Attempt to tie Iran, Iraq to Nuclear Arms Plot Bypassed U.S. Intelligence Channels
Several U.S. and foreign intelligence sources, along with investigators, say an Iranian exile with ties to Iran-Contra peddled a bizarre tale of stolen uranium to governments on both sides of the Atlantic in the spring and summer of 2003.
The story that being peddled -- which detailed how an Iranian intelligence team infiltrated Iraq prior to the start of the war in March of 2003, and stole enriched uranium to use in their own nuclear weapons program -- was part of an attempt to implicate both countries in a WMD plot.
By all credible accounts, the source of this dubious tale was Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms dealer who used middle-men and cut-outs to create the appearance of several sources. Ghorbanifar played a key role in the Iran-Contra scandal that threatened to take down the Reagan administration, in which the U.S. sold arms to Iran and diverted the proceeds to Nicaraguan militants.
While the various threads of the larger story of Ghorbanifar and his intelligence peddling began in December of 2001, meetings in Paris in 2003 are far more important in illustrating -- as a microcosm -- the larger difficulties faced in untangling the facts relating to global intelligence trafficking.
Tall Tale of Uranium
During the spring and summer of 2003, Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA) made several visits to Paris to meet with a source believed to have important military intelligence information.
Unbeknownst to Weldon, the informant that he would dub simply "Ali" was already peddling a tale of stolen uranium traveling between Iraq and Iran that had been deemed false by most intelligence agencies.
As reported by American Prospect and confirmed by intelligence sources,
Ali is a term used to describe a former minister in the Shah's Iran, Fereidoun Mahdavi. Mahdavi himself is a secretary to Ghorbanifar, the originating source of the uranium fable.
The American Prospect's reporters wrote, "'Ali' is actually a cipher for Manucher Ghorbanifar, the notorious Iranian arms dealer and accused intelligence fabricator -- and the potential instrument of another potentially dangerous manipulation of American policy in the Persian Gulf region."
The Washington Post discusses Ali as follows:
“These secrets, he says, come from "an impeccable clandestine source," whom Weldon code-names "Ali," an Iranian exile living in Paris who is a close associate of Manucher Gorbanifar. Gorbanifar is a well-known Iranian exile whom the CIA branded as a fabricator during the 1980s but who was used by the Reagan White House as a middleman for the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.”
According to several intelligence sources on both sides of the Atlantic, the tale that "Ali" tells Weldon and others was as intricate as it is false.
"Ali provided information that indicated Iranian intelligence had sent a team to Baghdad to extract highly enriched uranium (weapons grade) from a stockpile hidden by Saddam Hussein," one intelligence source said.
Ali asserted that an Iranian intelligence team had infiltrated Iraq prior to the start of the war and stole enriched uranium to use in their own nuclear weapons program, sources say.
Ghorbanifar said "the team successfully extracted the stockpile but on the way back to Iran contracted radiation poisoning," one source remarked.
Upon learning this information, Weldon recounts in his book, Countdown to Terror, that he immediately notified then-CIA head George Tenet.
"Tenet appeared interested, even enthusiastic about evaluating Ali and establishing a working relationship with him. He agreed to send his top spy, Stephen Kappes, the deputy director of operations, along with me to Paris for another debriefing of Ali. It was at this point that I entered the 'wilderness of mirrors.' On the day of our scheduled second meeting with Ali in Paris, Kappes bowed out, claiming that "other commitments" compelled him to cancel. . . . Later, the CIA claimed to have met with Ali independently. But I discovered this to be untrue. . . . Incredibly, I learned that the CIA had apparently asked French intelligence to silence Ali." Countdown to Terror.
But according to the Prospect and several sources in intelligence abroad, the CIA did, in fact, investigate, as did the Department of Defense.
The CIA, understanding Ali to be Ghorbanifar, did not think him a credible source. The agency tasked then-Paris station chief, Bill Murray, with investigating the claim.
Intelligence sources and a source close to the UN security counsel tell RAW STORY
Murray took Ali (either Ghorbanifar or an agent of his) to Iraq in order to retrace the footsteps of the alleged mission in which the uranium was stolen from Saddam's own stockpile and taken back to Iran. In the end, sources say, the entire event proved a wild goose chase because Ali's earlier clarity and details all but evaporated.
"Soon it became apparent that Ali and his sources were fabricators and were trying to extract large sums of money," one intelligence source said.
Weldon's office declined to comment for the record after several extended conversations. RAW STORY
delayed the article for a day to give Weldon's office a chance to comment, but no comment was provided.
The neoconservative movement has expressed an inherent distrust of the CIA. Many neoconservatives note that the CIA undercounted Russia's nuclear stockpile in the waning days of the Soviet Union, and believe the agency routinely underestimates foreign threats.
Weldon, who had been led to believe the CIA never opened an investigation into the information he provided, took his case directly to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who pressured the CIA to investigate further.
"CIA reluctantly, after pressure from Rumsfeld, followed up by detaching one of their weapons experts from the team that was hunting WMD in Iraq," said one former CIA officer who asked to remain anonymous.
Sources say that this second investigation resulted in another goose chase. The question of motive, however, seems to either have been entirely missed or simply glossed over.
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