Chalabi’s Bay of Pigs?   by Patton Price                6/11/2003  


                        In The Future of Freedom, megawonk Fareed Zakaria’s hot new book, much is made of the power that can be exercised by a vocal minority within a democracy.  To develop and illustrate his claim, Zakaria cites the US’ Cuban exile community, themselves prominent members of the ruling class under the old order of Batista’s Cuba, and he notes the tremendous scope of their influence on the attitudes and actions embodying American foreign policy over the last three decades. 


                The US, he notes, long ago began normalizing relations with Vietnam as a response to the realization that Soviet communism no longer posed a threat: 

                “Why not Cuba?  The answer is faction.  Anti-Castro Cuban Americans have controlled the issue because they are more determined about it than anyone else and live in two electorally significant states, Florida and New Jersey.  Although a majority of Americans may have a different opinion, only Cuban Americans organize, donate, and vote on it.  Thus a handful of Americans in two states have been able to dictate American foreign policy.”   [Zakaria, 179]


                Earlier, Zakaria had explained the logic of a similar instance of a powerful minority—in this case, wool subsidies—in terms of a sort of collective political calculus: “If a group of 100 farmers got together to petition the government to give them $10 million, the benefit to each farmer is $100,000.  The cost to the rest of the country is about 4 cents per person.  Who is more likely to form a lobby, them or us?” [Zakaria 178].  This logic could explain much of why the extremes seem to dominate many political debates, from PETA to Operation Rescue to Fox News.


                Take this hypothetical: Imagine a group of wealthy yet dispossessed people such as the Cuban exiles.  Only this hypothetical group already has its own private “security force” and deep connections to the elites of its region and the world.  And what if questioning them or their motivations could be likened to supporting a dictator who makes Castro look like John F. Kennedy?  It might be interesting to see if they, too, could game the American system in their favor.


                Indeed, one need look no further than the US’ latest international junket in Iraq to see a brilliant example of just such a strong, self-interested political minority overcoming the odds to enlist the United States in the service of its goals: the Iraqi National Congress (INC), and more profoundly, its cofounder Ahmad Chalabi.


                Chalabi set up the INC in 1992, though it was founded on goals and connections going back much further.  The nascent coalition of smaller opposition groups received much public support from Washington.  The INC has long and well-established relationships that run the entire gamut of US intelligence services, though after the INC-backed, predominantly Shia uprising against Saddam in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Chalabi moved the groups offices to London.  Nonetheless, a number of key Congress members remain in the US, and each time that the group falls out of favor with one branch’s intelligence service, they seem to become useful for another’s.   The INC was demonstrably involved, be it behind-the-scenes or openly, in the collection or distribution of a surprising amount of the most important intelligence used by the government and the press to build the case for war in Iraq.  Much of that intelligence is increasingly dubious in retrospect.


                Charlie Rose sat down with Chalabi on Tuesday, June 11.  Most of the conversation’s focus was on the rebuilding of Iraq, but Rose did get around to a couple of the more pressing questions.  His most pointed question, however, was misguided:  When Rose asked Chalabi if he was a “creation of the Americans,” he should instead have asked if the Americans—insofar as they prioritized and constructed the timeframe for regime change in Iraq—were in fact a creation of Chalabi.


                The INC’s primary constituents are Iraqi nationals who were forced out by the Baath party in 1958.  They want to have a stake in modern Iraq, and removing a dictator hated by the US has been their primary obstacle.  In this way they resembled the Cubans at face value.  But were the INC and Chalabi really driving forces behind our decision to go to war?  Was Operation Iraqi Freedom just a high-budget, blockbuster remake of the Bay of Pigs?


                Another similarity between the INC and the Cuban exiles that is worthy of note is the tremendous extent to which they both benefited from the dominant isms of their day.  Just as anticommunism precluded any concession to the Soviet pet Castro, so too has the nascent War on Terrorism raised the stakes on any military activity in the Middle East.  With the application of the “axis of evil” designation, Saddam’s ouster went from being a proposal championed by hawks to being a moral imperative overnight.


                After the first Gulf War, the US scrambled to build an organization in Iraq that would have some lasting impact—both in term of political development and opposition to Hussein.  It was in this spirit that Chalabi parlayed $10 million of his own money and sizeable CIA payouts into the formation of the Iraqi National Congress.  The INC flourished, and formed its own army, which was eventually defeated by Hussein.  At this time, the INC itself joined Chalabi in western exile.


                The ties between the INC and western intelligence agencies continued over the years between the Iraq wars, with the INC’s developing intelligence wing serving as a conduit for information and defectors flowing out of Iraq.  Chalabi became a personality of interest in the mainstream media for a period leading up to the latest war, when leaked American documents first floated the idea of his taking over in post-war Iraq.  At this time, his connections were examined critically, and it was commonly noted that his ties to the CIA had likely been severed. 


