In a screed Rolling Stone is passing off as journalism, James Bamford becomes the latest in a growing crowd of hacks to smear our friend Michael Ledeen.
Up until now, the fiction recklessly spewed by disgruntled intelligence-community retirees and their media enablers — some of whom have conceded that the claim is based on zero evidence — has been that Michael had something to do with the forged Italian documents that, according to the Left’s narrative, were the basis for President Bush’s “lie” in the 2003 State of the Union Address that Saddam Hussein had obtained yellowcake uranium (for nuclear-weapons construction) in Africa. Of course, Michael had utterly nothing to do with the forgeries (the source has actually been identified); the forgeries were not the basis for the president’s statement; the president did not claim Saddam obtained yellowcake — merely that intelligence reports indicated that Saddam had sought to obtain it; and the British intelligence reports that actually were the basis for the president’s statement were true (the Brits stand by them to this day). But hey, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Naturally, the Italian forgeries make a cameo appearance in Bamford’s just-released hit piece. His anxious reprise of the distortion has Italian intelligence telling the Bush administration that Saddam had obtained uranium in West Africa, which becomes the source of the president’s State of the Union assertion. But, aside from being wrong, Bamford’s recitation makes no sense. We understand Italian intelligence denies ever having said any such thing. Obviously, though, if (a) it had said such a thing, and (b) that information had been the basis for the president’s assertion, then Bush would have said Saddam obtained uranium. Instead, he said Saddam had merely inquired about uranium — and in Africa, not, as Bamford claims, West Africa. This is exactly what was alleged by the British intelligence reports — the president’s real source.
But this forgery nonsense is a sideshow compared to Bamford’s ludicrous account of Michael’s December 2001 trip to Rome. It has to make one wonder whether there are editors at Rolling Stone who actually consider themselves responsible for the articles in the magazine before loosing it on an unsuspecting public.
Bamford claims his interview with Michael marked the first time Ledeen had discussed the Rome trip. This is just silly. The trip has been recounted numerous times and in numerous places, often by Michael himself and, most recently, in a page-one article in the July 13 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
Essentially, Michael received information from Manucher Ghorbanifar, a controversial figure with Iranian sources who has, over many years, provided the U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies with information the quality of which has been hotly debated. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, with U.S. forces pursuing al Qaeda and the Taliban, Ghorbanifar contacted Michael to offer to provide the U.S. with information about Iran’s terrorist assets in Afghanistan. Since the information, if valid, might have protected the lives of American troops, Ledeen suggested to then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley that he at least consider sanctioning a meeting with Ghorbanifar, notwithstanding the latter’s history (which includes participation in the Iran-Contra affair).
Given the stakes involved — again, the possibility of saving American lives — Hadley approved the meeting, as did the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA. As the Journal reported, “The Pentagon sent two Iran experts, Lawrence Franklin and Harold Rhode, to meet Mr. Ghorbanifar and other Iranians in Rome, according to two people who helped set up the meeting. Mr. Ledeen and representatives of Italy’s military intelligence unit, Sismi, also attended.” While obviously not getting into the sensitive substance of what Ghorbanifar conveyed, Michael has maintained that it was valuable for purposes of force protection.
Bamford, to the contrary, wants to turn the meeting into a nefarious plot by Ledeen and the neocons to push the nation into war with Iran. Yet, anyone even vaguely familiar with Michael’s work knows that he has opposed military action against Iran — notwithstanding that he was years ahead of most experts in accurately portraying Iran’s role as the terror master at the center of the jihadist network. Ledeen has always urged that the U.S. promote and empower Iran’s pro-democracy dissidents — a position similar to what he urged in Iraq.
Bamford’s account, though, is just as embarrassing on the small details as the large ones. He pegs Ledeen as a Bush-administration insider who was brought into Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s Pentagon to be a part of Undersecretary Doug Feith’s “cabal.” Michael, however, has never worked for the Bush administration, and far from working at the Pentagon, has been an occasional Rumsfeld critic. And Michael, who has a recording of his conversation with Bamford, tells us he informed the reporter that he has no special access to Bush administration, let alone sway over it.
Nonetheless, Bamford continues in conspiratorial tones, “a plane carrying Ledeen traveled to Rome with two other members of Feith’s secret Pentagon unit: Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode, a protégé of Ledeen who has been called the “theoretician of the neocon movement.” Michael, however, tells us that Franklin and Rhode did not accompany him on flights either to or from Italy. And he adds that it is simply ignorant to suggest that Rhode is a protégé of his — if anything, he says, it is the reverse.
An elaborate tale is then weaved by Bamford about how those at the meeting discussed toppling the Iranian regime. “[T]aking a page from Feith’s playbook on Iraq,” he claims the men talked about creating a “front group of exiles and dissidents to call for the overthrow of Iran. According to sources familiar with the meeting, the Americans discussed joining forces with the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an anti-Iranian guerrilla army operating out of Iraq.”
The MEK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department since 1997. There is not a scintilla of evidence on which to base a suggestion that Ledeen or the other Americans at the meeting would have anything to do with the group. And in fact, Bamford concedes that Michael denied any such dealings, maintaining, “I wouldn’t get within a hundred miles of the MEK[.] … They have no following, no legitimacy.” But does the absence of proof make Bamford hesitate from his tin-foil-hat conclusion? Of course not: “But neoconservatives were eager to undermine any deal that involved cooperating with Iran. To the neocons, the value of the MEK as a weapon against Tehran greatly outweighed any benefit that might be derived from interrogating the Al Qaeda operatives — even though they might provide intelligence on future terrorist attacks, as well as clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.” Bunk offered up as fact.
But that is far from the most egregious of Bamford’s journalistic malpractice. He “reports” that, at the Rome meeting, when “[t]he men then turned their attention to their larger goal: regime change in Iran,” Ghorbanifar made a suggestion that “funding the overthrow of the Iranian government” could be done by “using hundreds of millions of dollars in cash supposedly hidden by Saddam Hussein.” Ghorbanifar, according to Bamford, “even hinted that Saddam was hiding in Iran.” (Emphasis supplied.)
There’s only one problem. This was December 2001. Saddam wasn’t in hiding. He was still the president of Iraq. He did not go into hiding until a year and a half later, when he was overthrown. And even on the off chance that Bamford, an award-winning journalist, had not heard that Saddam was found in December 2003 in an Iraqi rat-hole, should he not have gleaned that the last place on earth Saddam would have been hiding, at any time, was Iran — against whom Saddam had used chemical weapons during a brutal eight-year war in the 1980s?
Michael has sent a letter to Rolling Stone responding Bamford’s disgraceful work. Rolling Stone ought to be ashamed of itself.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Mark R. Levin is author of the best-selling Men In Black, president of Landmark Legal Foundation, and a radio talk-show host.