Ahmed Chalabi's List of Suckers
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Hanging out in bad bars waiting for sources to show up is a time-honored tradition in journalism. So I suppose I shouldn't have been too worried by the non-arrival of Entifadh Qanbar, the spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress's Washington office. Still, he had moved our meeting several times and I had a lot of questions to ask him, especially about a lengthy confidential memo he had submitted to Congress in June 2002. The memo outlined something called the Information Collection Program, an INC operation that now appears to have provided bogus information about Saddam Hussein's weapons and terrorist connections to the American government and to the press in the run-up to the Iraq war.
I had never met Qanbar before and couldn't raise him on his cell phone, so I began to worry that he might be, in classic sitcom fashion, in a booth on the other side of the bar. When he walked into the room, though, he wasn't hard to spot. His glossy coif, well-cut blazer, and open-neck black shirt stood out among the khakis-and-cell-phone-holster crowd from the nearby Pentagon.
Qanbar apologized for being late, then ordered a beer and promptly got on his cell phone to Baghdad for an extended conversation in Arabic. I could only pick out a few words, including "Chalabi,' "Aras,' and "Bremer.' The last name was followed by a rough laugh, as if a joke had been told on the other end of the line – and not a nice one. That impression was confirmed when Qanbar got off the phone and began an extended rant about the failings of Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, who Qanbar maintained was working with the CIA and State Department to crush the INC at the behest of Arab potentates fearing its political rise. With some difficulty, I managed to steer Qanbar's attention to the memo he had sent to Congress, and to a list it contained of 108 news stories that, the INC said, included "product' supplied by its Information Collection Program. "Yes, this memo has become quite famous,' he said with a wry smile.
Yes it has. In fact, perhaps no list of reporters has commanded such attention in Washington since Richard Nixon compiled his enemies list more than thirty years ago. In the months since the INC list was made public in a story by Jonathan Landay, senior national correspondent for the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder, it has taken on an almost emblematic quality. Reporters appearing on the list rail against the injustice of their inclusion. Those who didn't make the cut congratulate themselves anew for resisting the lure of the INC and revel in the schadenfreude of watching others' once-envied scoops turn to ashes. What few have done, it would appear, is take the time to read all the stories.
I did. The first thing that became apparent was that the list is a bit of a hodge-podge. The 108 stories ran between October 2001 and the end of May 2002, a period when the INC was laboring mightily to make sure that America's burgeoning "war on terror' reached to the heart of Baghdad. Still, about a quarter of the articles have little to do with the INC's agenda of promoting the ouster of Saddam Hussein; some even raise questions about evidence supplied by the INC. The balance of the stories, however, advanced almost every claim that would eventually become the backbone of the Bush administration's case for war, including Saddam Hussein's contacts with al Qaeda, his attempts to develop nuclear weapons, and his extensive chemical and bioweapons facilities – all of which are now in grave doubt. Similar stories appeared earlier and later, but this nine-month period following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was crucial in creating the perception that the Iraqi dictator was a grave threat to the U.S. "The INC's agenda was to get us into a war,' says Helen Kennedy, a reporter for the New York Daily News, whose name appears on the list. "The really damaging stories all came from those guys, not the CIA. They did a really sophisticated job of getting it out there.'
A Fine Fellowship
The list includes articles from nearly every blue-blooded news outfit in America, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Time, Newsweek, The Atlantic Monthly, 60 Minutes, USA Today, the New York Daily News, UPI, and Fox News. It also contains numerous stories from the British press. "I think something that hasn't gotten a lot of attention is how [the INC] used the British press to plant a lot of this stuff, some of it pretty outlandish,' says Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, who reported extensively on Iraq before the war. Some Brits, of course, point the finger back across the pond. "The American media has big questions to ask itself,' says Jamie Dettmer, a former foreign correspondent for the Times of London and a columnist for The Washington Times who now lives in the U.S. "I've been utterly appalled by the lack of skepticism about this entire Iraq project and the war on terrorism' in the press. Then again, Dettmer's name is on the list. "Complete bollocks!' he shouted when told of his inclusion.
