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2004-04-27

Congress Probes INC’s Lobbying Efforts

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The Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi may have violated restrictions against using taxpayer money to lobby when it campaigned for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Congress’ General Accounting Office will investigate the allegation, which if proven true, means that U.S. taxpayers paid to have themselves persuaded that it was necessary to invade Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

The Knight Ridder News Service is reporting that the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi may have violated restrictions against using taxpayer money to lobby when it campaigned for the US invasion of Iraq.

The allegation is the subject of a coming investigation by Congress’ General Accounting Office. As Knight Ridder reported, if the charge proves true, it means that U.S. taxpayers paid to have themselves persuaded that it was necessary to invade Iraq.

Officials of the Iraqi National Congress deny the allegation. But officials at the State Department, which managed the INC’s U.S. government grant, said they believe it did violate the restrictions, despite what a senior official said were repeated warnings to the group to avoid lobbying "or even the appearance of same."

Federal law prohibits the use of U.S. government money for lobbying on financial matters, such as government contracts. A grant agreement between the INC and the State Department prohibited lobbying and propagandizing.

Ahmed Chalabi has long been a favorite of hawks at the Pentagon and CIA. And there have been internal fights within the Washington power establishment over supporting him. The INC was the major recipient of nearly $100 million dollars in US funds in 1998. And the group hired Shea and Gardner, the law firm of former CIA director James Woolsey, to represent their interests in Washington.

  • Warren Strobel, senior foreign affairs correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers. He has covered that topic for more than 15 years and is the author of the book "Late-Breaking Foreign Policy: The News Media’s Influence on Peace Operations" (May 1997) a study of how CNN and other news media affect U.S. foreign policy and the deployment of American troops abroad.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Warren Strobel, Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers. He has covered the topic more than 15 years, is the author of the book, Late Breaking Foreign Policy: The News Media’s Influence on Peace Operations, A Study of How CNN and Other News Media Affect U.S. Foreign Policy and the Deployment of U.S. Troops Abroad. Welcome to Democracy Now!

WARREN STROBEL: How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your latest report?

WARREN STROBEL: Yes. What we found is that the same individuals who were involved in the Iraqi National Congress, that is the exile group that helped foment the war and persuade the country that war was necessary, they set up a lobbying group. It was allowed to lobby. Basically what you had was the crossover between the INC which was prohibited from lobbying and a group called the Iraqi Liberation Action Committee, which was permitted to lobby. And several State Department officials told me that was in violation of the law, but, if not, at least the understandings they had when they agreed to move money to the INC.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Warren Strobel, Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers. You get people within the State Department saying the INC is breaking the law?

WARREN STROBEL: I don’t want to go as far as saying breaking the law, potentially breaking the law, at the least, breaking understandings. When the State Department gives money to any group such as the Iraqi National Congress, there’s a detailed grant agreement about what they cannot do. They repeatedly say, do not take the American taxpayer dollars and lobby with it. Many people feel they did so. Two members of the U.S. Senate feel the same. An investigation may get to the bottom of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Warren Strobel, you did a report on the INC, submitting this list to Congress of all of the newspaper articles that they were cited in. Can you talk about that.

WARREN STROBEL: Absolutely. My colleague, I should mention my colleague, Jonathan Landau at Knight Ridder, he and I spent the last year-and-a-half trying to go back and look at the circumstances that sort of led us to what is the first preemptive war in U.S. history, a war that was argued and made on the grounds of weapons of mass destruction, and links to terrorism that proved not to be true. We just thought that was a — not an outrageous, but a unique set of circumstances that — we needed to investigate more. And so, we looked — we have been looking at the INC. We have been looking at defectors that they brought into the government, into the United States who said they had information about weapons of mass destruction, and what we found out is several things. First of all, most of the defectors turned out to be fabricators. They lied when they said they had knowledge of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or Saddam’s links to terrorism. Secondly, there was a very conscious and forceful and sophisticated effort to get the information into the mainstream news media. What happens is there’s a little trick that officials like to play. They cannot use classified information in public statements, but what they can do is leak it to the media and make sure they get to the media and they cite the media report. It has the same effect, but they don’t break the law. This is what happened. The INC sent a memo to the Appropriations Committee almost bragging, saying their efforts had resulted in 108 stories on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts about your colleagues who continually used INC as sources, often not naming them, a group that had invested interest in the invasion of Iraq, and now especially being the source of information for people like Judith Miller, the Chief National Security correspondent of the New York Times that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction.

WARREN STROBEL: I’ll be honest with you Amy, I’m reluctant to getting in the service of criticizing other members of the media. We do what they do, we did what they did and what they’re doing in terms of coverage. I think all of us, including the newspaper you mentioned, The New York Times, certainly should have been more skeptical before the war. There was sort of a 9-11 psychosis that led, I think, the news media and politicians not to question things that should have been questioned. Knight Ridder and many other organizations are not spot-free as well. We all made mistakes.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the future of Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq?

WARREN STROBEL: That’s a good question and something that people are looking into. I have been told that Lacknar Brahihmi, who is the US envoy, who really will be picking the interim government, despises Chalabi and sees him as part of the problem, not part of the solution. There have been polls done that says that Chalabi has higher negatives than Saddam Hussein. In other words, he’s more unpopular than Saddam Hussein, even today. On the other hand, he is a very — he is the kind of person that does not give up. He has had a goal of being in power in Iraq for a long time. He still has powerful supporters in the office of the Vice President and Pentagon. He has the important — some important documents. He has all or part of the Mucabrat file, the files of the Iraqi intelligence service. I shouldn’t know this but he has a brother or nephew, who is going to be running the trial of Saddam Hussein. So, Chalabi has a lot of enemies and friends. I wouldn’t count him out.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to say thank you very much for being with us, Warren Strobel, who is headed off to the John Negroponte hearings who could replace Paul Bremer, if approved. We will talk about that, but we want to continue on the issue of what people understand about what happened.

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