Like everyone else, I’ve been reading the stories about my friend Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, and the accusations that he’s an Iranian spy. I don’t believe it, but before launching a tirade against the misnamed Central Intelligence Agency I thought I’d better check with the greatest unliving expert on intelligence, the late James Jesus Angleton. He was the longtime chief of CIA counterintelligence, and knew everything there was to know about spying, so I dusted off the ouija board and got him on the second try.
JJA: I reckoned you’d decide it was time for another chat.
ML: Right you were. It’s about Chalabi. He’s a friend of mine, and I would be really upset if he turned out to be an Iranian agent.
JJA: You shouldn’t take these things personally. Kim Philby was a friend of mine, after all, and he turned out to be a big-time KGB agent.
ML: Fair enough, we all make mistakes. But the stories in the press don’t make sense, and some of the newspapers–like Newsday–have made claims unworthy of a sane person.
JJA: I saw that Newsday story. They said that DIA was convinced that the Iraqi National Congress, from its very inception, was an Iranian master plot to penetrate the American government and organize the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
ML: Which is one of those stories that only a B-movie Hollywood scriptwriter could put down on paper without praying for forgiveness.
JJA: Not to worry; journalists don’t pray. That’s why there are so few of them up here. But you’re right, the theory is too clever by half. It was probably concocted by somebody who had studied the “Trust,” the legendary Soviet operation after the First World War that became famous in the stories about “Reilly, Ace of Spies.” Some White Russians had created what appeared to be an anti-Soviet organization that claimed both to have agents at high levels of the Soviet regime, and also to have an underground network within the Soviet Union that was capable of organizing a coup against Lenin. They provided Western intelligence agencies with very good intelligence, and showed their capacities by actually assassinating some fairly high-level Communists. So the Western agencies supported the “Trust,” and worked very closely with them.
In reality, the “Trust” was a Soviet operation that actually penetrated Western intelligence services, to the great advantage of the Kremlin. A masterpiece.
ML: So why is it fanciful to accuse the INC of being a Middle Eastern “Trust”?
JJA: Because Chalabi’s behavior doesn’t fit. He went to Tehran all the time, in part because the State Department and CIA refused to support him, and in part because anyone who wants to operate in that part of the world has to be on decent terms with the mullahs if he wants to survive. They’re great killers, you know.
ML: I know, I know. I write about it all the time.
JJA: If anything, the United States pushed him toward the Iranians, and it’s laughable that the intelligence community should now blame him for their previous actions.
ML: It’s fascinating to watch the anti-Chalabi campaign in Washington. You probably can’t keep up with it, but some intel officials in town are saying two things to the journalists: 1) We broke the Iranians’ communication codes, so we were reading their mail. Chalabi found out about this, and told the Iranian intelligence chief in Baghdad. 2) The Iranian immediately contacted Tehran to tell them that we had broken the code. Then they said to journalists, “you can’t write about this because it would jeopardize our people.”
JJA: So they’re saying that the Iranians’ chief operative in Baghdad told Tehran that their codes had been broken…and his message was sent in the same code?
ML: Seems so.
JJA: Hahahahahahaha. Impossible! If the Iranians knew that we were reading their mail, they would never let us know that they knew. They would continue to use the codes, but instead of sending accurate messages they would use those channels for disinformation against us.
ML: Yes, they’re smart enough for that. I’ve often said that they may be crazy, but they are certainly not stupid.
JJA: Furthermore, using the same logic, if we knew that Chalabi had told the Iranians, we would never go public with the accusations. We would use Chalabi to disinform them. And the information that we had broken the Iranian code doesn’t compromise human sources, because most codebreaking is done by supercomputers, and isn’t obtained from spies.
ML: So what was this all about?
JJA: Oh, I think it’s mostly political, and has little if anything to do with intelligence. The CIA loves to smear people they don’t like with claims of super-secret intelligence that rarely exists.
ML: Like those Iraqis who ran from Saddam after the debacle in the mid-Nineties?
JJA: Of course. Remember that we rescued them, and they ended up in Guam?
ML: Uh huh.
JJA: And then the CIA denied entry to three of them, claiming they were spies for Saddam, and they wouldn’t let anyone see the intelligence, and they were demanding the three be sent back to Iraq?
ML: And they would have been sent there, to a terrible death, and were only saved because Jim Woolsey volunteered his legal assistance, went to court, demanded to see the intelligence, and found there was nothing there.
JJA: Right. There are many such cases, as you know well.
ML: Sure, they used to say I was an Israeli agent. The head of counterintelligence even claimed I had dual citizenship, and an Israeli passport. All nonsense. He finally shut up when one of his colleagues asked him for the passport number.
JJA: And there was the fairly recent case of a Russian named Luchansky, accused by CIA of being one of the top honchos of the Russian Mafia. He had to go to court in England to get a British judge to demand the “intelligence,” and found it was baseless.
ML: And there was another one, in my own experience. Round about 1980, a CIA official whispered to me that they had a tape of a conversation between an NSC staff member and a Polish diplomat, in which the NSC staffer had provided classified information. I never believed it and never wrote it, but it finally made its way into print. After the usual damage to the poor guy’s reputation, the “intelligence” was shown to be fanciful.
JJA: As I said, these things are usually political, and the Chalabi case is part of a long campaign by CIA to destroy him. In fact, you can make a fairly convincing case that the “raid” on Chalabi’s house was probably an effort to get him killed.
ML: Killed? They were going to shoot him?
JJA: Not “they,” even though it does seem there were CIA people on the scene. No, they’re smarter than that. They sent Iraqi police to do the dirty work. The police were armed. It was reasonable to assume that at least one of Chalabi’s bodyguards would shoot at the intruders, and then a gunfire would ensue, in which…well, people do get hurt at such times, don’t they?
ML: Well, it might be even cleverer. The police took all weapons from the compound, and then the raid was announced. Maybe Chalabi’s enemies, knowing he was disarmed, would take advantage and go after him.
JJA: Could be. Whatever the truth, the whole sequence of events placed Chalabi in mortal danger, even though it seems to have strengthened him enormously in the eyes of the Iraqi people.
ML: But how is a journalist, or a citizen, to tell what’s going on?
JJA: By reasoning paradoxically. Almost all the time, if the intelligence community has real evidence, you’ll never hear about it. They will keep it to themselves and use it in their work. If they leak something about someone, it will usually be false.
At which point the ouija board shorted out.