That reaction sums up the feelings of Dettmer's countryman Christopher Hitchens as well. Though Hitchens was and remains an avid supporter of the INC and Chalabi in his writings for Vanity Fair, Slate, and other publications, he insists he shouldn't be on the list. "As soon as I found out,' he says. "I wrote a friend at the INC to say 'What the fuck is this?''' Hitchens says he rarely used INC-supplied defectors as sources, and never for WMD stories. Mark Bowden, national correspondent for the Atlantic, and author of the best-selling book Black Hawk Down (as well as an article on page 24 in the magazine you are holding), had a similar reaction. Bowden acknowledges using the INC to locate defectors for his May 2002 Atlantic piece "Tales of the Tyrant,' but notes that his story had nothing to do with WMD or secret terror camps. In fact, Bowden says he actively rebuffed attempts by INC people to steer his story in that direction. "It was very obvious they were selling something,' Bowden says, "and I wasn't particularly interested in what they were selling.' Bowden says he has no reason to question the lurid stories told to him by INC-supplied defectors about Saddam Hussein's cruelty, but he adds that "to the extent it makes it appear I was duped in some way by the INC, I don't like being on that list and I don't think that's true.'
In all, I called or wrote to about forty reporters whose names appear on the list to ask about their contacts with the INC in general and their knowledge of the Information Collection Program in particular. Some, like The New York Times's Judith Miller, who has become the poster child (somewhat unfairly, in my view) for all that was wrong with the press in the run-up to the Iraq war, did not call back. Most others were willing to talk about the list either on the record or on background. Some spoke at length – Hitchens treated me to a two-hour dissertation on Iraq, which covered everything from the importance of Ataturk to why radical Jihad was more like Nazism than Stalinism. Others were more terse and tetchy. Jim Hoagland at The Washington Post, who has championed the INC for years, abruptly hung up on me before calling back to apologize graciously. Almost all played down the INC's role in influencing their stories and said they were aware of the group's agenda of regime change, and included disclaimers to that effect in their work.
Nonetheless, a review of the list shows that the Information Collection Program succeeded in heavily influencing coverage in the Western press in the run-up to the war. A report issued by the Defense Intelligence Agency last fall concluded that almost all the information given to the government through the ICP and its roster of defectors before the war was useless – but nonetheless the information received prominent play in our leading newspapers, magazines, and television newscasts. When I asked Qanbar about the program's influence on the media before the war, he shrugged and responded: "We did not provide information. We provided defectors. We take no position on them. It's up to you reporters to decide if they are credible or not.'
Paying for Information
The roots of the Information Collection Program lie in the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, in which the U.S. authorized $97 million for various programs designed to promote "democratic reforms' in the country. Ahmad Chalabi and his conservative allies in Congress played a central role in the passage of the act. By that time, Chalabi's INC, which was formed with American sponsorship after the first Gulf War, had already established something of a spotty record with the CIA and the State Department. Nonetheless, over the next two years $35 million went to seven opposition groups, with about $17.3 million of that going to the INC (in all, the INC would receive about $33 million from the government between March 2000 and May 2003). According to a State Department audit, the initial grants were intended to help the INC establish radio and television broadcasts into Iraq, and to "implement a public information campaign to communicate with Iraqis inside and outside Iraq and also to promulgate its message to the international community at large.' According to a March letter from Senators Carl Levin and John Kerry asking the General Accounting Office to investigate the INC, the terms of the group's agreement with the State Department strictly barred the INC from "attempting to influence the policies of the United States government or Congress, or propagandizing the American people.' The letter asks the GAO to determine if any taxpayer funds were used to obtain media exposure for defectors or to transport them to meetings with American journalists. Laura Kopelson, a GAO spokeswoman, said the agency would examine the charges as part of a larger investigation into government spending on Iraq, which would get under way this summer.
