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Iran/Iraq "Defectors" and Disinformation

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As the 1990s wore on, the spurned Woolsey grew closer to Washington's fast-growing neocon movement, which was openly hostile to President Clinton for his perceived softness in asserting U.S. military power, especially against Arab regimes in the Middle East.

On Jan. 26, 1998, the neocon Project for the New American Century sent a letter to Clinton urging the ouster of Saddam Hussein by force if necessary. Woolsey was one of the 18 signers. By early 2001, he also had grown close to the INC, having been hired as co-counsel to represent eight Iraqis, including INC members, who had been detained on immigration charges.

In other words, Woolsey was well-positioned to serve as a conduit for INC "defectors" trying to get their stories to U.S. officials and to the American public.

The "Sources"

DIA officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Woolsey introduced them to the first in a long line of INC "defectors" who then told the DIA about Hussein's WMD and his supposed relationship with Islamic terrorists. For his part, Woolsey said he didn't recall making that referral.

The debriefings of "Source One" -- as he was called in the Senate Intelligence Committee report -- generated more than 250 intelligence reports. Two of the reports described alleged terrorist training sites in Iraq, where Afghan, Pakistani and Palestinian nationals were allegedly taught military skills at the Salman Pak base, 20 miles south of Baghdad.

"Many Iraqis believe that Saddam Hussein had made an agreement with Usama bin Ladin in order to support his terrorist movement against the U.S.," Source One claimed, according to the Senate report.

After the 9/11 attacks, information from Source One and other INC-connected "defectors" began surfacing in U.S. press accounts, not only in the right-wing news media, but many mainstream publications and news shows.

In an Oct. 12, 2001, column entitled "What About Iraq?" Washington Post chief foreign correspondent Jim Hoagland cited "accumulating evidence of Iraq's role in sponsoring the development on its soil of weapons and techniques for international terrorism," including training at Salman Pak.

Hoagland's sources included Iraqi army "defector" Sabah Khalifa Khodada and another unnamed Iraqi ex-intelligence officer in Turkey. Hoagland also criticized the CIA for not taking seriously a possible Iraqi link to 9/11.

Hoagland's column was followed by a Page One article in The New York Times, which was headlined "Defectors Cite Iraqi Training for Terrorism." It relied on Khodada, the second source in Turkey (who was later identified as Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy, a former senior officer in Iraq's intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat), and a lower-ranking member of Mukhabarat.

This story described 40 to 50 Islamic militants getting training at Salman Pak at any one time, including lessons on how to hijack an airplane without weapons. There were also claims about a German scientist working on biological weapons.

In a Columbia Journalism Review retrospective on press coverage of U.S. intelligence on Iraq, writer Douglas McCollam asked Times correspondent Chris Hedges about the Times article, which he had written in coordination with a PBS Frontline documentary called "Gunning for Saddam," with correspondent Lowell Bergman.

Explaining the difficulty of checking out defector accounts when they meshed with the interests of the U.S. government, Hedges said, "We tried to vet the defectors and we didn't get anything out of Washington that said, "these guys are full of sh*t.'"

For his part, Bergman told CJR's McCollam, "The people involved appeared credible and we had no way of getting into Iraq ourselves."

The journalistic competition to break anti-Hussein scoops was building, too. Based in Paris, Hedges said he would get periodic calls from Times editors asking that he check out defector stories originating from Chalabi's operation.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at more...)
 
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