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This week we mark the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. The perfect book for the week is NBC reporter Aram Roston’s deep probe into the life of Ahmad Chalabi and the role he played in making the case for an invasion of Iraq and in directing the early stages of the occupation, which by consensus is now viewed as disastrous. Roston has worked at NY1 News as a police reporter, as a correspondent at CNN, and most recently has been a producer for the investigative unit at the NBC Nightly News, where his work has been honored with two Emmys. He has published investigative stories in a number of major magazines.
1. It’s common to see Chalabi linked closely to the Neocons who played key roles in the Bush Administration’s national security and defense establishment, but you make clear that his key ties with the Republicans lie elsewhere. You write:
“One of his key backers has been John McCain, who was one of the first patrons of Chalabi’s grand-sounding International Committee for a Free Iraq when it was founded in 1991. McCain was Chalabi’s favored candidate in the 2000 election since Chalabi knew that he would be able to free up the $97 million in military aid plus millions pushed through in Congress and earmarked for Chalabi’s exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, but held up by the Clinton State Department.”
Do Chalabi’s relations with John McCain continue? Would you expect him to wield influence in a McCain administration?
I really don’t know where McCain and Chalabi stand these days, or in the future.
Right now, in spite of everything that has happened, Chalabi is making something of a comeback in the current Iraqi government. It is no surprise to anyone familiar with his persistence and his gifts for survival. It’s also no surprise because even his detractors say he’s a competent and vigorous organizer, even if they suspect his motives.
It is a bit of a surprise, perhaps, that Chalabi deals so closely with American military and civilian officials. It was just September 2006 when the majority of the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded Chalabi’s organization provided “false information” to the US in an attempt “to influence United States policy on Iraq” before the war.
As for McCain’s support for Chalabi, no doubt it was strong before the war. And indeed, that’s why, in the 2000 presidential primary, Chalabi’s people initially rooted for McCain. But as I pointed out in the book, too, if Al Gore had won in the 2000 election, Chalabi’s people believed they would have had a very strong supporter right in the White House too: Joe Lieberman. Lieberman’s advocacy for Chalabi was perhaps just as strong as McCain’s. Or it was close anyway! It’s almost as if in the election that came before preceded the invasion of Iraq, Chalabi couldn’t lose.
2. You unfold Chalabi’s checkered history as a businessman, and particularly his central role in a failed banking operation in Jordan. You track down Chalabi’s role in the Jordanian bank, checking Chalabi’s claims about it against the reports of Jordanian authorities, which make Chalabi out to be a confidence artist. It’s amazing that someone who has been involved in financial services fraud can talk his way out of it and have the charges dismissed by so many seemingly sophisticated players—particularly by the intelligence community and the media. Tell us how you think Chalabi pulled this off?
It is a bit of a mystery really, isn’t it? Basically, Chalabi’s business background was one of the few things that could have been used to weigh his ability and his character, and people chose not to look too closely at it.
His explanation of his business career and the failure of his bank, and his criminal conviction, has been that it was a fairly extensive conspiracy by Saddam Hussein in collusion with the government of Jordan. He says his Jordanian bank (Petra Bank) was functionally sound when it was taken over by the Jordanians. He says he had to flee not to escape justice, but to evade being handed over to Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq. And when he was convicted, it was in absentia, (because he would not return) and by a military court, which he maintains made it unfair.
Most of his American admirers believe his story and they take his explanation at face value. One can easily see how the papers described it. As early as 1991, a New York Times columnist described Chalabi as “an international banker who fled Jordan for London after learning that King Hussein [of Jordan] was preparing to turn him over to the Iraq police.” People were quite willing to accept Chalabi’s story, and it really was no easy task to get hold of the audits and investigations and records that would have cast doubt on his story.
Since then, his supporters in the press and in think tanks and in the government just repeated what he’d said. Some are quite angry at what they believe to have been the wrongs done to an innocent man.
He never really tells them that his bank, Petra Bank, was part of a chain of family banks that collapsed as well in Switzerland and in Lebanon.
