WASHINGTON – Federal authorities have broadened their investigations into former Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi’s relationship with Iran to examine whether several U.S. officials leaked classified material to Chalabi and members of his Iraqi National Congress, a Senate Intelligence Committee member said Thursday.
The companion investigations by the FBI and the CIA initially focused on Chalabi, the dapper Shiite Muslim whose once-warm relationship with high-level Bush administration officials has chilled in recent months. U.S. intelligence officials suspect that Chalabi told an Iranian official that the United States had broken the secret communications code used by Iran’s intelligence service.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was briefed on the probes Wednesday, said that identifying the source of the alleged leak is particularly urgent because it may have endangered the lives of U.S. operatives abroad.
He said the United States has been forced to shut down an important listening post in Baghdad that shed light on activities in Iran, which the United States considers a nuclear threat.
Meanwhile, Chalabi’s attorney in the United States said his client did nothing wrong. Attorney John Markham said that the investigations were cooked up by U.S. officials to try to marginalize Chalabi, who before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was a key figure in calling on the administration to topple Saddam Hussein. Reports by the Iraqi National Congress helped feed the notion that Saddam had ties to Osama bin Laden and was developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The CIA “got the whole weapons-of-mass-destruction thing completely wrong, and they need a scapegoat,” said Markham, who said he would make Chalabi available for questioning by U.S. investigators. The FBI is trying to determine who might have provided Chalabi with information that U.S. intelligence officials had cracked the Iranian codes for transmitting classified material, and whether that information was passed on to Iranian officials, said two U.S. law enforcement officials with knowledge of the matter. The FBI probe is likely to involve the questioning of Pentagon and other government officials who had access to the material. It began near the time that Iraqi police, backed by U.S. forces, raided Chalabi’s home in Baghdad on May 20.
FBI investigators have begun interviewing potential witnesses, and some have submitted to polygraph examinations, one of the law enforcement officials said.
Meanwhile, the CIA is assessing whether U.S. intelligence operations were damaged as a result of the alleged leak of classified material.
Unauthorized disclosures of classified information or information important to national defense are criminal offenses that carry a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.
In Iraq, Chalabi launched a verbal barrage against CIA Director George Tenet, who announced his resignation Thursday. Chalabi, a former member of the Iraqi Governing Council, told the Associated Press in Najaf that the CIA director was “behind the charges against me.”
“I denied these charges, and I will deny them again,” Chalabi said.
The CIA has been suspicious of Chalabi for years, even as some prominent members of the Bush administration – including Vice President Cheney and top officials at the Pentagon – continued to value Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress.
The U.S. Defense and State departments have given Chalabi’s group about $49 million over the past four years. The relationship ended last month, when Chalabi was removed from the U.S. payroll and his home was raided in a move that U.S. officials said was part of an investigation into allegations that the funds had been mishandled.
Markham said that investigation, like the allegations that Chalabi leaked U.S. secrets, is part of a CIA effort to attack Chalabi.