WASHINGTON — Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi exile who provided the Bush administration with faulty prewar intelligence on Iraqi weapons, recently told Iranian intelligence officials that U.S. eavesdroppers were monitoring top-secret communications by Tehran's chief spy service, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The officials said the apparent betrayal of America's secret eavesdropping and code-breaking operation could pose a significant setback to U.S. intelligence, given Iran's nuclear program, its support for Islamic militant groups and its growing political and religious ambitions in neighboring Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein last year.
The officials said that FBI counterespionage agents, seeking information on Chalabi's source for such closely guarded information, plan to question officials at the Defense Department. Only a handful of U.S. officials would have the clearance to know that America's code-breakers had cracked Iran's most secret communications.
The Times and several other news organizations, which learned last month that Chalabi and at least one aide were suspected of disclosing to Iran details of top-secret electronic intercepts, agreed to an administration request not to publish reports on what they knew to protect what officials described as an ongoing national security investigation.
U.S. intelligence officials withdrew the request late Tuesday when several news organizations began revealing major new allegations.
According to the New York Times, Chalabi told the Baghdad station chief of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security about six weeks ago that U.S. intelligence had broken Iran's encryption code and was reading its intelligence traffic.
The Iranian intelligence official in Baghdad then sent an encrypted cable back to Tehran, using the compromised code, to detail his conversations with Chalabi, U.S. officials said. Authorities in Tehran then sent back a bogus message, indicating the location of a weapons cache in Iraq, presumably to see whether U.S. military forces would respond.
They didn't, in part because the U.S. National Security Agency, which handles eavesdropping and code-cracking, already had intercepted and read the Iranian cables.
A U.S. official said the Iranian intelligence official had directed covert operations against the United States.
U.S. intelligence officials were aghast to discover the Iran eavesdropping operation had been betrayed.
"This is highly sensitive, highly classified material," said one official. "Intercepts are the crown jewels."
In television interviews on May 23, Chalabi acknowledged that he was a frequent visitor to Tehran and had last visited there about six weeks ago. He also said that as a member of the U.S.-chosen Iraqi Governing Council, he had met Iranian diplomats in Baghdad on a regular basis.
Like most Iranians and Iraqis, Chalabi is a Shiite Muslim. His exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, has maintained an office for years in Tehran.
But Chalabi repeatedly denied passing any classified U.S. information to Iran. He said such allegations were a "smear" orchestrated by his enemies at the CIA to undermine his political authority. He insisted that he had no access to U.S. classified documents and had never been given a classified briefing.
Chalabi had at least some direct knowledge of America's secret communications operations, however. During the late 1990s, U.S. intelligence operatives gave Chalabi special encryption software and equipment so they could communicate with him.
Before the war began last year, Chalabi's organization steered a series of Iraqi defectors to U.S. and other Western intelligence services with a broad array of detailed information alleging forbidden chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs in Iraq.
Over the last year, however, U.S. authorities have determined that most of the defectors had been coached to provide false information and that most of the information they provided was inaccurate or fabricated.
Chalabi nonetheless retained loyal support from a small but influential group of people in the Bush administration and on the margins of government.
But his fall from grace has been sharp and sudden. The Pentagon last month said it would cut a monthly $340,000 fee to the Iraqi National Congress for intelligence, and Iraqi police backed by U.S. forces raided Chalabi's home and office in Baghdad.