Pentagon officials say the decision by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to cut off funding this week for the Iraqi National Congress was made because U.S. financial backing of an Iraqi political party had become “inappropriate” in light of efforts to set up a new Iraqi government on June 30. But the funding decision follows disclosures that INC leader Ahmad Chalabi and some of his aides supplied sensitive information about U.S. security operations in Baghdad to the Iranian government, according to U.S. intelligence sources.
The decision also coincides with the launch, by Coalition authorities in Iraq, of a wide-ranging investigation into allegation that INC leaders engaged in extortion and other corrupt activities inside Iraq. An INC spokesman said that the group and its leader had not been informed about a corruption investigation or been contacted about it by Coalition authorities. The spokesman also denied that anyone from the group had supplied sensitive information to Iran.
[MAY 20 UPDATE: On Thursday morning, INC officials confirmed that U.S. personnel and Iraqi police had raided Chalabi’s residence in Baghdad. A Chalabi aide told NEWSWEEK that the authorities showed INC personnel some English-language arrest warrants, and indicated that one of the targets of the warrants was Aras Habib, Chalabi’s intelligence chief. A senior U.S. official told NEWSWEEK that the White House was aware of the raids and that White House officials had ordered the Pentagon to cut off the INC’s U.S. government funding for intelligence collection.]
Pentagon officials have claimed that the INC’s intelligence program was extremely valuable in helping U.S. forces in postwar Iraq track down and arrest high-ranking members of the former Iraqi regime. INC supporters in Washington, including top officials in the Defense Department, have repeatedly insisted that information supplied by the INC has “saved American lives” in Iraq.
Defense sources say the INC signed a written agreement with the Defence Intelligence Agency, which included strict controls over INC information-gathering activities, involving close supervision of INC intelligence personnel by case officers from the DIA.
In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday, Wolfowitz declared that the decision to withdraw the INC’s funding was “made in light of the process of transferring sovereignty to the Iraqi people. We felt it was no longer appropriate for us to continue funding in that fashion.” Wolfowitz went on to commend the INC’s information-gathering efforts in Iraq. “There’s been some very valuable intelligence that’s been gathered through that process that’s been very valuable to our forces,” he said. “But we will seek to obtain that in the future through normal intelligence channels.”
But officials in other agencies, including the State Department and CIA, have recently expressed deep concern about a surge in recent intelligence alleging that the INC and Chalabi have been passing on potentially dangerous information to officials in the government of Iran. Though Chalabi has never made any secret of his cordial relations with top Iranian officials—one of his aides claimed that Chalabi had held discussions with most top Iranian officials over the last six months—Bush administration officials say the latest intelligence indicates he may have been supplying the Iranians with information on U.S. security operations in Iraq that could “get people killed.” Senior White House aides have been briefed on this information, officials said. Chalabi’s spokesmen have denied that he or the group had provided the Iranians with any information that would cause harm to U.S. personnel in Iraq.
Intelligence officials outside the Pentagon also have been highly skeptical of the value of intelligence supplied by the INC to the United States. Some U.S. intelligence sources accuse the INC of “dribbling out” information to the Pentagon in order to justify continuing monthly payments to the group of $340,000. Some U.S. officials even accuse the INC, which has its own armed militia, of seizing and maintaining control of Iraqi government and Baath Party documents which should have been turned over to the CIA after the war. These intelligence sources charge that what the DIA has been doing is paying Chalabi and the INC to feed back to the U.S. government documents that the INC “stole” from the Iraqi public.
INC representatives have repeatedly claimed that allegations against the group are the product of a “CIA smear campaign” (the CIA and the INC fell out in the mid-1990s following a failed putsch against Saddam). An INC representative has claimed that the Saddam-era files under the group’s control were acquired under the supervision of both uniformed and plainclothes U.S. personnel. INC officials last week had little response to Pentagon’s decision to cut off the group’s $340,000 monthly stipend, other than to say that U.S. funding should also be withdrawn from any and all Iraqi political parties. Said an INC representative, in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK: “On June 30 Iraq will become a sovereign country and it will be inappropriate, and indeed unacceptable, for Iraqi groups to continue to take covert funding from foreign Intelligence agencies. We expect the CIA to end its funding of Iraqi groups as well.”
According to the terms of a four-page agreement between the DIA and INC, first signed in October 2002 and renewed a year later, the INC’s “information collection program’s” top priorities included collecting intelligence on several issues especially critical to Pentagon hard-liners who campaigned for and planned the Bush administration’s campaign for regime change in Iraq.
