Dexter Filkins’ New York Times magazine piece on Ahmed Chalabi is one of those stories that won’t tell you much you may not already have had a hunch about; there are no Woodward-style deep-background revelations here, no radical reinterpretations, no smoking guns. What there is the kind of profile that only someone who has put in a lot of time–a good old-fashioned beat reporter–can write, with an arc that spans more than three years of actual observation of the man. (Filkins was stationed in Bagdad until recently and a couple of months ago wrote a searing assessment of what Western reporters can, and mostly can’t, get in Iraq). This is not the be-all-and-end-all story on who used whom in the prewar intel manipulation game (did Chalabi push the nation to war, or did he just provide a convenient assist for the Cheney/Rumsfeld crowd that was determined to march to Bagdad no matter what?). But it’s a terrific tale of a great gambler and a big loss that leaves you sympathizing with Chalabi even as you recoil from what he was allowed to do. Just a couple of highlights:
“The real culprit in all this is Wolfowitz,” Chalabi says, referring to his erstwhile backer, the former deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz. “They chickened out. The Pentagon guys chickened out.”
Chalabi still considers Wolfowitz a friend, so he proceeds carefully. America’s big mistake, Chalabi maintains, was in failing to step out of the way after Hussein’s downfall and let the Iraqis take charge. The Iraqis, not the Americans, should have been allowed to take over immediately — the people who knew the country, who spoke the language and, most important, who could take responsibility for the chaos that was unfolding in the streets. An Iraqi government could have acted harshly, even brutally, to regain control of the place, and the Iraqis would have been without a foreigner to blame….They could have done this, presumably, without an army (which most wanted to dissolve) and without a police force (which was riddled with Baathists).
W. Patrick Lang, a senior official at the Defense Intelligence Agency… visited the office of Senator Trent Lott, then the Senate majority leader. After introducing an Arab businessman to Lott, Lang sat in Lott’s anteroom with a number of Capitol Hill staff members who helped draft the Iraq Liberation Act, which provided millions of dollars to Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. They were praising Chalabi: “They were talking about him, that Chalabi fits into this plan as a very worthwhile, virtuous exemplar of modernization, somebody who could help reform first Iraq and then the Middle East. They were very pleased with themselves.” Lang, an old Middle East hand who had worked in Iraq in the 1980’s, said he was stunned. “You guys need to get out more,” Lang recalls saying at the time. “It’s a fantasy.”
One of the people whom the I.N.C. made available to American intelligence was Adnan Ihsan al-Haideri… [Chalabi] didn’t think much of Haideri or his information, he says, and was astonished to learn later that the information he provided became a pillar of the Americans’ charges against Hussein.
“We told them, ‘We don’t know who this guy is,'” Chalabi said. “Then the Americans spoke to him and said, ‘This guy is the mother lode.’ Can you believe that on such a basis the United States would go to war? The intelligence community regarded the I.N.C. as useless. Why would the government believe us?”
And then, of course, there’s the ever-popular (and not unlikely, according to Filkins’ piece) theory that Chalabi has been an Iranian asset all along.
When we arrived at the [Iranian] border, Chalabi ducked into a bathroom and changed out of his camouflage T-shirt and slacks and into a well-tailored blue suit. Then we drove to Ilam, where an 11-seat Fokker jet was idling on the runway of the local airport… We landed in Iran’s smoggy capital, and within a couple of hours, Chalabi was meeting with the highest officials of the Iranian government.
When the election came, Chalabi was wiped out…. One of his associates said of the Shiite alliance: “We know they cheated. You know how we know? Because in one area we had 5,000 forged ballots, and when they were counted, we didn’t even get that many.” He shrugged.