get stuff on WMD, send it!'"

The critical examinations of Chalabi and the INC come too late. What started out as covert propaganda operation, a decade later was still functioning as covert propaganda operation. The patronage, the agendas and the audiences may have changed, but the anti-Saddam message was the same and Ahmed Chalabi was there to get what he could from it.

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