On the eve of the John Bolton vote, a dizzying stream of new information continued to wash in, filling in the portrait of Bolton and his loyalists as a kind of rogue political force engaged in all-but-open warfare against their bureaucratic enemies in the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community, and openly working to undermine the president's policies of supporting multilateral negotiations on North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs.
Emerging this week were more revelations about the unorthodox staff arrangements Bolton had, including the high-priced management consultant Matthew Freedman, who worked as a consultant for Bolton on a six-figure, taxpayer-funded salary with security clearance while also maintaining a side business consulting private clients whose identities he refused to disclose to the Senate committee staff. Also unusual was the fact that Bolton's acting chief of staff, Frederick Fleitz, worked simultaneously for Bolton and for his home agency, the CIA's non-proliferation department, WINPAC.
Then, on Wednesday, The Hill reported that some Democrats believe Bolton started to avail himself of an alternative intelligence operation bulked up during Bolton's tenure at State which some Democrats said resembled Doug FeithÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s alternative intelligence shop at the Pentagon that produced hyped and misleading assessments of Saddam's collaboration with Osama bin Laden and Iraq's nuclear program. All these latest revelations were just more data points in the amply documented portrait of Bolton as a paranoid rogue operator who behaved as if he were dropped behind enemy lines while working in Colin PowellÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s State Department, and using wired-in operatives to spy on his American bureaucratic enemies.
This persistent stream of revelations continues to damage Bolton, the moderate GOP senators who may vote for him (under tremendous threats and pressure from the White House), and the Bush administration. Indeed, this kind of all-or-nothing White House fanaticism shows how terrified the administration is to lose party discipline on any single issue.
While the Senate Foreign Relations committee chair Richard Lugar and even the Iowa trading group, TradeSport, predicted Bolton would get through committee on Thursday, a few observers said it was still too early to call the game.
"I don't think it's over," insists Steve Clemons, a New America Foundation senior fellow and former Hill staffer, who has led public opposition to the Bolton nomination from his blog, The Washington Note. "Lugar and everyone are acting as if it's a done deal. That's good psychological warfare. But my sense is that there are too many huge problems for these people to automatically vote yes on. It's very complicated for these senators."
On Capitol HillÃ¢â‚¬â€where Senate Foreign Relations committee staff have been pulling 20 hour days the past three weeks conducting an intensive investigation and more than 30 interviews since the Bolton vote was stalled in a surprise move by Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich last monthÃ¢â‚¬â€the mood late Tuesday night was that whatever the outcome, it was a process fought well with everything they had.
"We're going to convince one or more Republicans that this nominee is unqualified," says Norm Kurz, spokesman for Sen. Biden, only partly tongue in cheek. "Surely everyone must recognize that."
"We're going to win on the merits," said Kurz. "There's no dispute about Bolton's arm twisting, the cherry picking the material to fit his own views, surely no one can dispute that he tried to get Christian Westermann fired. He can't run a mission at the U.N. because of the way he abuses people, lied to the committee, under oath ... ."
Yet committee minority staff said Sen. Voinovich was still the key, and indeed, as of late Tuesday, the Ohio Republican had publicly refused to say which way he'll vote, except that he'll vote his conscience. "Voinovich is the guy who might just have his conscience pricked again," says Kurz. "I wouldn't bet on it happening, but I wouldn't say the game is over."
If Voinovich is in fact the key, then the most substantive charges of rogue behavior and intelligence politicization may not ironically be the factors that bring him down. BoltonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s repeated pattern of intelligence manipulation and politicization, his efforts to derail the administrationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s policy in support of six-party talks on North Korea and European-led negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, including by withholding intelligence from Condoleezza Rice on allied reaction to his zealous efforts to get IAEA chief Mohammed el Baradei canned, BoltonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s repeated freelance efforts to meet with foreign officials abroad without clearing his meetings with State Department colleagues and ambassadors, and reports that Bolton was shut out of the Libya loop at U.K. pleas to the White HouseÃ¢â‚¬â€while all amply demonstrated by media reports and the Senate committee in dozens of interviewsÃ¢â‚¬â€may not have been the issue that most animated the public and indeed, Sen. Voinovich, in applying the brakes to this most controversial nomination.
Rather, it was the evidence that Bolton was a serial abuser that in some ways most resonated with people everywhere who understand from their own experience what, in former INC chief Carl Ford Jr.'s terminology before the committee, it means to say Bolton was a pre-eminent "kiss up, kick down" kind of guy.
Regardless of the outcome, the Bolton nomination has changed the political battlefield in Washington. While Bush stands to lose big if Bolton's nomination is not approved by the Senate Foreign Relations committee Thursday, Democrats have already made considerable gains. Observers say Bolton opponents scored a public and important victory in achieving such a penetrating and public investigation so far, one that revealed a startling glimpse not only into Bolton's appalling and at times almost cartoonish operating style, but a detailed look at the larger context of a Bush administration so divided on the most pressing national security matters that it was often consumed with working against itself.
"It showed the Democrats there was a constituency out there for resisting inappropriate or controversial nominees," said Chris Nelson of Samuels International, a longtime acute observer of the Washington foreign policy scene in his Nelson Report. "Democrats have helped themselves by managing to sound uncharacteristically reasonable, while the Republicans have managed to sound so extreme, victims of this kind of Caligula force. It reminds the Republicans that there is a price for this kind of stuff."
