Skip to comments.CIA And Pentagon Split Over Uranium Intrigue
Posted on 10/17/2003 2:59:41 PM PDT by blam
CIA and Pentagon split over uranium intrigue
Mistrusted arms dealer's tangled tale of nuclear smugglers and a hidden Baghdad laboratory sparks bitter spat
Julian Borger in Washington
Friday October 17, 2003
The Guardian (UK)
A bitter row has broken out between the CIA and Pentagon over reports that Iraqi uranium was smuggled to Iran, demonstrating that the rifts between the US agencies are as deep as ever. The tangled tale of contraband, radiation sickness, two shifty middlemen, secret meetings and demands for cash is the stuff of Hollywood, though it might make a better comedy than an action movie.
Yet no uranium was found, the distrust between the CIA and the defence department leadership has worsened, and the hunt for banned weapons to justify the Iraq invasion is growing even more desperate.
The drama's central figure is Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms dealer based in Paris who was involved in the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration.
At that time, the CIA gave him two lie detector tests, which he failed. In 1984 and 1985 the CIA issued two "burn notices", warning all members of the US government not to go anywhere near him.
That did not stop two Pentagon officials from meeting Mr Ghorbanifar in December 2001 in Paris and January 2002 in Rome, lured by his promises to build bridges to influential Iranians who were interested in bringing down the Tehran theocracy.
The meetings took place in secrecy, intelligence sources say, and the CIA director, George Tenet, and the secretary of state, Colin Powell, only found about them when the Rome meeting was reported by the US ambassador to Italy.
Nevertheless, according to one source, the meetings continued until they were leaked to the press this summer and the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, ordered a halt.
But Mr Ghorbanifar maintained lines of communication with the neoconservative thinktank, the American Enterprise Institute, and in particular a friend from the Reagan days, Michael Ledeen, and through him passed on an extraordinary story.
According to Mr Ledeen and a US intelligence source, five years ago Iraqis working for Iranian intelligence were smuggling enriched uranium out of Iraq and into Iran.
These agents developed radiation sickness and in the wreckage of postwar Iraq, were willing not only to tell the story but to lead US officials to uranium remnants that were still in a Baghdad laboratory.
"I think it's a credible story," Mr Ledeen, a former national security council consultant, said, adding that he had talked to Mr Ghorbanifar's source for the story, an Iraqi Shia Muslim.
Mr Ledeen took the story to the Pentagon but a Rumsfeld aide told him that since the CIA's appointment of David Kay, a former UN inspector, as leader of the US hunt for Iraqi weapons, the defence department's hands were tied.
The Pentagon allegedly said that "if it was up to us we'd go and look, but no military person can do anything".
Mr Ledeen says he was told to go to the CIA but he was not hopeful about gaining their help because of what he called their "mistake about Ghorbanifar 20 years ago".
"I said, 'What's the worst that can happen? You've chased hundreds of false leads.'"
Under pressure from the Pentagon and the White House, the CIA agreed, as long as they did not have to talk to Mr Ghorbanifar, and after the affair was over, the agency even issued a statement denouncing him as "a fabricator who has peddled false information for financial gain".
According to Mr Ledeen, who helped to set up the meetings with the Iraqi informants, two attempts to make contact failed, once when the CIA officials' satellite phone did not function, and again when the official did not show up.
On the third occasion, two weeks ago, the CIA men turned up, along with a military official on the insistence of Mr Ledeen's Shia contact, and the negotiations took place behind the tinted windows of a vehicle which was driving around the streets of Baghdad.
Opinions differ as to who was responsible for what went wrong.
An intelligence source said Mr Ledeen's contact "couldn't answer any questions, so we said 'get us a sliver of uranium', and he got mad. He demanded money and when he didn't get it, he walked away.
"The whole story was the same old crap. It was typical Ghorbanifar. The idea that these Iranian agents would smuggle uranium out five years ago, and only now go down with radiation sickness - it was all well-designed fabrications designed to make headlines."
Mr Ledeen said the US agents had simply misunderstood. "The CIA was going to pay for travel, and then make a payment only if something was found. Nobody was asking for any money in advance."
He added that the Shia middleman would not simply lead the CIA officials to the store of uranium because it was in the control of the Iraqi agents who had carried the rest of it into Iran. "These were people who required protection and reward, and why not?" Mr Ledeen said.
He said he was leaving the matter in the hands of the administration was going back to writing a book about Naples, his personal passion.
Mr Ghorbanifar remains untouchable as far as the CIA is concerned, and the stash of uranium he talked of remains no more than a mirage.
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