In the period before the Iraq war, the CIA and the Bush administration erroneously believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding major programs for weapons of mass destruction. Now NBC News has learned that for a short time the CIA had contact with a secret source at the highest levels within Saddam Hussein’s government, who gave them information far more accurate than what they believed. It is a spy story that has never been told before, and raises new questions about prewar intelligence.
What makes the story significant is the high rank of the source. His name, officials tell NBC News, was Naji Sabri, Iraq’s foreign minister under Saddam. Although Sabri was in Saddam's inner circle, his cosmopolitan ways also helped him fit into diplomatic circles.
In September 2002, at a meeting of the U.N.’s General Assembly, Sabri came to New York to represent Saddam. In front of the assembled diplomats, he read a letter from the Iraqi leader. "The United States administration is acting on behalf of Zionism," he said. He announced that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the U.S. planned war in Iraq because it wanted the country’s oil.
But on that very trip, there was also a secret contact made. The contact was brokered by the French intelligence service, sources say. Intelligence sources say that in a New York hotel room, CIA officers met with an intermediary who represented Sabri. All discussions between Sabri and the CIA were conducted through a "cutout," or third party. Through the intermediary, intelligence sources say, the CIA paid Sabri more than $100,000 in what was, essentially, "good-faith money." And for his part, Sabri, again through the intermediary, relayed information about Saddam’s actual capabilities.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.
The sources say Sabri’s answers were much more accurate than his proclamations to the United Nations, where he demonized the U.S. and defended Saddam. At the same time, they also were closer to reality than the CIA's estimates, as spelled out in its October 2002 intelligence estimate.
For example, consider biological weapons, a key concern before the war. The CIA said Saddam had an "active" program for "R&D, production and weaponization" for biological agents such as anthrax. Intelligence sources say Sabri indicated Saddam had no significant, active biological weapons program. Sabri was right. After the war, it became clear that there was no program.
Another key issue was the nuclear question: How far away was Saddam from having a bomb? The CIA said if Saddam obtained enriched uranium, he could build a nuclear bomb in "several months to a year." Sabri said Saddam desperately wanted a bomb, but would need much more time than that. Sabri was more accurate.
On the issue of chemical weapons, the CIA said Saddam had stockpiled as much as "500 metric tons of chemical warfare agents" and had "renewed" production of deadly agents. Sabri said Iraq had stockpiled weapons and had "poison gas" left over from the first Gulf War. Both Sabri and the agency were wrong.
In the weeks following September 2002, after first contact with Sabri was made in New York, the agency kept much of his information concealed within its ranks. Sabri would have been a potential gold mine of information, according to NBC News analyst retired Gen. Wayne Downing.
"I think it’s very significant that the CIA would have someone who could tell them what’s on the dictator’s mind," says Downing.
But, intelligence sources say, the CIA relationship with Sabri ended when the CIA, hoping for a public relations coup, pressured him to defect to the U.S. The U.S. hoped Sabri would leave Iraq and publicly renounce Saddam. He repeatedly refused, sources say, and contact was broken off.
When war broke out, Sabri was defiant and outspoken. "Those aggressors are war criminals, colonialist war criminals. Crazy people led by a crazy, drunken, ignorant president," he said.
After the war, former CIA director George Tenet once boasted of a secret Iraqi source.
"A source," he said in a speech on Feb. 5, 2004, "who had direct access to Saddam and his inner circle." Sources tell NBC News Tenet was alluding to Sabri. Tenet said that the source — meaning Sabri — had said Iraq was stockpiling chemical weapons and that equipment to produce insecticides, under the oil-for-food program, had been diverted to covert chemical weapons production. However, in that speech, Tenet also laid out what Sabri had disclosed: that there was no biological program, that Saddam wanted nuclear weapons but had none.
After the war, Sabri was not arrested or put on the notorious "deck of cards." He lives in the Middle East and NBC News is not revealing his location for security reasons. According to Downing, that he is living in the Middle East may be significant.
"The fact that he was there, that he was able to get out, live openly, like he is, says that for some reason he received some special status," says Downing.
NBC News repeatedly requested comments about this report from Sabri, either in written form, by telephone or in person. NBC News contacted Sabri several times by phone, and hand delivered a letter to a representative of his, explaining in detail the substance of this report, including the details about weapons of mass destruction. Sabri confirmed he received the letter, but repeatedly refused to comment in any way, neither confirming nor denying any of the information in this report.
So did the CIA. The agency also would not comment on Sabri, or answer why it discounted or ignored Sabri's assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program.