As for whether Senate Democrats should use procedural means to stymie the vote ThursdayÃ¢â‚¬â€given that the Senate Foreign Relations committee had still not received some of the documents it had repeatedly requested from the State Department and the NSA as late as WednesdayÃ¢â‚¬â€Nelson said no.
"The Democrats recognize they can't go to the nuclear option on Bolton," Nelson said. "The judges are the game here. Bolton is spring training."
For Iranians in exile – and the Americans who become embroiled in their intrigues – Paris has long been the city of shadows. This is where the Ayatollah Khomenei awaited the ominous victory of his Islamic revolution; and where the deposed ministers and brutal spies from the late shah's government washed up in the 1979 revolution's bloody aftermath.
For well over two decades now, dreamers and schemers who hope to overthrow the mullahs have been lurking along the banks of the Seine, passing secrets and lies through proxies, back channels, and middlemen. Among the Persian plotters marooned in the French capital is a former minister of commerce in the shah's government, who has recently acquired the code name of "Ali."
To the influential U.S. congressman who bestowed that somewhat unoriginal alias on him, the elderly bureaucrat is actually an oracle who passes along invaluable intelligence about terrorist conspiracies emanating from Tehran, and an important asset who should be cultivated by the CIA.
Yet "Ali" is actually a cipher for Manucher Ghorbanifar, the notorious Iranian arms dealer and accused intelligence fabricator – and the potential instrument of another potentially dangerous manipulation of American policy in the Persian Gulf region.
"Ali's" fervent advocate on Capitol Hill is Rep. Curt Weldon, the conservative Pennsylvania Republican who serves as vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee. The nine-term congressman has long nurtured a penchant for the dramatic. With a degree in Russian studies from West Chester University in his home state, Weldon has often displayed his language skills on official trips to Moscow to discuss Russia's "loose nukes" and the urgent need for a missile-defense system. Since the end of the Cold War, he has carved out a niche as an expert on such truly frightening topics as nuclear proliferation and high-tech terrorism.
As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Military Research and Development, Weldon has held numerous hearings on the threat of Russian suitcase bombs being infiltrated into American cities and similar cataclysmic scenarios. He often shows up in the press as a Cassandra warning against elaborate foreign plots, from terrorist hackers destroying the Pentagon's Internet capacity to North Korean nuclear weapons exploding in the atmosphere of the United States, creating an electromagnetic pulse that would cripple the nation's electrical utilities and electronic systems. He possesses a genuine gift for elaborating these nightmare visions, which he may have sharpened while reading the works of Tom Clancy. Indeed, he sometimes cites catastrophic attack scenarios devised by the suspense novelist, an acquaintance of his who has occasionally helped to raise money for Pennsylvania Republicans.
Unlike the stock characters in Clancy's novels, however, the source Weldon calls "Ali" is a real person; in fact, he's a former Iranian government official. And so convinced is Weldon of the man's veracity that he has not only tried to persuade the CIA to pay Ali, he is also shopping a book based on the startling information that the Iranian exile has passed along to him. According to a report last December in The New York Sun, Weldon hopes to soon publish an expose of Iranian terrorist conspiracies, including an alleged 2003 plot to crash a plane into New Hampshire's Seabrook nuclear-power plant that the congressman claims was later confirmed in the press.
"Ali" first mentioned the Iranian threat to the Seabrook reactor at a Paris meeting with Weldon on May 17, 2003, according to the Sun article. Three months later, on Aug. 22, The Toronto Star reported the arrest of 19 men in Canada for immigration violations; mostly Pakistanis (and one Indian), they were suspected of being involved in a terrorist conspiracy. One of the men in the suspected cell was reported to have been taking flight lessons, and to have flown an airplane directly over an Ontario nuclear-power plant, according to the Star.
But as things turned out, the Canadian terrorism case is considerably more ambiguous than Weldon's breathless version. Ultimately the Canadian government didn't pursue terrorism charges against the 19 men, but deported them for holding improper visas. Following up on the case in late November 2003, The Toronto Star reported that "what started out as a sensational terrorism case has devolved into one of simple immigration fraud, with officials now backing away from their initial claim that the men posed a threat to national security." The case is still a subject of intense controversy in Canada, with human-rights groups charging that the government trumped up the terrorism accusations based on flimsy evidence.
Unimpressed by such scary but unsubstantiated stories, the CIA rejected Weldon's entreaties to engage with "Ali." Frustrated by the agency's negative decision, the congressman complained in a letter to the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, with an attached memo titled "Ali: A Credible Source."
Responding to inquiries from the Prospect, Weldon's office confirmed that the representative has met twice with "Ali" in Paris, and maintained an active correspondence with him. Their meetings were arranged by Peter Pry, a former CIA strategic-weapons analyst and House Armed Services Committee staffer, who advises the congressman on nuclear-proliferation issues. Eventually Weldon tried to interest the CIA in "Ali," but the agency was wary because the informant won't elaborate on his sources in Iran. Frustrated by what he sees as a failure of the intelligence community, Weldon wants to take the "Ali" story to the public. His press aides say that former CIA Director James Woolsey – a neoconservative stalwart who endorsed the theory that Iraqi agents were probably behind the Sept. 11 attacks – has read Weldon's new book manuscript and was most impressed by it.
