Iraqi exile group fed false information to news media

Knight Ridder NewspapersMarch 15, 2004 

WASHINGTON — The former Iraqi exile group that gave the Bush administration exaggerated and fabricated intelligence on Iraq also fed much of the same information to leading newspapers, news agencies and magazines in the United States, Britain and Australia.

A June 26, 2002, letter from the Iraqi National Congress to the Senate Appropriations Committee listed 108 articles based on information provided by the INC's Information Collection Program, a U.S.-funded effort to collect intelligence in Iraq.

The assertions in the articles reinforced President Bush's claims that Saddam Hussein should be ousted because he was in league with Osama bin Laden, was developing nuclear weapons and was hiding biological and chemical weapons.

Feeding the information to the news media, as well as to selected administration officials and members of Congress, helped foster an impression that there were multiple sources of intelligence on Iraq's illicit weapons programs and links to bin Laden.

In fact, many of the allegations came from the same half-dozen defectors, weren't confirmed by other intelligence and were hotly disputed by intelligence professionals at the CIA, the Defense Department and the State Department.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials and others who supported a pre-emptive invasion quoted the allegations in statements and interviews without running afoul of restrictions on classified information or doubts about the defectors' reliability.

Other Iraqi groups made similar allegations about Iraq's links to terrorism and hidden weapons that also found their way into official administration statements and into news reports, including several by Knight Ridder.

Knight Ridder, which obtained a copy of the INC letter, reviewed all of the articles in what the document called a "summary of ICP product cited in major English language news outlets worldwide (October 2001-May 2002)."

The articles made numerous assertions that so far haven't been substantiated 11 months after Baghdad fell, including charges that:

_Saddam collaborated for years with bin Laden and was complicit in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Intelligence officials said there is no evidence of operational ties between Iraq and al-Qaida, and no evidence of an Iraqi hand in the attacks.

_Iraq trained Islamic extremists in the same hijacking techniques used in the Sept. 11 strikes and prepared them for operations against Iraq's neighbors and possibly the United States. Two senior U.S. officials said that so far no evidence has been found to substantiate the charge.

_Iraq had mobile biological warfare facilities disguised as yogurt and milk trucks and hid banned weapons production and storage facilities beneath a hospital, fake lead-lined wells and Saddam's palaces. No such facilities or vehicles have been found so far.

_Iraq held 80 Kuwaitis captured in the 1991 Gulf War in a secret underground prison in 2000. No Kuwaiti prisoners have been found so far.

_Iraq could launch toxin-armed Scud missiles at Israel that could kill 100,000 people and was aggressively developing nuclear weapons. No Iraq Scud missiles have been found yet.

_Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, missing since the 1991 Gulf war, was seen alive in Baghdad in 1998. The case remains unresolved, but the Navy last week said there was no evidence that Speicher was ever held in captivity.

According to the letter, publications in which the articles appeared included The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic Monthly, The Times of London, The Sunday Times of London, The Sunday Age of Melbourne, Australia, and two Knight Ridder newspapers, The Kansas City Star and The Philadelphia Daily News. The Associated Press and others also wrote stories based on INC-provided materials.

Other U.S. and international news media picked up some of the articles. By mid-January 2002, polls showed that a solid majority of Americans favored military force to oust Saddam.

Many of the stories noted that the information they contained couldn't be independently verified.

In at least one case, the INC made a defector available to a journalist before his information had been fully reviewed by U.S. intelligence officials.

The defector, an engineer, Adnan Ihsan al Haideri, claimed in a Dec. 20, 2001, New York Times article by Judith Miller that there were biological, nuclear and chemical warfare facilities under private villas, the Saddam Hussein Hospital and fake water wells around Baghdad.

Senior U.S. officials said U.S. arms inspectors have found no fake wells or a laboratory under the hospital. Some secret rooms have been located under villas, mosques and palaces, but the officials, who asked not to be identified, said they weren't among locations that al Haideri claimed to know about.

Several requests to The New York Times to speak to Miller were not answered.

INC leader Ahmad Chalabi and other officials have insisted that the group screened all defectors as thoroughly as they could.

U.S. intelligence officials have determined that virtually all of the defectors' information was marginal or useless, and that some of the defectors were fabricators or embellished the threat from Saddam.

Many of the articles relied on interviews with the same defectors, who appeared to change facts with each telling. For instance, one defector first appeared in several stories as an Iraqi army former captain, but a later story said he was a major.

Another defector told one interviewer that the aircraft fuselage on which Islamic extremists received training in hijacking belonged to a Boeing 707 and was quoted in a later story as saying that it came from a Russian-made Tupolev.

