U.S. Only Wounded Itself When It Betrayed Chalabi

The recent reports detailing the alleged perfidy of Ahmad Chalabi actually say much more about his accusers in the U.S. government than they do about Chalabi himself. They reveal Washington as a faithless friend and its agencies as more concerned with carrying out vendettas than with pursuing the real enemies of the United States.

But that is starting at the end of the story. The beginning is far different: Once, in the early 1990s, Chalabi was a trusted associate of the Central Intelligence Agency, the key player in a unsuccessful coup to overthrow Saddam Hussein and, as head of the Iraqi National Congress, one of the few effective Iraqi politicians in exile. Later, abandoned by the CIA, Chalabi was supported, albeit reluctantly, by the State Department.

Today, however, Chalabi is being accused by unnamed administration officials of a laundry list of treachery, including revealing classified information to the government of Iran. From CIA co-conspirator to traitor in a few short years appears to be a stunning fall from grace. But, in this case, appearances are deceiving. The truth is that those who are now accusing him are the same people who have viewed him as an enemy for many years. They are the people inside our government--at State, in the CIA and elsewhere--who oppose the administration's policy in Iraq and who see Chalabi as its personification.

Chalabi himself never changed. He was very consistent: He wanted the overthrow of Hussein. When the CIA dumped him, he went to Congress; when Congress lost interest, he went to the Pentagon. He has never taken no for an answer, never accepted the premise that it was better to accept a tyrant in Iraq than risk destabilizing the Middle East. In so doing, he earned himself the undying hostility of a variety of powerful Washington players.

Throughout the 1990s, Chalabi was regularly accused of malfeasance by his enemies. He was convicted in absentia in Jordan of embezzling funds from the bank he ran. Those charges have never been documented.

Then State Department officials accused his organization of playing loose with U.S. money. In every instance he was exonerated by the department's own inspector general.

The latest charges have been dizzying. The Iraqi National Congress has been accused of providing bad intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. INC officials in Iraq are being investigated for a variety of crimes. Chalabi himself, according to unnamed sources, was supposedly obstructing an investigation of the United Nations oil-for-food program. And now he is accused of spying for Iran.

But the charges don't ring true. Wasn't Chalabi, as chairman of the Iraqi Governing Council's finance committee, the moving force behind the oil-for-food investigation? (Yes, he was.) And since when is it the job of intelligence sources to vet the information they pass to the U.S.? Isn't that the CIA's brief?

Of all the charges, passing secrets to Iran is the most serious. It is gravest, obviously, for the American who supposedly told Chalabi that we had broken Iranian codes. That person is governed by U.S. laws, and if he exists, he should be prosecuted.

Chalabi, on the other hand, is a foreigner and owes us no fealty (although it is worth noting that he denies the charges). That he has been close to the Iranians has been well known for years; the United States even paid for his offices in Tehran. So there's no great surprise there.

But when you think about it, why would he pass secrets to Iranian intelligence in Baghdad? Why would that station chief then use the very codes Chalabi told him were compromised to pass the news back home? And why would we openly break with Chalabi unless we wished to confirm to the Iranians that the codes had indeed been compromised? It makes no sense.

In the end, little of this storm over Chalabi will matter to the man himself. As a target of American harassment, he has renewed his credibility in the eyes of his people. Rather, it is upon itself that the United States has inflicted a terrible wound.

There were all too few Iraqis who were willing to risk life and limb to topple Hussein; and there were even fewer who believed in Western democratic values. Chalabi was one. As we search the region for others who will help us spread democracy and help us rid the Middle East of its many kings and presidents-for-life, we will discover that the word has spread: The United States is a faithless friend.

Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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About the Author



  • As a long-time Senate Committee on Foreign Relation senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia, Danielle Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

    Pletka is the co-editor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the co-author of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.


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