The Prospect has learned that the true identity of "Ali" is Fereidoun Mahdavi, formerly the shah's minister of commerce and, more importantly, the close friend and business partner of Ghorbanifar, legendary arms dealer, infamous intelligence fabricator, and central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal that almost brought down the Reagan administration. It was "Gorba," as he was known back then to Lt. Col. Oliver North, the rogue National Security Council officer, who lured the Reagan administration into secretly selling U.S. missiles to the Islamic regime in exchange for the release of Western hostages.
"I knew him to be a liar," North eventually acknowledged. Robert McFarlane, the national-security adviser who approved the Iran-Contra arms trades, once described Ghorbanifar as "one of the most despicable characters I have ever met."
* * *
Like Ghorbanifar, who maintains a family residence in Nice and frequents certain Paris hotels, Mahdavi has lived in France ever since he fled Iran. He currently occupies a Paris apartment with his wife, who is suffering from cancer. Not long ago he was stricken by a heart attack, and is regarded with sympathy by many in the local Iranian exile community, who consider him an honorable figure. Reached on the telephone in January, he discussed his various dealings with Weldon and Ghorbanifar.
"Maybe I met with Weldon one time," he recalled. Told that Weldon plans to publish a book based on his conversations with "Ali," Mahdavi demurs. "I will deny any quote," he says. "I gave information to Weldon from Ghorbanifar." He insists that, because he cannot contact anyone in his homeland, he could not have been the original source for the information that the arms merchant asked him to pass to the congressman. "I am very well-known in Iran," he says. "Everyone knows me. I cannot call there."
Mahdavi denied that he has received any money from the U.S. government or any U.S. official. "I am 74 years old," he says. "If I have got one dollar from one American, I will give you a million. I never got any money from the Americans, and I don't want any American money." He sounded more circumspect about his relationship with Ghorbanifar, though. "I know Ghorbanifar and I am close with him, but I don't want to be confused with him."
Another former minister in the shah's government, who also lives in Paris, says that Mahdavi and Ghorbanifar have maintained long-standing commercial and personal connections. According to Akbar Etemad, who served as head of the Atomic Energy Organization in the Pahlavi regime, the pair went into business together after the 1979 revolution, working mostly in Arab countries. Etemad also confirmed that Mahdavi has been passing along dubious "intelligence" information, supposedly from inside Iran.
"Mahdavi says that he has this network in Iran that he gets information from," says Etemad. "Each time, he says his information will come true in two months' time. But all that information is fake. Ghorbanifar and Mahdavi work very closely together. Ghorbanifar is unreliable. In that sense, he might be dangerous."
The CIA shares that harsh assessment of Ghorbanifar. If the intelligence agency had any clue to Mahdavi's association with Ghorbanifar, it is scarcely surprising that its officials rebuffed Weldon's overtures on behalf of "Ali." Many years ago, the CIA issued an unusual "burn notice" on Ghorbanifar, instructing its personnel not to deal with him and warning that he was known to spread false information to advance his own interests.
Indeed, to CIA analysts still smarting from the humiliations of the Iraqi intelligence fiasco, the reappearance of Ghorbanifar behind "Ali" must have set off loud alarms. The Iranian arms dealer not only symbolizes one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of American covert operations, which involved selling sophisticated weapons to a terrorist regime in exchange for hostages; with his neoconservative sponsors and opportunistic methods, Ghorbanifar very much resembles Ahmad Chalabi, another slick operator who eventually came to be viewed with the deepest suspicion – but not before his faulty "intelligence" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction helped to draw America into war.
* * *
Among those who have compared Ghorbanifar to Chalabi is Michael Ledeen, the neoconservative writer and historian who has befriended both men. As the "freedom scholar" at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to the National Review, he now spends much of his time urging the Bush administration to support efforts by Iranian dissidents to topple their country's theocratic rulers. Coming from Ledeen – who also played a central role in the Iran-Contra affair alongside Ghorbanifar, and who still defends Chalabi – the comparison of the shadowy pair is meant as a compliment. He says that their poor reputation at the CIA and the State Department simply proves the inflexibility of the American bureaucrats.
"They never liked Ghorbanifar, [which was] similar to them not liking lots of other people, including Chalabi," insisted Ledeen in a recent interview with the Prospect. "It's because [Chalabi and Ghorbanifar] want to work with the American government and not for it. The CIA and State Department have a difficult time with such people. But Chalabi is first and foremost an Iraqi; Ghorbanifar is an Iranian. There are times when their interests coincide with those of the U.S. government. But they do not wish to be agents of the American government. They are very happy to help when interests coincide."
Considering that they don't wish to serve as "agents" of the American government, both Ghorbanifar and Chalabi have eagerly accepted American money and weapons. In any case, Ledeen's fine distinctions are unlikely to assuage the worries of anyone disturbed by what Chalabi has done to U.S. policy in Iraq – or what Ghorbanifar might do to U.S. policy in Iran. Indeed, the revived debate over Ghorbanifar's character and competence is particularly pressing now because neoconservatives such as Ledeen, who listen closely to him, have gained influence over the Bush administration's Iran policy.