They easily just dismissed an audit that was quite damning in 1990 by the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson. They accepted his explanation that the audit had been rigged. Some Chalabi admirers told me they actually went to Jordanian government insiders with access to royalty, who confirmed Chalabi’s story. I heard that from at least three people, but they would never say exactly how this worked.
And the issue of his business conduct matters to some of his friends They refuse the idea that he may have been, say a bad businessman, who then fell afoul of aggressive regulators, or some explanation like that. It is all part of a package to some of his most dedicated supporters.
If he was in fact involved in chicanery, they will not hear of it.
And then there are others, who simply don’t care what happened in Petra Bank. Their point is that, well, in that part of the world, things happen.
3. Chalabi’s relationship with the media seems to have been charmed from the start. You tie him with Steve Kroft at 60 Minutes, Flora Lewis at the New York Times, Peter Jennings at ABC, David Hirst at the Guardian and a long list of others. Each seems to have accepted Chalabi as a highly-reliable source. This again raises questions about Chalabi’s background and his ability to sell himself as an objective analyst, when in fact he was a man on a mission. Did any of these reporters ever come to think that they had been had by Chalabi? Did they ever attempt to correct or supplement their Chalabi-based reporting?
There are some reporters who confronted their relationship with Chalabi in a very serious and profound way. And others who simply trudged on. And then there are those who are simply his friends, who say that they believe that Chalabi never did lie to them anyway. They may be right too.
One journalist I describe at length in the book, who certainly believes he was lied to by Chalabi, is David Rose, who met Chalabi after 9/11 and quickly became one of the journalists to spread the INC’s stories. He became a powerful, if naïve, ally. The book describes how Rose, a very sincere and talented journalist, now says he was charmed by Chalabi, manipulated by him, and “used” by him.
Rose believes that the INC researched him to learn more about him, to flatter him and play to his vanity. After a story or two, he became convinced that Chalabi and his associates were incredible sources. He wrote various stories that firmly linked Saddam Hussein to the attacks of 911, to al Qaeda, and to weapons of mass destruction programs.
Rose’ stories had tremendous public relations impact, apparently linking Saddam to immense threats against the West, and seeming to back the call for war.
And after the war started, he had an incredible crisis of conscience once he realized how wrong he was, and tried to investigate his own reporting. I honestly found his story a harrowing tale for a journalist.
One thing that he, and other journalists did not ever realize or report at the time was that all the false information given to them by Chalabi’s INC was basically paid for by the United States State Department, which was unwillingly funding an INC “intelligence” program.
4. In your recounting, Chalabi also develops a key relationship with Congressional staffers that facilitates his rise. In particular you talk about Danielle Pletka and her husband Steven Rademaker, key staffers in the Congressional foreign policy apparatus, who seem almost to have been able to run their own independent foreign policy and to have advanced Chalabi tremendously. Explain how you think this happened, and how Congressional staffers were able to help Chalabi achieve his objectives?
Well, as the former Democratic Senate staffer Peter Galbraith, a friend of Chalabi, says in the book, Chalabi understood that to get what he wanted from Capitol Hill, he needed to befriend not just legislators, but their staffers. Most good lobbyists know this. And Chalabi was quite good at befriending people. I’m not sure it’s fair to say that they ran their own independent foreign policy. Certainly they helped push the US in a direction that differed from the Clinton policy, and often saw foreign policy partly in political terms, and as a tool to use against Clinton. But it would be wrong to imply they did not believe, ideologically, in what they were doing.
Pletka saw Iraq as a key issue, and she told me that she believed it was a case where the CIA and State Department, which she is not fond of institutionally, were simply coddling a dictator. She says she believes that the State Department simply likes Middle Eastern dictators.
She clearly liked Chalabi and his message: which was that he and his little group could coalesce into a strong force against Saddam.
Her husband, Steve Rademaker, who was a staffer in the House Internation Affairs Committee had a slightly different ideological reason for supporting Chalabi. (It was interesting, as I researched this book, to learn how people could support Chalabi for so many different reasons, sometimes contradictory ones.)
