From time to time, I call up a longtime associate and business partner of Manucher Ghorbanifar, the infamous Iran-contra arms dealer and intelligence peddler deemed a fabricator by the CIA who lured the Reagan administration to secretly sell TOW missiles to the Tehran mullahs. This elderly Ghorbanifar associate is a former official in the Shah's government, long financially dependent on Ghorbanifar, whom he serves as a kind of dignified elderly secretary; like many Iranian exiles, he dreams that the mullahs will be overthrown and that he can soon return to his native country from his long exile in France.
Since 9-11, Ghorbanifar and his business associate, both based in France, have tried through various channels and schemes to get back on the U.S. government payroll as intelligence sources on Iran and the Middle East. Their efforts to do so have been thwarted -- until now. The associate told me that he now has channels to the U.S. government, and a response to my inquiry about this from the office of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte did not include a denial.
I've written at length about Ghorbanifar's meeting with Pentagon officials in Rome in December 2001, and a 2004 effort by Ghorbanifar and his business associate to get on the U.S. government payroll as intelligence assets through the person of Congressman Curt Weldon, who published a book based on their information that reveals how breathless and inaccurate the scheme was. (“Dear Curt,” reads one memo from the Ghorbanifar associate. “I confirm again a terrorist attack within the United States is planned before the American elections.") At every juncture, pressure from the CIA and Foggy Bottom ultimately shut those channels down.
So I was surprised, speaking with this Ghorbanifar business associate this past week, prompted by a recent McClatchy report, when he proudly told me that he is again giving his information to Washington. He implied that U.S. officials call him up frequently, and that he gives them information on two lines of inquiry. “If I have information to save lives of innocent people, I give it,” the associate told me, referring to alleged Iranian-backed terrorism. “If I can make harm to the mullahs, I give it.” He denied taking a single dollar from the U.S. government. (He asked me not to quote him by name in our recent interview, which I agreed to do.)
Given this associate's acknowledged recent history as a conduit for information from Ghorbanifar, who is the subject of two CIA “burn notices” warning its employees not to deal with him, I wondered if it was a non-governmental person or congressional staffer calling him now. Who calls you, I asked; Congressman Weldon? The elderly man says he hasn't talked with Weldon in months. Michael Ledeen, I asked, referring to the former Reagan administration official and Ghorbanifar's longtime contact who has said in a recent interview that as a private citizen free to do whatever he likes, he meets with Ghorbanifar as often as he can. “I talked a few words with Michael last week, but I have better, much better” contacts in Washington now, the elderly Iranian boasted.
Indeed. Last year, this elderly exile told me that he was such an important figure in the Shah's government, he cannot even telephone the Islamic Republic, and that all of the information he gave Weldon in fact came from Ghorbanifar. He agreed to act as a cut-out for Ghorbanifar with Weldon, he told me, “because Ghorbanifar used me, in fact, to pass that stuff because I know he has problems in Washington.” This elderly business associate has not been in Iran since the Shah fell. He escaped to Turkey and then France. So it's hard to imagine his information has gotten any better than the fare offered in Weldon's book. For its part, a CIA spokeswoman told The New York Times last year that it was confident in its decision not to pursue the channel with the Ghorbanifar business partner. “The C.I.A. thoroughly pursued this issue and did so more than once," CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise told The Times.
Intrigued, I contacted the office of the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, who, as intelligence czar, is presumably ultimately responsible for preventing the corruption of U.S. intelligence on Iran by possible fabricators.
What happened next was even more bizarre. After two days of polite and helpful check-ins from staff in the DNI press office, I was issued late Friday afternoon a boiler plate response that was most striking for what it lacked: A denial.
“We decline to comment on any individual or specific activity,” the response read. “However, we can speak to your wider questions on overall analysis.
“The Intelligence Community does not make judgments based on a single source,” the answer continued. “If there are two or three real contending points of view, we want policymakers to know about that. As a result, policymakers are getting to see a lot more than they used to.”
After absorbing the rest of the response, I called a former intelligence official to get his take on it. “They're saying ‘yes,'” he said -- they are taking Ghorbanifar's associate's information, he interpreted.
“The system is so … corrupt,” he continued. “The problem is when you introduce data into the analytic stream that is based on no foundation, it's going to lead you to false conclusions. Garbage in, garbage out.”
U.S. intelligence sources surmise that the agency taking Ghorbanifar's associate's information is not the CIA, but the Pentagon, most likely the Defense Intelligence Agency. A read of the recently released Ahmad Chalabi section of the Senate Select Intelligence committee's Phase II report offers a cautionary tale about the DIA's particular susceptibility to defectors put forward by Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. Those defectors' tales proved to be fabrications -- but not before they had been broadcast across the intelligence community as evidence of the Iraq WMD threat and Saddam's ties to al-Qaeda.
The way it worked: one INC “defector” would be introduced to DIA -- sometimes by avid neoconservative and former CIA director James Woolsey -- who would give information that would be broadcast by DIA across the intelligence community. Soon after, a second INC “defector” would materialize -- one time introduced by the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, the spouse of an American Enterprise Institute employee -- who would “confirm” what a previous defector had told the DIA. Dozens more reports would be distributed. Apparently almost all of them have turned out in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to have been coached fabrications. Some of the INC “defectors” have gone totally missing, according to the Senate report.
And the INC's Washington champions? Some of them are now influencing the Bush administration on Iran policy using the same methods.
Last May, I first reported in the Los Angeles Times that a new Iranian directorate had been set up in the Pentagon policy shop, under the direction of Abram Shulsky, the former director of the Office of Special Plans, which produced much since-discredited intelligence analysis regarding Iraq. Working inside the six-person directorate, I reported, are two more veterans of the Office of Special Plans: John Trijilio, a DIA analyst, and Ladan Archin, an Iran specialist who formerly studied with Paul Wolfowitz when he was dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. (As deputy defense secretary during Bush's first term, Wolfowitz was a leading champion of the theories of Iraq academic Laurie Mylroie that Saddam was connected to al-Qaeda, theories that has been discredited by the 9-11 Commission and more recently, by the Republican-dominated Senate Select Intelligence committee.)
Last week, Ghorbanifar's associate claimed to me that the information he is now giving to Washington is from his own sources. On this point, former CIA Paris station chief Bill Murray is skeptical. “He has nobody inside Iran,” Murray said, of Ghorbanifar's associate, whom he has met in Paris. “He doesn't call anybody. Nobody comes to see him. Whatever he does, he gets from Ghorbanifar.”
Murray says Ghorbanifar and his associate cobble together “intelligence” using translations from regional newspapers and the newsletters put out by the cultish, formerly Saddam Hussein-backed Iranian terrorist group, the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), which has a large outpost outside Paris; and “then they create stuff.” French and German intelligence services have also rejected Ghorbanifar and his associate's intelligence, according to Murray.
“The plain and simple fact is that no intelligence service uses as a source someone who had been proven to provide false information, or information which he cannot source,” Murray continued. “This man has consistently done both.”
Amazingly, however, like Chalabi and his INC defectors before them, Ghorbanifar and his associate seem to have found new channels open to the Bush administration. And there's precious little evidence that anybody is trying to stop them. There may be a Senate Select Intelligence Committee Inquiry on pre-Iran war intelligence in our future.
Laura Rozen is a Prospect senior correspondent.
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