First on the list of “requirements” (spy jargon for assignments) laid out in the DIA’s agreement with the INC was “the location of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) storage, development facilities and individuals associated with these facilities,” says the document, according to a text made available to NEWSWEEK by U.S. intelligence sources. Second on the INC’s list of intelligence assignments from DIA was the collection of information on “Former Iraqi regime connections with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups”—a matter that was well-known to be of great interest to the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.
Also high up on the list of assignments the DIA laid out for the INC was information on the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein—captured last year without any known involvement of INC informants—and Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the former Saddam lieutenant who is believed to have had a hand in launching and coordinating the terrorist campaign against U.S. and other Coalition occupation personnel in Iraq. Al-Duri is still at large. Another top priority for the INC’s intelligence-gathering apparatus was the collection of information on the “fate/whereabouts of U.S. POW Capt Michael Scott Speicher,” a Navy pilot who was shot down over Iraq during the first gulf war. Though the INC and other exile groups stoked prewar rumors among U.S. conservatives that Speicher was alive and being held by Saddam’s regime in a secret Iraqi prison cell, most U.S. intelligence officials, including senior DIA officials, believe that Speicher probably died years ago. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say that the DIA concluded shortly after major combat operations ended in Iraq last year that Speicher almost certainly was dead and that prewar reports from exiles and defectors that he was still alive probably were hoaxes.
Lower-ranking priorities on the list of intelligence assignments set by the Pentagon for the INC were collecting information on threats and terrorist attacks by insurgents on Coalition forces, information on the activities of Saddam-era Iraqi intelligence officials—now believed by many U.S. intelligence officials to have been playing a major role in the anti-Coalition insurgency—and “details of crimes against humanity or war-crime activities ordered by former regime officials.”
Administration officials close to the CIA and State Department have alleged that in 2001 and 2002, when the INC’s intelligence activities were funded by grants from the State Department, the program produced little if any useful intelligence for any U.S. government agency. Diplomatic sources said that one reason State Department officials decided to cut off funding for INC intelligence gathering was that they believed that U.S. government money was being used to finance a pro-war and anti-Saddam propaganda campaign by the INC directed against the American public.
According to a written agreement between the INC and the State Department that was also obtained by NEWSWEEK, State Department funds were not to be used to conduct “any business associated with, or that could appear to be associated with, attempting to influence the policies of the United States Government or Congress, or propagandizing the American people.” At the request of Democratic senators Carl Levin of the Senate Armed Services Committee and presidential candidate John Kerry, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is opening an investigation into the INC’s use of State Department money.
INC representatives have denied the group misused U.S. government funds, though they have acknowledged that some State Department funds may have been used to pay expenses of Iraqi “defectors” with stories to tell about Saddam’s WMD and alleged terror links who the INC made available to media outlets, most prominently Vanity Fair and The New York Times. Some U.S. intelligence officials say that when the same defectors were interviewed by intelligence professionals, it was determined that they had fabricated information or were coached by the INC. Information from two defectors with alleged INC connections constituted the foundation for prewar claims to the United Nations by Secretary of State Colin Powell that Saddam had built a fleet of mobile weapons labs and factories. Powell acknowledged on TV last week that these claims were probably based on poorly sourced information. Intelligence officials have acknowledged that at least one of the sources for Powell’s claim, an INC defector, had been determined by the DIA to be a “fabricator” more than six months before Powell’s U.N. address.
Provisions of the INC’s written agreement with the DIA included clauses apparently designed to ensure that the INC could not misuse U.S. government funding or coach potential intelligence sources. The agreement says that “DIA and the INC will conduct initial joint debriefings of sources.” It also says that DIA “shall … polygraph INC members who are involved in the debriefing of sources identified by the INC” and “polygraph sources surfaced by the INC.” A former senior U.S. intelligence official says, however, that these conditions were not always followed by U.S. forces and the INC in postwar Iraq.
The INC agreement with DIA also says that INC must “NOT [sic] publicize or communicate in any way with anyone any of its information collection operations … without prior written authorization from DIA.” But in a “60 Minutes” interview in early March, Chalabi flashed on TV a purported Iraqi Intelligence Service document which listed Osama bin Laden as an Iraqi intelligence contact in the early l990s (a fact well known to U.S. intelligence). Intelligence sources say this document was one of the more valuable items supplied to the DIA by the INC’s intelligence program. Asked in late March whether Chalabi had obtained prior written permission from DIA before publicizing the document on America’s most popular TV newsmagazine, a Chalabi spokesman told NEWSWEEK: “Ahmad Chalabi does not need permission from anyone.” A Defense Department spokesman said the Pentagon had no immediate response to questions about whether the INC and Chalabi complied with the provisions of its deal with the DIA.