(While the Bush administration's decision in early March to go along with European allies in offering Iran economic incentives to abandon its nuclear program was hailed as a decisive shift toward a diplomatic solution [and a setback for the neoconservatives], the second part of the U.S.-European agreement is equally important. The Europeans agreed that should Iran fail to abide by international nuclear agreements, they will support the United States in referring Tehran to the United Nations Security Council for noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. That could help the United States to isolate Iran at the United Nations, reprising the prelude to the Iraq invasion. Given the pending nomination of Undersecretary of State [and uber-hawk] John Bolton as Washington's new UN ambassador, the administration is clearly prepared to pursue a more aggressive, and perhaps unilateral, policy toward Iran.)
Alone among those involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, Ledeen has never lost faith in Ghorbanifar. In a December 1985 meeting with the CIA, he described the Iranian as a "wonderful man ... almost too good to be true." He still says Ghorbanifar "is my best source of information on Iran for 20 years. And the CIA made a mistake about him and they don't know how to get out of it. Once a burn notice has been issued on somebody, they are never going to change it. I think the CIA is a hopeless, stupid organization."
Ledeen also insists that "the information Ghorbanifar provided during the Iran-Contra period was invaluable. Ghorbanifar was the first person I ever met who knew what Hezbollah really was ... . He was the first person who was able to identify factions within the Iranian regime about which we know nothing. His information has been spot-on all along."
* * *
It isn't easy to measure the extent of Ghorbanifar's renewed influence on American policy. Even to his cohorts among the Iranian exile community in Paris, he remains mysterious. Almost everywhere his name is mentioned, the doubts about his integrity persist. A former intelligence officer serving the shah's military chief of staff, the 59-year-old Ghorbanifar has used his connections with members of Iran's current theocratic regime to sell the promise of regime change to Washington contacts for more than two decades.
To his current American contacts, he markets himself much as he did during the Iran-Contra era – as the indispensable purveyor of intelligence information about political machinations inside the Islamic Republic and the Tehran regime's sponsorship of nefarious terrorist plots. He is frequently traveling, completing deals recently in such places as Spain and Iraq; his trading has covered commodities from petroleum to peas to Persian carpets, from small arms to guided missiles.
His ancestral family home is in the Iranian city of Isfahan. In an interview last summer, he said that he had earned a doctorate in history by the time he was 23 years old. During the twilight years of the shah's government, Ghorbanifar managed Star Line, a shipping company whose ownership was partly taken over by Israeli businessmen in 1980. While he is often alleged to have had ties with SAVAK, the shah's brutal secret police, he and others say that he worked for the intelligence unit of the Iranian armed forces.
After the revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979, but before the theocratic rule of the mullahs solidified, Ghorbanifar was embroiled in clandestine struggles for power. Two of his Paris associates recall that he and other members of his family participated in a July 1980 conspiracy against Khomenei. The "Nojeh" plot was a failed coup attempt led by Iranian air-force officers. When it collapsed, Ghorbanifar's sister was among those sentenced to death by the Islamic regime.
Seeking to save her life, Ghorbanifar, according to one of his friends, found an intermediary in Dubai who made a covert arrangement with the Iranian authorities. Ghorbanifar paid the intermediary a million francs, and the Iranians commuted his sister's death sentence to five years in prison. That deal was the beginning of his connections with the new regime in Tehran.
By then the Shia revolutionaries were at war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and apparently thought they could use Ghorbanifar's shipping experience – and his Israeli connections – to help them procure American weapons and spare parts for systems the shah had purchased from the United States.
To obtain weapons for Iran, Ghorbanifar aggressively courted Israeli and American officials. At first he hooked up with the CIA as an informant, but the agency soon decided that he was a fabricator and issued the burn notice, discouraging any contact with him. In 1984, when he tried to open another line of communication to the State Department, his advances were again rebuffed.
His big break came later that year, when he met the Saudi billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. "The way that Ghorbanifar first came to the attention of the Israelis was because he was introduced to Khashoggi as one of those who knew the people who controlled these very expensive, duty-free Persian carpets in Hamburg," recalls Ledeen. "These were very expensive carpets, some used to belong to the shah, and Khashoggi was interested in buying those carpets. Ghorbanifar was helping him, and they became friends."
Through Khashoggi, Ghorbanifar was able to link up with Israeli policy-makers and intelligence officials, who in turn introduced the arms dealer to Ledeen, then working as a consultant to Ronald Reagan's national-security adviser, Robert McFarlane. And through Ledeen, Ghorbanifar at last found receptive ears for the deal he had long been trying to broker: The United States and Israel would supply sophisticated weapons to Iran; in return, Ghorbanifar convinced McFarlane, "moderate" elements in Tehran would be empowered and enabled to release U.S. hostages held by Shia radicals in Lebanon.
