Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), whose flair for drama has included lugging around a replica of a suitcase-size nuclear bomb, alleges in a new book that Iran is hiding Osama bin Laden, is preparing terrorist attacks against the United States, has a crash program to build an atomic bomb and, as a Shiite country, is the chief sponsor of what is a largely Sunni-directed insurgency in Iraq.
In "Countdown to Terror: The Top-Secret Information that Could Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack on America . . . and How the CIA Has Ignored It," Weldon accuses the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and his colleagues on the House and Senate intelligence committees of ignoring his trove of information.
These secrets, he says, come from "an impeccable clandestine source," whom Weldon code-names "Ali," an Iranian exile living in Paris who is a close associate of Manucher Gorbanifar. Gorbanifar is a well-known Iranian exile whom the CIA branded as a fabricator during the 1980s but who was used by the Reagan White House as a middleman for the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.
Switch Iran for Iraq, and Gorbanifar for Ahmed Chalabi -- an Iraqi exile whose claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were distrusted by the CIA but were embraced by the Defense Department and the White House -- and Weldon's book reads like the conservative argument for the invasion of Iraq.
Weldon, who has become a leading conservative voice on weapons of mass destruction and other defense issues, acknowledges this upfront, in a way: "The intelligence community may be avoiding Ali like the plague, despite his excellent intelligence, because they want to avoid, at all costs, drawing the United States into a war with Iran." But, of Ali's tip that Iran was planning a terrorist attack against a U.S. nuclear reactor that would destroy Boston, he says that "this alone is a reason for a military response, a legitimate casus belli."
The CIA and former intelligence officers vehemently dispute Weldon's charges.
"The CIA thoroughly pursued this issue and did so on more than one occasion," said CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise.
Other U.S. intelligence sources, who declined to speak on the record because, they said, Weldon is an influential member of Congress who might retaliate against the agency, said Ali is actually Fereidoun Mahdavi. His allegations and connections to Gorbanifar and Weldon were laid out in the April 1, 2005, issue of the American Prospect, a liberal magazine.
Weldon, who according to his book publicist was not available to give a comment yesterday, asserts in his book that the CIA first ignored Mahdavi and then threatened him.
Bill Murray, the former CIA station chief in Paris, said that, after interviewing Mahdavi on several occasions and investigating his claims, the CIA determined he was lying. Mahdavi never gave the CIA anything specific about Iran's weapons capability, terrorist activities or any of the other charges.
"He peddled the same stories to several other governments," Murray said. "He is a fabricator."
The CIA set up a clandestine channel of communications for Mahdavi, which he was supposed to use for talking with the agency and for sending information, said several former intelligence officials. He used it only twice, once to repeat vague information he had already supplied, and a second time to try to persuade the CIA to participate in his plot to overthrow the Iranian government.
"We tried to vet the information and never found anything that was credible," said Murray, who recently retired from the agency. He said he agreed to respond on the record because the allegations in Weldon's book are so absurd.
Mahdavi "wanted $150,000 to start," Murray said. "I gave him a cup of coffee. The American taxpayers work hard for their money. . . . I wasn't going to give him any of it."
Weldon's book is filled with "Dear Curt" memos from Mahdavi. One of his most urgent allegations is that terrorists were plotting to fly a hijacked Canadian airliner into the Seabrook Nuclear Reactor, which is four miles outside Boston. Weldon credits Mahdavi with thwarting the attack and points to the August 2003 arrest in Toronto of 19 men, most of whom were Pakistani and who were initially thought to make up a sleeper cell.
Within a month, however, the Toronto arrests were downgraded to a case of routine immigration fraud. Seven of the men remain in Canada and have applied for refugee status, arguing that the terrorist label they now have makes it impossible for them to return safely to Pakistan.
The chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees, as well as the House leadership, were briefed on the CIA's reports on Mahdavi, sources said. The lawmakers were not spurred to investigate the matter further.
A man who answered the phone yesterday at Mahdavi's residence in Paris said Mahdavi, 74, is very ill and could not respond to questions about Weldon's book.