Intelligence debriefers look for such differences when trying to determine the reliability of defectors, who sometimes exaggerate their importance or try to tell interviewers what they think the interviewers want to hear.

The Information Collection Program (ICP) was financed out of the more than $18 million that Congress approved for the Iraqi National Congress, led by Chalabi, now a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, between 1999 and 2003. The group remains on the Pentagon's payroll.

The INC letter said that it fed ICP information to Arab and Western news media and to two officials in the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, the leading invasion advocates.

The information bypassed U.S. intelligence channels and reached the recipients even after CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and FBI officers questioned the accuracy of the materials or the motives of those who supplied them.

Some of the information, such as the charge that Iraq ran a terrorist training camp in Salman Pak, found its way into administration statements, including a Sept. 12, 2002, White House paper.

The CIA and the State Department had long viewed the INC as unreliable.

Some articles cited in the INC letter were based on transcripts the INC provided. An article in The Kansas City Star, for example, quoted an unidentified INC member as saying he had information that Speicher was seen alive in Baghdad in 1998.

A March 17, 2002, Sunday Times of London article on Saddam's alleged illicit weapons was based on a 3,000-page transcript of the preliminary INC debriefing of al Haideri.

The article also reported claims in a videotaped interview made by unnamed Iraqi opposition officials with a second defector that Saddam had mobile biological warfare laboratories disguised as milk and yogurt trucks. Such vehicles have yet to be found.

Marie Colvin, a co-author of the article, said the INC insisted to her that all defectors were scrutinized as fully as possible before being passed on, and that it was up to reporters to decide how to use their information.

"I believe they acted in good faith," she said. "Over seven years, I would not say there was a story I was fooled on."

Many articles quoted defectors as saying that Saddam was training extremists from throughout the Muslim world at Salman Pak, outside Baghdad.

"We certainly have found nothing to substantiate that," said a senior U.S. official.

Instead, he said, U.S. intelligence analysts believe that Iraqi counterterrorism units practiced anti-hijacking techniques on an aircraft fuselage at the site.

An Oct. 12, 2001, Washington Post opinion piece by columnist Jim Hoagland quoted an INC-supplied defector, Sabah Khalifa Khodada Alami, as saying that Salman Pak offered hijacking and assassination courses.

The article, which urged the Bush administration to examine possible Iraqi complicity in Sept. 11, said Alami was a former military instructor and ex-army captain whom the INC tracked down to Fort Worth, Texas, where he settled in May 2001 as a refugee.

Hoagland's column said the defector should not be automatically believed. Hoagland said he wrote it to call attention to "the difficulties that two defectors had in receiving an evaluation from the CIA."

In a Nov. 11 story in the Observer of London by David Rose, Alami was quoted as saying that "the method used on 11 September perfectly coincides with the training I saw at the camp."

The article said Alami was assigned to Salman Pak between 1994 and 1995.

However, a Nov. 8, 2001, New York Times article said Alami worked at Salman Pak for eight years.

The Oct. 12, 2001, Washington Post piece also cited an INC claim that an unnamed former Iraqi intelligence officer claimed that "Islamists" were trained at Salman Pak on a U.S.-made Boeing 707.

In a later article, which appeared to be based on an interview with the same man, the aircraft was identified as an old Russian-made Tupolev.

That defector complained in The Washington Post column that CIA interrogators in Ankara had treated him "dismissively" earlier that week.

The Nov. 8, 2001, New York Times article featured an interview in an unidentified Middle East country that was arranged by the INC with an unidentified Iraqi lieutenant general who said he'd been interviewed by the CIA in Ankara the previous month.

He and an unidentified Iraqi intelligence service sergeant claimed they worked at Salman Pak for several years and that trainees were being prepared for attacks on neighboring countries and possibly the United States.

The unnamed lieutenant general appears to have been the defector of the same rank, code-named Abu Zeinab, who was featured in the Nov. 11, 2001, Observer article.

The newspaper said the defector was interviewed by telephone, and that it was also given details of an interview that two London-based INC activists had conducted with Abu Zeinab at a safe house in Ankara, Turkey.

Abu Zeinab claimed that trainees were instructed in hijacking aircraft.

The defector's full name, Abu Zeinab al Qurairy, was revealed in a February 2002 article in Vanity Fair magazine that was also written by Rose, who declined to comment.

The defector said the Islamists at Salman Pak pledged to obey orders to carry out suicide attacks and that those who flunked training were "used as targets in live-ammunition exercises."

Al Qurairy said in one exercise, students had to land helicopters on a speeding train and then hijack it.

A list of the 108 articles that the Iraqi National Congress says were based on information it supplied to news media is available on the web at www.krwashington.com.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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