Part of the answer to what went wrong is that the
normal checks and balances – in Congress, the national news media and
the U.S. intelligence community – collapsed in the face of George W.
Bush’s determination to invade Iraq. Pro-war neoconservative opinion
leaders also acted as intellectual shock troops to bully the few voices
Amid this enforced “group think,” a self-interested
band of Iraqi exiles found itself with extraordinary freedom to inject
pro-war disinformation into the U.S. decision-making process. Despite
many reasons to challenge the truthfulness of Iraqi “defectors” handled
by the Iraqi National Congress, few in Washington did.
Now, four years later, the Senate Intelligence
Committee has issued a long-awaited post-mortem on how the INC
influenced this life-and-death debate. The report reveals not only
specific cases of coached Iraqi “defectors” lying to intelligence
analysts but a stunning failure of the U.S. political/media system to
challenge the lies.
In one case, U.S. intelligence analysts correctly
concluded that an INC-supplied defector was a “fabricator/provocateur,”
but his claims about Iraq’s supposed mobile weapons labs were never
withdrawn and were cited by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to
the United Nations Security Council in February 2003.
Another INC source, a supposed nuclear engineer who
made claims about Iraq’s alleged nuclear program, couldn’t answer
relevant physics questions and kept excusing himself to run to the
bathroom where he apparently reviewed notes given to him so he could
deceive his American debriefers.
Before interviewing that source, U.S. analysts had
received a warning from another Iraqi that an INC representative had
instructed the source to “deliver the act of a lifetime.” [For details,
Yet, with President George W. Bush and the powerful
right-wing political/media machine pressing for war, the intimidated
U.S. intelligence process often worked like a reverse filter, screening
out the gems of truth and letting through the dross of disinformation.
Congress and the mainstream Washington press corps
proved equally flawed, applying almost no quality controls and serving
more as a conveyor belt to carry the polluted information down the line
to the broader American public.
While certain individuals and institutions surely
deserve the lion’s share of the blame, the truth is that the Iraq War
represented a systemic failure in Washington – and one that continues to
this day because few of the culprits have faced any accountability.
In this Special Report – less than a week before
the Nov. 7 elections, possibly the last chance to exact any
accountability – Consortiumnews.com looks at how and why the system
failed, a failure that has cost the lives of so many people and has so
badly damaged U.S. national interests:
It started out with a simple need.
To gain public acceptance of an unprovoked invasion
of Iraq justified by the “war on terror,” the Bush administration had to
demonstrate two central points: first, the American people had to be
convinced that Saddam Hussein had rebuilt his arsenal of unconventional
chemical and biological weapons and was well on his way to manufacturing
a nuclear bomb, and second, there had to be a plausible case that
Hussein’s secular dictatorship had a secret relationship with Islamic
terrorists, who might carry Hussein’s weapons to the United States.
Otherwise, it was unlikely the American people
would support sending an expeditionary force halfway around the world to
attack a country that presented no plausible threat to the United
The Bush administration’s success in selling the
bogus Iraq case to a still-frightened American public would mark a near
total breakdown of the U.S. institutional capability of separating fact
from fiction, both in the corridors of government and in the news media
where newspaper editors and TV executives would act as enablers and
collaborators in disinforming America.
With the handful of WMD skeptics marginalized to
the fringes of public discourse, it would take a long time for the
fuller story of the deception to emerge.
Four years after the key deceptions, the Senate
Intelligence Committee released its long-awaited assessment of how so
much bad intelligence had been injected into the decision-making
process. In September 2006, the committee released two reports, one
evaluating the false intelligence that buttressed the claims of
cooperation between Saddam Hussein’s government and al-Qaeda terrorists,
and the other on the Iraqi National Congress, an influential group of
exiles who worked with American neoconservatives to sell the case for
war with Iraq.
The official U.S. relationship with these Iraqi
exiles dated back to 1991 after President George H.W. Bush had routed
Hussein’s army from Kuwait and wanted to help Hussein’s domestic
In May 1991, the CIA approached Ahmed Chalabi, a
secular Shiite who had not lived in Iraq since 1956. Chalabi was far
from a perfect opposition candidate, however. Beyond his long isolation
from his homeland, Chalabi was a fugitive from bank fraud charges in
Jordan. Still, in June 1992, the Iraqi exiles held an organizational
meeting in Vienna, Austria, out of which came the Iraqi National
Congress. Chalabi emerged as the group’s chairman and most visible
But Chalabi soon began rubbing CIA officers the
wrong way. They complained about the quality of his information, the
excessive size of his security detail, his lobbying of Congress, and his
resistance to working as a team player.
