‘Ever bought a fake picture?’
‘I sold a couple once,’ said Toby with a ﬂashy nervous smile, but no one laughed. ‘The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt it. Silly, but there we are.’
—George Smiley, in John le Carré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier ,Spy”
On November 4, 2001, almost two months after 9/11, Ahmad Chalabi called a telephone number in Lebanon, according to Mohamad al-Zobaidy, who took the phone call at his apartment in Beirut, greeted Chalabi and noted his instruction. Chalabi’s code name in Zobaidy’s records was Our Big Brother. Take care of the two men in your custody, Chalabi told Zobaidy on the phone. Don’t let anyone see the men, he insisted. Don’t let them talk to anyone. Zobaidy nodded and reassured Ahmad Chalabi before hanging up the phone. Zobaidy knew how to keep secrets and how to make sure people did what he told them to do. He’s not a large man, but he carries himself as if he is. A veteran of the INC (Iraqi National Congress), he wears a rakish little goatee. And he lived the life of a secret agent, ranging across borders to serve the organization’s needs. In fact, his own code name in the INC was Al Deeb, The Wolf. Zobaidy, who kept an immaculate diary, would later become bitter toward Chalabi and his INC, but in 2001 and 2002 he was still a loyal and dedicated secret soldier in its cause.
Chalabi’s phone call to Zobaidy puts Chalabi in the middle of one of the earliest and most significant propaganda operations run by the INC after 9/11: an elaborate series of claims that Saddam ran a school for training airline hijackers at a terrorist camp called Salman Pak.
It was Francis Brooke (Chalabi's loyal American aide) who got the message out to Aras Kareem Habib and others right after 9/11: “Get me a terrorist and some WMDs, because that’s what the Bush administration wants!” He tells the story in various ways: “If you’ve got it, bring it on, because now’s the time” is the phrase he used in another conversation. Whatever Brooke’s specific instructions were, the INC campaign had two themes: to ﬁnd Iraqi defectors who were prepared to make allegations about Saddam’s WMDs on the one hand and defectors who’d make allegations about Saddam’s links to terror on the other. All in all Chalabi’s people — defectors and sources — produced four major story lines about Saddam, all of them false, but all with worldwide media coverage.
(The) story in the Times broke on November 8, 2001 — the headline was gripping, coming in those months after 9/11: “Defectors Cite Iraqi Training for Terrorists” — and it linked (Iraqi defector Sabah) Khodada’s and (fellow defector) Abu Zainab’s yarns together for the ﬁrst time. “Two defectors from Iraqi intelligence,” wrote (reporter Chris) Hedges, “said yesterday that they had worked for several years at a secret Iraqi government camp that had trained Islamic terrorists in rotations of ﬁve or six months since 1995.” The story cited both Khodada and Abu Zainab, whom it called a “former lieutenant general.” Abu Zainab was evocative in his descriptions, calling the Islamists at the camp “a scruffy lot” who had trained in Iraq how to take over airplanes. “We were training these people to attack installations important to the United States,” Abu Zainab said in the article. “The gulf war never ended for Saddam Hussein. He is at war with the United States. We were repeatedly told this.” The New York Times article pointed out that the allegations were “likely to fuel one side of an intense debate in Washington over whether to extend the war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban government of Afghanistan to include Iraq.”
Capitalizing on the publicity
Chalabi lost no time in capitalizing on the publicity. Working over the weekend at the Pennsylvania Avenue address of the INC, just blocks from the White House, the INC was anxious to prove that the hundreds of thousands of dollars per month in information-collection program funds were being spent well. The INC dashed out a report to the State Department, boasting that it continued to “collect sensitive information that reveals Iraq’s link with September 11th aftermath.” That’s an intriguing part of the story, because it indicates that the State Department, while not believing Chalabi’s information, should have been aware of the propaganda operation.
As dramatic as all the information was, the Central Intelligence Agency never bought it. “It was tainted,” said one member of the Iraqi Operations Group. “We knew that Salman Pak was used to train Palestinians in the 1990s but not al Qaeda.” The agency’s Iraqi Operations Group wrote up an analysis stating that “we have determined that much of his (Abu Zainab’s) information is inaccurate and appears aimed at inﬂuencing U.S.(and probably Western) policy on Iraq.”
And a year after 9/11, on September 29, 2002, well before any invasion of Iraq, the CIA produced a secret report to explain its views about Salman Pak. “At least one of these defectors,” the CIA analysts wrote, referring to Abu Zainab, “had embellished and exaggerated his access. . . . No al Qaeda associated detainee since 11 September have said they trained at Salman Pak.”
This might have put it all to bed, except it came far too late. At a bare minimum it was ﬁfteen days too late. On September 12, 2002, President George Bush stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations and gave a speech that largely foreshadowed the case for war, as troops were already heading toward the Gulf. That same day, the White House released a fact sheet to go along with the presidential speech, which was supposed to assist reporters in their coverage of the story. It repeated the now well-worn allegations about Salman Pak. “Former Iraqi military ofﬁcers,” it said, clearly referring to Abu Zainab and Sabah Khodada, “have described a highly secret terrorist training facility in Iraq known as Salman Pak, where both Iraqis and non-Iraqi Arabs receive training on hijacking planes and trains, planting explosives in cities, sabotage, and assassinations.”
It had been nearly a full year since Ahmad Chalabi met with the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) to tell them the tale. It had been fully investigated and essentially discarded. Even Chalabi’s own people didn’t believe the chief source.
But still, Chalabi’s allegations about Saddam’s role in training hijackers had found their way into the White House press ofﬁce as it made the case for war.
The whole story cost the INC no money at all. Not a dime. After all, the group’s budget was entirely paid for by the State Department, which grudgingly and unwittingly paid for all expenses. Abu Zainab’s expenses … and everything the INC spent on their efforts was paid for by American taxpayers.
Aram Roston is an investigative producer at the award-winning NBC News investigative unit. He has also worked as a correspondent for CNN and a New York City police reporter. His work has been published in Maclean's, The Nation, the London Observer, GQ Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine and The Washington Monthly.