Following the lead of The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times columnist Max Boot selectively quoted from the recently released Robb-Silberman report on U.S. intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction to argue that the report disproves widely documented suspicions that former Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi exile group fed bogus information to U.S. intelligence in an effort to advocate a U.S.-led invasion (see the Associated Press, The New York Times, and The New Yorker).
Arguing in his April 7 column that Chalabi, who headed the exile group the Iraqi National Congress (INC), "has been the most unfairly maligned man on the planet in recent years," Boot acknowledged that the Robb-Silberman commission "did not give Chalabi a totally clean bill of health," but he insisted the panel debunked "the most damning charge" against him:
It [the commission] found that two INC-supplied defectors were "fabricators." But it also determined that the most notorious liar popularly linked to the INC -- a defector known as "Curveball" who provided false information on Saddam Hussein's biological weapons -- "was not influenced by, controlled by, or connected to the INC."
"In fact, over all," the Robb-Silberman report concluded, "CIA's postwar investigations revealed that INC-related sources had a minimal impact on prewar assessments." Translation: The CIA's attempts to scapegoat Chalabi for its own failures won't wash.
But Boot's argument is self-contradictory. If the CIA were attempting to "scapegoat Chalabi for its own failures," why would the "CIA's postwar investigation" have concluded that Chalabi's INC "had a minimal impact on prewar assessments"?
In fact, the commission did not "determine" that Curveball "was not influenced" by the INC; rather, the report simply repeated the CIA's own conclusions about suspected INC influence on Curveball. Boot quoted only the last half of a key sentence from the report. Here's the full quotation:
Despite speculation that Curveball was encouraged to lie by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the CIA's post-war investigations were unable to uncover any evidence that the INC or any other organization was directing Curveball to feed misleading information to the Intelligence Community. Instead, the post-war investigations concluded that Curveball's reporting was not influenced by, controlled by, or connected to, the INC.
The CIA's conclusion, which the Robb-Silberman report repeated, was apparently based solely on the agency's inability "to uncover any evidence" that the INC had directed Curveball. But it is well-known that Curveball "was introduced to German intelligence [which later passed his claims on to U.S. intelligence] by Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress," as The New York Times reported in July 2004. (Newsweek has also reported Chalabi's role in providing Curveball to the Germans.) And the report noted that "[t]he CIA concluded" that one of its other INC sources "was being 'directed' by the INC to provide information" to U.S. intelligence.
Given that the 618-page report is largely devoted to excoriating the CIA for its myriad failures, it's far from clear that the Robb-Silberman report's authors have full confidence in the CIA's assessment of possible direction of Curveball by the INC, or, if they do have such confidence, why this should be so. The footnotes accompanying the report's description of this CIA assessment (notes 403 and 404) indicate that the report's description of the CIA's conclusion is based only on the panel's interviews with various CIA personnel, not on the panel's examination of any formal written assessment of the INC's involvement with Curveball that the CIA may (or may not) have conducted.
Finally, it's unclear how definitive evidence of the INC's "direction" to Curveball could ever emerge. For obvious reasons, the INC is unlikely to admit to "directing" Curveball, if it indeed did so, and, as the commission report notes, Curveball himself is a serial liar.
Boot's willingness to trust the CIA's assessment of Chalabi's influence (and to partially conceal this willingness from readers) contrasts sharply with the acute distrust of the CIA he expressed later in the same column. Discussing leaks by "anonymous U.S. spooks" in the intelligence community indicating that Chalabi had allegedly informed Iran that U.S. intelligence had broken one of its secret codes, Boot wrote: "Guess we're supposed to take the U.S. intelligence community's word for all this, even though its judgment has been discredited in every outside inquiry."