There is little doubt that influencing public opinion through the American and European media was always central to the INC's mission (of the 108 stories on Qanbar's list, fifty appeared in U.S. news outlets). One of the first uses for the Iraq Liberation Act funds was to hire the giant public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. Burson-Marsteller's INC team was led by Gavin Grant, a London-based managing director. Levinson did not return calls seeking comment, but Ken Rietz, Burson-Marsteller's chief operating officer, said the firm represented the INC for about three years, with the contract discontinued in July 2003. Rietz described the work as setting up meetings with journalists and talking with members of the media on behalf of the INC. He declined to disclose how much the firm was paid.
From the start, the INC's relationship with the State Department over the Iraq Liberation Act funding was strained. According to Allen Kieswetter, who had a role in overseeing the funding from 2000 to July 2001 as deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, the State Department was very skeptical about the Information Collection Program. "We agreed to it with a great deal of reluctance and put in as many safeguards as we could,' Kieswetter said. The INC claimed the program was to develop information for their broadcasting and publishing ventures, but Kieswetter said he viewed that as a fig leaf. "I think everyone always assumed that [the ICP] was far broader than that.' Given the covert nature of the program, he recommended that it be transferred out of the State Department. "We aren't really in the intelligence business,' says Kieswetter. The State Department also had difficulty tracking how ICP money was being used. In May 2002, State dropped funding for the program.
The problems with the information program had caught the full attention of members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, then the chairman, put the INC's money on hold and asked the subcommittee on foreign operations to conduct a full soup-to-nuts review of the program. The committee's staff held a series of meetings with Chalabi, Qanbar, and other INC operatives, asking about the specific purpose of the information program and how the money was being used. According to people involved in those meetings, the answers were vague. The program was supposed to beam news into Iraq through its "Liberty TV' network, for example, but it was unclear if the signal could be picked up inside the country. The program also put out an opposition newspaper, Al Mutamar, but it wasn't available inside Iraq except on the Internet. The most controversial part of the Information Collection Program was its intelligence-gathering operation. Senate investigators were told by people in the State Department that the INC was handing out cash in the field and saying it couldn't account for the money because there were "no receipts' in intelligence work. "This was clearly an ill-conceived, poorly managed program that received money largely because of its political connections,' says Tim Rieser, the minority clerk for the Foreign Operations subcommittee. "The Congress is responsible for the money and our question was 'What are we getting for that money?'"
On June 26, 2002, in an effort to answer that question and free up the INC's funding, Entifadh Qanbar submitted his lengthy confidential memorandum to the Foreign Operations subcommittee describing the purpose and practices of the Information Collection Program. The program, the memo stated, was "designed to collect, analyze, and disseminate' information from Iraq. "Defectors, reports, and raw intelligence are cultivated and analyzed and the results are reported through the INC newspaper [Al Mutamar], the Arabic and Western media, and to appropriate governmental, nongovernmental, and international agencies.' Specifically, the memo continued, ICP information was given to William Luti, deputy assistant secretary of defense, and John Hannah, special assistant for national security for Vice President Dick Cheney. The memo contained their direct phone numbers. It also included "a summary of ICP product cited in major English-language news outlets.' This was the list of 108 stories.
After the memo's existence was first reported by Newsweek in December, both Luti and Hannah denied receiving defector intelligence from the ICP. Interestingly, Allen Kieswetter notes that during his tenure at Near Eastern Affairs both Luti and Hannah sat in on meetings between State and the INC. When I asked Qanbar whether Luti and Hannah got material directly from the information program, he brushed it aside, claiming that what he had meant to say in the memo was that they received the information when it was reported in the media. I asked if that meant the defectors were handed over to the media first, and then to intelligence officials. He said some defectors were useful for intelligence and some for the media. In general, Qanbar declared, the memo had been written to get the State Department off the INC's back and to prove that the group was producing something of value. When I asked specifically about the story list, Qanbar said that the memo had been prepared by others at the INC and that he had merely signed it. Where had the story list come from? Qanbar said he wasn't sure; the Information Collection Program was separate from his office. Who was in charge of it? Qanbar shrugged. "Aras,' he said.