"And then as usual, the Americans betray their friends," says an old Ghorbanifar friend. As the Iran-Contra machinations proceeded, the Reagan White House opened a "second channel" to the Iranians that bypassed Gorba. His friend recalls that this decision caused "a very hostile relationship between Ghorbanifar and the Americans. After that, they started to give bad information about him." If Ghorbanifar felt betrayed by the Reagan administration, the feeling was certainly mutual.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ghorbanifar saw an opportunity to reopen his connections with the United States government, just as he had perceived such an opportunity during the hostage crises of the Reagan era. In the months after 9/11, the Bush administration was desperate for actionable intelligence on terrorist threats and state sponsorship of terrorist groups by hostile governments in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Around that time, Ghorbanifar called his old friend Ledeen, who no longer consults officially for the U.S. government but is very well-connected in both the White House and the Pentagon. He convinced Ledeen that he could produce Iranian informants with crucial intelligence about an alleged Tehran-backed terrorist threat to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"Ghorbanifar called me, and at first I said, 'Are you insane?'" Ledeen later told The New York Times. "But he said he could arrange meetings with Iranians [who had] current information about what Iran was doing. It wasn't information coming from him. He was just arranging the meetings."
As first reported in Newsday, Ghorbanifar secretly met with officials from the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans in Rome in December 2001. The main topic was the supposed threat to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but the options for regime change in Iran were also discussed.
How the Bush administration came to authorize the initial December 2001 meeting in Rome is a curious tale that suggests how far Ghorbanifar can reach. The meeting included two Farsi-speaking Pentagon officials, Defense Intelligence Agency Iran expert Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode, a polyglot Middle East specialist, both then working for Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith.
In a recent letter to the Washington Monthly, Feith explained what he called "the real story" behind the Rome meeting. "The Department of Defense learned from the White House that there were some Iranians who had information about terrorist threats to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and who wanted to defect," he said. " (It turned out that the Iranians did not want to defect, but they did want to share information directly with the U.S. government.) The Iranians did not, however, want to deal with the CIA. [The Defense Department] was asked to handle the contact."
Feith concluded, "After the December 2001 meeting, it was decided not to pursue the matter further. One factor in that decision was the involvement of Ghorbanifar, whose participation in the Rome meeting surprised the senior officials at [the Defense Department] who authorized the trip."
That unusual letter from Feith, who recently resigned and will leave his post this summer, indicates that the White House had learned of the talkative Iranians from a source outside the usual intelligence or diplomatic channels at the CIA and the State Department. That means that Ghorbanifar may have a contact who is passing his messages directly to the White House. And according to Feith, that source didn't warn the Pentagon that Ghorbanifar would be present at the Rome meeting. One person familiar with the Rome meeting, who asked not to be named, expressed skepticism that the Pentagon was surprised by Ghorbanifar's presence there.
An official from SISMI, the Italian military intelligence agency, was also present. In an interview with Italy's La Republica newspaper, SISMI Director Niccolo Pollari confirmed that he was asked to facilitate the Rome meeting, and that he sent an aide. (The Washington Monthly first reported SISMI's involvement in the encounter between Ghorbanifar and the Pentagon.) Pollari didn't explain why the U.S. Defense Department would interview Iranian informants in the presence of a foreign military intelligence service, without the knowledge of the U.S. embassy in Rome and without any assistance from the CIA, which would normally assume responsibility for such contacts. In his letter, Feith asserts that the White House understood the would-be defectors refused to deal with the CIA, which was why the Pentagon took over.
In June 2003, Rhode met with Ghorbanifar once more, this time in Paris. The publicity about the meetings, combined with opposition from the State Department and the CIA, reportedly led to the shutdown of the arms dealer's back channel the following autumn. Ghorbanifar's contacts with the U.S. government remained dormant. But by then "Ali" had commenced his discussions with Congressman Weldon about Tehran's terrorist plots. Cut off once more by the Pentagon and the CIA, Ghorbanifar had already opened a second channel via the unwitting Weldon.
* * *
The most striking aspect of Weldon's sponsorship of "Ali" is how precisely it follows the Ghorbanifar pattern of making a connection by telling a prospective client what he wants to hear. Weldon has a long history of being fascinated by fantastic foreign plots. Using "Ali" as an intermediary, Ghorbanifar was able to feed that appetite, to penetrate Republican circles in Washington again – and to stoke neoconservative hostility toward the Iranian regime.
Whatever political aims Ghorbanifar may be pursuing remain as murky as ever. But given the controversies that have surrounded him for more than two decades, and the messy aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, it is remarkable that he has once again surfaced as a middleman and intelligence source. Yet the return of Ghorbanifar is merely one symptom of a much graver problem: the paucity of reliable U.S. intelligence about people and events in Iran. Lacking well-placed sources there, the U.S. government finds itself listening again to someone with a track record of supplying false information and playing both sides.
To see through the complex web woven by Ghorbanifar, it may help to remember his friend Ledeen's praise of the arms dealer as "almost too good to be true." That description is double-edged, of course, because someone who tells us exactly what we want to hear is usually too good to be true. From Oliver North to Curt Weldon, Ghorbanifar has an uncanny ability to exploit the vulnerability of Americans trying to glean critical information about Iran.
Ghorbanifar's handling of his cats-paw "Ali" offers a glimpse of the dark side of this master manipulator, who willingly uses a frail and ailing associate as a front for his operations. Perhaps the last word on Ghorbanifar should be left to one of his countrymen in Paris. "The culture in Iran is to hide the thing that you mean," the man explained. "There is a proverb: 'You have a tongue to hide your idea.'"
A battle is brewing within the ranks of neoconservatives in Washington. Public flashes of private quarrels are uncommon among this rarefied circle of uber-hawks, who have been unanimous in shaping and supporting the Bush administration's aggressive foreign policy. Yet they find themselves at odds over the most unlikely of issues: an Iranian terrorist group.
