Coded Cable In 1995 Used Chalabi's Name
Intercepted Iranian Message Involved Plot to Kill Hussein
By Walter Pincus and Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 4, 2004; Page A01
Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi politician suspected by U.S. authorities of having told Iran this spring that its secret communications code had been broken, was involved in an intercept episode nine years ago, according to senior administration officials.
Officials yesterday recounted an incident in early 1995 when Chalabi's name turned up in an encrypted Iranian cable reporting a purported CIA-backed plan to assassinate Saddam Hussein, then Iraq's president. The message was intercepted by U.S. intelligence and caused a major political stir in Washington.
Similarly, it was an intercept several weeks ago of another Iranian message -- this one from an agent in Baghdad to his superiors in Tehran saying Chalabi had told him that U.S. intelligence was able to read Iran's secret cables -- that has triggered a major counterintelligence probe and concern about Washington's future ability to monitor Iranian developments.
A U.S. law enforcement source said yesterday that FBI investigators, trying to determine the source of the leak, had interviewed at least one Defense Department employee in Baghdad and had administered a polygraph test. More tests were planned, some involving officials at the Pentagon, said the source who demanded anonymity because the investigation is secret. But several senior defense officials said yesterday that they knew of no one at the Pentagon who had yet been approached by investigators.
FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman said the investigation is still at its early stage. Noting that Chalabi is a British citizen, she said law enforcement officials are trying to determine "to what extent he is covered by U.S. law barring disclosure of U.S. classified information."
Chalabi, whose exile group -- the Iraqi National Congress -- has received more than $40 million in U.S. payments over the years, has denied that he disclosed secrets to Iran and demanded that the Bush administration investigate the source of the leak about the investigation of him.
The 1995 incident arose at a time when Chalabi was in northern Iraq, working with CIA backing against Hussein. The CIA case officer working with Chalabi at the time was Robert Baer.
Exactly who came up with the assassination idea is subject to some dispute. One U.S. official interviewed yesterday, who was familiar with the event, credited Baer with pushing the plan.
Baer has denied this. In his book "See No Evil: the True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism," published in 2001, he wrote that the plot to kill Hussein was phony, concocted by Chalabi in hopes of enticing Iranian support for his Iraqi opposition efforts.
To prove to the Iranians he had Washington's support to go after Hussein, Chalabi forged a letter on U.S. National Security Council stationery that asked him to contact the Iranian government for help, Baer wrote. The letter said Washington had dispatched to northern Iraq an "NSC team" headed by Robert Pope, a fictitious name.
In a meeting with Iranian intelligence officers, Chalabi left the letter on his desk while he took a phone call in another room, knowing the Iranians would read it, Baer wrote.
What happened next has not been previously reported.
The Iranian intelligence officers sent an encrypted message to Tehran about Chalabi's supposed plot, officials said yesterday. The United States intercepted the transmission. U.S. intelligence had broken Iran's secret communications codes during that period as well.
The contents of the 1995 intercept became the basis of a report that circulated fairly widely in Washington intelligence and law enforcement circles, an official recalled. The result was not only deep distrust within the CIA for Chalabi but also an FBI investigation of Baer.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company