Iraq: The Big Manipulation

by Vincent Jauvert

Le Nouvel Observateur Hebdomadaire

Week of 24 June 2004

Now it's obvious to everyone: Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the famous arsenal brandished by George Bush and Tony Blair to justify the Iraq invasion, were a fiction. What is less well known is why the CIA went so far astray and what the White House' exact role was in this tremendous mystification. Vincent Jauvert has taken apart the mechanism of a manipulation whose consequences prove to be more deadly every day.

He appeared in Bangkok one day in December 2001. The man said he was an Iraqi construction engineer. He had just fled Saddam Hussein's regime and had things to reveal. In Iraq, he had built twenty factories for the production of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons - all underground. He could show the exact locations on a map. He has proof of this frightening arsenal: copies of contracts, plans... The CIA interrogates him several times in Thailand. Then it installs him in a little Virginia town with his whole family. For the intelligence agency, the engineer has become a precious defector - "the most important of all", the "New York Times" will write just before the war. In his famous speech at the UN in September 2002, George Bush cites the engineer's name: Adnan Saeed al-Haideri. According to the President of the United States, this man is the most convincing witness to the Iraqi threat. Six months later, after the fall of Baghdad, CIA officers will go to the sites the engineer has designated. The American spies will search, will dig up the earth, will excavate all over. They won't, however, find anything: no weapons of mass destruction, no laboratory, no evidence of a program start-up. Nothing. Adnan Saeed lied.

He wasn't the only one. According to an official American report revealed recently by the "Los Angeles Times", almost all the Iraqi defectors were fabulists; and on May 16, Colin Powell made this disturbing confession: some of the proofs he presented to the UN were "false" because the "sources" had lied.

Oh those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq! All of America, or almost, believed in them. They "justified" the war. They didn't exist. What happened? Why did the CIA go so far astray? How and by whom were Americans - whether simple citizens or senators - brainwashed? What was the White House role in this affair?

In recent months, congressmen have launched inquiries. Spies have begun to talk. Former Bush administration officials have revealed pre-war behind the scenes activity. "Le Nouvel Observateur" has questioned several of these witnesses. Thanks to them, a year and a half after the invasion of Iraq, we may attempt to reconstitute the causes of this unbelievable collective hallucination and to shed some light on the mechanisms of an unprecedented State manipulation.

Kenneth Pollack is the first witness. In his elegant forties, he was in the forefront during the months preceding the invasion. In 2002, this former CIA man wrote a book subtitled "Why We Must Invade Iraq". Kenneth Pollack, however, is neither an extremist nor a Republican, but a staunch Democrat. He advised Bill Clinton on the Gulf dossier at the White House. Then, in the fall of 2002, he puts himself at the Bush administration's service and criss-crosses the world to "sell" the war. In the United States, he convinces a good many Democrats of the Iraqi threat. In his office at Washington's Brookings Institute, this reserved man explains why he was fooled. "You must understand that I was obsessed by the past. When I worked in the CIA, Saddam Hussein had tricked us several times. In 1990, we didn't see that Iraq was inches away from having the atomic bomb. In 1995, we thought he hadn't succeeded in developing biological weapons, and we were wrong: when his son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, defected, we discovered the scope of his bacteriological program. So how was one to imagine that Saddam had stopped all that after the inspectors' departure in 1998? For me, it was inconceivable."

It was even more inconceivable for David Kay. This short and mustached former UN inspector has been a virulent pro-war proponent. Before the conflict, he stumped against those in favor of inspections. Two months after the fall of Baghdad, he continued to stomp around. He shouted it from every rooftop: the American army hadn't found anything because they hadn't looked well enough. The Bush administration took him at his word. He was thrust into the position of boss to the 130 American inspectors (Iraq Survey Group) sent into Iraq by the CIA in June 2003. Seven months later, however, the Napoleon of preventative war came back stammering, and he courageously confessed his defeat to Congress last January: "We have to admit it, we were all fooled - and myself first of all." Today he explains: "We were imprisoned in a certainty: Saddam had always lied and hidden his weapons, therefore he is still doing that; and we based all our evaluations on this hypothesis."