The neoconservatives have been unanimous in their skepticism that recent European-led negotiations to curtail Iran's nuclear program will hold. But here, unanimity breaks down. One faction of neoconservative Iran hawks believes that the Bush administration should pursue a more traditional set of diplomatic, economic and mi litary carrots and sticks to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear aspirations. But another faction argues that the only real long-term solution is to change the Iran regime itself. "Even if you believe that a nuclear Iran is inevitable," Michael Ledeen, one of the leading Iran regime change advocates, recently wrote in National Review, "is it not infinitely better to have those atomic bombs in the hands of pro-Western Iranians, chosen by their own people, than in the grip of fanatical theocratic tyrants?"
And even as they urge the Bush administration to adopt regime change in Iran as its official policy, the hawks disagree on which Iranian opposition groups Washington should work with to depose Iran's current fundamentalist regime.
Until recently, some neoconservatives looked to Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former U.S. ally, the Shah of Iran, who was deposed by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Pahlavi, currently living in a Washington, D.C. suburb, is a potential Ahmad Chalabi-type figure around which the Iranian opposition could unite (at least for Washington's purposes). But those plans now seem unlikely for a variety of reasons, including Pahlavi's own reluctance to assume the political mantle.
As they look around for replacements, one camp is pushing the U.S. to provide financial assistance, communications equipment and counsel to Iranian students and other dissident groups to help engineer a nonviolent revolution, similar to the ones the world has witnessed in Serbia in 2000, last year in Tbilisi, Georgia, and, just this past month, in Ukraine.
Other hawks led by conservative think tanks such as the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy – dismiss such a plan as unrealistic. They argue that the U.S. should work with the sole Iranian opposition group that has experience fighting the Tehran regime: the People's Mujahedeen (Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK). According to them, the group possesses two irreplaceable assets: an established network of supporters inside Iran that can provide intelligence on Iran's nuclear program; a long history of fighting the Tehran regime.
Ledeen's camp, however, has been vocal in opposing the idea of using the MEK, which received significant military support from Saddam Hussein. And there's just one other problem: in 1997, the State Department put the MEK, and its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), on the official U.S. government list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Terrorists We Tolerate
Founded as an Iranian leftist group in the 1960s with Marxist and Islamist leanings, the MEK participated in the 1979 revolution to overthrow the U.S.-backed Shah. But in 1981, the MEK broke with Iran's post-revolutionary leaders and decamped first to France (where it still has a large following), and then in 1986, to Iraq, where the group fought with Saddam Hussein against fellow Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. They also served as shock troops to put down the rebelling Iraqi Shias in the wake of the first Gulf War. The MEK was also responsible for numerous attacks on Iranian embassies and assassination of Iranian officials carried out by the group in Europe and Iran in the 1990s.
Thanks to this bloody track record, the MEK/NCRI is widely despised by fellow Iranians, including other Iranian dissident groups that are working to overthrow Iran's clerical rulers.
Their history with regard to the United States is just as unsavory. When the State Department designated the MEK and the NCRI as terrorist organizations in 1997, it cited the group's involvement in attacks during the 1970s on U.S. military contractors in Iran, and more importantly, in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Yet the Bush administration's policy toward the MEK has been erratic. During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Washington first bombed MEK camps in Iraq but then, in April 2003, signed a ceasefire with the group in April 2003. The agreement confiscated the group's heavy weaponry and confined some 3,800 MEK members to Camp Ashraf in the northeast of Baghdad.
According to reports in the media, in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq campaign, some in the State Department favored turning over MEK members in Iraq to the Iranian government in exchange for al Qaeda suspects being held in Iranian custody even as some hardliners in the administration were lobbying to keep the MEK intact for possible use against the Iranian regime. At the time, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith went on record in a June 2003 press conference to deny the any such plan. Th issue was put to rest this past July, when, after a year-long, multi-agency review, the U.S. government granted MEK members at Camp Ashraf formal protected person's status under the Fourth Geneva Convention – which guarantees MEK members can't be involuntarily repatriated to Iran.
Just as confused has been the U.S. relationship to the NCRI in Washington. While the U.S. government's official line about the MEK has been that "a terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist," Washington hardly treats NCRI members the same way as it would, say, Hamas. Former NCRI spokesman Alireza Jafarzadeh is highly visible in the media often serving as an expert commentator on Fox News Channel – and frequently attends Iran-related events in D.C. held by conservative think tanks. Neoconservative guru Richard Perle spoke at a charity fundraiser organized by an MEK front group last January to benefit victims of the earthquake in Van, Iran. He later told the Washington Post that he was unaware of MEK's involvement a claim that's hard to swallow since Perle's fellow keynote speaker at the event was MEK leader Maryam Rajavi, who addressed the audience via videophone from Paris.
Despite the organization's cult-like reputation and sordid human rights record, some neoconservatives remain steadfast in their support for the MEK. One of the arguments most often cited by its supporters is its alleged capacity to deliver highly specific intelligence on Iran's nuclear program – information that the MEK claims it receives from an underground network of well-placed sources inside Iran.
