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2008-03-26

"The Man Who Pushed America to War"–Aram Roston on "The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi"

Guests

Aram Roston, author of the new book, The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi. Aram is an investigative journalist with NBC News. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones and The Nation.

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As the war in Iraq enters its sixth year, we take a look at The Man Who Pushed America to War. That’s the title of a new book about Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who helped drum up pre-war claims that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and had links to al-Qaeda. We speak with author Aram Roston about Chalabi’s past, his close ties to the US government, his role in the US invasion of Iraq and much more. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue now on international and national policy, the war in Iraq entering its sixth year, an outbreak of fighting in several cities across Iraq is happening now. At least fifty-five people have died, more than 300 have been wounded, since the Iraqi government launched an offensive against Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in the southern city of Basra. The fighting is unraveling a ceasefire Sadr imposed last summer, and fears are growing the clashes could signal an end to the relative lull in attacks, assassinations, kidnappings and bombings. Meanwhile, it now appears President Bush will keep 140,000 troops in Iraq for the rest of his term.

All this comes just days after the fifth anniversary of the invasion. After half a decade of war with no end in sight, we take a look at The Man Who Pushed America to War. That’s the title of a new book about Ahmed Chalabi. He’s the Iraqi exile who lobbied Congress to support the invasion of Iraq. He provided the Iraqi sources to journalists and congressmen who said Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and had links to al-Qaeda, all of which turned out to be false. Chalabi led the Iraqi exile group the Iraqi National Congress. More recently, he promoted the so-called US troop “surge” to the Iraqi government. Who funded Chalabi’s work? The CIA, then the State Department.

Chalabi has long denied he helped drum up pre-war claims that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs. This is Chalabi speaking in November 2005 on a visit to New York.

    AHMED CHALABI: The fact that I perpetuated a case for war based on weapons of mass destruction is an urban myth which is not rooted in reality, and it continues to have a life of its own, despite the very serious investigations that were conducted by bipartisan bodies of the United States government, such as the Senate Intelligence Committee.

AMY GOODMAN: Aram Roston is the author of the new book The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi. Aram is an investigative journalist with NBC News. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones and The Nation. He joins us from Washington, D.C.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Aram Roston. Welcome.

ARAM ROSTON: Thank you so much. I’m very glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why you took Ahmed Chalabi on not just for an article, but for a full book, why he’s so significant today?

ARAM ROSTON: I think he really needed one. This is a man who’s had immense impact on America, immense impact on the world. He has, you know, collected tens of millions of dollars in US taxpayer funds. He’s had — he’s influenced Americans in a tremendous way and influenced the foreign policy of America, and few people really know that much about him. There sort of are a lot of urban myths about him. The truth really wasn’t known, and people hadn’t taken a look at his background. You know, I tried to do this — due diligence, go through the court records and try to understand really who he was, by talking to, you know, his family, his friends from a long time ago, understand what — to understand what motivated him and how we did what he did.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us a thumbnail sketch, Aram Roston, of who Ahmed Chalabi is, how he rose to power, even where he was born.

ARAM ROSTON: He was born in Iraq. He was born in 1944 in Iraq, and this was during the time of the monarchy, when the British sort of quietly ran Iraq. In reality, they had imposed this monarchy, brought this monarchy in. And he was exiled — his whole family left Iraq pretty much — in 1958, when there was a coup that really became a revolution. It was a largely Arab nationalist coup.

What’s interesting is that under the monarchy, Iraq was viewed as a central front in the war against international communism by the West. That’s the way they saw Iraq. They thought it was useful in being a bastion against international communism. And they were very concerned about the coup, about the revolution that toppled the king. Nonetheless, in the end, they continued to deal — the West continued to deal with the Arab nationalist government that came into power, because the oil kept on flowing.

Ahmed Chalabi left. He was a brilliant young man. He was great at mathematics. He went to MIT, and he went to the University of Chicago, where he got his Ph.D. He was a math professor for a while, but he came from a banking family, a rich, rich Shiite banking family, and eventually he went into banking. And as many people know, his bank later collapsed in fraud, in allegations of real fraud, and he had to flee from Jordan, where he was living. And he later showed up as an Iraqi opposition leader, which is what we know him as now.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Aram Roston, who has written a book, The Man Who Pushed America to War. Talk about how he came to be associated with so many in high levels of the US government.

ARAM ROSTON: It goes back a long way. He was always brilliant at working Washington. He knew how to do it. Often, you know, he would do it behind the scenes. He would learn the names and befriend the staffers of — that were really sort of behind the power, powerful people in Washington. He was smart enough to do that. And he had worked Washington a little bit in the ’80s. And finally, when he sort of remade himself and became this opposition leader after America’s first war, you know, the first Gulf War, where Saddam Hussein was left in power, it presented an opportunity for people like Chalabi. And he did make friends in Washington on all — on both sides of the political aisle, both Democrats and Republicans.