Rademaker had worked with the contras (as a lawyer in the State Department) and believed that the old “Reagan doctrine” of using small indigenous armies and political groups to fight communism was a good one. He meant the wars fought during Reagan’s time: the Contras in Nicaragua, the mujahadeen in Afghanistan against the Russians, or Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA, against the communists in Angola.
Rademaker thought that old anti communist strategy of Reagan and long dead CIA director William Casey could be pivoted, or adapted, in this case to target Saddam Hussein. So Rademaker saw Chalabi as potentially a kind of Adolfo Calero/Jonas Savimbi figure.
Some other republicans saw Chalabi as just a useful figure they could use to basically bash Clinton. Some were clearly inspired by him.
But it is a mistake to see him only as backed by Republicans. He had some bipartisan support. Not just Joe Lieberman, but even then Senator Bob Kerrey supported the Iraqi Liberation Act, which greatly benefited Chalabi, as a way to move against Saddam.
5. The Central Intelligence Agency, you write, fueled Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress with millions, and enabled Chalabi personally to continue in the lifestyle of a wealthy businessman—which in fact he was not. But most importantly, the CIA appears to have pushed Chalabi forward as a credible figure and to have suppressed, or perhaps not even to have known, about the dark chapters in his past that undermined his credibility. Wasn’t this an intelligence failure by the CIA? Has there been any attempt by the CIA to deduce some “lessons learned” from it?
There’s a term: blowback. I wonder if that could be applied here. The point is that Chalabi’s “Iraqi National Congress” which pushed and lobbied the U.S. government so hard for war in 2001 and 2002 was a reincarnation of a group that the CIA had actually created in 1992 and then abandoned after it lost control.
I quote one former officer describing how Chalabi’s INC, which was created by the agency, “morphed and morphed and morphed. We cocked this up,” he said. “The agency really made a mess of this whole INC stuff.”
In the early 1990s, the CIA invented and paid for the Iraqi National Congress with U.S. taxpayer money, built up Chalabi as its leader and let him spend that money, and then in the mid 1990s, it cut him off. But then he used the credibility and the organization they gave him, and headed to Washington, D.C. to lobby for money overtly, bypassing the CIA completely. In fact, he was basically at war with them. And that animosity proved useful because they had bureaucratic enemies in D.C.
6. The consensus of most students of the U.S. misadventure in Iraq is that the first six to eight months of U.S. management on the ground consisted of a series of almost unimaginably stupid misjudgments on critical issues. Certainly the single most tragic misassessment was the decision to turn to “de-Baathification” by shutting down the Iraqi Army and other vital state structures. You put Ahmad Chalabi right at the decision-point, pushing aggressively for the decision that was taken and effectively overriding career U.S. intelligence, foreign affairs and military personnel. Is it really credible to think that a non-American confidence artist could have wielded such critical influence at such a vital juncture? If so, what does that tell you about the management of the occupation in Iraq in its early phase?
I don’t know that you can blame Chalabi for all the post-invasion blunders. In fact you probably can’t. One can say that the infighting over him was responsible for a lot if it though.
The whole thing at the beginning of the war was that the administration really did not make a decision. Remember, the thinking at the time was kind of divided between two camps. On the one side were the Chalabi loyalists in the U.S. administration who believed that simply installing Chalabi and an “interim government” would solve everything. On the other side, well, there was an effort to come up with a long-term plan.
One thing that struck me as I researched the book was that it seemed no decisions were ever made. It was a debate that continued: an “exile” government versus some other form of government. It got confusing, and Chalabi’s role was not always simple. Certainly General Jay Garner had planned to put in at least a government nominally run by Iraqis, but he was also no fan of Chalabi. But he was then replaced by Ambassador Paul Bremer, and there was a state of immense confusion.
Chalabi did get his de-Baathification, under Bremer, but he did not get much else. Soon Bremer and Chalabi were clashing.
In fact one can say that Chalabi did always argue that a long term “occupation” government such as the one that was installed was bad mistake. It may have been self serving but he did say it and he was not the only one.
Buy a copy of ‘The Man Who Pushed America to War’ at your local bookseller, or purchase a copy online here.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”