"With the need to obtain intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons progress, the MEK is the only organized group capable of providing detailed human-source intel," says Raymond Tanter, a Middle East expert at the pro-Israel think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The MEK has people on the ground in Iran and has information our intelligence community might use to compare with satellite imagery and electronic intercepts."
But what about the MEK's past involvement in anti-U.S. activities? "When you are dealing with intelligence information, you can't pick or choose," Tanter says. "These guys could have information that you don't have."
The information put forward by MEK/NCRI has also been key to neoconservative efforts to oppose the European Union's efforts to broker a deal with Tehran. Last month, one day after European negotiators announced they had won Tehran's agreement to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment, the NCRI held parallel press conferences in Paris and Vienna alleging that Iran was hiding secret nuclear facilities that it had failed to declare to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA].
The information put forward by the NCRI has been proved accurate in the past. In an Aug. 14, 2002 press conference, its leaders revealed that, unbeknownst to the intelligence agencies of most countries in the world at that time, Iran possessed an advanced nuclear program that it had been developing for the past sixteen years. The NCRI claims led the UN nuclear watchdog body, the IAEA, to send inspectors to two Iranian nuclear facilities, Natanz and Arak, where they were verified as accurate. They also set in motion more than two years of further such NCRI revelations and subsequent IAEA inspections all of which has served to make Iran's nuclear program among the foremost concerns of the international community and the Bush administration.
In recent months, however, some experts have expressed growing doubts about the group's claims. "I can no longer trust their information," says David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector and director of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "It is like a barrage they are throwing up, making all of these accusations. That highly enriched uranium came from Pakistan. That there are two enrichment projects that are active. That bomb designs came from AQ Khan. There is not a single bit of evidence that has been offered to back any of this." While the MEK does provide important intelligence, Albright says that their claims now reflect "a political agenda."
The MEK's claims also serve the political agenda of the Bush administration, which is facing tough choices in the wake of Tehran's recent success in outmaneuvering the U.S. In his piece, Iran's Nuclear Power Play, Dilip Hiro reveals how Tehran was able to secure nuclear, political and trade concessions from the Europeans in return for agreeing to temporarily suspend uranium enrishchment. More to the point, Hiro says, "this deal killed the Bush administration's pet plan to refer the Iranian case to the United Nations Security Council for censure or the possible imposition of sanctions for its alleged breaches of the IAEA nuclear protocol."
Stymied for now from getting Iran referred in noncompliance withthe Nuclear Non-Profliferation Treaty to the UN Security Concil, and lacking confidence that it will ever be able to persuade Europe, China or Japan to give up lucrative trade and energy agreements with Iran, Washington is contemplating a set of potentially bleak options: negotiate with Tehran directly, consider military options to take out Iran's nuclear facilities, let Iran go nuclear, or consider making regime change in Iran official U.S. policy.
So it's no wonder that hawks in the Bush administration are lobbying for the MEK as a means to promote their goal of regime change. Some Iran watchers say that a mutual working relationship between Washington and the NCRI/MEK has already been agreed to, one which includes the U.S. debriefing of MEK members at Camp Ashraf in Iraq for Iran intelligence information.
"We will use them, but not de-list them [as terrorists]," predicts Dan Byman, a former Middle East analyst at the CIA now affiliated with the Brookings Institution and the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. "We have control of MEK facilities in Iraq and we are taking advantage of it, and not shutting them down."
It's too early to tell if the Bush administration's relationship with the MEK will endure in the long run. But many experts worry that the MEK/NCRI may end up playing the same role in the Bush administration's plans for Iran as the Iraqi National Congress did in the invasion of Iraq. In other words, the MEK may become the expedient source of cooked-up intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program designed to justify a pre-determined regime change policy.
Bob Graham's new book contains two explosive charges: one, Omar al-Bayoumi, a man who helped settle two of the 9/11 hijackers in San Diego was really a Saudi spy; two, the White House has directed what amounts to a cover up of the intelligence failures connected to the 9/11 attacks.
If the charges sound familiar, it's because they are based on facts uncovered by the Congressional Joint Inquiry that the Florida senator co-chaired, and whose findings were released in a report in the summer of 2003. At the time, the White House refused to declassify 27 pages of that report, which allegedly dealt with financial and logistical support that some of the hijackers may have received from Saudi sources.
But Graham goes further in connecting the dots than the report in the book, which is titled "Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure of America's War on Terror." He claims that Omar al-Bayoumi who offered assistance to two of the 9/11 hijackers – was likely a full fledged Saudi spy:
In May, Stephen Green was hard at work campaigning for a seat in Vermont's House of Representatives when he got a phone call. The last person the 64-year-old former United Nations official, then preoccupied with health-care policy issues, expected to hear from was an FBI agent, who asked if he could come to Washington to chat with him about the history of Israeli espionage efforts against the United States.
As the author of two books on U.S.-Israeli relations, Green knew something about the subject. Still, the phone call seemed to come out of the blue. Green quickly discovered, however, that the FBI had a keen interest in the subject. Federal agents were involved in an investigation into an alleged Israeli "mole" in the office of Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy.
Early reports suggested that the FBI had wiretap evidence that a veteran Iran analyst working in Feith's office at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Larry Franklin, may have passed a classified draft of a National Security Presidential Directive on Iran to an official working for the pro-Israel lobbying organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Members of the organization, in turn, were said to have passed the document on to Israel. (AIPAC officials strongly deny the accusations.)