For his part, smooth-talking Chalabi bristled at
the idea that he was a U.S. intelligence asset, preferring to see
himself as an independent political leader. Nevertheless, he and his
organization were not averse to accepting American money.
With U.S. financial backing, the INC waged a
propaganda campaign against Hussein and arranged for “a steady stream of
low-ranking walk-ins” to provide intelligence about the Iraqi military,
the Senate Intelligence Committee report said.
The INC’s mix of duties – propaganda and
intelligence – would create concerns within the CIA as would the issue
of Chalabi’s “coziness” with the Shiite government of Iran. The CIA
concluded that Chalabi was double-dealing both sides when he falsely
informed Iran that the United States wanted Iran’s help in conducting
“Chalabi passed a fabricated message from the White
House to” an Iranian intelligence officer in northern Iraq, the CIA
reported. According to one CIA representative, Chalabi used National
Security Council stationery for the fabricated letter, a charge that
In December 1996, Clinton administration officials
decided to terminate the CIA’s relationship with the INC and Chalabi.
“There was a breakdown in trust and we never wanted to have anything to
do with him anymore,” CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate
However, in 1998, with the congressional passage of
the Iraq Liberation Act, the INC was again one of the exile
organizations that qualified for U.S. funding. Starting in March 2000,
the State Department agreed to grant an INC foundation almost $33
million for several programs, including more propaganda operations and
collection of information about alleged war crimes committed by
By March 2001, with George W. Bush in office and
already focusing on Iraq, the INC was given greater leeway to pursue its
projects, including an Information Collection Program.
The INC’s blurred responsibilities on intelligence
gathering and propaganda dissemination raised fresh concerns within the
State Department. But Bush’s National Security Council intervened
against State’s attempts to cut off funding.
The NSC shifted the INC operation to the control of
the Defense Department, where neoconservatives wielded more influence.
To little avail, CIA officials warned their counterparts at the Defense
Intelligence Agency about suspicions that “the INC was penetrated by
Iranian and possibly other intelligence services, and that the INC had
its own agenda,” the Senate report said.
“You’ve got a real bucket full of worms with the
INC and we hope you’re taking the appropriate steps,” the CIA told the
But the CIA’s warnings did little to stanch the
flow of INC propaganda into America’s politics and media. Besides
irrigating the U.S. intelligence community with fresh propaganda, the
INC funneled a steady stream of “defectors” to U.S. news outlets eager
for anti-Hussein scoops.
The “defectors” also made the rounds of Congress
where members saw a political advantage in citing the INC’s propaganda
as a way to talk tough about the Middle East. In turn, conservative and
neoconservative think tanks honed their reputations in Washington by
staying at the cutting edge of the negative news about Hussein, with
human rights groups ready to pile on, too, against the brutal Iraqi
The Bush administration found all this anti-Hussein
propaganda fitting perfectly with its international agenda.
So the INC’s information program served the
institutional needs and biases of Official Washington. Saddam Hussein
was a despised figure anyway, with no influential constituency that
would challenge even the most outrageous accusations against him.
When Iraqi officials were allowed onto American
news programs, it was an opportunity for the interviewers to show their
tough side, pounding the Iraqis with hostile questions. The occasional
journalist who tried to be evenhanded would have his or her
professionalism questioned. An intelligence analyst who challenged the
consensus view could expect to suffer career repercussions.
A war fever was sweeping the United States and the
INC was doing all it could to spread the infection. INC’s “defectors”
supplied primary or secondary intelligence on two key points in
particular, Iraq’s supposed rebuilding of its unconventional weapons and
its alleged training of non-Iraqi terrorists.
Sometimes, these “defectors” would enter the
cloistered world of U.S. intelligence with entrées from former U.S.
For instance, ex-CIA Director James Woolsey
referred at least a couple of these Iraqi sources to the DIA. Woolsey,
who was affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International
Studies and other neoconservative think tanks, had been one of the
Reagan administration’s favorite Democrats in the 1980s because he
supported a hawkish foreign policy. After Bill Clinton won the White
House, Woolsey parlayed his close ties to the neoconservatives into an
appointment as CIA director.
In early 1993, Clinton’s foreign policy adviser
Samuel “Sandy” Berger explained to one well-placed Democratic official
that Woolsey was given the CIA job because the Clinton team felt it owed
a favor to the neoconservative New Republic, which had lent
Clinton some cachet with the insider crowd of Washington.
