WASHINGTON — As the Bush administration intensified the hunt for evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the CIA reluctantly agreed to look into reports from a previously discredited source that highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons was smuggled from Iraq to Iran, U.S. officials said.
The reports of the uranium transfer could not be verified, the officials said Tuesday night. If they had been confirmed, they would have substantiated the Bush administration's contention that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had to be overthrown in part because he was developing nuclear weapons.
The officials requested anonymity because the issue involved classified information.
The conduit of the smuggling reports was Manucher Ghorbanifar, a Paris-based Iranian arms merchant who played an important role in the arms-for-hostages scandal known as Iran-Contra. Ghorbanifar maintains ties to neoconservatives inside and outside the U.S. government.
Michael Ledeen, a National Security Council consultant during the Reagan administration and a longtime Ghorbanifar associate, recently pressed Ghorbanifar's information on the administration, the officials said. Ghorbanifar and Ledeen advocate the overthrow of the Iranian government.
The incident appears to be a fresh illustration of the battles between the professional intelligence community and supporters of the president's policy in Iraq.
Administration hardliners and their allies outside the government, including Ledeen, complain that the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies have been too quick to reject valuable intelligence from individuals unjustly judged as unreliable and unsavory.
Some intelligence professionals, senior military officers and diplomats charged in the months leading up to the March attack on Iraq that U.S. intelligence analysts were pressured by pro-invasion administration officials to produce evidence that Saddam had hidden chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and was cooperating with the al Qaida terrorist network.
They also charged that the Bush administration relied on flawed and exaggerated intelligence to make their case for invading Iraq, much of it from Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi exile leader who, like Ghorbanifar, was deeply distrusted by the CIA and the State Department.
It was Ghorbanifar who in 1995 sent word through Israel and Ledeen to the former Reagan administration that Iran's Islamic regime would obtain the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon in return for U.S. weapons.
The Reagan administration officials funneled profits from the weapons sales to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, known as Contras, in violation of a congressional ban on aiding the guerrillas.
The deal went ahead even though Ghorbanifar was so distrusted by the CIA that in 1984 and 1986, the agency issued rare "burn notices" against him, instructing its officers to stop dealing with him because he was known to fabricate information.
"His information consistently lacked sourcing and detail not withstanding his exclusive interest in getting money for his questionable pursuits," said a CIA memo issued at the time of the 1984 burn notice.
It could not be learned precisely why the CIA felt that it had to check out the information relayed by Ghorbanifar on the alleged highly enriched uranium smuggling from Iraq to Iran.
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, in explaining the agency's decision to check out the tip, said it was deemed to be worth pursuing.
"We aggressively pursue all legitimate leads on WMD (weapons of mass destruction) issues," said Harlow. "It is true, however, we have no interest in meeting with Mr. Ghorbanifar since he was long ago proven to be a fabricator" who is known "to peddle false information for financial gain."
The U.S. officials said Ledeen approached officials in the Department of Defense and told them that Ghorbanifar possessed information that highly enriched uranium had been moved some years ago from Iraq to Iran.
People who were exposed to the substance had become sick, according to the information relayed by the exiled Iranian through Ledeen.
The Pentagon officials referred Ledeen to the CIA, the officials said. The agency refused to meet with Ghorbanifar, but agreed to have agency officers meet covertly in Iraq with individuals who were said to be the source of Ghorbanifar's information, they said.
The U.S. officials said the meeting between the individuals and the CIA officers took place recently, but they declined to be more specific.
One official said that the individuals asked for money before they would provide evidence of their claims.
The information relayed by Ghorbanifar through Ledeen contrasts sharply with the failures of U.N. weapons inspections after the 1991 Gulf War to uncover any evidence that Iraq ever possessed any meaningful quantities of highly enriched uranium.
David Kay, who is heading the U.S. hunt for evidence that Saddam had illicit weapons of mass destruction, said this month that Iraq's post-1991 nuclear bomb development efforts had not progressed beyond "a rudimentary stage."
Greg Theilman, a former State Department intelligence official who has accused the Bush administration of misusing intelligence on Iraq, said he would have immediately questioned the veracity of Ghorbanifar's information.
"My initial reaction would have been one of considerable skepticism reinforced by the total absence of any indication" that Iraq possessed weapons-grade uranium after 1991.
Ledeen, contacted at home Tuesday evening, declined to discuss details of the information on the alleged movements of highly enriched uranium from Iraq to Iran, which he acknowledged remain unproved.
But he criticized the CIA for not pursuing the lead further. "If they'd been more vigorous, we would have an answer," said Ledeen, now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Ghorbanifar, he said, "was a conduit for the information. He was not the source of the information."
The disclosure of the highly enriched uranium investigation comes two months after the Pentagon confirmed that Defense Department officials had met twice with Ghorbanifar since 2001.
The Pentagon claimed that the first meeting, which took place in Rome with Ghorbanifar and several alleged Iranian intelligence officers in December 2001, had been authorized and concerned information pertaining to the war on terrorism.
But a senior U.S. official said Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA Director George Tenet were never told of Ghorbanifar's involvement.
"We'll talk to any Iranians anywhere, except that one, Ghorbanifar," he said.
U.S. officials said that during the meeting, the Iranians asked for money.
One of the Defense Department officials, Harold Rhode, a Farsi-speaker who works in the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessments, recommended that they be paid.
In a classified message sent to Pentagon officials, a portion of which was obtained by Knight Ridder, Rhode said that he had "made contact with Iranian intelligence officers who anticipate possible regime change in Iran and want to establish contact with the United States government."
"A sizable financial interest is required," said the message, which urged that it be provided.
It could not be learned if any money was paid, and Rhode did not return a phone call.
The U.S. officials said that on learning of Ghorbanifar's role, Powell and Tenet became incensed.
Powell called Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and the White House to complain.
The U.S. officials said that the White House told Powell that Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, was aware of what was going on, and that further contacts with the Iranians were then prohibited.
Several attempts to contact Hadley through the White House went unanswered.
Despite the prohibition on further contacts, the second meeting with Ghorbanifar occurred in Paris in June. The Pentagon insisted, however, that it was an unplanned encounter.