Bob Drogin article in

August 30, 2003 2:00 pm

Bob Drogin article in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times put me in the mind of something I came across a year and a half ago when I was researching my first long article on Iraq — a murky moment from Ahmed Chalabi’s past, which played a key role in making him an object of deep distrust and animosity for many at the CIA.

In case you haven’t read the earlier posts, Drogin’s article says that US intelligence has concluded that a number of defectors with stories about Saddam’s WMD programs were probably either double-agents or dupes who unwittingly passed on disinformation from Saddam. (One might also suppose they simply saw the rewards in store for any Iraqi defector who told the Americans what they wanted to hear …) The piece went on to say that the Agency was applying renewed scrutiny to many of those defectors and implied that that scrutiny would also be applied to the man who was the conduit and handler of many of those defectors: Ahmed Chalabi.

Here’s the incident I’m talking about …

In the Iraq hawks’ version of the events of the last dozen years, a key turning point was the failed CIA-backed coup attempt against Saddam in 1996. The coup was run out of Amman, Jordan; it centered on a group of Iraqi army defectors. And it came apart in a particularly humiliating manner: Saddam’s agents used the radios the Agency operatives had given the plotters to radio them back and tell them they’d foiled the coup and that the plotters would be executed.

From any perspective it was a pretty low moment.

But, again, back to the Iraq hawks’ version of events.

In early 1996 – a few months before the plot unraveled – Chalabi came to Washington to warn the US that the CIA’s coup plot had been compromised and should be called off. Chalabi went to Richard Perle – already the eminence grise behind the INC’s shadow war in Washington – who arranged a meeting with then-CIA Director John Deutch, his then-deputy George Tenet, and the CIA’s Director of Operations for the Near East, Steve Richter.

According to the INC, Chalabi warned the three of what he had discovered — that the plot had been compromised. But his warnings went unheeded. That meant the CIA brass was doubly responsible for the plot’s eventual failure: Not only was the operation poorly run, but they refused to call it off even when they’d been warned that the plot had been compromised.

In September, a couple months after the coup attempt went bust, Deutch was called to testify on Capitol Hill about whether Saddam had bested the United States with the thrust into northern Iraq he had just made. (This move back into northern Iraq came after a series of US setback earlier in the year and came after Saddam was able to sow division between the two main Kurdish factions.) Before Deutch went to testify, Perle went to him and put that earlier meeting to good use, bullying Deutch into, in essence, breaking with the administration on Iraq. “Richard Perle got a hold of him and really busted him up,” one source familiar with both meetings told me. With the knowledge of the earlier tip-off meeting, this source told me, “Richard had even more ammunition come September.”

When Deutch appeared before the Senate he broke with the administration’s position and agreed that Saddam was, in fact stronger, than he had been before the thrust North.

INC sources tell this story as an example of how they used the CIA’s incompetence as a tool to advance their own agenda in Washington.

In any case, that’s their version of events.

The CIA had a very different take on what had happened with the 1996 coup debacle. Many at the Agency thought that Chalabi, rather than warning that the plot had been compromised, had in fact been the source of the compromise.

The key thing about the 1996 coup attempt, after all, was that it didn’t include Chalabi — but rather the rival umbrella group, the Iraqi National Accord, an assortment of Sunni military defectors. And Chalabi had a history of scuttling anti-Saddam plans that didn’t involve him.

Most believed that Chalabi had intentionally compromised the plan, though some thought he might have unwittingly done so or that his group had been infiltrated by Iraqi agents. (These suspicions at the Agency were noted obliquely in this May 16th column by David Ignatius.)

Let’s make clear that the CIA also wasn’t an unbiased observer to all this. The plot had gone south. It was their operation. And they weren’t crazy about Chalabi to begin with. It’s not unreasonable to question whether these operatives were just looking for a convenient person to blame the whole mess on. Without all sorts of security clearances, it’s almost impossible to judge the basis of their suspicions, though senior people at the Agency implied that their evidence was more than circumstantial.

However that may be, the fact that many folks at the Agency believed Chalabi had leaked word of their plot and gotten a number of US assets executed helps explain why their distrust and animosity toward him runs so deep.

If the CIA is now taking another look at Chalabi’s organization, suspecting it may have been infiltrated by or used by Iraqi double-agents, will this earlier incident come in for more attention?

It certainly should be. And given the hostility between the CIA and Chalabi, you’d expect they would if for no other reason than bureaucratic payback.

But according to one former Agency employee, quite the opposite might happen. The CIA, this source told me recently, is in full circle-the-wagons mode. They’ve got their hands full a) trying to find some WMD and b) investigating why so many points in their pre-war intelligence analysis seemed to be wrong. Looking back to the mid-1990s might dredge up some facts that would sully Chalabi’s reputation. But it would probably bring up many of the Agency’s errors too. At the moment, they’re trying to keep the self-examination and investigation limited to only the most recent events. They’ve already got more problems than they can deal with.

A real investigation into this long sordid history is what we need. Not just one into the White House’s handling of the lead-up to war, but everything. The CIA, the INC, the Clinton administration, the defectors, the WMD evidence or lack thereof. Everything. We’ve got many of the big players in custody now and lots of the former regime’s archives. They may not be telling us what we want to hear about weapons of mass destruction. But there are any number of other questions and mysteries they should be able to clear up. The point wouldn’t be to find bad-acting, mistakes or incompetence (though I’m sure we’ll find plenty of each), but to get as close as we can get to a reliable understanding of our Iraq policy since the close of the Gulf War. No agency involved in this history is going to be capable of the objectivity and distance required to do the job right.

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