                This was the source of some conflict between the CIA and the Department of Defense, which still saw a role for Chalabi’s INC in Iraq. On April 9, the Washington Times interviewed a key Chalabi supporter Randy Scheunemann, president of the Committee to Liberate Iraq.  Of the CIA’s recent statements distancing themselves from the INC he said, “Whatever the stories the agency may be spreading, it’s clear CentCom Commander Tommy Franks thinks the INC has an important role to play.”


                These earlier investigations into the INC’s connections had largely grown out of an August, 2002 piece in the Guardian, in which former CIA official Robert Baer was quoted as saying of Chalabi’s emerging relationship with Rumsfeld’s Defense Intelligence Agency: “He talks their language. He knows how to make himself clear and knows what they want to hear. He doesn't go round in circles like every Arab you ever sat down with in the Middle East.”  From one intelligence service to another, Chalabi moved and shook his way through most of the most of the US’ most important information-gathering services, all the while knowingly framing his pitch in the terms that Washington would want to hear.


                Once Chalabi himself openly retracted his interest in nominal post-war leadership, the heat died down.  The American people were mobilized behind a push to war that was more timely, imminent, and focused than the need to remove a callous dictator: the immediate threat posed by Iraq’s stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.  The failure to safely and expeditiously locate these weapons has begun a new round of skepticism about the war, this time looking into the Bush administration’s handling of intelligence information.  Somehow, the press, the government, and the public managed to arrive at the same tenuous conclusions justifying invasion—and now the assumptions on which their analyses were based are increasingly becoming fodder for outrage.


                It seems conceivable that, in its rush to uncover the specifics of the administration’s swindle, much of the media is overlooking the possibility that the hawks—and maybe even the press—were themselves swindled.


                The New York Times gains much from being the nation’s “paper of record.”  Not only does the Times have a large readership and significant impact on which issues are digested by many American moderates, its articles were also cited as evidence by President Bush in his State of the Union address.  No reporter at the paper—or perhaps in the nation—played as great a role in helping to make the case for the war in Iraq as Judith Miller.  And who was her primary source?  Ahmad Chalabi.


                In the aforementioned Charlie Rose interview, Chalabi insisted that he only arranged for Miller—a “very critical journalist with an eye for the truth,” in Chalabi’s words—to speak with one of the three defectors that he had previously connected with American intelligence services; he did not indicate whether he had provided her with information or a statement himself.  For his part, Chalabi now denies having supplied any sources that could explicitly confirm or deny the presence of WMD, but it is still worth noting that over a year ago, agents of both the government and press most certainly came out of interactions with the intelligence branch of the INC wholly convinced of their presence.  Indeed, Miller’s pronouncements were unequivocal; she referred to a datapoint in one of her articles as “the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons.”


                This is not to imply intentional malfeasance on Miller’s part—that can be left to others—but rather to elucidate the precariousness of her position: an “embedded” journalist at times, she was typically handed her “facts” and was apparently set up with her sources by Defense.  It would appear as if Miller accepted intelligence at face value, assuming it had been filtered by her minders in the US military and intelligence communities. Thus the impact of misjudgments going back years to the CIA exponentially increased in scope. 


                Faulty intelligence is one thing, a faulty national mindset is quite another.  A break in our collective logic can create vulnerabilities far more serious than any superweapon.  It can allow a small group of self-interested foreign exiles to drive the way the state and the public view and treat another nation, be it Iraq or Cuba.


                Bad policymaking, as with bad science and bad reporting, always flows from one central fallacy: only accepting that data which appears to confirm the hypothesis.  In such a context, enormous influence can be wielded by someone telling you what you want to hear.  For the CIA, DIA, and NYT, that someone was the Iraqi National Congress.  Perhaps only Chalabi knows if he was simply a string, linking agenda with action, or to what extent he himself was the puppeteer.


                While the Bay of Pigs invasion was a covert and precise attempt to work around the public, it seems an entire nation—and at least an entire government—knew what it wanted to hear in 2002 and 2003.  Perhaps then it should not have been surprising, especially in a nation with so many war cheerleaders to begin with, to hear the call for regime change screamed far and wide.  Was Chalabi behind the megaphone?




                        Works Cited/Bibliography


                        Zakaria, Fareed.  The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.  WW Norton and Company.  New York, NY.  2003,


                        “Is this man leading us to war with Iraq?”.  The Guardian.   4/10/2002.



                        Chalabi Backers Slam CIA.” The Washington Times. 4/9/2003.



                        Interview with Ahmad Chalabi.  Charlie Rose. 6/10/2003



                        Saddam's Possible Successors.  Justin Thompson. CBC News Online.  Aug. 9, 2002