Amid that more relaxed post-Cold War mood, the
Clinton team viewed the CIA directorship as a kind of a patronage plum
that could be handed out as a favor to campaign supporters. But new
international challenges soon emerged and Woolsey proved to be an
ineffective leader of the intelligence community. After two years, he
As the 1990s wore on, the spurned Woolsey grew
closer to Washington’s fast-growing neoconservative movement, which was
openly hostile to President Clinton for his perceived softness in
asserting U.S. military power, especially against Arab regimes in the
On Jan. 26, 1998, the neocon Project for the New
American Century sent a letter to Clinton urging the ouster of Saddam
Hussein by force if necessary. Woolsey was one of the 18 signers. By
early 2001, he also had grown close to the INC, having been hired as
co-counsel to represent eight Iraqis, including INC members, who had
been detained on immigration charges.
So, Woolsey was well-positioned to serve as a
conduit for INC “defectors” trying to get their stories to U.S.
officials and to the American public.
DIA officials told the Senate Intelligence
Committee that Woolsey introduced them to the first in a long line of
INC “defectors” who told the DIA about Hussein’s WMD and his supposed
relationship with Islamic terrorists. For his part, Woolsey said he
didn’t recall making that referral.
The debriefings of “Source One” – as he was called
in the Senate Intelligence Committee report – generated more than 250
intelligence reports. Two of the reports described alleged terrorist
training sites in Iraq, where Afghan, Pakistani and Palestinian
nationals were allegedly taught military skills at the Salman Pak base,
20 miles south of Baghdad.
“Many Iraqis believe that Saddam Hussein had made
an agreement with Usama bin Ladin in order to support his terrorist
movement against the U.S.,” Source One claimed, according to the Senate
After the 9/11 attacks, information from Source One
and other INC-connected “defectors” began surfacing in U.S. press
accounts, not only in the right-wing news media, but many mainstream
In an Oct. 12, 2001, column entitled “What About
Iraq?” Washington Post chief foreign correspondent Jim Hoagland
cited “accumulating evidence of Iraq’s role in sponsoring the
development on its soil of weapons and techniques for international
terrorism,” including training at Salman Pak.
Hoagland’s sources included Iraqi army defector
Sabah Khalifa Khodada and another unnamed Iraqi ex-intelligence officer
in Turkey. Hoagland also criticized the CIA for not taking seriously a
possible Iraqi link to 9/11.
Hoagland’s column was followed by a Page One
article in The New York Times, which was headlined “Defectors
Cite Iraqi Training for Terrorism.” It relied on Khodada, the second
source in Turkey (who was later identified as Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy, a
former senior officer in Iraq’s intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat),
and a lower-ranking member of Mukhabarat.
This story described 40 to 50 Islamic militants
getting training at Salman Pak at any one time, including lessons on how
to hijack an airplane without weapons. There were also claims about a
German scientist working on biological weapons.
In a Columbia Journalism Review
retrospective on press coverage of U.S. intelligence on Iraq, writer
Douglas McCollam asked Times correspondent Chris Hedges about the
Times article, which had been written in coordination with a PBS
Frontline documentary called “Gunning for Saddam,” with correspondent
Explaining the difficulty of checking out defector
accounts when they meshed with the interests of the U.S. government,
Hedges said, “We tried to vet the defectors and we didn’t get anything
out of Washington that said, ‘these guys are full of shit.’”
For his part, Bergman told CJR’s McCollam,
“The people involved appeared credible and we had no way of getting into
The journalistic competition to break anti-Hussein
scoops was building. Based in Paris, Hedges said he would get periodic
calls from Times editors asking that he check out defector
stories originating from Chalabi’s operation.
“I thought he was unreliable and corrupt, but just
because someone is a sleazebag doesn’t mean he might not know something
or that everything he says is wrong,” Hedges said. Hedges described
Chalabi as having an “endless stable” of ready sources who could fill in
American reporters on any number of Iraq-related topics.
The Salman Pak story would be one of many products
from the INC’s propaganda mill that would prove influential in the
run-up to the Iraq War but would be knocked down later by U.S.
According to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s
post-mortem, the DIA stated in June 2006 that it found “no credible
reports that non-Iraqis were trained to conduct or support transnational
terrorist operations at Salman Pak after 1991.”
