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Spying on Iraqi Leader: Was It Worth the Risk?

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2008

Throughout much of the past two years, U.S. surveillance of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his staff and others within the Iraqi government has given the Bush administration a transparent view of the prime minister's actions, according to officials knowledgeable about the intelligence gathering.

"We know everything he says," said one source, who, like the other officials, declined to speak on the record because of the highly sensitive nature of the subject.

In some specific cases, a second source said, human sources gave senior U.S. officials a heads-up on positions, plans, maneuvers and secret actions of the prime minister, members of his staff and others in the Iraqi government.

This source said that Maliki and his people suspected, perhaps even knew about, the surveillance and that they were careful about their conversations and also took countermeasures.

Of the Maliki surveillance, the second source said: "You never have absolute transparency. . . . You never get inside someone's head. . . . When he's talking, you can never suspect he's not playing you.

"We had a lot -- a lot-- of insights, but to say absolute, no. I could never tell you I thought I had absolute insight into what anybody was doing over there."

A third source said the surveillance on Maliki was more than routine. A fourth source, recognizing the sensitivity of the issue, asked, "Would it be better if we didn't?"

Gathering intelligence on known or suspected enemies made perfect sense. But spying on friends and allies -- particularly a young democracy the United States had vowed to help -- though not unprecedented, raised all kinds of questions. Several senior officials asked: What was there to gain? And was it worth the risk?

Although intelligence agencies love to deliver the inside goods, it was not clear how useful the information has been to President Bush. Just as Gen. David H. Petraeus said it is not possible for the United States to kill its way to victory, it probably was not possible to spy its way to political stability there -- the ultimate goal.

[On Thursday, a Washington Post news story on "The War Within" reported the U.S. surveillance of Maliki. On Friday, Iraqi officials expressed disappointment at the report; several said that, if true, it could damage the level of trust that Bush and Maliki had worked to build. The White House had no comment but did not deny the existence of the spying operation.]

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