By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006
Deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's last foreign minister, Naji Sabri, was a paid spy for French intelligence, which later turned him over to the CIA to supply information about Iraq and its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs more than six months before the war began in March 2003, according to former senior intelligence officials.
Although some CIA officials met informally with Sabri, who traveled extensively outside Iraq, the French and the CIA used a third-country intermediary when attempting to get information from him about Hussein's inner circle and weapons programs, according to the retired officials who refused to be identified because the information is classified.
"It was never clear what he wanted," one former official familiar with the situation said of Sabri, "but we never paid him." Sabri's role in providing information to the United States was reported by NBC News on Tuesday.
Over the summer of 2002, Sabri, as foreign minister, negotiated the terms U.N. inspectors' return to Iraq, and in November 2002 he announced Hussein's acceptance of the proposal.
Publicly Sabri was insisting that Iraq had no prohibited weapons of mass destruction. Privately, the sources said, he provided information that the Iraqi dictator had ambitions for a nuclear program but that it was not active, and that no biological weapons were being produced or stockpiled, although research was underway.
When it came to chemical weapons, Sabri told his handler that some existed but they were not under military control, a former intelligence official familiar with the situation said. Another former official added: "He said he had been told Hussein had them dispersed among some of the loyal tribes."
At the time, the Bush administration was preparing for the coalition's invasion of Iraq and publicly insisting that Hussein had reconstituted nuclear programs and was concealing from United Nations inspectors both chemical and biological weapons in violation of Security Council resolutions. The White House, which was seeking a congressional resolution that would permit the use of force against Iraq, hoped Sabri would defect, the two former officials said.
"They wanted a big public defection, which would have been good for the policy," one official said. But Sabri comes from a prominent Iraqi family and defection was not an option, one of the former officials said.
The White House was far more interested in trying to get Sabri to defect than in the information he was providing on Iraq's weapons programs, in part because the intelligence community did not trust him, another former intelligence official said.
Sabri took office in fall 2001 after a major housecleaning of Hussein's foreign affairs team. A diplomat with an Iraqi Christian background, Sabri once taught English literature at Baghdad University and was director general of the information ministry during the Persian Gulf War. His brother was one of the Iraqi officials that Hussein had killed because of alleged disloyalty.
Sabri was described as "smart and smooth" by a U.N. official who dealt with him, and as "a type that appeals to Westerners." According to a former intelligence officer, Sabri went out of his way to spend time with Americans and others when he was a diplomatic official in Vienna.
In a speech in February 2004, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet referred to Sabri, although not by name, when he said the CIA had obtained information from "a source who had direct access to Saddam and his inner circle." Tenet said that source described Hussein as covertly seeking to get a nuclear weapon and having stockpiled chemical weapons while his scientists were only "dabbling" with biological weapons development with little success.