Explaining the origins for the bogus tales, the DIA
concluded that Operation Desert Storm had brought attention to the
training base at Salman Pak, so “fabricators and unestablished sources
who reported hearsay or third-hand information created a large volume of
human intelligence reporting. This type of reporting surged after
Going with the Flow
However, in the prelude to the Iraq War, U.S.
intelligence agencies found it hard to resist the INC’s “defectors” when
that would have meant bucking the White House and going against
Washington’s conventional wisdom. Rather than take those career chances,
many intelligence analysts found it easier to go with the flow.
Referring to the INC’s Source One, a U.S.
intelligence memorandum in July 2002 hailed the information as “highly
credible and includes reports on a wide range of subjects including
conventional weapons facilities, denial and deception; communications
security; suspected terrorist training locations; illicit trade and
smuggling; Saddam’s palaces; the Iraqi prison system; and Iraqi
Only analysts in the State Department’s Bureau of
Intelligence and Research were skeptical because they felt Source One
was making unfounded assumptions, especially about possible nuclear
After the invasion of Iraq, U.S.
intelligence finally began to recognize the holes in Source One’s stories and spot
examples of analysts extrapolating faulty conclusions from his limited
“In early February 2004, in order to resolve …
credibility issues with Source One, Intelligence Community elements
brought Source One to Iraq,” the Senate Intelligence Committee report
said. “When taken to the location Source One had described as the
suspect [nuclear] facility, he was unable to identify it.
“According to one intelligence assessment, the
‘subject appeared stunned upon hearing that he was standing on the spot
that he reported as the location of the facility, insisted that he had
never been to that spot, and wanted to check a map’ …
“Intelligence Community officers confirmed that they
were standing on the location he was identifying. … During questioning,
Source One acknowledged contact with the INC’s Washington Director
[redacted], but denied that the Washington Director directed Source One
to provide any false information. ”
The U.S. intelligence community had mixed reactions
to other Iraqi “walk-ins” arranged by the INC. Some were caught in
outright deceptions, such as “Source Two” who had talked about Iraq
supposedly building mobile biological weapons labs.
After catching Source Two in contradictions, the
CIA issued a “fabrication notice” in May 2002, deeming him “a
fabricator/provocateur” and asserting that he had “been coached by the
Iraqi National Congress prior to his meeting with western intelligence
However, the DIA never repudiated the specific
reports that had been based on Source Two’s debriefings. So, Source Two
continued to be cited in five CIA intelligence assessments and the
pivotal National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002, “as
corroborating other source reporting about a mobile biological weapons
program,” the Senate Intelligence Committee report said.
Source Two was one of four human sources referred
to by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his United Nations speech on
Feb. 5, 2003. When asked how a “fabricator” could have been used for
such an important speech, a CIA analyst who worked on Powell’s speech
said, “we lost the thread of concern … as time progressed I don’t think
A CIA supervisor added, “Clearly we had it at one
point, we understood, we had concerns about the source, but over time it
started getting used again and there really was a loss of corporate
awareness that we had a problem with the source.”
Part of the challenge facing U.S. intelligence
agencies was the sheer volume of “defectors” shepherded into debriefing
rooms by the INC and the appeal of their information to U.S.
“Source Five,” for instance, claimed that Osama bin
Laden had traveled to Baghdad for direct meetings with Saddam Hussein.
“Source Six” claimed that the Iraqi population was “excited” about the
prospects of a U.S. invasion to topple Hussein. Plus, the source said
Iraqis recognized the need for post-invasion U.S. control.
By early February 2003, as the final invasion plans
were underway, U.S. intelligence agencies had progressed up to “Source
Eighteen,” who came to epitomize what some analysts still suspected –
that the INC was coaching the sources.
As the CIA tried to set up a debriefing of Source
Eighteen, another Iraqi exile passed on word to the agency that an INC
representative had told Source Eighteen to “deliver the act of a
lifetime.” CIA analysts weren’t sure what to make of that piece of news
– since Iraqi exiles frequently badmouthed each other – but the value of
the warning soon became clear.
U.S. intelligence officers debriefed Source
Eighteen the next day and discovered that “Source Eighteen was supposed
to have a nuclear engineering background, but was unable to discuss
advanced mathematics or physics and described types of ‘nuclear’
reactors that do not exist,” according to the Senate Intelligence
“Source Eighteen used the bathroom frequently,
particularly when he appeared to be flustered by a line of questioning,
suddenly remembering a new piece of information upon his return. During
one such incident, Source Eighteen appeared to be reviewing notes,” the
Not surprisingly, the CIA and DIA case officers
concluded that Source Eighteen was a fabricator. But the sludge of
INC-connected misinformation and disinformation continued to ooze
through the U.S. intelligence community and to foul the American
intelligence product – in part because there was little pressure from
above demanding strict quality controls.