AMY GOODMAN: And the journalists he befriended?

ARAM ROSTON: There, he was just great at playing journalists. First of all, he advanced — he developed these relationships where he was able to plant exclusives. And journalists love that, of course. So he would sort of give one a present of what seemed like a very valid story, give another one a present of another valid story.

The weird thing was, I thought, that what people haven’t focused on him with is that he and his group, the Iraqi National Congress, were basically funded by US taxpayers, first by the CIA from ’92 to ’96 and then later, after that, by the State Department, which was forced to fund him by the US Congress. He had so many friends in Congress. But much of what they did — much of what the Iraqi National Congress did with that money, in part, was funneling stories to journalists. And he became immensely successful at it. And as we know, most of those stories were false.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about his relationship with Judith Miller of the New York Times.

ARAM ROSTON: That’s a relationship that apparently goes back quite a ways and went back to when he was a banker in Jordan. And it was one of many — she was actually one of many journalists who worked with him, but she maintained a very tight friendship with him. And she became the most notorious. She stuck with him. She continued to — she wouldn’t cooperate in this book, either, but she believed — you know, she believed — she would have cooperated, I think, if he had. But she believed strongly, and still seems to believe, that his stories were accurate, that he’s a very credible figure and that he was a leader for this new Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, it wasn’t just Judith Miller doling out information that became the core of pieces in 60 Minutes, Vanity Fair, ABC, New York Times, Washington Post.

ARAM ROSTON: No, exactly. It was — it’s all a slew of journals and a slew of television programs, but each one typically would get a piece of the pie that he was producing, a piece of the product of what ended up being phony propaganda that the Iraqi National Congress was coming up with. And they had a very elaborate system set in place to get these stories in the press and into the intelligence stream.

They weren’t very successful getting these stories into the intelligence stream. And what I found was they were most successful after the attacks of 9/11. People were very — they wanted stories about terror and about Saddam Hussein, about weapons of mass destruction. So Chalabi’s group became very successful at planting these stories. They weren’t that successful, it seems, in getting it into the CIA, because the CIA at that point didn’t trust a word that Chalabi’s group said. But they were much more successful in impacting public opinion. And that had an immense impact, obviously, on America.

There were four stories, I think, that were most significant that Chalabi and his people put forward. One was the idea that Saddam Hussein trained hijackers to take over airplanes. That was one idea. It turned out to be false, but it was one story that found its way into Frontline, into the New York Times, into Vanity Fair. Another story was about Saddam’s mistress, a woman they produced who said that she had seen Saddam dealing with Osama bin Laden. Again, this connects in the viewer’s mind the idea that there is a link between Saddam and Osama bin Laden, and therefore the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And then there were WMD issues that we all know about.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Aram Roston. His book is The Man Who Pushed America to War. We’ll come back to him after break, and then we’ll talk about the economy, what’s happening here. There will be a march here on Wall Street in just a few hours. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Aram Roston. His book is The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi. I wanted to get your response to Ahmed Chalabi’s response to your book, who said, quote, “The INC never provided information to the US that the INC knew or suspected to be false. None of my top advisers, current or former, said to Mr. Roston that they knew that key defectors were giving information to the US which was, in some cases, untrue or embellished.” Your response, Aram Roston?

ARAM ROSTON: Well, in the book, I lay out the names of two former top advisers to Chalabi. One is Mohammed al-Zubaidi, who lives in Beirut now, who was really the one who gathered up most of these defectors. And he — there’s quotations from him, on the record, where he talks about his doubts about them and about their stories and about how he sort of tried to work out what was really happening and how he says kept records of how he says he notified others in the Iraqi National Congress about his concerns about what they were saying, that they had imaginations, and so forth — vivid imaginations, for example. And then, the other one was a man named Nabeel Musawi, who also used to be a top adviser to Ahmed Chalabi. It’s in the book. They’re quoted on the record, and the quotes are there.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about how the CIA and DIA funded Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress through private for-profit companies owned by Chalabi. Explain what they were.

ARAM ROSTON: Well, that intrigued me, and so what I was trying to do was find out how the money was getting to Chalabi, because it’s such an important — that’s how he managed to do what he did. When the CIA was funding him in the early ’90s, apparently he set up a company called IBC Communications, or Iraqi Broadcasting Company. And what they did is they operated as sort of — they put out a newspaper, and they ran a TV station supposedly in Kurdistan. It didn’t really do that much, but it did exist. And it was through this company, sources told me, that the US CIA managed to fund the Iraqi National Congress, because one of the intriguing things about the Iraqi National Congress, it wasn’t actually incorporated anywhere. It couldn’t actually write checks. It couldn’t pay people. It couldn’t rent property. So the way it was done was through a company run by Ahmed Chalabi, this Iraqi Broadcasting Company, or IBC Communications. That was in the early ’90s.