"Aras Habib?' I asked. "Yes,' Qanbar replied.
A week before our interview Habib (sometimes referred to as Aras Karim Habib) had disappeared from Baghdad after a warrant was issued for his arrest on charges that he was spying for the Iranian government. Habib was suspected of, among other things, passing top-secret information he got from Chalabi to the Iranians. At Daily News's press time, he had not been found. (The INC has denied the charge.)
Understandably, the possibility that an Iranian spy was managing the INC's Iraqi defector program fills some reporters on Qanbar's list with anxiety. "I'd be shocked and completely horrified if Aras was working for Iranian intelligence,' says David Rose, who wrote several pieces for Vanity Fair about Iraq's weapons program in which he used INC defectors as sources. "I knew INC had connections to Iran but if they were on the Iranian payroll I'll be completely smackered.'
Several reporters and editors I spoke with recalled that soon after 9/11 the INC started offering them defectors with stories linking Saddam Hussein to international terrorism. Michael Isikoff from Newsweek remembers going to a dinner that fall hosted by Francis Brooke, a longtime Chalabi aide, at Kincaids, a Washington, D.C., restaurant. The purpose, apparently, was to introduce Isikoff to Sabah Khalifa Khodada, an Iraqi army defector who claimed to know about a secret training camp near Salman Pak, twenty miles south of Baghdad, where Hussein was training Islamic extremists. "It was me, Brooke, and about nine Iraqis,' Isikoff recalls. "The defector didn't speak English and I really didn't know what to make of the whole thing or have any way to evaluate the story so I didn't write about it.'
The INC found a more receptive audience at The Washington Post. In October 2001 the group brought Khodada to meet Jim Hoagland, associate editor and chief foreign correspondent for the Post, who wrote a column using the defector's story. Published on Oct. 12, 2001, and headlined WHAT ABOUT IRAQ? it is the first article on the ICP list. In it Hoagland described "accumulating evidence of Iraq's role in sponsoring the development on its soil of weapons and techniques for international terrorism.' The piece featured the interview with Khodada and also used information sourced to a second INC defector, an ex-Iraqi intelligence officer holed up in Ankara, Turkey, who claimed Islamists were trained for hijackings on a Boeing 707 parked at the Salman Pak camp. Hoagland concluded by criticizing the CIA for not pursuing a possible Iraq connection to the 9/11 attack.
When I asked Hoagland about the column, he offered several defenses. One was that he had acknowledged in the piece that the INC had put him in touch with Khodada (even before Khodada talked with the FBI), and that the INC had relayed the information from the ex-intelligence officer in Ankara. Second, the piece made clear that neither man had supplied definitive proof tying Saddam to 9/11, and that neither should be believed automatically. "It was an opinion piece that is caveated,' Hoagland said. "It basically raised the question of whether the intelligence agencies should listen to these people.'
There still remain claims and counterclaims about what was going on at Salman Pak. But the consensus view now is that the camp was what Iraq told UN weapons inspectors it was – a counterterrorism training camp for army commandos. Drogin of the Los Angeles Times says that the CIA never believed that terrorists were trained at the camp, and that there is no evidence they were. He notes that a 2002 White House white paper attributed all information about foreign terrorists training at Salman Pak to secondary sources. "If they attribute it to someone else,' Drogin says, "it means they really don't think it's true. No one will put their credibility on the line for it.' Knight Ridder's Landay, who has also looked into Salman Pak, says his sources don't find it credible that Hussein was engaged in terrorism training. "Why would Saddam run a training camp for Islamic terrorists involving hijacking planes and trains in full view of American satellites and spy planes?' Landay says. "And why would terrorists go there when they had the same kind of camps in Afghanistan?'
