According to the New York Times, Ahmed Chalabi, our man in Baghdad, told Iranian intelligence that the United States had “broken” the Iranian intelligence code and was therefore able to read what the Iranians thought were secret communications.
If the Times has this one right — and the story seems very solidly sourced — it’s the worst chapter so far in the Chalabi story (which, I think you will agree, is saying a lot). Not that it was the most damaging thing Chalabi has been accused of doing, though it’s plenty damaging enough. But it’s the one thing that Chalabi couldn’t have done if he was actually on our side.
Looting and plundering? Hey, it’s not our stuff.
Feeding classified information to the Iranians? Well, if Chalabi is going to be an effective leader of the Iraqi Shi’a he needs to have some dealings with the mullocracy in Teheran, and it would have been reasonable for us to give him some chickenfeed to help establish his bona fides. Not everything classified is in fact dangerous, and there are probably some things we know that it would help us to have the Iranians know.
Feeding us Iranian disinformation? Well, he wasn’t fooling anyone who didn’t desperately want to be fooled.
But telling an intelligence service deeply entwined with international terrorism that we had broken its codes? There’s no way that could be anything but a major blow to U.S. security interests.
According to the Times, the FBI is investigating the small number of people who both knew about the Iranian codes and were close to Chalabi. They’re looking in the Defense Department, though Josh Marshall , who thinks he can guess the name of the likeliest candidate, hints there may be some White House folks involved as well.
[I have to disagree with Marshall on one point, though. He thinks that, given the near-worship accorded Chalabi by some of the neocons, it’s not surprising that they told him about the code-breaking. It surprises the Hell out of me.
Giving that sort of “sources & methods” information to a non-U.S.-national with no genuine need-to-know is flat-out astonishing, no matter how much you admire him. It’s also very, very, very illegal; given his nationality, Chalabi couldn’t possibly have had the necessary “codeword” clearances. So I’d lay long odds against a real intelligence or military-intelligence professional having done it. And I’d bet that Jim Woolsey, for example, changes his tune both about Chalabi and about the Administration; if not, his experience as Bill Clinton’s DCI must have driven Woolsey completely bonkers.
I was never really close in to this stuff, and have far less than my share of respect for the classification system, but even I’m creeped out by this one, jus as I was by the Valerie Plame fiasco. Sources & methods are sacred.]
Some of the story sounds like spy-novel stuff:
American officials said that about six weeks ago, Mr. Chalabi told the Baghdad station chief of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security that the United States was reading the communications traffic of the Iranian spy service, one of the most sophisticated in the Middle East.
According to American officials, the Iranian official in Baghdad, possibly not believing Mr. Chalabi’s account, sent a cable to Tehran detailing his conversation with Mr. Chalabi, using the broken code. That encrypted cable, intercepted and read by the United States, tipped off American officials to the fact that Mr. Chalabi had betrayed the code-breaking operation, the American officials said.
American officials reported that in the cable to Tehran, the Iranian official recounted how Mr. Chalabi had said that one of “them” — a reference to an American — had revealed the code-breaking operation, the officials said. The Iranian reported that Mr. Chalabi said the American was drunk.
The Iranians sent what American intelligence regarded as a test message, which mentioned a cache of weapons inside Iraq, believing that if the code had been broken, United States military forces would be quickly dispatched to the specified site. But there was no such action.
The account of Mr. Chalabi’s actions has been confirmed by several senior American officials, who said the leak contributed to the White House decision to break with him.
Now, if you really wanted to play spy-novel games, I suppose you could still think Chalabi was innocent. Say the Iranian mullahs have decided (as Wesley Clark thinks they have) that U.S. success in Iraq would be a deadly threat to the survival of their regime. And suppose they think that discrediting Chalabi would make that success less likely. And suppose they’ve discovered in some other way that we’ve broken their codes. Then that message from Baghdad — sent conveniently down a channel the sender was on notice was broken — was a way of disposing of Chalabi while also obscuring the actual process by which they learned the code was broken.
None of that is impossible (not nearly as implausible as the paranoid fantasies Michael Ledeen has been concocting on the subject), though it doesn’t jibe very well with the fact that Chalabi’s intelligence chief is now a fugitive in Teheran. But the more obvious interpretation is more likely to be correct: that one of Chalabi’s neocon buddies got sloshed with him and blabbed, and Chalabi told it to an Iranian who stupidly sent it down an insecure channel.
The phrase “criminal negligence” gets thrown about a lot in politics. But in this case it’s precisely applicable. Whoever that drunken buffoon was did something criminally negligent: the crime being defined at Sec. 798 of Title 18 of the United States Code.
The other people who trusted Chalabi weren’t criminally negligent. But they were stageringly, astonishingly, earth-shatteringly wrong. Either the President has to fire them, or we have to fire him.
Whoever turns out to be the culprit, and whatever rank he holds, it should be noted that the general climate in which this took place was established by decisions at the very highest level. Chalabi was treated and portrayed as a man whose interests were all-but-identical to those of the United States and, under those circumstances, why wouldn’t you share sensitive intelligence with the future leader of the New Middle East?
Yes and no. Yes, the decision to deify Chalabi was made at, if not really “the highest levels” at least at the second-highest level. But no, that decision didn’t mean sharing information about broken codes with him. Product, maybe. But the fact that we had broken the Iranian ciphers was simply non of Chalabi’s business. Whoever told him was either very, very stupid or very, very drunk.
Or, perhaps, both.