Lawmakers met with Iranian exile scrutinized over intelligence, 7/20/05

Knight Ridder NewspapersJuly 20, 2005 

WASHINGTON—House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Peter Hoekstra and Rep. Curt Weldon met secretly in Europe last week with an Iranian exile who CIA officials charge has passed worthless or bogus intelligence to the United States, current and former U.S. government officials said.

The Paris meeting appears to be the latest in a string of incidents in which players outside the intelligence community try to affect American foreign policy by highlighting threats that the CIA and other agencies find dubious.

In some ways, it echoes the claims by Iraqi exiles that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, claims proven to be false after the U.S.-led invasion.

Weldon, R-Pa., claims in a new book that the Iranian exile, whom he calls "Ali," told him of dramatic Iranian-sponsored terrorist plots against the United States.

But the CIA says that it has wasted hundreds of hours checking the claims of Ali—whose real name is Fereidoun Mahdavi—and that they are a mix of fabrications and embellishments of press reports, according to a letter from the CIA to Weldon.

The meeting was disclosed by current and former U.S. officials who requested anonymity because they said they did not want to anger Weldon or Hoekstra.

Mahdavi is a longtime associate of Iranian arms merchant Manucher Ghorbanifar, the officials say. Ghorbanifar, a key figure in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal, has had two CIA "burn notices" issued on him, meaning agency officers are not to deal with him.

The Senate Intelligence Committee also looked at the information provided via Mahdavi and deemed it unworthy of follow-up.

Jamal Ware, a spokesman for Hoekstra, R-Mich., said the congressman would not comment, and it is unclear if Hoekstra shares Weldon's assessment of Mahdavi.

Weldon's office did not reply to e-mailed questions sent via his spokesman.

The controversy over Mahdavi, a former minister in the late shah of Iran's regime, is the latest chapter in the intelligence battles that have roiled the Bush administration.

Weldon, the No. 2 Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, and other critics accuse the CIA and other intelligence agencies of missing or ignoring dire threats to the United States.

Weldon's book, "Countdown to Terror," claims that Iran is planning a calamitous terrorist strike against the United States known as "the 12th Imam operation"; that it's close to having a nuclear weapon; and that al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden was or is hiding in Iran.

But to intelligence professionals, the Mahdavi saga is another example of bogus intelligence being forced into the system—much like Iraqi exiles' pre-war claims that Saddam was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

They also see a hidden motive: the overthrow of the theocratic regime in Tehran.

"It is ... likely that, as a former official during the Shah's era, (Mahdavi) seeks to influence the U.S. government to overthrow the current Iranian government," the CIA said in a letter to Weldon last year that was obtained by Knight Ridder. In the letter, partially declassified at Weldon's request, Mahdavi's name is blacked out.

The letter says the CIA has "devoted hundreds of man-hours" to examining the claims. "His information is consistent with, but does not add to, what is available from press sources, without providing significant new or credible details not already available elsewhere," it says.

Bill Murray, the CIA's former Paris station chief, told American Prospect magazine last month that he met with Mahdavi four times and set up a secure phone line for him to communicate with the agency. He provided no valuable information, Murray told the magazine.

"Mahdavi works for Ghorbanifar," Murray was quoted as saying. "The two are inseparable. Ghorbanifar put Mahdavi out to meet with Weldon."

Weldon said last week he will ask the CIA to investigate whether Murray divulged "Ali's" real name—an echo of the current Washington controversy over the outing of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, the wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson.

Murray, reached at his home, declined to comment further.

A man who answered the phone at Mahdavi's Paris residence said he was at the hospital caring for his wife, who is seriously ill with cancer.

Among the reports apparently generated by Mahdavi and Ghorbanifar was one that Iraq had allegedly transferred highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons to Iran in an effort to hide the material. Then-CIA spokesman Bill Harlow confirmed at the time that the agency checked out the tip, although it refused to meet with Ghorbanifar. The report never checked out, Knight Ridder reported in October 2003.

Ghorbanifar has made other approaches to the Bush administration. He met with Pentagon officials Harold Rhode and Lawrence Franklin in late 2001. The meetings were vigorously protested by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, but a second meeting, which Pentagon officials say was unplanned, took place in Paris in June 2003.

Franklin was charged earlier this year with unauthorized disclosure of classified information, in an apparently unrelated matter.

Mahdavi, former CIA counterterrorism official Vincent Cannistraro said, "is just part and parcel of the longest-running, on-going fabrication in U.S. history."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)

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