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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Suspicion of Chalabi Deception Intensifies

Former administration favorite is believed to have fed disinformation on Hussein's weapons to intelligence agencies in at least eight nations.

May 23, 2004|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Ahmad Chalabi, the onetime White House favorite who has been implicated in an alleged Iranian spy operation, sent Iraqi defectors to at least eight Western spy services before the war in an apparent effort to dupe them about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's illicit weapons programs, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said.

U.S. investigators are seeking to determine whether the effort -- which one U.S. official likened to an attempt to "game the system" -- was secretly supported by Iran's intelligence service to help persuade the Bush administration to oust the regime in Baghdad, Tehran's longtime enemy.

Officials said other evidence indicated that Chalabi's intelligence chief had furnished Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security with highly classified information on U.S. troop movements, top-secret communications, plans of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and other closely guarded material on U.S. operations in Iraq.

The U.S. investigation into the suspected spy operation was a key reason behind Thursday's raids on Chalabi's Baghdad house and the offices of his Iraqi National Congress. Several INC members were accused of kidnapping, robbery and corruption.

Until recently, civilian leaders in the Pentagon touted Chalabi as a potential postwar leader of Iraq. The former exile leader denounced the raids as retaliation for his increasingly sharp criticism of U.S. occupation policies and operations in Iraq. He has not been accused of any crime.

It is not clear whether Iran had any role in the alleged use of the INC to provide disinformation to the West. U.S. officials say the INC may have been acting on its own when it sent out a steady stream of defectors from 1998 to 2003 with apparently coordinated claims about Baghdad's purported weapons of mass destruction.

Because even friendly spy services rarely share the identities of their informants or let outsiders meet or debrief their sources, it has only in recent months become clear that Chalabi's group sent defectors with inaccurate or misleading information to Denmark, England, Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, as well as to the United States, the officials said.

As a result, the officials said, U.S. intelligence analysts in some cases used information from now-discredited "foreign intelligence sources" to corroborate their own assessments of Hussein's suspected chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. Few of the CIA's prewar judgments have been proved accurate so far.

"We had a lot of sources, but it was all coming from the same pot," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They were all INC guys. And none of them panned out."

A U.S. official confirmed that defectors from Chalabi's organization had provided suspect information to numerous Western intelligence agencies. "It's safe to say he tried to game the system," the official said.

A discredited INC defector to Germany who was code-named "Curveball" was the chief source of information on Iraq's supposed fleet of mobile germ weapons factories. Another INC defector who provided similar information was deemed a liar. So was an INC defector who said he had helped build 20 underground germ weapons laboratories, a now-discredited claim that made headlines when the INC made him available to some reporters in December 2001.

The CIA was unable to interview two other supposedly senior Iraqis who spied for British intelligence in Baghdad before the war and claimed to provide detailed information from within Hussein's inner circle.

Information from both informants has now "fallen apart," one U.S. official said. "Neither had direct knowledge of what they claimed. They were describing what they had heard."

The details further tarnish Chalabi's battered image amid allegations that he shared highly classified information on U.S. operations in Iraq with his intelligence chief, identified as Aras Karim Habib.

The INC, which began as an umbrella group for Iraqi exiles, has long had an office in Tehran. Chalabi has repeatedly visited the Iranian capital, and some critics in Congress have questioned his growing ties to the ruling Shiite Muslim regime there.

A U.S. official said Chalabi "shared [information] with people who provided it" to Tehran. "There's real concern he was passing very sensitive, highly classified information to the Iranians," the official said.

Habib, who was named in an arrest warrant issued during the raid Thursday, is a fugitive. Chalabi was scheduled to appear today on several American TV talk shows.

The INC received covert funding from the CIA and about $33 million from the State Department during the 1990s. The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency took over the account in 2002, paying the group $335,000 a month over the last year to gather intelligence. Pentagon officials canceled the contract this month. A DIA spokesman declined to comment Saturday afternoon.

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