The fall from grace of would-be Iraqi leader Ahmed Chalabi is the result of fierce US infighting.
May 23, 2004
Julian Coman in Washington and Philip Sherwell in Baghdad report
As television channels replayed footage of a smashed framed photograph of the former Pentagon favourite and Iraqi National Congress leader, Ahmed Chalabi, on Friday, one adviser to the State Department could not resist a smile. "Another shattered illusion for our friends at the Department of Defence," said the adviser. "How much more can they take?"
Mr Chalabi's Baghdad villa was raided by Iraqi police on Thursday. Several INC members, including his powerful intelligence chief, are among 15 people named in an arrest warrant for possible fraud charges.
According to rumours circulating in Washington, Mr Chalabi himself is suspected of passing classified US intelligence to the Iranian government - reports dismissed as "preposterous" by his aides.
Backed to the tune of $27 million by the American taxpayer, although monthly payments have now ceased, and once touted as Washington's choice to lead Iraq, Mr Chalabi is now portraying himself as the politician who dares to stand up to the US. In Iraq nowadays, that could be a winning pitch.
Mr Chalabi's relations with Paul Bremer, the American Coalition administrator in Iraq, were never smooth.
The two men soon clashed over Mr Bremer's plans for establishing an interim governing council rather than backing a speedy switch to Iraqi sovereignty.
For President Bush, a crucial turning point came when Mr Chalabi openly criticised US policies in Iraq at the United Nations.
Aides said that to a president who values loyalty highly and expects his friends to do the same, the public comments by Mr Chalabi - formerly the Pentagon's chief source of intelligence on Iraq, including its nuclear capability - were "an eye-opener". Elsewhere, to King Abdullah of Jordan, Mr Bush remarked: "You can piss on Chalabi."
This is all, to say the least, disappointing news for Mr Chalabi's former backers, in particular the Deputy Secretary of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz and the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, who gave Mr Chalabi such enormous influence and access in Washington.
A Pentagon plane even flew Mr Chalabi triumphantly into post-war Iraq last March. Richard Perle, formerly the chairman of the influential Defence Policy Board at the Pentagon, condemned Thursday's raid as "appalling".
Yet in some corners of the Bush administration, the INC leader's dramatic fall from grace has been treated as cause for celebration.
In 2003, US State Department and CIA officials were routinely out-manoeuvred and marginalised by hardline Defence Department planners in the build-up to war. Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, was criticised for the distractions of the "UN route" to disarming Saddam.
The CIA was ridiculed for its caution in assessing the imminence of the threat that Iraq posed. Both organisations objected to the influence of Mr Chalabi, who still faces fraud charges in Jordan. Both were ignored.
Now, opportunities for revenge are coming thick and fast. The failure to predict and plan for an aggressive Iraqi insurgency following the fall of Saddam, and the horror of the Abu Ghraib prison photographs, have already tarnished the standing in the White House of the Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, and his senior aides.
The Chalabi raid is another blow and another cue for Mr Rumsfeld's enemies to go on the attack.
"At the State Department and at the CIA, they're finally starting to swing some punches his way," said the former adviser. "When it comes to Chalabi, they've been saying for years 'not to be trusted'."
On the BBC's The World Tonight on Friday, Christopher Dickie, a journalist who has known Mr Chalabi for 20 years, said: "I interviewed Ahmed about some of the controversy surrounding him. I said: 'Look, a lot of people in the CIA and the State Department say you would do anything to drag the USA into a war with Saddam Hussein'. He looked me in the eye and he said: 'Yes. Absolutely.' "
Only a year ago, after the apparently triumphant race of US troops to Baghdad, Mr Rumsfeld was the superstar of the Bush administration, voted by People magazine as one of the "sexiest men alive". Mr Wolfowitz was acknowledged as its pre-eminent intellect.
Not any more. The Sunday Telegraph has learnt that the Pentagon was not even consulted by the top US civilian in Iraq, Mr Bremer, before last week's raid on the home of its former protege, although a meeting was held involving both State Department officials and the National Security Council.
Earlier in the week, Mr Rumsfeld had seemed unaware that INC funding of $335,000 per month from Congress was to be cut off. It is hard to imagine him being by-passed in similar fashion prior to the events of this spring.
With some glee, officials outside the Department of Defence are happy to speculate on the fading lustre of Mr Rumsfeld's star.
According to one former senior administration official: "We're finally beginning to see who is responsible for the mess that is Iraq.
The prisoner abuse scandal is a disaster for Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and co, because few people believe we're just talking about military police carrying this out. It must go further up, and Seymour Hersh's investigations (in the New Yorker) are demonstrating that. Military intelligence officers were involved.
"The raid on Chalabi's villa is another humiliation. The Pentagon relied on Chalabi and his defectors for intelligence on Saddam.
They relied on Chalabi for predictions on post-war Iraq. They backed the funding of him. Now he's been discarded and discredited. Senior people in the Department of Defence took all sorts of risks and they haven't paid off."
