Memo on the Chalabi File

To: Interested Parties
From: Robert O. Boorstin

We learned this week of the extraordinary influence and damning impact that Ahmed Chalabi – a man paid almost $49 million by the U.S. government – has had on our national security. According to U.S. intelligence officials, Chalabi disclosed to an Iranian official that the United States had broken the secret communications code of Iran's intelligence service. This amounts to the most significant breach of our intelligence capabilities since the discovery of Aldrich Ames – raising questions about whether Tehran may have used Chalabi to trick the United States into taking out Saddam. The damage is so serious that federal investigators have begun administering polygraph examinations to high-level civilian employees at the Pentagon in their bid to determine who may have passed those secrets to Chalabi.

In light of this disturbing turn of events, we offer the following recap of the Administration's long history with Chalabi.

  • Embraced by the Administration. Chalabi was once the darling of the Administration, hailed in some conservative circles as the "George Washington of Iraq." His ties to top Bush administration officials Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith are well documented. Two years ago, Chalabi was President Bush's special guest at the State of the Union, given a seat directly behind First Lady Laura Bush. While the President is trying to distance himself from Chalabi, saying he may have shaken his hand "in a rope line," Bush had a 30-minute "good talk" with Chalabi and three others last November. And in February, Bush said he was confident about the future of Iraq because "right here in the Oval Office I sat down with Mr. Pachachi and Chalabi and al-Hakim, people from different parts of the country that have made the firm commitment."
  • Provided flawed intelligence that took us to war. Secretary of State Colin Powell continues to retract the claims he made before the United Nations two years ago. "It turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and, in some cases, deliberately misleading. And for that, I am disappointed and I regret it," Powell said. The sources were Iraqi exiles connected to Chalabi. One informant codenamed "Curveball" turned out to be the brother of one Chalabi's top aides.
  • Circumvented intelligence channels and went directly to the Pentagon. According to the New York Times, Chalabi "provided the Office of Special Plans with information from defectors ostensibly from Saddam Hussein's weapons programs." The Office of Special Plans, an intelligence unit set up within the Pentagon, "bypassed usual channels to make a case that conflicted with the conclusions of CIA analysts." Chalabi's ties with the neocons meant the unsubstantiated claims from Chalabi's cronies about WMD could flow "from the Pentagon directly to the Vice-President's office, and then on to the President, with little prior evaluation by intelligence professionals."
  • Pentagon and CIA continue to feud. Yesterday, Chalabi "accused Mr. Tenet of spreading groundless allegations about him" and "backing failed coup attempts against Saddam Hussein that caused the deaths of hundreds of Iraqis." At the same time, Pentagon officials have "privately suggested officials at the CIA… were using Chalabi furor to mount a smear campaign against individuals in the Pentagon." They also deny reports that the FBI is conducing lie-detector tests and "suggested that these reports were put out by the CIA."
  • Paid $49 million. The U.S. government has "given Chalabi's group about $49 million over the past four years." The relationship ended only last month, when Chalabi was finally removed from the U.S. payroll of $340,000 a month.
  • More unpopular than Saddam. A year ago, Chalabi and about 400 hastily assembled fighters were secretly airlifted into southern Iraq by the U.S. Army to rally other Iraqis and begin a march toward Baghdad to help topple Saddam Hussein. Chalabi had predicted that he would embraced by the Iraqi people. That's not what happened. "Instead of being the warrior-king who liberated town after town, 'he was jeered more than cheered. Iraqis were shouting him down. It was embarrassing,' said another U.S. official. 'We had to help bail him out.'" According to national polls published on the CPA web-site, Iraqis distrust Chalabi more than Saddam Hussein.
  • Undermined U.S. plans for transition. The United States put Chalabi in a position of power as part of the Iraqi Governing Council. In return, he continuously put his quest for personal power and wealth above his country's future. He tried to discredit U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and peddled influence to help award a $327 million U.S. Army contract to a close personal friend.
  • Undercut the trial of Saddam Hussein. Chalabi also appointed his nephew, Salem Chalabi, to head the U.S.-funded $75 million tribunal that will try Saddam Hussein and other members of his regime. The tribunal's credibility has been shredded and is now viewed as yet another American puppet.
  • Jordanian government may request extradition. Ahmad Chalabi is a fugitive from the law himself. A decade ago, he was convicted in abstentia of embezzling millions of dollars from a bank in Jordan and sentenced to 22 years of hard labor. According to Jordanian officials, "the latest development concerning Chalabi has made things easier to bring him to Jordan, where he is wanted for the verdict to be carried out. Chalabi can no longer hide behind the Americans, and he no longer enjoys the privileges and immunity that he once had being a member of the US-appointed governing council in Iraq."
  • Continues to cause problems. After years of giving Chalabi power, money and influence, he reigns over a web of control "that stretches from the oil industry to the banking system to the purges of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party." Analysts say that "unless the Bush administration moves to dismantle his empire, Chalabi will continue controlling much of Iraq's politics from behind the scenes, and he could seriously disrupt American plans for turning over nominal sovereignty to a new Iraqi government on June 30." In the wake of the latest scandal, he is reinventing himself again by using his fallout with the U.S. in a bid to win power through elections in January.

Robert O. Boorstin is the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress.

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