(AP) WASHINGTON – Acting through a prominent conservative with friends at the Pentagon, a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal has passed allegations to the Bush administration that enriched uranium was smuggled from Iraq into Iran five years ago and some may remain hidden in Iraq.
The intermediary, Michael Ledeen, said the CIA failed to aggressively check out the allegations because of its long-held distrust of Manucher Ghorbanifar, the middleman in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deals of the Reagan years.
The CIA agrees it is skeptical of information from Ghorbanifar, saying he has “proven to be a fabricator.”
In an acrimonious meeting two weeks ago in a sport utility vehicle with dark-tinted windows being driven through Baghdad streets, the CIA told the source of Ghorbanifar’s information that it did not believe the allegations and suspected the people the source was working with only wanted money. The agency demanded a sample of the uranium, Ghorbanifar’s source said in an interview arranged by Ledeen.
The source of Ghorbanifar’s information, who would talk only on condition his name not be used for fear of his safety, said he told the CIA it could meet with three people involved in the purported shipment. Those people, including a man formerly in the Iraqi military, could take the Americans to a laboratory in Iraq where unspecified “material” is stored, the source said. If the evidence proved valuable, a reward ranging from thousands to millions of dollars would be paid, he said.
The delivery of the allegations to the CIA illustrates the influence some prominent outside conservatives continue to have inside the Pentagon — and the difficulty the CIA faces in sorting through allegations emanating from the Middle East.
The source of Ghorbanifar’s allegations began supplying the Pentagon with information about Iran nearly two years ago in meetings arranged by Ledeen, who has a number of friends in the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. The Iraqi was brought to Ledeen’s attention by Ghorbanifar, an Iranian exile.
Ledeen, Ghorbanifar and the Iraqi source all favor the overthrow of Iran’s current government.
Ledeen said that two months ago Ghorbanifar called him with the uranium allegation, and Ledeen pressed the former Iran-Contra figure to check its accuracy. “He called me back and said, `As far as I can tell it’s true.’ On the basis of that I went to the Pentagon,” Ledeen said.
“The question I have is why doesn’t the CIA go look?” Ledeen asked.
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said, “We aggressively pursue all legitimate leads on weapons of mass destruction issues.”
“It is true that we have no interest in meeting with Mr. Ghorbanifar since he long ago was proven to be a fabricator and someone who sought to peddle false information for financial gain,” Harlow said.
Ghorbanifar flunked two lie detector tests for the CIA, and the White House aides and covert operators involved in the arms-for-hostages deals with Iran didn’t trust him, according to testimony from various investigations of that 1980s affair. They continued to deal with Ghorbanifar because of his contacts inside Iran, though eventually pushing him aside in favor of a new middleman.
Ledeen, who once advised the Reagan White House on national security matters, presented the uranium story first to Pentagon official Tom O’Connell, an assistant secretary of defense.
Ledeen said he told O’Connell and Pentagon aides he hoped it would dispatch investigators to Iraq to check out the account.
“We would do this ourselves, but we have to take this to CIA,” Ledeen said a Pentagon aide replied.
“All is lost,” Ledeen said he responded, believing he would get a poor reception at the CIA.
“You may be right, but we have no choice in this matter; go to CIA,” the Pentagon aide replied, according to Ledeen.