Nonetheless, the Salman Pak story gained traction in the press. A few weeks after Hoagland's column, Chris Hedges of The New York Times wrote a page-one piece headlined DEFECTORS CITE IRAQI TRAINING FOR TERRORISM. In it Hedges used three INC-supplied defectors: Khodada; the Ankara-based defector (later identified in other stories as Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy, a former Iraqi general and senior officer in the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence service); and an Iraqi sergeant, also from the Mukhabarat. The two intelligence officers in the story spoke of groups of forty to fifty Islamic militants being trained in the camp at a time, performing drills on how to hijack a plane without using weapons. The two defectors also told of a guarded compound within Salman Pak where a German scientist was producing biological weapons. The article included several caveats about the information, but noted that such stories would probably fuel "an intense debate in Washington over whether to extend the war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban government of Afghanistan to include Iraq.'
Hedges's article, and another by him that followed a few days later, was the result of a joint project of the Times and the PBS series Frontline, which produced a related documentary called GUNNING FOR SADDAM. When I talked to Hedges about his Salman Pak stories, he said they were based on interviews with sources identified by Lowell Bergman, a correspondent for Frontline and also a reporter for the Times. "I was based in Paris and Lowell couldn't get to Beirut to do the interviews so at the last minute I went to fill in,' Hedges said.
He confirms that the meetings with the defectors for his stories for the Times and Frontline were set up by the INC – and so reported – and the INC sent staff members with Hedges for interviews in London and Beirut. "They were very present, shepherding and arranging things,' Hedges recalls. He felt "pretty certain' that the person in charge of the meetings was the now-wanted Aras Habib. At the time there was no reason to question Bergman's reporting, he says. "We tried to vet the defectors and we didn't get anything out of Washington that said 'these guys are full of shit.'"
Bergman, meanwhile, says the stories came about as part of a post-9/11 effort by Frontline to update all the documentaries about Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda, and Saudi Arabia. "The people involved appeared credible and we had no way of getting into Iraq ourselves,' Bergman says. He, too, notes that both the Times pieces and the Frontline documentary stated clearly that the INC had supplied the defectors. "We did the best we could do at the time, but a lot of questions remain unanswered and are worth more reporting.'
Two or three times a year during his stint in Paris, Hedges says he got calls from the Times asking him to check out INC defector stories. "Chalabi would say something to New York and the next thing I know I'm on a train heading for London,' Hedges says. He had known Chalabi for more than a decade, Hedges adds, but never trusted him. "I thought he was unreliable and corrupt, but just because someone is a sleazebag doesn't mean he might not know something or that everything he says is wrong.' One story that set off warning bells for him, Hedges says, was Chalabi's attempt to push a story about the 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta's meeting with Iraqi intelligence agents in Prague. The meeting, which received wide play in the media, was later dismissed by the CIA as fiction. "Chalabi pushed really hard but I just didn't buy it,' Hedges says.
Chalabi seemed to have an "endless stable' of defectors to talk with reporters, he adds. "He had defectors for any story you wanted. He tried to introduce me to this guy who said he knew about Iraqi spies on the UN inspection teams: the guy was a thug. I didn't trust either of them.'