An example? The famous stocks of chemical and biological weapons. It was known that they existed before the 1991 Gulf War. The UN inspectors had destroyed several tons of them in the 1990s. The Iraqis swore that they had finished the job, the proof of those destructions, however, was inadequate. The American secret services - and Western secret services in general - concluded from this that the Iraqis were still lying as usual and that these weapons were hidden away somewhere. And they estimated these stocks to be the size of what they believed to be hidden.

However, this time the Iraqis were telling the truth. But they couldn't give all the details - and for good reason. "Here's what an Iraqi officer reported to me after the fall of Baghdad," David Kay relates. "During the Gulf War, a military truck that was carrying a large quantity of VX gas was at the front lines on the Kuwaiti border. At the moment of retreat, there was an ordinary traffic accident and the truck and all its cargo burned. Do you believe the company commander dared admit that to Saddam Hussein? Of course not. He was too scared. So we were still counting those particular tons in the presumed VX stocks."

David Kay gives another dramatic example. He says that Iraqi military got rid of very toxic agents several times near Baghdad without taking any precautions. That also could not be confessed to UN inspectors. In fact, fear, corruption, and chaos made a precise accounting impossible.

However, David Kay is now certain that Saddam Hussein made the strategic decision to destroy all stocks of biological and chemical agents. Why? "Because they weren't good for anything any more: he had no more missiles in condition to project them," explains David Kay. "And then, he wanted to get sanctions lifted and he knew that for that to happen, he'd have to accept a final round of inspections. It was highly probable that the UN inspectors would find all or part of those stocks. Consequently, he had to get rid of them. With the idea, of course, that he'd start all over again after the end of the embargo."

No Western intelligence service wanted to see this new strategy of Saddam Hussein. The CIA even believed that the dictator was not content just to hide his old stocks of anthrax and VX: he was producing new agents. There again, their judgments were based on fallacious reasoning. A present UN weapons inspector, who does not wish to be identified, explains: "Iraq would buy something that could be used to make either shampoo or sarin gas, for example. Well, then, the American secret services automatically accounted for the quantities of sarin that could be produced with this precursor in their estimates of new sarin stock. While, in fact, that product was used only to make shampoo...There are dozens of examples like that." Certain vaccines or antibiotics that could also be used as elements for the production of biological weapons were treated the same way. Or fuses that could be used in an atomic bomb or a dialysis machine... It must be said that the Iraqis acted suspiciously. "These purchases of problematic material were often made through front companies, or smuggled," the inspector continues. "So the secret services thought that they were probably intended for illicit activities. In fact, all of Iraq bought and sold the same way, on the black market. Because many people in Baghdad and the neighboring capitals profited from the commissions associated with this trafficking." The American spies, however, did not take that into account, since, as David Kay said, they rejected "all the evidence that didn't match their pre-established model."

One affair perfectly illustrates this blindness. In June 2001, a suspicious freighter arrived at the port of Aqaba in Jordan. The freighter came from Hong Kong and carried 3,000 aluminum tubes. A Jordanian firm - a front company had ordered it: the true destination was Iraq-, the CIA knew it. American agents seize the cargo. At CIA headquarters in Langley, Joe T. exults. This analyst has been following the affair for several weeks. He is sure that the tubes must be used for the manufacture of centrifuges, machines to enrich uranium. They are proof that Saddam Hussein will soon have a nuclear weapon. Outside of the CIA, however, nobody shares Joe T.'s opinion.

