I've just returned from a circus-like appearance by Ahmed Chalabi at the American Enterprise Institute. This was Chalabi's first visit to the U.S. in two and a half years and the first since he has been accused of passing American codes to the government of Iran, and since his home was raided by American forces a year ago. Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress pushed faulty and false intelligence on the Bush administration prior to the war, which Cheney and his cohorts readily ate up. This speech was his first moment of potential accountability since the war began.
The audience for the speech was a star cast of top Washington reporters and thinkers: David Corn of The Nation, Matt Yglesias of The American Prospect, Reuel Marc Gerecht of AEI, David Schuster of MSNBC's Hardball, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, Michael Barone of US News & World Report, Fouad Ajami of SAIS, David Frum of The National Review, Robin Wright of The Washington Post, and Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair and Slate. And those were just the people I recognized off-hand.
The room of about 80 people was packed. When Chalabi finally took the podium, he looked incredibly nervous and hesitant. I guess I would be as well if I was being investigated (however anemically) by the FBI into the passing of American codes to the Iranians and being harassed by reporters wanting to know why his claims of WMD in Iraq turned out to be so wrong.
Here are a few choice quotes from Chalabi. I wasn't actively taking notes, but a few things jumped out as particularly noteworthy, shocking, absurd or some combination therein.
- "Most of the Ba'ath Party was Shia." Huh? I'm not sure where he's getting this from, but I'm pretty sure that it is blatantly not true.
- "The fact that I misled the U.S. is an urban myth." Well, he has certainly picked up on the Bush administration's favored tactic when faced with overwhelming evidence of wrong-doing: deny and summarily dismiss the argument out-of-hand. Period. It will go away!
- "I did not pass sensitive information to Iran." This may not be a surprising quotation, but perhaps you had to be there to see how he was saying this. I don't think I've ever seen anyone more uncomfortable in my life. The fact that he was speaking a lie was all over his face.
- "I would go to the Senate and answer questions." Well, he has offered. Now where are the senators on the intelligence committee calling for a hearing? Anyone?
- "I have a multi-dimensional relationship with the Bush administration." There's a euphemism if I ever heard one. Chalabi went from the administration's best friend to the top of its black list and now back to its uncomfortable friend all within three years. Multi-dimensional is a good word for it, to say the least.
- "It is not useful for me to comment on this. That is in the past." This is what Chalabi said when asked about how he pushed fraudulent and faulty intelligence about Saddam's WMD's. Stunning. The means justify the ends to him, even if the American public is paying the cost of those ends. His only goal was to overthrow Saddam. If that meant pimping false evidence so the United States would be persuaded into war, so be it. So what if 2,000 American soldiers are now dead - he's deputy prime minister now.
- I don't have an exact quote for this one, but Chalabi also suggested that the U.S. needn't really ever leave Iraq. They should just pull back to a few bases eventually. Why should the U.S. stay and keep bases in Iraq? To protect Iraq from its neighbors. Not to keep Iraq from descending into civil war, but to keep Iraq free from interference from its threatening neighbors. The man really does think that the U.S. military is his own play thing.
- Chalabi also spoke about Iraqi oil. For a while. This portion, quite appropriately, was when he seemed to lighten up and he developed a somewhat evil smile as he spoke about the possibilities for Iraqi oil. It may sound typically leftist of me, but he seriously began to get an animated look in his eye suggesting that the topic of Iraqi oil was where his real interest lay. Spooky.
The cast of characters who attended the speech, other than reporters and notable intellectuals, was interesting. I spotted people from a variety of sketchy-sounding energy and consulting companies. Just to name a few: C & O Resources, ExxonMobil, Orion Strategies, Aries Group and Goodwin Procter LLP. Mind you, I don't know what these or some of the other companies and organizations do, but I was sufficiently suspicious of their presence at the Chalabi speech.
After the speech I followed the throng out of the room and was able to get a few good pictures of Chalabi as he left. In the elevator lobby I met Matt Yglesias, whose various blogs I read on a regular basis. He seemed equally amazed by Chalabi's gall. Here is his take on Chalabi's dismissal of any wrong-doing. I hadn't read the "page 108" Chalabi was referring to, but Matt has and points it out. As Matt says, it certainly is a curious way to exonerate oneself.
After pausing to see who else I recognized, I took an elevator down with Christopher Hitchens and David Corn, among other people. Talk about a recipe for conflict. Hitchens used to write for The Nation until his pro-war position became untenable and he left in disgust. Corn is still there and is The Nation's marquee reporter. Awkward! The two of them almost immediately started going at it over the CIA leak case. I didn't catch the whole thing, but watching the two of them go at it was priceless. Their argument continued outside for about five minutes while Hitchens lit up a smoke, and Corn got apoplectic about the absurdity of the Bush administration's claims about the war. It was incredible theater.
After a few minutes I introduced myself to Hitchens and took the opportunity to ask him about his March 2005 piece in Vanity Fair where he looked into the incredible voter irregularities in Ohio, where I voted while at Kenyon College. I asked him if he thought that the election could have gone the other way had these irregularities not existed and he scoffed at the suggestion. "It wouldn't have been in the Democrats' interests to pursue an investigation into the irregularities. Just like with Nixon in Illinois [in 1960], it was best for both sides not to bring it to the fore." I still have my doubts.
Hitchens then turned the subject back to Chalabi, his good friend. I asked him if he thought Chalabi had been passing American intelligence to the Iranians. "No," he insisted. "It's possible that with his training, you know, at [The University of] Chicago that with his own ability he was able to crack the codes. He is a mathematical genius. His expertise is cryptology. It is possible that he broke the codes himself." (This is a paraphrase since I was walking down M Street and crossing Connecticut Avenue all while being amazed that I was having an actual conversation with Christopher Hitchens at the time). Now, I don't believe this for one second. Why would Chalabi be trying to break American codes in his spare time anyway? Who does that if they are friendly to us? Suspicious, I say.
I noticed that Hitchens was without his Kurdish flag lapel pin. He has been wearing it for years as a symbol of what is possible and as a sign of solidarity with the long oppressed Kurds of northern Iraq. He said he had lost the pin and felt naked without it. That is certainly no good. At Connecticut Avenue we parted ways and I again mentioned that he should try to get back to Kenyon if he could get the chance. We may disagree on Chalabi, but Hitchens is someone who I wouldn't mind spending some time listening to and arguing with. Maybe some other time.
Anyway, there is my close encounter with Ahmed Chalabi, the man who sold the Bush administration a war in Iraq. Now I'm going to wash my hands.
**UPDATE**: If you're interested in more of the substance of the speech (which I skimmed for the most part), be sure to read this account by David Donadio at Cont'd, the new blog of The American Interest. Donadio is also a Kenyon alum and is now the Deputy Managing Editor at The American Interest.