No doubt the most alarming prewar fears about Saddam Hussein centered on his ambition to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. President Bush famously claimed that America couldn't wait for smoking-gun evidence of Saddam Hussein's nuclear program that "could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.' One of the key stories bolstering that fearful image (in addition to accounts of Iraq's acquiring "yellow cake' uranium from Niger, and special aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium – assertions that proved false), was the front-page story in The New York Times by Judith Miller on December 20, 2001, headlined IRAQI TELLS OF RENOVATIONS AT SITES FOR CHEMICAL AND NUCLEAR ARMS. The piece ran after the INC arranged a meeting for Miller in Bangkok with Adnan Ihsan Saeed Al-Haideri, an Iraqi civil engineer who claimed to have visited at least twenty secret weapons sites. As with other ICP defectors, Miller was given access to Al-Haideri even before U.S. intelligence services. Miller did not return calls seeking comment on this story, but Stephen Engelberg, a former Times editor who worked on the piece and is now with The Oregonian in Portland, says that everyone involved with the story, including Miller, realized that the information had to be treated with some skepticism. Engelberg, who also co-authored the book Germs with Miller, notes that the piece is loaded with caveats and that the INC's involvement in arranging the meeting is mentioned high in the story. "I guess the question you get to is whether you should run such pieces at all,' says Engelberg. "We decided to qualify it and let the readers decide.'
None of the weapons sites – which Al-Haideri claimed were located beneath hospitals and behind palaces – have ever been located. But Entifadh Qanbar continues to defend the information Al-Haideri gave to Miller. "We served together in the military for four years,' Qanbar told me. "The guy is trustworthy.' Al-Haideri never really claimed he knew about actual weapons of mass destruction, Qanbar says. "He never said 'I worked on WMD.' He said, 'Things I worked on were for WMD.'"
Miller's Al-Haideri story ricocheted through America and the world. In the days following her report, news outlets around the world picked up the story, broadcasting Al-Haideri's tale – largely without the qualifiers that appeared in Miller's piece. The Defense Intelligence Agency later termed his information worthless.
Trailers of Death
Print journalists weren't alone in buying the information program's "product.' In March 2002, 60 Minutes broadcast an interview by Lesley Stahl with a defector, later identified as Mohammed Harith, another former Mukhabarat officer, who claimed to have personal knowledge of Saddam Hussein's mobile biological weapons labs. In the piece, which profiled the INC and its efforts to overthrow Hussein, Harith said he personally bought seven refrigerated trucks that would serve as mobile bioweapons labs. He painted the same picture on a much broader canvas in the May 2002 issue of Vanity Fair. In an article by David Rose, Harith claimed that, in addition to the mobile labs, Hussein was close to building a new long-range missile. He also told of a trip to Africa to buy radioactive materials for a dirty bomb from renegade Russians. He spoke of a chemical weapons factory in Samarra and a bioweapons lab in the suburbs of Baghdad. And so on. In the piece, Rose effusively praised the INC's defector operation, going so far as to say it resembled "nothing so much as the Underground Railroad, the clandestine network which rescued slaves from the American South before the Civil War.'
Harith's tales, needless to say, haven't quite panned out. To date, none of the things he described have been found in Iraq nor does anyone think they will be, and in May Vanity Fair issued a half-hearted retraction of the story. Of all the reporters I spoke with for this article, none seemed as devastated by the INC's fall from grace as Rose. Perhaps that's because no one, not even Judith Miller, swallowed and regurgitated more ICP hogwash. Rose concedes that he fell victim to a misinformation campaign and says he wishes he'd been more circumspect. "I feel profound regret over that piece,' Rose confesses. "Harith wasn't telling the truth but I took every step reasonable to establish that these were credible assertions.' On the whole, Rose says, he's not ready to dismiss all that INC defectors told him: "Clearly some of the information was rubbish, but some of it was accurate.' He still believes much of what he was told by defectors about Hussein's human rights violations. 60 Minutes also issued a mea culpa on its Harith story, confronting Chalabi on air about the false claims (Chalabi deflected responsibility to the CIA for failing to vet the information). But Richard Bonin, the producer of the 60 Minutes segment, says he thinks, when taken in context, Harith's claims on the show didn't do much damage. "We weren't presenting the story as a scoop,' Bonin says. "We were presenting it as a part of the INC's lobbying campaign to establish its credibility.'