Particularly not Professor Houston Wood. He is the top American expert in centrifuges. He examines these tubes at Oak Ridge Atomic Center and gives his assessment. He remembers: "They were too thick. There was no way I could see how they could be used for centrifuges." His colleagues in the energy department advanced another explanation. These tubes were for rocket manufacture. The Iraqis were trying to copy one of the Italian Medusa company's models. They have proof: photos taken from spy satellites over Iraq. The satellite photos show tubes identical to the ones seized in Jordan, inscribed "Medusa, 81 mm rockets". However Joe T. doesn't want to let it go, and he succeeds in convincing CIA boss, George Tenet. His version becomes the agency's position and that of the Bush administration.

In fact, the White House provokes the American secret services' blindness. It exerts permanent pressure on them. It wants intelligence that justifies the invasion it has already planned. It is within this framework that Vice President Cheney, the head of the war party, makes several visits to Langley during spring 2002. He demands to meet the Iraq experts. He pushes them around. Look harder, find more proof, he says to them in effect. In the past, you've always underestimated Saddam, don't start doing that again. In short, he behaved as no other Vice President ever dared to do in the past, but he's been anointed by George Bush, who asks him to take the CIA in hand. The agency executes, gritting its teeth. "During this whole time," Kenneth Pollack explains, "I got a lot of indignant phone calls from friends inside the agency who couldn't stand the constant intimidation any more."

Out of obstinacy and under pressure, the CIA consequently constructs a virtual Iraq: a fictitious country conceived in Langley by a handful of analysts. To complete the picture, the agency will not refer to its agents on the ground: it has none or very few in Iraq, but to defectors who will brainwash with disconcerting ease.

At the heart of this disinformation machinery is a 56 year old Shi'ite banker, Ahmed Chalabi. He presides over the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the principal diaspora organization. He knows America and its secret services intimately. He grew up in Chicago where his family came as refugees in 1958 after the overthrow of the monarchy in Baghdad. In the United States, the Chalabis continued to live the high life. They are used to money and honors: Ahmed's father was President of the Senate. The son is brilliant: he takes a doctorate in mathematics at MIT. He's not made for research, however; he's an ambitious man in search of a career. First he tries finance. He starts a bank in Jordan that goes bankrupt in 1989 - a fraudulent bankruptcy. Having taken refuge in London, Ahmed Chalabi turns to politics. He has big ideas: he'll be Saddam Hussein's successor or bust.

After the Gulf War, the CIA becomes infatuated with this young Iraqi Anglophone with the mind-boggling manner. The CIA makes him its protégé. It bets millions of dollars on him. In 1992, it completely sets up the Iraqi National Congress and puts Ahmed Chalabi at its head. The family scion is now a creature of the American agency. He has a secret mission: to mount an espionage network in Iraq and organize defector flight. As often happens, however, the creature turns against its master. The manipulated becomes the manipulator. He's going to brainwash Langley.

How? The idea probably came to him the night of January 27, 1998. That day he welcomed a UN inspector to his home in London. It was Scott Ritter. Ritter was looking for the INC head's assistance. In Iraq, he said, the UN experts were at an impasse: they weren't finding anything any more, even though they were sure that Saddam was still hiding things from them. Could Chalabi gear up his clandestine organization to help them find the forbidden arsenal? Of course, the jovial Chalabi answered, all ears.

With big glasses and a square face, Scott Ritter tells what happened next: "So he'd understand, I gave him many details. I explained precisely what we were looking for. In particular, I told him that we suspected the Iraqis of having perfected mobile laboratories for the manufacture of biological weapons." And the naive Ritter doesn't stop there: he describes to the attentive Chalabi what such laboratories look like. The "creature" now knows how to appease and then manipulate the CIA. It only remains to make a suitably "briefed" defector appear.

Appear where? Why not in Germany? A few months later, a thirty-something year old Iraqi presents himself to the Berlin authorities. He's an engineer who has just fled Saddam Hussein's regime. He says he wants to spill the beans. He has learned his lesson well. The story he tells the Bundesnachrichtendienst (Bnd), the German secret service, goes something like this: "In Baghdad, I was a particularly brilliant student. Consequently, when I left the university, I was contacted by the regime bigwigs, Saddam's familiars. They asked me to lead a top secret program. What for? You'll never believe it: the implementation of mobile laboratories. To make what? Biological weapons."

