As the continuing search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq turns up little evidence, some skeptics are scrutinizing U.S. reliance on intelligence provided by Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress. They believe Chalabi fed inaccurate - and alarming - information to decision makers in the White House and the Pentagon, and to the press, by making available Iraqi defectors claiming to have knowledge of Saddam's weapons programs. Chalabi downplays the extent of the intelligence from his defectors, and denies that he provided crucial evidence to make the case for war. Here are excerpts from interviews with Chalabi, plus commentary on Chalabi's role from former State Department official Richard Haass and critics Laith Kubba, an independent Iraqi leader not affiliated with the INC, and former State Department intelligence officer Greg Thielmann. Also included are excerpts from The New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who offers a journalist's perspective on working with Chalabi and his sources.
There are people who have made the point that there are two men who are responsible for the fall of Saddam Hussein. One is George Bush and the other is Ahmad Chalabi. Do you agree?
If somebody else said it, I'm not going to disagree with them. ...
Well, you nagged the U.S. government for 12, 13 years to accomplish this task.
Well, I did. I worked very hard, because I came to the conclusion very early on that if the U.S. is not heavily involved in helping the Iraqi people get rid of Saddam, Saddam is going to stay, and his sons are going to come after him. But there was major resistance in the U.S. to get involved in this. ...
The United States built a case for the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam, based on weapons of mass destruction and imminent threat. Now people are feeling that they were suckered into a war where there was no imminent threat, that the real reasons for this war are far more idealistic and ambitious, and have to do with the transformation of the Middle East. Some people would say that you were the primary actor in that process of providing intelligence. What do you say to those critics?
I say to those critics, let them look at the facts. We provided exactly three defectors on the weapons of mass destruction to the United States. The first one was an engineer who was involved in building sites for weapon storage and development. … They liked him so much they gave-- they took him into the Witness Protection Program and we've not seen him since December ... 2001.
That's Mr. al-Haderi.
Who you gave to Judy Miller of The New York Times.
Before we give him to the U.S. government so that there will be a public record of what he said. …
He presented evidence that there were certain kinds of silos.
But there was nothing about weapons themselves.
This is exactly what he said, and the record shows that what he said to The New York Times, but he elaborated on those a lot to the United States government. So he is not a source of information saying there is imminent threat. …
The second fellow-- Harith. ... He gave them information about mobile biological weapons labs, which they found.
We believe they found them. There is skepticism, doubt. But we believe they found them. That's the second one. The third one is a young man who is with us here, still, who told them about an isotope separation facility that he was working on. They didn't want to talk to him.
Well, isotope separation could have to do with medical uses, agricultural uses. It's not necessarily a weapons program.
Indeed. Those are the three pieces of information exactly about the weapons, and no more that we gave.
So was there an imminent threat? I mean, were you not engaged in talking to people in the Defense Department and telling them that you thought there was a serious threat in Iraq beyond the threat to the Iraqi people? There's no question that Saddam Hussein was a monster who terrorized his own people.
You ask me about whether what specific information we provided to the United States about weapons of mass destruction. I told you about the three defectors. We provided no other information of any kind about weapons of mass destruction.
So, in your opinion, why was the case built around weapons of mass destruction?
This is the United States government doing something that they thought existed. They had, of course, other intelligence, which we had nothing to do with. They claimed they had intelligence about acquisition of uranium, this big controversy that's taking place about uranium from Niger. We knew nothing about that. We had nothing to do with it. They had other information which they garnered from their satellite pictures. They had scientists who defected to them directly. Speak to them. They made their own determination about this.
But is it your belief that Saddam Hussein presented an imminent threat to the United States? ...
Look. Saddam Hussein was a threat to the West, and he was the most dangerous threat that could have been envisaged in this time, especially after Sept. 11.
But did you use that argument in convincing the United States to come to war?
I cannot convince the United States on my say-so.
You were a very influential lobbyist in Washington.
Yes. But it's not-- You see, the United States government does not take information or opinion from exiled politicians to determine whether it's going to go to war or not. …
But there's no question-- It's well known, it's well accepted, that you were quite close to Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz, to Doug Feith, that you had access to the vice president's office. These were the architects of the war plan.
Indeed. But that does not mean that I presented them with any exaggerated evidence or false evidence about Saddam, his weapons or about his being an imminent threat supported by any kind of intelligence.
Some people say that Ahmad Chalabi played a role beyond what he should have in suckering the Americans into this war. At the time that we did it, rushing us to war based on intelligence that he was paid to deliver to the Pentagon. … [Was there] inappropriate reliance on intelligence that was coming out of the INC?
I don't think so. I obviously can't talk in any detail about intelligence, even now, even though I'm out of government. But I would simply say that, for example, when one looked at the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, and when one looked at the intelligence about chemical and biological weapons, it was not based upon one single source. It was not some narrow information. Rather, it was something that had been put together over the course of months and years from a number of different sources. So, to me, that wasn't an issue. The idea that we were somehow -- to use your word, suckered -- into going into the war, or unduly influenced by any one individual, I don't think that's the case. …
You say that [Ahmad] Chalabi was definitely a source of intelligence.
Oh, yes, there's no doubt about that. The INC was providing information to the U.S. government on Iraq.
Like how much, and what kind?
I think it's obvious to everyone that the INC had a case to make to the U.S. government that U.S. intervention and support for their efforts in overthrowing Saddam was warranted. It's certainly obvious that the more dangerous Saddam's regime appeared to the United States, the greater the chances would be of getting U.S. support for the INC, and ultimately U.S. intervention into Iraq to overthrow the regime.
So there was a motive. But was there--
There was very definitely a motive. My memory of, and understanding is that there were definitely reasons to doubt a number of the defectors or human sources that Chalabi's organization provided. We tried to look as carefully as we could at reports from human intelligence sources to see what those experts had previously said, whether or not their previous information was shown to be reliable or not, whether or not they had motives for providing the information, or whether they had access to the information so that their views could be considered valid. ...
I think it's that fairly rigorous standard that seems not to have been applied to some of the information coming out of Chalabi and the INC that OSP and the Pentagon ran with.
Well, Chalabi will say that he just alerted the U.S. government of three defectors and that that's the extent of it, and the United States rejected one of those defectors as not credible, and there were only two defectors that they paid any attention to. ...
If one is talking about human intelligence sources -- which would include not only defectors, but reports from people that remained in Iraq -- I find it very hard to believe that there were only three.
You were in a position, were you not, to know the volume of information coming out of the INC?
... Indirectly, I'm one of the people who could form an impression about that, and three seems like an awfully low number.
In other words, Chalabi was feeding much more information into the intelligence community.
I believe so, yes.
And this was being eagerly taken up, in some quarters, by those who wanted to see this war proceed?
There seemed to be an unseemly eagerness to believe any information which would portray the Iraqi threat as being extremely grave and imminent. ...
But you were aware that both the State Department and the CIA did not like Chalabi, by and large?
I'm aware of that. I mean, the press has reported on that, and that seems consistent with what I would hear, that there were--
But you were listening to what charges they might bring?
Absolutely. I mean, we were willing to listen to anything. We tried to set our biases aside on a first look at information, because no matter how disreputable a source of information, if that person had access, it's worth looking at what they're saying. ...
Let's talk a little bit about the defectors that you mentioned that you talked to. Who were the defectors that you talked to?
Oh, wow, before the war, I talked to, I guess, about maybe five or seven different people whom I thought credible enough to see on more than one occasion, and whom I felt that I could possibly turn into news stories. I saw many more people who turned out to be frauds or people who pretended to be something that they weren't.
Many more? Six, seven more?
So 50 percent of the people that you talked to didn't pan out?
Didn't pan out and--
Where were these people coming from?
One of them came through Ahmad Chalabi and the INC. Some of them came through other opposition groups. … Everyone that I cited in The New York Times, I identified the source who had provided that person, on every occasion. We did that simply because I thought it was important for people to know where people were coming from and who had provided them.
