The man who sold Iraq WMD lies to the press
The death of Ahmed Chalabi earlier this week prompted a number of obituaries talking about how his Iraqi National Congress “lobbied” or even “fooled” the West into the Iraq war by spreading false WMD stories.
But Chalabi was actually paid by the US government to set up a London office and pump out rubbish stories, many through the British press.
Fleet Street doesn’t like to talk about the lies it is told — which are far worse than any Blair dossier — so it doesn’t always tell the truth about Chalabi.
Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC) was one of many anti-Saddam groups. But it was the least effective or popular with Iraqis.
In 1995 Chalabi tried to lead an uprising against Saddam Hussein from Kurdish territory, but Saddam’s forces viciously counter-attacked, making it a bloody failure.
In 2003, when he returned to Iraq on the back of the US invasion, his party never won more than 1 per cent in any Iraqi election.
He was bad at Iraqi resistance or politics. But he was good at spreading lies. The INC acted more like a PR or propaganda group.
It received up to $100 million from first the CIA and then the US State Department.
The money was used to hire PR firms and lobbyists, like the Rendon Group or Burson Marstellar.
The INC’s one successful scheme was the Information Collection Programme, which mostly involved disseminating dodgy “information” from its London offices.
In March 2004 the Knight-Ridder news agency got hold of a letter from the Iraqi National Congress to the US Senate appropriations committee justifying its US funds.
The letter was effectively a bill for stories placed in the press between October 2001 and May 2002 — its regular $4m payment for an “information collection programme” authorised by the US. It reads like an invoice from a PR firm to its client.
The INC listed 108 articles in British and US newspapers that had been inspired by INC material. Many of the newspaper articles contained “information” that was completely untrue.
The INC was invoicing the US government for spreading stories about Saddam’s imaginary WMD programme and false tales about Iraq’s links with al-Qaida.
By paying a private organisation to take control of this part of the information war, the US government was able to put stories into the public arena via the newspapers which were too absurd to put even in their own inflated “dossiers.”
By using a paid-for third party to tell these tall tales, the US government was also able to avoid responsibility for these particular lies after the war.
The INC’s propaganda invoice charges for many stories in the British press. The claims of Iraqi civil engineer Adnan al-Haideri feature heavily in the INC list of stories. He claimed to have built underground biowarfare labs and worked on an Iraqi nuclear programme.
The INC list includes an article by Marie Colvin in the Sunday Times (March 17 2002) headlined “Saddam’s arsenal revealed,” publicising Haideri’s claims.
According to Colvin, a second defector revealed the existence of seven mobile biological labs “disguised as milk trucks.”
Colvin quotes an unnamed official describing the information as “high-grade” and expresses no scepticism. Neither the underground nor mobile labs existed.
The INC also claimed credit for two articles by Damian Whitworth in the Times in December 2001 uncritically reporting Haideri’s claims “about the acceleration of President Saddam Hussein’s work on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.”
Also on the list is a December 2002 article by Andrew Gumbel of the Independent and a story by Toby Moore in the Express, both reporting Haideri’s claims without scepticism.
The INC also cites Ben Fenton in the Telegraph on the same subject, under the banner “Defector tells of Saddam’s nuclear arms.”
Christopher Hitchens also features prominently in the INC’s list of articles, including his March 2002 piece for the Evening Standard.
Hitchens stated Saddam was “within a measurable distance of acquiring doomsday materials.” He praised the “heroic” Chalabi, “the symbolic and actual head of the Iraqi opposition” and his “information concerning the whereabouts of the Ba’ath Party’s weapons of mass destruction.”
The INC list also cited a Hitchens article for the Guardian in the same month. This time Hitchens stated Saddam “certainly has nerve gas and chemical weapons.”
Hitchens’s piece shows all the hallmarks of INC “information.” He cited the discredited exile Khidir Hamza to show that Iraq would soon have nuclear weapons and used an INC source to show Saddam was linked to the September 11 attacks.
The linkage between Saddam and terrorism feature heavily in the INC’s list. Roping Iraq into the war on terror was one of the central functions of the INC.
Claims that Saddam was behind September 11 are prominent in the list of INC propaganda funded by the US.
They highlight a March 2002 piece by Toby Harnden in the Daily Telegraph saying that Saddam “armed bin Laden and funded al-Qaida allies.”
Relying on INC information, Harnden reported that “Iraq sent conventional and perhaps biological or chemical weapons to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.” The piece quotes former CIA boss James Woolsey and Chalabi.
The list includes a November 2001 piece in the Times by Richard Beeston on the city of Salman Pak headlined: “Saddam’s terror training camp teaches hijacking.”
Beeston’s account, “along with similar testimony from other recent Iraqi defectors, is likely to increase suspicions in America that President Saddam Hussein may have had a hand in the September 11 attacks.”
The INC list also features a November 2001 2,500-word “Focus Special” by David Rose of the Observer which claimed Saddam was not only behind the September 11 attacks but also probably linked to the spate of US anthrax letters.
Rose has given a very honest examination and explanation of how he got caught up in these WMD lies. But none of the newspapers has explained to their readers how or why they pumped out Chalabi’s propaganda.
His death was one last opportunity for the British press to examine their role in the worst reporting failure for decades, one that helped lead to death and destruction. It is an opportunity that, with rare exceptions, they did not take.