WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has launched an investigation to determine how Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi obtained highly classified American intelligence that was then passed to Iran, Bush administration officials said Friday.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, said the compromised intelligence was "highly classified and damaging."
He declined to specify what it was.
The officials spoke a day after Iraqi police, backed by U.S. soldiers, raided the home and offices of Chalabi, a one-time favorite of civilian Pentagon officials who played a key role in building support for invading Iraq.
Two U.S. officials said that evidence suggests that Arras Habib, Chalabi's security chief, is a longtime agent of Iran's intelligence service, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS.
The investigation is likely to be extremely sensitive because Chalabi's most ardent supporters have included not only top civilians in the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but also officials in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney and members of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group.
Chalabi's primary critics in the government include top officials of the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department, who distrust him.
Asked about reports that Chalabi "was helping out Iran," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "I have some information." He added, "We'd have to go to a closed hearing to talk about it." Myers also told Congress that since the March 2003 invasion, the INC has "provided very good intelligence to our forces in Iraq that have prevented our soldiers from dying."
The two U.S. officials said Habib is suspected of giving classified U.S. intelligence to officials in Iran, with whom Chalabi has long had close ties. Habib is now a fugitive.
A U.S. intelligence official said the evidence of Habib's ties to Iran includes both intercepts and some documentation. The official said Habib provided sensitive information, some of it classified above top secret, to the Iranians.
The information may have included U.S. reporting on leading figures within Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim community. Chalabi is a Shiite, as are 60 percent of Iraqis and 90 percent of Iranians.
The intelligence official said Habib also was the INC official who handled most of the Iraqi defectors, including one code-named "Curveball," who provided much of the fabricated, exaggerated and unconfirmed information about Iraqi weapons programs and links to terrorism that Bush used in making his case for invading Iraq.
"The bottom line here is that much of the information the administration had about Iraq may have come from an Iranian agent," said the intelligence official. "If that's true, this is a huge scandal."
A senior Chalabi aide denied the allegations and accused the CIA of leading a smear campaign against Chalabi. "No U.S. official has mentioned this to us in any capacity. It's absolutely false," said the official, who asked that his name not be used.
A third senior administration official said the contacts between an INC official or officials and Iranian security services were revealed via electronic intercepts.
Chalabi bitterly denounced the raid Thursday, which Iraqi and coalition officials said was aimed at arresting 15 individuals wanted on charges of fraud, kidnapping and other abuses.
Other members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council joined in the condemnation Friday and blamed the raid on the Coalition Provisional Authority.
U.S. officials have said the raid was conducted by Iraqis with U.S. troops in a back-up role, but much about who was behind the raid and its precise purpose remains unanswered.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy declined to comment Friday on whether Chalabi or members of his entourage are suspected of having ties to Iran.
Asked about President Bush's view of the Iraqi, who sat near first lady Laura Bush during Bush's January State of the Union address, Duffy offered no endorsement.
"Mr. Chalabi was a man who worked with the coalition and the Iraqi Governing Council on the objective in Iraq, and it's up to the Iraqi people, from here on out, as we transition to a democratic Iraq, on who they decide their leaders will be," the spokesman said.
The INC official said Habib made no secret of his links with the Iranians or travel to Iran, Iraq's largest neighbor and longtime adversary. But he denied Habib was an Iranian agent.
"He's no one's agent," the official said.
MOIS, also known by its Farsi acronym Vevak, is one of the most powerful ministries in the Iranian government, according to information compiled by the Federation of American Scientists, an independent security research group.
Its personnel pose as Iranian diplomats, as well as officials of Iran's airline, students, merchants and employees of Iran's state-controlled banks, the federation's Web site states.
(Joseph L. Galloway contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.