The judgements are harsh, but these are febrile days in the capital. Infighting over Iraq within the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill has reached such a pitch and ferocity that, according to one official within the Coalition Provisional Authority, Washington DC is now referred to as "Sunni Triangle, West".
On Thursday, Mr Bush made an unexpected visit to Congress, in an attempt to persuade increasingly restive Republican representatives that events in Iraq are under control.
According to one member, the President's visit was intended to head off a "full-scale revolt".
If the news continues to be as bleak as during the past month, the revolt may only be postponed. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in the minds of many Bush administration officials and formerly sympathetic congressmen, has all but destroyed the possibility of a happy ending to the American occupation of Iraq.
According to one retired general: "We've gone from 'failure is not an option' to failure, of some kind, being the only option."
A failure, when the stakes are this high, requires a culprit. While Mr Bush continues to promise that the United States will stay the course in Iraq, beyond the transfer of sovereignty on June 30, the "blame game" has begun in earnest in the corridors of his administration.
From the State Department in Foggy Bottom, to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, lengthy briefings are being granted. Rivals, particularly if they work at the Pentagon, are being ruthlessly disparaged.
For three weeks anonymous officials from the CIA have filled the pages of the New Yorker with detailed observations of extreme interrogation procedures endorsed by senior civilians at the Department of Defence.
It was this gung-ho approach, post-September 11, they argue, that led eventually to the horrors of Abu Ghraib.
A sense of schadenfreude is palpable. In 2002, CIA officials were humiliated by the creation, in the heart of the Department of Defence, of a rival centre of intelligence-gathering, the so-called Office of Special Plans.
Created by Paul Wolfowitz, with the blessing of the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, the OSP soon rivalled the CIA as Mr Bush's main source of information concerning Iraq's possible weapons of mass destruction. Its very existence was intended as a damning indictment of CIA intelligence-gathering techniques.
"Cheney and Wolfowitz thought the CIA far too conservative," said a Pentagon adviser.
"It was seen as too cautious." An internal Pentagon memorandum of the time even suggested that intelligence efforts to date had "downplayed or sought to disprove" a possible link between al-Qaeda and Iraq.
Mr Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader of the INC and a personal acquaintance of Mr Wolfowitz for years, was brought on board to help bolster intelligence on Saddam.
A series of testimonies from Iraqi defectors, discovered by Mr Chalabi, soon produced a far more menacing picture of Saddam's WMD capabilities and terrorist links.
That picture turned out to be "almost all wrong", in the words of the now retired US weapons inspector, David Kay.
Last week, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, acknowledged that his claim to have discovered mobile biological weapons laboratories in Iraq, made to the UN last year, was mistaken, and made it clear where he thought the blame should lie: "It turned out the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and, in some cases, deliberately misleading."
A former Pentagon adviser said: "You cannot get clearer than that without talking about the OSP, the defectors and the spin machine.
" For good measure, the director of the CIA, George Tenet, said recently that CIA analysts never said there was an "imminent threat" from Saddam Hussein.
The Pentagon was not only seeking to dominate intelligence-gathering in the war on terror. The legal ground rules of what was described by officials as "a new kind of war", post 9/11, were also being transformed.
Once again, the views of the Pentagon, and in this case the White House, prevailed over those of Colin Powell and the CIA.
In February 2002, against the wishes of the State Department, the White House proclaimed that captured Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan would not be subject to the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.
Alberto Gonzales, the top White House lawyer, had warned that without such a clause, the harsh treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners could result in the criminal prosecution of senior Bush administration officials.
A 1996 law passed by Congress, the War Crimes Act, outlawed Americans from committing war crimes, defined in part as "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions.
The exclusion of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from the Geneva Conventions, said Mr Gonzales, "substantially reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act".
According to the intelligence officers cited by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, a secret unit - the special access programme - was then set up to operate in Afghanistan, by-passing the Geneva Conventions when in pursuit of "high-value" targets and interrogating al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.
A former intelligence officer suggests that 200 officials were "completely read into the programme" including Mr Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The senior leadership of the CIA, said the intelligence officer quoted, began to object when "special access programme" (SAP) methods, including nudity, "stress positions" and forms of humiliation, were transferred from Afghanistan to Iraq and the Abu Ghraib.
Most prisoners there could hardly be described as "high value", and the military police officers from rural Maryland who would "loosen up" prisoners had received no relevant training.
"The CIA said 'No way'," said the former officer. "We signed up for the core programme in Afghanistan - pre-approved for operations against high-value terrorist targets. Now you [the Pentagon] want to use it for cab drivers, brothers-in-law and people pulled off the streets."
Unsurprisingly, the Pentagon spokesman, Larry Di Rita, has vehemently denied the New Yorker allegations. "The assertions are outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture," he said. But the Pentagon can expect more of the same.
Earlier this week, a "close associate" of Colin Powell told the New York Times that he is speaking up now "because he doesn't want a legacy as the man who made up stories to provide the President with cover to go to war.
According to another former intelligence officer: "No one is sorry to see the civilians at the Pentagon in trouble. This was coming to them. They respected no opinions but their own."
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