Though Harith's story was flagged as suspect by the CIA, his tale still had enough life to influence Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 2003 briefing to the United Nations. (Vice President Cheney was still talking up the mobile bioweapons labs as recently as January of this year). In recent months, Powell has repeatedly said he feels duped by the INC on this issue. Predictably, Entifadh Qanbar says Powell's anger at the INC is misplaced. "We provided only one of four sources on these mobile labs,' Qanbar says. "And he was not believed' by the CIA.
Into the Echo Chamber
Qanbar's comment raises the issue of just how pervasive the ICP's influence was before the war. By implication his statement denies that the INC was connected to a second defector – code-named Curveball – provided to German intelligence, who was a prime source for Powell's mobile-labs statement at the UN. But intelligence sources have repeatedly asserted that they believe Curveball to be the brother of an INC official, something the group continues to deny. In a front-page story for the Los Angeles Times last month, Bob Drogin reported that intelligence sources he spoke with now suspect that the INC fed defectors to at least eight foreign intelligence agencies to create an echo effect among Western governments. Whether that proves true or not, there is no doubt that the INC achieved something similar in the Western media. In addition to writing the articles appearing on the list, reporters frequently went on talk shows to talk up their stories. Rose, for example, made at least two appearances on the Today show, to discuss the more alarming aspects of his pieces. Even Mark Bowden, whose Atlantic article had little to do with WMD, jumped into speculation about Saddam Hussein's terrorist training camps while being interviewed on NPR – though his story contained no information about such camps.
Some news organizations, it should be noted, did look askance at the Information Collection Program's defectors. And a few reporters deserve special recognition for their work in exposing problems with the program, including Drogin, Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball at Newsweek, and Jonathan Landay of Knight-Ridder. It was Hosenball, along with his reporting partner Isikoff, who first documented the existence of the ICP memo to Congress in December 2003. Landay's articles first brought to light the program's list of media stories and exposed many of the defectors' tales as suspect. Though the INC now tries to minimize the influence the Information Collection Program had on the press, Landay says he believes it was critical in shaping coverage of the prelude to the Iraq war. Just how much remains in contention. The INC claims it supplied just three defectors to the media through the ICP. But by my count it's at least six: the three who talked about Salman Pak; al-Haideri; Mohammed Harith; and a sixth defector who talked with The Kansas City Star about seeing an American pilot, Scott Speicher, who was reported missing in action in the first Gulf War, in a jail in Baghdad. As noted, some think the tally might go quite a bit higher.
The question that lingers is, Why did the press so ravenously gobble up the tales supplied by the Information Collection Program? Was it simple hunger for scoops? Both supporters and critics of the INC note that after the UN inspection teams left Iraq in 1998, U.S. intelligence about what was happening inside the country was next to nil. That vacuum, many reporters noted, left the perfect opportunity for the information program to flourish. While veteran reporters knew the CIA and State Department were skeptical of INC-produced information, they knew they had nothing better. Reporters were also influenced by knowledge that the CIA has long had an institutional bias against defectors, dating back to the cold war. James Jesus Angleton, a creator of the CIA's counterintelligence operation, had been famously derisive about defectors, and that institutional bias remained with the agency, much to its detriment during stretches of the cold war. When I was discussing the Information Collection Program with The Oregonian's Stephen Engelberg, who covered the CIA for The New York Times in the 1980s, I brought up Angleton and his famous quote that defectors and counterespionage in general were a "forest of mirrors' where anyone could get lost. Engelberg agreed, but noted that Angleton actually called espionage a "wilderness' of mirrors. That phrase was coined not by Angleton but T.S. Eliot (whom Angleton worshiped) in his poem "Gerontion.' It contains a passage perhaps all reporters should consider:
History has many cunning passages,
And issues, deceives with whispering
Guides us by vanities.
She gives when our attention is distracted And what she gives, gives with such
That the giving famishes the craving.
Douglas McCollam, a contributing editor to CJR, covers Washington, D.C., for The American Lawyer.