The Unfinished Business of Ahmed Chalabi

The death of Ahmed Chalabi, of a heart attack at age 71, brings back memories. It conjures Judith Miller’s byline above New York Times “news” articles – often on the front page – detailing Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction,” which, we were told, were hiding in plain sight beneath the despot’s palaces, secreted in an isolated desert outpost, and ensconced in a mobile biological warfare unit that could visit death and destruction at will. Chalabi was paid millions of dollars to feed these fabrications into the US “intelligence” stream as a direct result of the “Iraq Liberation Act,” supported by the Clinton administration and passed in 1998. It was the Clintons who put Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) on the American dole – a unique merging of the Welfare State and the Warfare State, with enormous consequences down the road.

After the US invasion, Chalabi was named head of the “interim governing council” and put in charge of the “de-Baathification” program, which purged the military as well as the educational system of “unreliable” elements: it also got rid of Chalabi’s many enemies, primarily Sunnis, who were either imprisoned or forced to flee. Chalabi’s neoconservative sponsors were eager to put him in charge of Iraq, but cooler heads prevailed and when it came time for the much-touted Iraqi elections, Chalabi and his INC list failed to gain a single seat.

Chalabi claimed that he and his co-conspirators were – in Chalabi’s phrase – “heroes in error,” and that the claims of Iraqi WMD he gave to Miller and US government officials were not meant to deceive. The reality, however, is that Chalabi and his friends in the top echelons of the Bush administration lied us into war, using “talking points” fashioned from bogus intelligence supplied by the INC to make the case for the invasion when, in fact, there were no “weapons of mass destruction” in Saddam’s arsenal.

As it turned out, Chalabi and his INC were Iranian agents, busy funneling classified and highly sensitive information on US troop movements and other matters to Tehran’s intelligence services. He had been working for Iranian intelligence all along, as investigators determined when Tehran got wind that the US had been monitoring their internal government communications system and promptly shut it down.

Tracing the leak to Chalabi’s top aide, Aras Karim Habib, chief of the INC’s intelligence arm, the US conducted a series of raids on the INC’s headquarters and Chalabi’s residence in Iraq, knocking down doors, turning the place upside down, and confiscating computers and other evidence of Chalabi’s treachery. The Americans’ attitude toward their former agent and the Pentagon’s favorite was summed up rather succinctly by President George W. Bush when he told Jordan’s King Abdullah: “You can piss on Chalabi.”

Quite a comedown for someone who sat at Laura Bush’s side during the 2004 State of the Union speech, and who had been paraded all over the District of Columbia by his neocon fan club and introduced as “the George Washington of his country.” He had been the Iraqi face of the neoconservatives’ regime-change operation, the indigenous incarnation of their grandiose nation-building narrative that supposedly augured a “global democratic revolution” – as Bush put it in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy – which would begin in the Middle East and spread throughout the world. Now he was branded a traitor to the cause he had once personified, but this was no obstacle for a man who had already reinvented himself several times – and would do so again.

He set about rebuilding his political career as an Iraqi nationalist, seeking to bring in Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Kurds into a grand coalition, the purpose of which was – naturally – to put him in power. And he nearly made it, allying himself with Muqtada al-Sadr and various other elements, eventually making it to deputy Prime Minister, but his unpopularity – especially among Sunnis, who did not forget his key role as the overseer of “de-Baathification” – sidelined him for the job of Prime Minister.

Chalabi’s death is an occasion to remind us of all the unfinished business he left behind. He naturally never apologized for the lies that led the US into the Iraqi quagmire: he was proud of his “accomplishment.” He was never shy about that. But there is one aspect of his legacy that remains mired in mystery: his role as an Iranian agent – and the role of his American allies in the Pentagon’s civilian bureaucracy.

Soon after the raid on Chalabi’s headquarters in Iraq, another raid took place aimed at uncovering the spider web constructed by this “hero in error”: in Washington, D.C., the offices of the American-Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) were surrounded by FBI agents and searched. Computers were seized, boxes of documents were impounded, and subpoenas were handed to key AIPAC officials summoning them to testify before a grand jury.

This was the second such action taken against AIPAC in four months. The first was part of the Larry Franklin spy probe: Franklin, a Pentagon official with neoconservative leanings, was charged with giving classified information to two high-ranking AIPAC officials, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. However, the reasons for the second raid were outlined in a Washington Post article, which reported:

“The FBI probe is actually much broader, according to senior U.S. officials, and has been underway for at least two years. Several sources familiar with the case say the probe now extends to other Pentagon personnel who have a particular interest in assisting both Israel and Chalabi, the former Iraqi dissident who was long a Pentagon favorite but who has fallen out of favor with the US government.”

Post reporters Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks identified "at least two common threads" in the investigation:

“First, the FBI is investigating whether the same people passed highly classified information to two disparate allies – [Ahmad] Chalabi and a pro-Israel lobbying group. Second, at least some of the intelligence in both instances included sensitive information about Iran. The broader investigation is also looking into the movement of classified materials on US intentions in Iraq and on the Arab-Israeli peace process, sources added.”

That summer, the FBI subjected Pentagon employees to a series of lie detector tests to determine who had access to the intelligence Chalabi passed on to Tehran, and who might have given it to him. An investigation was launched, lots of noise was made – and then, nothing.

Douglas Feith, the deputy Secretary of Defense in charge of the Pentagon’s policy shop, resigned under a cloud, and was hardly seen or heard from again. The neocons who had staffed his “Office of Special Plans” – the lie factory that spun Chalabi’s fake intel into “talking points” used to feed the US media – skittered away like bugs fleeing an overturned rock. And the much-touted investigations into who and how we were lied into war, as well as the FBI probe into the Chalabi-AIPAC espionage network, eventually petered out: the latter ending when Obama came into office and the probe was called off.

Yes, there’s plenty of unfinished business the now departed Chalabi leaves in his wake – or, rather, at his wake. Will we ever know the full truth about this charlatan and those who enabled his treason? It’s not likely, Washington being what it is: but we know enough to discern that the usual suspects are at the center of a web of deception that extends from the highest councils of the US government all the way to Tel Aviv and Tehran.

In a just world, the charlatan who lied us into war would’ve been held accountable to the American people – along with his many accomplices. In addition, the neocons who empowered Chalabi, and gave him the means to commit his treason, would all be behind bars. That they aren’t is a testament to the immense power of the Israel lobby – Chalabi’s key ally, as the FBI well understood – and to everything that’s wrong with our political system.

Indeed, as recently as last year, neocon grand vizier Paul Wolfowitz, one of the chief architects of the Iraq disaster, was touting Chalabi as the next Prime Minister of Iraq! Which tells us everything we need to know about Wolfowitz and his fellow neocons, who have learned nothing, regret nothing, and have never been held accountable for anything.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

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