But as Green spoke with investigators, he realized the agents were investigating far more than Franklin.
"Larry Franklin's name never came up, but several others did," he said.
Green, as the FBI agents knew, had a special expertise in the field of Israeli espionage in the United States. In the 1980s, he had taken time off from his job at the UN to look into the U.S.Israeli "special relationship." He spent years combing through public records, filing and litigating Freedom of Information Act requests, and tracking down current and retired government officials. He eventually wrote two books, Taking Sides: America's Secret Relations With Israel and Living By The Sword: America and Israel in the Middle East. The Times of London and Foreign Affairs commended his work, describing it as "praised by those who believe the United States has damaged its own security, and Israel's too, by uncritical and often secret support of Israel's actions, no matter how extreme." Yet, as Foreign Affairs reported, Green's work also caused "sputter[ing] with indignation" among "those who believe that American and Israeli interests are identical."
Green returned to the UN in 1990 and followed the subject from there. Earlier this year, he published a piece in the newsletter CounterPunch, recapping previously reported – though long-forgotten – government investigations of prominent neoconservatives for their suspected espionage or improper information-sharing with Israel. And that's where the FBI comes in.
According to the FBI agents who contacted Green, as he recounts, the article had come to their attention when one of Greens sources – a retired national security official they were interviewing – shared it with them.
And so on June 22, Green found himself sitting across an oval-shaped conference table from two FBI agents at an undisclosed northern Virginia venue. The meeting lasted nearly four hours.
"They were extraordinarily well-informed; it was apparent they've been at this for awhile," Green says. "I asked them if there was a current reason for them asking questions about things that go back over 30 years, and they sort of looked at each other and said, 'Yes, it's a present issue,' but wouldn't say specifically what. Though they did ask very specific questions about one individual in particular."
Green said the agents asked about several current or former Pentagon officials such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Michael Ledeen, and Stephen Bryen.
"The tenor of their questions was such that it defined where these people were in terms of the nature of their focus," Green says. "They also asked about a couple other Office of Special Plans people, including Harold Rhode. Ironically, about the only name that didn't come up was Larry Franklin."
Regardless of the status of the investigation, something seemed a bit fishy. After all, Israel – one of the United States closest allies, with deep support in the Bush Administration and especially at the Defense Department – hardly needs a Pentagon-embedded spy to get access to interagency debates about U.S. policy to Iran, as observers have pointed out. And compared with the information on arms shipments that former US Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard passed on to Israel in the 1980s, a draft of a document about U.S. policy toward Iran would hardly seem like the crown jewels.
Yet, as Newsweek has reported, Franklin had come to the FBIs attention a year and a half ago, when he walked in on a lunch with an Israeli diplomat and an AIPAC lobbyist, both of whom were under FBI surveillance for a year. In addition, Newsweek reported that when news of the investigation surfaced, Franklin had already been cooperating with the FBI for several weeks and had reportedly led FBI agents to those who may have received information from him.
The previous FBI investigation came into focus only on September 1, when The Washington Post reported that for two years, the FBI has conducted a counterintelligence investigation into whether AIPAC has forwarded highly classified materials from the National Security Agency . . . to Israel. The Post piece describes Franklins alleged role as merely coincidental to the larger FBI probe of alleged intelligence-passing through AIPAC to Israel.
Both AIPAC and Tel Aviv vehemently deny any wrongdoing. And indeed, the Israeli diplomat who acknowledges meeting with Franklin and AIPAC – Naor Gilon, the Israeli embassys No. 3 official and a specialist on Irans nuclear program – returned to Washington on August 29 from a summer vacation in Israel. He admits that he met with Franklin, but insists hes done nothing wrong.
A source familiar with the investigation told The American Prospect that when news of the investigation broke, the Justice Department had been preparing a request to the State Department to have an Israeli diplomat – by implication Gilon – declared persona non grata for allegedly having received classified U.S. intelligence from AIPAC sources.
Furthermore, a Sept. 1 report by NBC speculated that the reason the Israelis may have broken their declared post-Pollard policy of not spying on the United States is because of Israels preeminent concern about Irans nuclear program, and its view that the United States may not be prepared to act assertively enough to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The Post piece seems to imply that Franklin is more of an anti-Tehran zealot than anything else and wasnt engaging in espionage per se. But as the Post article and the June meeting between Green and the FBI seem to indicate, the FBI is looking into the possibility there's been communication between Israeli elements and U.S. officials, including several who work for Feith and have access to sensitive intelligence on Iran and its nuclear program.
With full-page ads in the Washington Post and the New York Times, and a sparkling new multi-media website flashing photos of recent terror attacks in India and Indonesia, the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) re-launched itself with a bang last month, proclaiming its new mission to be "dedicated to winning the war on terror."
What it didn't say is that the billionaire philanthropists behind the CPD intend to broaden this "war on terror" beyond al-Qaeda to focus on all militant jihadist groups, including Israel's perceived enemies.
Writing in the July 20 edition of the Washington Post, Committee honorary co-chairs Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) described the focus of this new, third incarnation of the Committee as "international terrorism from Islamic extremists and the outlaw states that either harbor or support them." They write: