From time to time I've been accused of using Ahmad Chalabi as my 'whipping boy' because I've insisted that so much of the disinformation concerning Iraq can be traced back to him and to the Iraqi National Congress, the organization Chalabi ran. This article in the Columbia Journalism Review provides a good overview of the way the INC shaped the public debate in the period between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003.
Essentially, the American government provided the funds for the INC to use to feed propaganda back to the American government through defectors, and to the American people through the media. The Americans were gamed on their own dime. All the "greatest hits" of the disinformation campaign are mentioned here: the terrorist training camp at Salman Pak, the Mohammed Atta meeting in Prague, the mobile weapons labs, the active nuclear weapons program. All were stories published in the media based on reports by Iraqi defectors and all the defectors were supplied by the INC. From Chris Hedges of the New York Times:
Chalabi seemed to have an ?endless stable? of defectors to talk with reporters, he adds. ?He had defectors for any story you wanted. He tried to introduce me to this guy who said he knew about Iraqi spies on the UN inspection teams: the guy was a thug. I didn?t trust either of them.?
The INC's name for its campaign was the Information Collection Program. Specifically the program was run by a member named Aras Habib, who recently disappeared when "a warrant was issued for his arrest on charges that he was spying for the Iranian government", a development which apparently has made more than a few journalists nervous. And there were quite a few journalists involved in this mess -- the CJR article makes it clear that Judith Miller shouldn't take the rap for this by herself.
In the spring of 2002 Congress became a bit restless at the way the INC was accepting American money and not accounting for it, so they put the funding on hold. In an effort to keep Congress happy, the INC prepared a memo to demonstrate what they were achieving and free up the funding. The memo detailed 108 media stories which had appeared in both the American and the British press.
The list includes articles from nearly every blue-blooded news outfit in America, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Time, Newsweek, The Atlantic Monthly, 60 Minutes, USA Today, the New York Daily News, UPI, and Fox News.
The list of reporters includes a lot of familiar names including Judith Miller, Christopher Hitchens and Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post. Most of those on the list aren't too happy about being there. But American and British journalists weren't the only ones taken in.
In a front-page story for the Los Angeles Times last month, Bob Drogin reported that intelligence sources he spoke with now suspect that the INC fed defectors to at least eight foreign intelligence agencies to create an echo effect among Western governments.
Give credit to Chalabi and his cronies for their sophistication, creativity and just plain chutzpah. But they were con artists.
None of this takes those responsible for the invasion off the hook. As the CJR reports, journalists started out attaching all manner of disclaimers to their stories. Then they quickly forgot the disclaimers and just talked up the stories. UN weapons inspectors were on the ground in Iraq from Nov., 2002 until March, 2003 when they were told to get out before the bombs started falling. They took every opportunity to investigate the information that was passed to them and none of it panned out. And the CIA's suspicion of the INC was well known -- there was every reason to be skeptical of the info provided by Chalabi's defectors. But they were saying what certain people in the administration wanted to hear and so they were believed.
About the only story that hasn't been traced back to the INC is that of Iraq's attempt to purchase "Yellow Cake" uranium from Niger, which was based on forged documents that surfaced in Italy. According to Josh Marshall, the newly released Butler Report claims that British intelligence stands by the story and has independent corroborating evidence of its validity. Unfortunately, the nature of that evidence isn't disclosed. You don't suppose...?