Spies, Lies & Iraq

By Mark Hosenball and Evan Thomas (Newsweek February 10)

The access is spotty. The defectors double-deal. The spooks and the generals can't agree on whom to trust. No wonder it's so hard to figure out what Saddam is up to.

The woman claimed to be Saddam Hussein's former mistress. Last September, on ABC's "Primetime Thursday," she described the Iraqi strongman as a Viagra enthusiast who enjoyed listening to recordings of Frank Sinatra singing "Strangers in the Night," as well as to tapes of torture victims crying for mercy.

PARISOULA LAMPSOS, 54, a woman of Greek extraction who had lived in Baghdad most of her life, recounted watching Saddam preen in front of a mirror declaring, "I am Saddam. Heil Hitler!" She said that she had once seen Osama bin Laden at Saddam's palace, and that, in the mid-1990s, Saddam had given money to the Qaeda terror chief. She recounted that Saddam had confessed to her that he tried to murder his own son Uday. After visiting Uday in the hospital, where he was recovering from gunshot wounds, Saddam supposedly told her, "I didn't want it this way. I wanted him to die."

It was great TV. But was it good intelligence? At the Pentagon, the get-Saddam hard-liners thought so.


They spread word that the woman's story had largely checked out and boasted that Lampsos had passed a lie-detector test administered by the Defense Intelligence Agency. The Central Intelligence Agency, however, was dubious. Saddam had never before taken a mistress of European descent, the CIA analysts noted. If Saddam had wanted to kill Uday, he would have succeeded, they argued. There was no independent evidence that bin Laden had ever visited Baghdad. Lampsos could have put together the story she told ABC by reading old newspaper clips, said the CIA. And intelligence sources deny that she passed a CIA lie-detector test.

Whom to believe? President Bush must ask himself that question on a regular basis. His intelligence agencies often disagree on the most basic questions. At the Pentagon, a special intelligence-analysis unit set up by the hawkish Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz claims to have evidence showing that Saddam has ties to Al Qaeda and a vast and vigorous WMD program. Top spooks at the CIA, however, are skeptical. In not-for-attribution conversations, they routinely cast doubt on tips and analyses emanating from the Pentagon hard-liners. While the president seems to credit the dire scenarios presented by the hawks, he cannot just dismiss the cautions of the professionals at Langley, one of whom is his good buddy, CIA Director George Tenet.

Intelligence is always, to some degree, a tricky guessing game. Dictatorial, repressive regimes are hard to penetrate. American spies in trench coats lurk in the palace shadows only in the movies. In real life, the CIA has very little HUMINT (human intelligence) on the doings of Saddam Hussein-or Kim Jung Il or any other strongman with an effective secret police. Sometimes spy satellites or well-placed bugs and taps can overhear conversations, like the electronic intercepts that Colin Powell will trot out this week to show Iraqi officials trying to outfox U.N. inspectors. But Saddam is too clever to expose his most sensitive communications to American eavesdroppers. After the gulf war, Saddam contracted with the Chinese to construct an underground fiber-optic-cable communications network. "We're not getting much out of there," said a source familiar with U.S. intelligence-gathering in Iraq.


The American intelligence community must often rely on middlemen, usually defectors or exiles, to try to find out what's going on inside Saddam's regime. Historically, with a few noble exceptions, intelligence peddlers have been a pack of liars and swindlers. That was true during the cold war, when double and triple agents in spy Meccas like Berlin and Vienna sold made-up secrets to the highest bidder, and it has been especially true in the Middle East, where conspiracy is a way of life.

The best-known purveyor of intelligence about Saddam's Iraq is Ahmed Chalabi. The head of a London-based exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, Chalabi is elegantly dressed, charming and well connected. One of his chief sponsors in Washington is Richard Perle, an influential hawk who is close to Wolfowitz and other Pentagon hard-liners. Perle's patronage may have helped Chalabi obtain audiences with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Defectors presented to the Bush administration by Chalabi's INC have been a major source of intelligence about Saddam's alleged terror links and WMD programs.