The Iraqi is an excellent actor. He's also very well documented. His story has been polished up, down to the slightest details. He begins to minutely describe his workplace and the layout of the offices. He tells who does what. He gives the names of a dozen colleagues -"including the assistant in charge of renting cars...", the "Los Angeles Times" will later report. Then the conjuror defector goes into the heart of his subject. He explains that the labs are mounted on trucks and that he had them built three years before his departure. Then he draws out of his hat a sort of magic proof: a few very detailed drawings of the laboratories with the lay-out of compressors, pumps, incubators. As if by chance, they looks strangely like Inspector Ritter's explanations in London.

The trick worked. After a few months of questioning, the Bnd considers the young Iraqi's story "credible" and transmits the information to the CIA. The Germans, however, do not reveal the source's identity. The Americans give the mysterious defector a code name: "Curveball". They've gone for the bait. Now the only thing left is to reel in the line: convince the CIA that Curveball is telling the truth. Consequently, in 2001 and 2002, Ahmed Chalabi introduces two other "dissidents" to the American spies and both assert that they have seen mobile laboratories in Iraq. One even details that he'd been able to count seven or eight. The CIA's final doubts disappear. The agency is caught in the net. It will drag Colin Powell in with it.

On February 5, 2003, the Secretary of State works hard in front of the world's cameras at the UN. He puts all his authority and prestige into demonstrating the Iraqi threat. The mobile laboratories affair is the keystone to his presentation. These labs, he asserts, can "produce enough anthrax in a single month to kill thousands and thousands of people." He presents a "very detailed drawing of the way the trucks are configured" - the drawing Curveball entirely invented - as proof.

The CIA won't understand the manipulation until six months later, after the war. In the summer of 2003, Berlin finally releases its defector's identity to Washington. David Kay is going to lead the search in Iraq. He questions the "brilliant student's" family in Baghdad; he questions his brothers; he searches his university records, noses around at his workplace.... and, alarmed, he discovers the real Curveball. The little genius was not the first in his class, but the last. The dynamic young engineer had been fired from his office. The honest defector had not fled Iraq for political reasons: he was wanted for theft. Finally, the bitter cherry on the cake: Curveball is the brother of someone close to Ahmed Chalabi, the big manipulator. Hats off to the artist!

The Iraqi National Congress president had pulled off his most brilliant brainwashing operation with that one. There were others. In fact, CIA analyses of Iraq were riddled with the wild imaginings of suppositious defectors. To the point where one has to wonder how Chalabi could have been so effective. How did he know the missing pieces of the puzzle every time? In plain words, was the manipulator himself being used? If yes, by whom? The eternal question in espionage matters.

All one can do is highlight troubling connections. Chalabi has several friends strategically placed at the Pentagon and the White House, men who have militated with him for years in favor of a US overthrow of Saddam. Men who found him financing: Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary, Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's number three, Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's Chief-of-Staff… powerful men who had access to all State secrets.

Did the war clan "fabricate" Chalabi, his network, and his proofs in order to win the decision and suffocate any hesitations the planned Iraq invasion aroused, particularly at the State Department? In short, did Ahmed Chalabi bamboozle the American administration or was he a simple cog in the Bush propaganda machine? Ongoing Congressional inquiries are trying to clarify this question. If the answer is yes, the scandal, Chalabi-gate, will be huge.

Whatever the case, for the Bush clan, anything went to "justify", then to "sell" the war. After the summer of 2002, the White House put a formidable machine into operation to supply disinformation to the general public and Congress. It drew from the CIA's cooker to feed its sales pitch. It chose the intelligence that fit its propaganda. It amplified and distorted it. And whenever the needed intelligence was lacking, it invented another.