Other Iraqi exile sources – not directly connected
to the INC – also supplied dubious information, including a source for a
foreign intelligence agency who earned the code name “Curve Ball.” He
contributed important details about Iraq’s alleged mobile facilities for
producing agents for biological warfare.
Tyler Drumheller, former chief of the CIA’s
European Division, said his office had issued repeated warnings about
Curve Ball’s accounts. “Everyone in the chain of command knew exactly
what was happening,” Drumheller said. [Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2005]
Despite those objections and the lack of direct
U.S. contact with Curve Ball, he earned a rating as “credible” or “very
credible,” and his information became a core element of the Bush
administration’s case for invading Iraq.
Drawings of Curve Ball’s imaginary bio-weapons labs
were a central feature of Secretary of State Powell’s presentation to
Even after the invasion, U.S. officials continued
to promote these claims, portraying the discovery of a couple of
trailers used for inflating artillery balloons as “the strongest
evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program.”
[CIA-DIA report, “Iraqi Mobile Biological Warfare Agent Production
Plants,” May 16, 2003]
Finally, on May 26, 2004, a CIA assessment of Curve
Ball said “investigations since the war in Iraq and debriefings of the
key source indicate he lied about his access to a mobile BW production
The U.S. intelligence community also learned that
Curve Ball “had a close relative who had worked for the INC since 1992,”
but the CIA could never resolve the question of whether the INC was
involved in coaching Curve Ball.
One CIA analyst said she doubted a direct INC role
because the INC pattern was to “shop their good sources around town, but
they weren’t known for sneaking people out of countries into some asylum
In September 2006, four years after the Bush
administration seriously began fanning the flames for war against Iraq,
a majority of Senate Intelligence Committee members overrode the
objections of the panel’s senior Republicans and issued a report on the
INC’s contribution to the U.S. intelligence failures.
The report concluded that the INC fed false
information to the intelligence community to convince Washington that
Iraq was flouting prohibitions on WMD production. The panel also found
that the falsehoods had been “widely distributed in intelligence
products prior to the war” and did influence some American perceptions
of the WMD threat in Iraq.
But INC disinformation was not solely to blame for
the bogus intelligence that permeated the pre-war debate. In Washington,
there had been a breakdown of the normal checks and balances that
American democracy has traditionally relied on for challenging and
eliminating the corrosive effects of false data.
By 2002, that self-correcting mechanism – a
skeptical press, congressional oversight, and tough-minded analysts –
had collapsed. With very few exceptions, prominent journalists refused
to put their careers at risk; intelligence professionals played along
with the powers that be; Democratic leaders succumbed to the political
pressure to toe the President’s line; and Republicans marched in
lockstep with Bush on his way to war.
Because of this systematic failure, the Senate
Intelligence Committee concluded four years later that nearly every key
assessment of the U.S. intelligence community as expressed in the 2002
National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq’s WMD was wrong:
“Postwar findings do not support the [NIE] judgment
that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program; … do not
support the [NIE] assessment that Iraq’s acquisition of high-strength
aluminum tubes was intended for an Iraqi nuclear program; … do not
support the [NIE] assessment that Iraq was ‘vigorously trying to procure
uranium ore and yellowcake’ from Africa; … do not support the [NIE]
assessment that ‘Iraq has biological weapons’ and that ‘all key aspects
of Iraq’s offensive biological weapons program are larger and more
advanced than before the Gulf war’; … do not support the [NIE]
assessment that Iraq possessed, or ever developed, mobile facilities for
producing biological warfare agents; … do not support the [NIE]
assessments that Iraq ‘has chemical weapons’ or ‘is expanding its
chemical industry to support chemical weapons production’; … do not
support the [NIE] assessments that Iraq had a developmental program for
an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle ‘probably intended to deliver biological
agents’ or that an effort to procure U.S. mapping software ‘strongly
suggests that Iraq is investigating the use of these UAVs for missions
targeting the United States.’”
So, it now falls to the electoral process – another
flawed part of the American democratic system – to exact some measure of
accountability on individuals and institutions that sent more than 2,800
American soldiers to their death on false pretenses.
The Nov. 7 elections stand as the last check and
balance, perhaps the last hope.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'