Later, when the DIA — this is much later — the DIA unwillingly began to fund his operations, there was a company called Boxwood. It was registered in Virginia, and it was through this company that existed mainly as a pass-through — it was through this company that the Defense Intelligence Agency began paying, you know, the $340,000 a month that would find its way to the Iraqi National Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: We have just spent the first half of the show talking about John McCain’s foreign policy. You write, Aram Roston, in your book that Ahmed Chalabi preferred John McCain to George Bush as president in 2000, thinking he would be much more friendly, open to him. Talk about their relationship.

ARAM ROSTON: Well, their relationship went back to at least ’91. At one point, there was a group that preceded the Iraqi National Congress called the International Committee for a Free Iraq, which Chalabi helped to set up and really did run. It didn’t do much necessarily, but it existed as a symbolic group, and John McCain had signed his name to it, and so had Claiborne Pell, a Democratic senator. So it’s not as if he was alone in this, because at the time, again, Saddam Hussein had been left in power after the first Gulf War, and a lot of people had concerns about the decision to do that. And Chalabi took advantage of that concern that so many people had, and he shared it.

So, later, of course, during — in 1998, there was the Iraqi Liberation Act, which Congress passed, which largely was written for Ahmed Chalabi. McCain supported that. But again, so many others did. But McCain supported that. But in the 2000 elections, there were obviously, you know, a group of people — there was McCain, and he was running in a primary against Bush. The fact is, Chalabi and his people knew McCain. McCain had been a supporter. So they did sort of support him. On the other hand, the neoconservatives ended up in the George Bush camp. But an irony there, too, was that Al Gore’s vice-presidential candidate of course was Joe Lieberman, who was also a very strong, and perhaps is still, a very, very strong supporter of Ahmed Chalabi, so that no matter what happened —-

AMY GOODMAN: The man who was whispering in McCain’s ear.

ARAM ROSTON: Yes, exactly, the man who was whispering in McCain’s ear the other week.

AMY GOODMAN: You also, in your book, name the Iranian intelligence official with whom Ahmed Chalabi personally dealt at the same time he was dealing with Americans. Let’s talk about who he is and the significance of who Ahmed Chalabi is working for.

ARAM ROSTON: Well, the Iranian group that is charged by Iran with exporting -— you know, exporting the Iranian — the Islamic revolution is called the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards. And they — the man who runs their operations in Iraq now, and did before the war, is a general named Ahmed Foruzandeh. And Ahmed Foruzandeh is considered a very talented intelligence officer, and he’s very good at covert operations for the Iranians, and he’s very committed, he’s very sophisticated, and he’s no joke. And it’s certainly true that Chalabi had met with him before the war, before the US invasion.

What concerned American intelligence officers was when they found out — they believed he was meeting — he had met with him after the invasion, while the DIA was still funding the Iraqi National Congress’s intelligence operations in Iraq. It would have been in the spring of 2004. And they had serious concerns about that.

Now, more recently, Ahmed Foruzandeh, this man I mention in the book, he’s been named by the US government itself publicly as supporting terror, supporting insurgency. He’s been designated by the Treasury Department under an executive order as a real threat to efforts in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: And today, where Ahmed Chalabi is, who he has served more — the United States or Iran?

ARAM ROSTON: That was an interesting — I wanted to look at that, because some people have said Ahmed Chalabi may be an Iranian agent. I didn’t find any evidence, really, he was an Iranian agent or that Iran controlled him or directed him or really paid him. I mean, America paid him. But still, whose interest did he serve more? Who benefited more from their relationship with him? There, it does seem clear that Iran benefited quite a bit, and he was close to Iranian intelligence, and he — certainly he was on the outs with American intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: And his position today?

ARAM ROSTON: Well, it’s interesting. He’s back. You know, we’re familiar with the fact that he — in the 2005 elections in Iraq, he was — he lost miserably. He got less than one percent of the vote, which really disappointed his American supporters and the neoconservatives, but — and so, for a little while he was struggling. But now he appears to be back.

He’s got a committee that he runs in Iraq. He was appointed by Nouri al-Maliki to run a committee to oversee, quote, “services” — that is, reconstruction in Baghdad. He’s supposed to coordinate the ministries of, say, electricity, health, water, and revive these services that basically the citizens of Baghdad don’t have and haven’t really had for five years during this time. Some people — you know, he’s dealing with Americans, he’s dealing with the Iraqis. Some people think, why not? You know, at least he’s competent. You know, whatever his motivation is, at least he’s organized and he’s competent. But he’s certainly — after all of this, he’s still working with American authorities again.

AMY GOODMAN: Aram Roston, I want to thank you very much for being with us. He’s the author of the new book The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi. He is an investigative journalist with NBC Nightly News. Thank you so much for being with us.

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