Greg Thielmann saw this manipulation of the State at work from the inside. In 2002, this dashing and athletic man was the principal Iraqi threat State Department analyst. In this capacity, he had access to top secret documents on the subject. He therefore knows all about it - to the point that the television channel CBS entitled a portrait of him it recently broadcast ""The Man Who Knew." In an Arlington restaurant close to Washington, he tells the story: "From August 2002 on, Bush, Cheney and the others began to lie to America. First they scared them with the tons of anthrax and toxic gas Iraq was supposed to release, without ever saying that they were talking about theoretical estimates that were not based on any fact."

"Then they waved another red flag, the ultimate peril: the atomic bomb," Greg Thielmann adds. "They asserted that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear teams. They lied. Thanks to our bugs, we knew that the atomic engineers didn't work together any more, that they had been transferred to other duties. We told the highest American authorities that, but that didn't fit in with their propaganda, so they acted as though that intelligence didn't exist."

"The same thing was true in the matter of the aluminum tubes. Outside of the CIA, no one believed it - no specialist, no allied intelligence service, not even the British MI6. I wrote a memo to Colin Powell on this subject. However, the White House never stopped repeating that the majority of experts shared the CIA's opinion! And then, right before the war, the tubes returned in all the speeches. It's alarming."

Then there was the phantasmagoric affair of the Niger uranium. "They used this re-treaded charade to make people believe in the nuclear threat," says Greg Thielmann. "At the end of 2001, the Italian secret services sent us a memo according to which Iraq would perhaps have tried to buy uranium from Niger. The information was vague and undocumented." In February 2002, Greg Thielmann lets Colin Powell know this affair seems hare-brained to him, but the White House doesn't want to know anything about it. On Vice President Cheney's order, the CIA sends a former diplomat and Africa specialist, Joseph Wilson, to Niger. He inquires and finds nothing. He reports that to Langley in March 2002.

The White House, however, would not drop the matter. The marketing men needed it. So then, miraculously, documents attesting to a negotiation between Iraq and Niger appear in Italy in October 2002. An anonymous source hands them over to Elisabetta Burba, a journalist from the weekly "Panorama". The reporter is wary and conducts her own inquiry in Niger. She doesn't find anything there and therefore decides not to publish anything. Her boss, however, is a friend of Berlusconi. Something tells him these strange documents will please Washington. He asks the journalist to hand them over to the American embassy in Rome. Bingo! The matter is re-launched in Washington. Once again, who is manipulating whom? A mystery.

However that may be, George Bush accuses Iraq of trying to import uranium from Africa, obviously to make an atomic bomb, on the basis of these 40 pages. The documents are fraudulent, but what does the White House care about that? Everything is good to convince public opinion and Congress.

Henry Waxman, Democratic Representative from California, voted for the war in Iraq. He hasn't calmed down ever since. In his office at the House of Representatives, this little man, a double for Gandhi, explains: "I believed their patter about a nuclear threat. And it was all a lie! They brainwashed Congress; that's unacceptable." To denounce the outrage, Henry Waxman published a devastating report last March: a list of 237 mendacious declarations made publicly by George Bush, Dick Cheney and the others on Saddam Hussein's suppositious arsenal. Yes, 237, 55 of which were uttered by the President of the United States himself.

Other voices, daily more numerous, denounce the manipulation of the State. Ray McGovern is a former CIA high official. Even he is furious: "There's no word to describe what George Bush has done to America and the world," he says. "To attack a country on the basis of false, truncated, or made up intelligence! Will he pay some day?"

Heads have begun to fall. George Tenet, the CIA head, resigned June 3. Ahmed Chalabi has been dismissed from power in Iraq. The Americans are even accusing him of having betrayed them for Iran. So far, however, no American political official has been punished. Next November?

Translation: t r u t h o u t French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.

Informant: Laurel


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