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When Ahmed met Sally

Ahmed Chalabi
Ahmed Chalabi
US Government

Both former Washington Post religion writer Sally Quinn and Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi have almost nothing in common except for both being made in Washington. Quinn had never written anything when she was interviewed for a job at the Post by Benjamin Bradlee, whom she later married. ("Nobody's perfect," said Bradlee, and hired her.) She then became the consummate Washington hostess. Chalabi was an Iraqi exile with a failed Jordanian bank who helped found the Iraqi National Congress with millions in CIA money after the Persian Gulf War failed to take out Saddam, lobbied the Congress to pass the Iraqi Liberation Act to provide his group with millions in funding and changed the official policy of the United States to ‘regime change,’ and ultimately facilitated much of the intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Quinn interviewed Chalabi in the Newseum on stage overlooking the U.S. Capitol Friday at the Washington Ideas Forum. The two were a prior acquaintance--Quinn profiled Chalabi for the Post in November 2003. (The Washington Post removed the extremely positive 6,000 word profile from its website, here's a copy.)

“We did not raise the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction at all. We were concerned about the fate of the iraqi people, concerned about Saddam’s repression. The issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction from our point of view was marginal,” he said.

Of course, Chalabi would have wanted to overthrow Saddam even in spite of WMD, but he was the one who fed story after story to the Pentagon and journalists -- including Judith Miller, but also CBS News's 60 Minutes, PBS's Frontline, and Vanity Fair -- about the dangers of Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction that never materialized. But Americans already made the connection.

“We did not vouch for information about Weapons of Mass Destruction. We introduced people to US government,” he added to a quizzical-looking Quinn. “We didn’t vouch for information, we vouched for who they were.”

These exiles told the Bush Administration and journalists exactly what they wanted to hear and they digested it uncritically. His statement is self-refuting--anyone that would ‘vouch’ for someone, would be vouching for their information.

“From our point of view, they [the U.S. government] never should have mentioned the Weapons of Mass Destruction, it was the repression of the Iraqi people. In fact, he used WMD on his own people!” said Chalabi.

Poppyock. Chalabi fed stories to Judith Miller and the Bush Administration that Saddam was restarting his nuclear weapons program. Chalabi promoted the information of Khidhimir Hamza, who was an Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected from Iraq in 1994, and whose information was of little use to the CIA. He managed a Virginia gas station. Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote on how Chalabi scared him into providing overblown information:

When Hamza first started working with him, Albright told me, his information seemed reliable. In 1998, Hamza even helped debunk an inflated story offered by another defector, just as Chalabi was trying to drum up support for the Iraq Liberation Act. “We saw the claws of Chalabi then,” Albright said. Someone from the I.N.C., he said, called to upbraid Hamza, telling him that he had undercut the cause of liberating Iraq. “Hamza was shaken, and said he’d never do that again,” Albright told me.

In 1999, Hamza left Albright’s institute to write a memoir, “Saddam’s Bombmaker,” with Jeff Stein, a Washington-based author. According to Albright, many of the claims in the book, including those about the importance of Hamza’s role, “were just ridiculous.” Hamza, who had not been involved in Iraq’s nuclear program for nearly a decade, asserted that Saddam was within years, and possibly months, of developing a nuclear bomb....

Chalabi’s people helped Hamza to promote his story to the media, and the tale became widely known. Cheney began giving alarmist speeches about the imminent Iraqi nuclear threat. On August 26, 2002, he declared that Saddam had “resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons,” and might soon be able to engage in “nuclear blackmail” with his enemies.

Chalabi continued to revise history. “It’s improbable that they [the U.S.] would take the word of an exile opposed to the regime and act on it, and go into the country and wage war. Our input into intelligence was marginal in getting them to go to the war.”

On the contrary, his facilitation of intelligence was crucial. Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, Vice-President Cheney, and other Bush Administration officials calling themselves the “cabal” relied on Chalabi for intelligence and intelligence soruces, reported Sy Hersh shortly after the invasion.

Chalabi said that the occupation was to blame for the violence that happened afterwards, and a “provisional government” (headed by him) would have yielded better results. This is wishful thinking. Of course, the postwar occupation was a mess, but to think a provisional government approved by Chalabi, a Shiite partisan, would have solved all of Iraq’s problems is absurd. Chalabi also pushed de-Baathification immediately after the fall of Saddam, resulting in disasters like the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, as well as other state-run industries. These actions created a lot of unemployed men, and unemployed soldiers, directly leading to the Sunni insurgency.

All of Chalabi’s answers at the Ideas Forum were taken tabula rasa by Quinn--her questioning made Larry King seem like Rachel Maddow.

Chalabi has indeed fallen out of favor with the U.S. government, but he already did enough damage--he was perhaps the most successful foreign foreign policy entrepreneur (that’s not a typo) ever, convincing the media, Capitol Hill, the White House, and the Pentagon, to invade Iraq.

At the beginning of the talk, Quinn softballed Chalabi, “How are you still here?” She also referred to numerous false reports of his death or disappearance--he’s luckier than the 100,000 or so dead Iraqi civilians, over 4,000 dead Americans, not to mention countless others displaced or missing. (He did say he “regretted” the loss of life.)

Chalabi grinned and answered, “Luck, fate, and perseverance.”


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