So when Chalabi, for example, had provided the name of a defector and permitted me to interview him, I always identified him as being a Chalabi person or someone who had been helped by Chalabi. The reader would know that the person who provided him clearly had an agenda -- which was to help liberate his country and get rid of Saddam Hussein. I thought that was important information.
There was another group that led me to a chemical weapons expert that was also identified. There were people whom the U.S. government didn't believe were genuine, but who [the weapons inspectors] thought could be credible. I would report that as well. But there were so many people who appeared to have enough corroborating evidence to present, either in the way of people or names or places or information that they probably couldn't have unless they had been exposed to a weapons program, that I think I wrote before the war about three stories based on their information. That's not a lot, but what they had to say was very frightening.
Do I assume that Ahmad gave you people that didn't quite pan out as well as people that you think did?
Yes, yes. On one occasion I was told that I would meet someone who had special information, and I interviewed that person. I would try and vet him with American or non-American intelligence sources, and always talked to the inspectors or former inspectors, talked to people in Iraq, other Iraqis who claimed to know about these things. In that case, I said, "Sorry, Dr. Chalabi, I just don't believe that this person's information is genuine, and I can't do the story."…
Did Ahmad start coming to you [with sources] more often after 9/11?
No. I went to him. I routinely went to all of these groups and said, "Do you hear of anything interesting? Do you hear of anything new?" … They rarely came to you. If you sat back and said, "They will come to me," chances are these people would go to another newspaper or another television station. So you had to be very proactive in your hunt.
But were his files a little fuller after 9/11?
No? You didn't find any change in their approach or their--
No. In fact the reason I hesitated is that he was not the first person whom I came to through [Chalabi]. He was a nuclear expert.
You mean Hamza. That was many years before, right?
That's right. But it turns out that he had been helped by Chalabi. It was my first real experience with Ahmad Chalabi in the weapons-hunting field. Chalabi had proven absolutely credible with respect to Khidir Hamza. So at that point, I began to take Chalabi very seriously about people that he was bringing out, because the CIA had doubted that Hamza was for real.
Well, the CIA had lots of reasons to doubt anybody connected with Chalabi.
Well, no. The CIA had reason to disbelieve defectors, period, because defectors usually have an agenda. I think with respect to Ahmad Chalabi's defectors, there was a double layer of skepticism, because the agency and Dr. Chalabi had fallen out. There was very bad blood there, and people whom he brought out were scrutinized to an extraordinary degree -- so much so that very often I would find that the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] believed the defector, and the CIA would not. Oftentimes, the difference was that Dr. Chalabi was involved, and that was the only difference.
Was it the same with the State Department and the INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research]?
Same with the State Department. They began to believe that whatever Dr. Chalabi said just couldn't be accurate, and that there was always an agenda. Therefore I think they may have missed some information that was valuable and important, simply because of that bias.
Talk about the quality of intelligence. What role did Ahmad Chalabi play in the provision of intelligence to the United States and the run-up to this current war?
I think the INC was the only group -- maybe the two Kurdish groups also --but the INC certainly was one of the leading Iraqi groups to claim and provide information, claiming that it is authentic.
I am not in a position to say. But my initial impression is that that intelligence was "highly loaded" with specific goal and intention, and that is to feed all the arguments why we should go to war now. I think that was obvious. Ahmad Chalabi is very smart, and knowing how Washington works, he teamed up with groups here in Washington who also saw the need for this war. I think they worked together as a team in a very effective way.
To the good of Iraq?
I think they worked specifically to the goal of getting Saddam out of power. I think all Iraqis, including myself, believe that the only way for Iraq to move ahead is for Saddam to be ousted. …
So does it matter if the intelligence was bad?
I think to a lot of Iraqis, no. I think to a lot of Iraqis, they think, "Thank you very much, we['re] glad you helped us get rid of Saddam Hussein."
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posted october 9, 2003
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