CIA officials regard Chalabi as a snake-oil salesman. They point out that he is wanted for bank fraud in Jordan and that, according to a recent State Department audit, he could not account for about half the $4.3 million handed out to the INC by the State Department between 1999 and 2001. (When asked where the money went, the INC's reply was, "We subcontracted it out." To whom? "To Ahmed and Mohammed," was the answer.) Burned repeatedly in the past, the CIA is wary of intelligence that comes from defectors, who are often seeking visas, cash, revenge or all. "Defectors tell you 150 percent of what they know," says one CIA official. Iraqi defectors who offer themselves to the CIA are put through strenuous interrogations and lie-detector tests. The credible ones are given new identities and homes in America or Germany. The rejects are cast loose to fend for themselves. Some of them are nonetheless embraced by the INC-and, according to CIA officials, recycled to the more sympathetic (and more credulous) hawks in the Pentagon. Their stories are then worked over by Wolfowitz's special intelligence unit-and passed on to the White House. The CIA, in turn, is asked then to rule on the credibility of information provided by defectors the agency has already deemed to be incredible. No wonder the White House has struggled to sort out what can and cannot be believed.


The Pentagon hawks accuse their Langley colleagues of sour grapes. The source of the agency's dislike of Chalabi, they say, is rooted in a botched coup attempt, backed by the CIA, against Saddam in 1995. Saddam quickly rolled up the coup plotters and had them executed. Some intelligence officials suspect that Saddam set a trap. In any case, Chalabi let it be publicly known that he had warned the CIA, in advance, that the coup plot had been compromised; when it failed, he proclaimed, "I told you so." The CIA thereafter regarded Chalabi as a boastful meddler, according to Chalabi's friends at the Pentagon.

Another fraught source of intelligence about Saddam is the Kurdish community in northern Iraq. The CIA has a rocky relationship with the Kurds. Many Kurds curse the CIA for fomenting, then backing out of, various attempts to rise up against Baghdad over the past 40 years. Old CIA hands sneer at Kurdish tribal leaders for selling out to the highest bidder. When the CIA organized a rebellion against Saddam in 1996, one of the two Kurdish tribes leading the insurrection suddenly switched sides and attacked the other tribe. Washington quickly pulled the plug on the uprising.

Now, unsurprisingly, the CIA has little use for almost any intelligence emanating from the Kurds. The agency has acronyms for various types of intelligence, like HUMINT and ELINT (for electronic intelligence). At Langley, intelligence that is junk is jokingly called KURDINT. This stance is unfortunate, because the most intriguing stories about Saddam's ties to Al Qaeda come from Kurdish sources. A particularly virulent group of Islamicists, known as Ansar al-Islam, is holed up in Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. According to a variety of press reports, Ansar al-Islam provided sanctuary for Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban fell. These terrorists have been brewing chemical and biological weapons, and are said to be un-der the control and direction of Saddam in Baghdad. At least that is the version peddled by Kurdish sources and credited by the Pentagon hard-liners and some of their allies in the press.

The CIA as well as British intelligence have their doubts. Saddam is probably spying on Ansar al-Islam, they say, but the Iraqi strongman regards the group as more of a threat than an ally. There is no evidence, intelligence sources say, to back speculation that Saddam has provided Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group with biochem weapons through his alleged moles in Ansar al-Islam.

Lacking its own well-established network of spies, the CIA often turns to Arab intelligence services for help. With the agency scrambling to confront Al Qaeda, millions of dollars have been flowing out of Langley to improve what the spooks call "liaison relationships" with the security services of allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and even former foes like Libya and Syria. Qaeda suspects seized by the United States are sometimes turned over to these services for questioning. The Arab services say that torture is usually counterproductive, but their interrogation techniques can be stressful. The prisoner will be told that he will never see his family again, or kept awake for days at a time.

The Arab intelligence services have been spying on terrorist groups and each other for years. They are philosophical about the fact that their best agents are often also working for the other side. "I don't care if someone sells my enemy the same information he sells to me," says a Lebanese spymaster. "No. What he cannot do is sell my enemy my questions." Such Byzantine nuances make for good spy novels. But for a president trying to decide what to believe about a lethal foe on the eve of war, the complexities and uncertainties of the spy game are nothing but trouble.

With Christopher Dickey in Amman and John Barry and Roy Gutman in Washington (c) 2003 Newsweek, Inc.

home vicpeace.org