The Return of Chalabi

by , November 10, 2005

As blowback from the lies that duped us into war plunges Washington into a maelstrom of investigations and counter-investigations, Ahmed Chalabi adds insult to injury by making a return trip to the Imperial City. He’s staying at the ritzy-glitzy Ritz-Carlton, where he’s staked out a whole bloc of rooms at (U.S.) taxpayers’ expense, and is slated to meet with Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Treasury Secretary John Snow, and the Chalabi fan club over at the American Enterprise Institute.

Gee, that’s funny: I could’ve sworn Chalabi was under investigation for turning over highly sensitive U.S. intelligence to the Iranians, and had his Iraqi home and headquarters raided by American and Iraqi troops last year. Not to mention the fabrications he retailed to New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who reported them as fact and plastered them all over the front page of the “newspaper of record.”

A lot of people are mad about this: John Conyers, for one, and the congressman has a whole list of people who have questions similar to his own. Senator Richard Durbin has some, too, as Arianna Huffington helpfully informs us: Durbin is outraged that Chalabi is back in town, and he wants to know what Ms. Rice and other administration officials are doing meeting with a man who may very well have endangered American troops in Iraq. Says Durbin:

“So don’t be surprised if you watch the Chalabi motorcade speed up when they pass the Department of Justice. I guess they’re concerned whether an FBI agent will come out and pursue this so-called active investigation.”

If I were Chalabi, I wouldn’t worry too much. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “investigation” into his two-timing shenanigans with Tehran is stalled to the point of being cryogenically frozen, with little hope of revival – and that’s because there are just too many people in both parties who have befriended this scamster over the years.

If Durbin is trying to stick Chalabi on the Republicans, then perhaps he doesn’t remember his own vote in favor of the Iraq Liberation Act, passed with the total support of the Clinton administration in 1998. Although Chalabi was somewhat halfheartedly backed by Bush I, this act of Congress officially put Chalabi and the INC on the U.S. dole and funneled more than $100 million into his coffers until he was cut off in 2004. It was during the first years of the Clinton administration, when the CIA was under the thumb of über-neocon James R. Woolsey, that Chalabi’s group really came into its own as a Washington-based lobbyist.

The Iraqi National Congress (INC) originated as a project of the Rendon Group – a public relations firm founded by former Democratic National Committee executive John Rendon – which signed a contract with the CIA to build up the Iraqi opposition. This was under George Herbert Walker Bush, who never had any intention of toppling Saddam, but once Clinton got into office the money – and congressional support, including from liberals like Durbin – began to roll in, and the INC set up a formidable lobbying organization. As Jane Mayer relates in an excellent New Yorker piece:

“In 1994 and 1995, Robert Baer, the former CIA officer, met Chalabi several times in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, an autonomous area protected from Saddam by the United States. Chalabi had established an outpost in Kurdistan. ‘He was like the American Ambassador to Iraq,’ Baer recalled. ‘He could get to the White House and the CIA. He would move around Iraq with five or six Land Cruisers.’”

We didn’t hear from Dick Durbin back then. It was okay with him that the U.S. was openly proclaiming its alleged right to engage in a policy of “regime change” in Iraq – and throughout the world, including the Balkans. (Although, to his credit, he did try to limit the Kosovo war by trying to ban the introduction of ground troops.) As Baer puts it:

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars were flowing each month ‘to this shadowy operator – in cars, salaries – and it was just a Potemkin village. He was reporting no intel; it was total trash. The INC’s intelligence was so bad, we weren’t even sending it in.”

Chalabi’s agenda was to convince the United States that Iraq under Saddam was “a leaking warehouse of gas, and all we had to do was light a match.” And the Democrats were eager to start the conflagration, including longtime Chalabi booster Peter W. Galbraith, former ambassador to Croatia and one of the main architects of the “humanitarian” intervention in Kosovo that put in power the “Kosovo Liberation Army” – a gang of scamsters, gangsters, and thugs in every way similar to the INC. Says Galbraith:

“Chalabi is one of the smartest people I know. He figured out in the eighties that the road to Baghdad ran through Washington. He cultivated whom he needed to know. If he didn’t get what he wanted from State, he went to Capitol Hill. It’s a sign of being effective. It’s not his fault that his strategy succeeded. It’s not his fault that the Bush administration believed everything he said. Should they have? Of course not. They should have looked critically. He’s not a liar; he believed the information he was purveying, and part of it was valuable. But his goal was to get the U.S. to invade Iraq.”

It wasn’t just the Bush administration that helped build Chalabi’s empire-in-exile, funded it, succored it, and helped install it in Baghdad. The Democrats continued the policy of supporting the “democratic” Iraqi opposition, signing the Iraq Liberation Act into law on Halloween 1998 – a portent of things to come. Upon passage of the bill, Chalabi issued a statement, which said in part:

“Today, October 31, 1998 is a great day for the Iraqi people. Today President Clinton signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. The American people have given their support for the end of dictatorship and for democracy in Iraq. The INC welcomes this courageous and historic action by President Clinton and thanks him for it. I will begin immediate consultations with leaders in the INC and others to work for a united response on how best to take advantage of the provisions of the Iraq Liberation Act. We will present a united front to maximize the chances of success. We look to President Clinton to support and work with a united INC to achieve our common goals.”

In short: thanks for the dough, Bill – and I know there’s more where that came from.

The Great Pants-Dropper, for his part, was unequivocal in his support for a change of regime in Iraq, and asked Americans to “just consider the facts”:

“We have to defend our future from these predators of the 21st century. They will be all the more lethal if we allow them to build arsenals of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them.”

Yes, but who was going to defend America from the predator Chalabi?

Clinton’s former CIA director, R. James Woolsey, took up the cause of Chalabi some years later, serving as a pro bono lawyer for INC members – including Aras Habib Karim, Chalabi’s intelligence chief and known to be on the Iranian payroll for years. These INC members were in trouble with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was trying to deport them as likely Iranian agents. According to Woolsey, however,

“Aras was known to have seriously irritated a senior CIA official who resented Aras’ and Chalabi’s disinclination to follow orders. It was indeed possible, Woolsey speculated, that Ali had simply been the victim of a private CIA ‘jihad’ against his cousin and ended up spending three years in jail.”

Yeah, sure: poor victimized Chalabi, who stopped off in Tehran before arriving in Washington. He doesn’t even bother to hide his real allegiances anymore. As Steve Clemons reports:

“Woolsey’s client Ahmed Chalabi secured Woolsey’s services in 1998 clearing from an INS detention center in Guam six Iraqi National Congress associates of Chalabi that the INS (and CIA) believed to be threats to American interests. As it turned out, the INS and CIA were right as one of the detainees, Aras Habib Karim, became Chalabi’s Chief of Intelligence and was a sieve of sensitive and classified American information to Iran, now under investigation by the FBI. “

The neocon-INC propaganda machine enlisted politicians in both parties in an effort to free these “political prisoners,” who were supposedly victims of CIA “persecution,” including Congressman David Bonior (D-Mich.), Senators Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) gave a leftish tinge to the campaign to “free the Guam Six” (as they were known).

The Chalabi-Aras-Iranian connection was confirmed by the Jordanians last year, which, in tandem with the discovery that Chalabi had passed highly compartmentalized secret information to the Iranians, was a pivotal factor in turning Washington – temporarily – against its former protégé.

Pardon my political incorrectness, but I just can’t take Senator Durbin’s outrage all that seriously. Both parties collaborated in the rise of the scamster Chalabi and in the fateful invasion that catapulted him to the top of the new Iraqi government. If the Democrats are really going to launch the much-vaunted “phase two” of the SSCI investigation into how officials “misused” intelligence and perhaps even fabricated the rationale for war with Iraq, they are in large part promising to investigate themselves and their own collusion with the Republicans, not only more recently but as far back as the Clinton years.

That’s one promise I don’t expect they’ll keep.

The Democrats are getting way up there on their high horse, righteously demanding explanations for the transparent lies that were somehow so convincing at the time that most of them were “duped” into voting for war. I don’t buy it for a minute. The Iraq Liberation Act passed the Senate unanimously. And here’s how Salon.com, the virtual playhouse of the Clintonian democracy, describes the process that led to its passage:

“For Ahmed Chalabi, the neoconservatives’ support was the key to getting Washington on his side. And Chalabi’s leadership, in turn, was key to the neocons’ support for the INC. Perle and Feith, along with future Bush administration officials Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, signed the February 1998 ‘open letter’ to President Clinton, in which they listed nine policy steps that were in the ‘vital national interest’ of the United States. The first of these was ‘Recognize a provisional government of Iraq based on the principles and leaders of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) that is representative of all the peoples of Iraq.’ In October 1998, under intense lobbying pressure from the neocons, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the ‘Iraqi Liberation Act,’ which provided money and U.S. legitimacy for Chalabi’s INC, along with six other exile groups. “

Oh, I see: Clinton and his party “were under intense lobbying pressure from the neocons,” were they? It’s as if the neoconservatives were akin to NARAL, the labor unions, or some other traditionally Democratic constituency. And we wonder how and why we went to war.

Both wings of the War Party – the Republicans and the Democrats – lied us into war, and if the latter are now claiming they were “duped,” well, it didn’t take much, did it? Let Congress investigate not only the machinations of the neocons but also congressional complicity in giving this administration – and previous ones – a blank check when it comes to foreign policy.

I am willing to concede that it’s possible some Democrats have learned their lesson and won’t easily support another crusade abroad – even if it’s launched by a Democratic White House. But I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Put not your trust in politicians, lest you be sorely – grievously – disappointed.

By all means let the Senate Intelligence Committee launch “phase two” of its long-promised probe of U.S. intelligence-gathering during the run-up to war with Iraq. But pinning all our hopes on a congressional investigation is unwise for several reasons, not the least of which is that politicians can hardly be trusted with investigating… themselves. We are asking politicians to do the work of journalists – and that just isn’t going to fly.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

Speaking of the need for antiwar journalism: we’re in the midst of our winter fundraising drive, in case you haven’t noticed, and I think today’s column underscores the crying need for precisely the work we do here at Antiwar.com.

Unlike the corporate media and a good deal of the ideological outlets for news and commentary – many of which are largely dependent on big corporate donors – we don’t have megabucks to fund our modest-but-effective operation. That’s why we depend on you, our readers, to keep us going. We have to raise a minimum of $60,000 each quarter just to keep our heads above water. That’s not much by the usual standards applicable to similar corporate and nonprofit models: in fact, it’s a pitiful drop in the bucket. But we get a lot of bang out of each and every buck: it’s our cost-effectiveness that’s enabled us to build an audience of 2 million visitors a month, and climbing, as well as widespread recognition as the premier antiwar site.

In short, we don’t need a lot to get us through the coming crucial months: this is strictly a no-frills operation. We do, however, need you to make your contribution now. Our creditors won’t wait – and neither will the War Party. The latter has big plans for Syria, as well as Iran, and the war drums are already beating. So, quick, before they start another war, won’t you please help us in our important work?

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