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The Conflict in Iraq

U.S. Begins Iran Leak Inquiry

Justice Department investigation focuses on who may have passed intercepted data on Tehran to Iraqi official Ahmad Chalabi.

June 03, 2004|Bob Drogin and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has launched an investigation to determine who may have leaked sensitive intelligence information to controversial Iraqi official Ahmad Chalabi, potentially causing widespread damage to U.S. surveillance efforts, government officials said Wednesday.

The FBI said it had initiated an "intelligence" investigation, and Chalabi offered to let agents question him about allegations that he compromised a major American spying operation by revealing to Iran that U.S. intelligence was covertly monitoring top secret Iranian communications between Baghdad and Tehran.

Ultimately, investigators are expected to try to determine who in Washington, or among the civilian and military handlers who were assigned to work with Chalabi and his aides in Iraq, divulged details of the highly classified U.S. operation.

Chalabi, a onetime Bush administration favorite, has denied any wrongdoing.

Reports citing secret intercepts of another country's intelligence traffic typically are given the highest level of classification and are shown to only a handful of U.S. officials. Transcripts would be stamped as a top-secret National Security Agency product, with a code word to indicate they were encrypted signals that had been intercepted and decoded.

These are considered among the most valuable of intelligence products, and federal law even provides for the death penalty in some cases in which "communications intelligence or cryptographic information" has been disclosed.

"The number of people who could have leaked this is small, in the dozens or less," said Flynt Leverett, a former CIA officer and former Middle East director for President Bush's National Security Council. "If this is true, someone in this administration did this. It really cries out for accountability."

Leverett said a successful code-breaking operation "can be a real gold mine. If you can tap into a foreign intelligence service, you get access not only into their intelligence, but into their diplomatic initiatives, into their internal deliberations, into almost anything."

Meanwhile, intelligence experts warned that exposure of the eavesdropping could prompt other governments targeted by the NSA to switch to new communications equipment that is harder to bug and new computer encryption software that is more difficult to decode.

"This is a very serious breach," said a U.S. official familiar with the case.

"Not all the damage that can be done has been done," the official said.

A former senior intelligence official agreed. "A lot of adversary services, a lot of targets the U.S. collects against, are going to be reassessing right now and saying, 'Just how good is our encryption against American capabilities?' " the ex-official said. "It's going to make life harder for our intelligence agencies."

Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security advisor, told lawmakers in closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill that the CIA would conduct an inquiry and seek to assess the damage.

"It's my understanding they're looking into every aspect of how it occurred, who is responsible, and what the implications are," Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) told reporters.

Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) said Rice told them, "There is still much to be learned."

Other officials said U.S. intercepts of Iranian communications tipped off American intelligence that Chalabi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, had met with the head of Iran's spy service in Baghdad about six weeks ago and apparently disclosed that U.S. operatives were reading the Iranian Embassy's intelligence traffic.

Investigators have yet to determine any possible motive Chalabi may have had, one official said. "To curry favor, to cozy up to the neighbors, to play both sides against the middle, who knows?" the official said.

In Tehran, an Iranian official denied that Chalabi had disclosed that Washington had broken its secret codes, calling the story "basically a lie," according to Reuters. Officials at the CIA and the NSA, which breaks codes and intercepts communications, declined to comment. The White House and State Department also declined to comment.

Officials declined to say how the NSA had broken Iran's code. James Bamford, an expert on the NSA and author of the forthcoming book, "A Pretext for War," said NSA eavesdroppers might have bugged equipment inside the Iranian Embassy to steal the top secret communications before they could be encrypted.

"If you are able to defeat the system before it gets encrypted, you get everything," he said. "If you bug the keyboard of the computer, and catch the information before it's encrypted and gets into the mainframe, or bug the monitor that produces the letters pre-encryption, that would be the easiest way."

Bamford said commercial encryption programs are especially vulnerable to the NSA.

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