Chapter ONE A Battle Royal
Frank Ricciardone was a career diplomat, but he had no illusions to whom he owed his allegiance. Two years earlier, in 1999, he had been appointed as the secretary of state’s special coordinator for the transition of Iraq. It was a new position, with no real precedent in U.S. history. Although Ricciardone owed his title to the Iraq Liberation Act (ILA), an overwhelmingly bipartisan piece of legislation passed by Congress in 1998, he owed his job to President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.
Now, in January 2001, he began to ingratiate himself with his new political masters at the Bush White House and the State Department over long lunches and private meetings. An Arabist by training (I first met Ricciardone in Jordan, where he was posted in the early 1990s), he overwhelmed them with his detailed knowledge of Iraq and the Iraqi opposition. “I was sitting at the Turkish border counting refugees,” he said, referring to a period the Republicans called “the debacle.” This was August 1996, when Clinton abandoned the Iraqi opposition and allowed Saddam Hussein to smash their safe haven in northern Iraq, murdering hundreds of fighters and forcing tens of thousands more to flee across the border.
Because he had seen the sufferings of Iraqis up close, he told Bush administration officials, “this is a mission I believe in.”
But in fact, Ricciardone’s mission from the very start had been something quite different. He ensured that no viable Iraqi opposition would emerge to lay claim on U.S. government support, because that is what Secretary Albright and President Clinton secretly wanted.
In other words, his job was to make sure the Clinton administration could break the law, with no one the wiser.
Clinton and Albright believed they could keep Saddam Hussein “in his box” through United Nations sanctions, which they saw as a cost-free policy. As long as U.S. forces in the region encircled Iraq, and the U.S. Air Force enforced “no-fly zones” in the north and the south of Iraq, Saddam Hussein posed no strategic threat to the United States, they argued. He might massacre his own people, send $25,000 checks to encourage suicide bombings by Palestinians, and dabble with al Qaeda operatives, but those were mere “nuisances” the U.S. could handle.
The real threat to the United States, they felt, was Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi political genius who chaired the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a coalition of opposition groups based in northern Iraq. Chalabi and the INC were seeking to enlist U.S. help in overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
Dr. Chalabi was many things. He came from a family of prominent Iraqi politicians who had held office in democratically elected governments before the takeover by Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party in 1958. He had a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago, but early on went into business and made a fortune introducing Visa card services to the Middle East in the 1970s.
Yet Chalabi was also a master lobbyist, who understood the American political system better than most American politicians. Almost single-handedly, he convinced an overwhelming majority of the House and Senate to approve the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which authorized the U.S. government to spend $97 million per year to train and equip an Iraqi Liberation Army, and to spend additional funds to support the INC and other opponents of Saddam.
Frank Ricciardone’s mission was to stop Ahmad Chalabi at all costs, because he could drag the United States into a war.
With the change of administrations, Ricciardone knew that his new political masters were divided. Some, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of State John Bolton, were strong Chalabi supporters. They believed that the military plan Chalabi had developed with the help of the former commander of U.S. Special Forces, Lieutenant General Wayne Downing, was sound. (The Down- ing Plan called for training and equipping two heavy brigades of Iraqi fighters—10,000 men—and helping them to establish beachheads in the Kurdish-controlled north and the Shia-dominated southern parts of Iraq, backed by U.S. airpower, then gradually moving on Baghdad as Iraqi units loyal to Saddam began to defect.)
But Ricciardone knew that the Joint Chiefs of Staff hated the plan (they favored a more robust use of American forces that would head directly for Baghdad, the “center of gravity” of Saddam’s regime), and that both the State Department and the CIA hated Chalabi—with a passion. Differences over how to deal with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and what role the U.S. should give Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress became a battle royal within the national security establishment well before President Bush took office in 2001. Positions had been staked out, allies gathered, and elaborate strategies mapped out by both sides. The new administration never fully grasped the deep, visceral opposition to their plans within the entrenched bureaucracy.
Ricciardone could be beguiling. He told his new political masters, “I really want to see these programs go forward. But the INC has got to be business-like.”
It was a ploy that Ricciardone and a small group of career State Department officers—Rebecca J. King, Kathy Allegrone, and Filo Dibble—already had used with success to make sure that no significant amount of the $97 million initially authorized by the Iraq Liberation Act ever got spent.
In 1999, for example, Congress appropriated $8 million in Economic Support Funds to help the INC expand its operations in Iraq, Europe, and the United States. But the INC only received $267,000 of that money—and it was used not to recruit fighters for the Iraq Liberation Army but to hire American consultants imposed on the INC by Ricciardone and his staff to rewrite INC grant proposals. In 2000, an additional $8 million was left unspent, with only $850,000 going to the INC. By the time the Bush administration came in, $3.2 million had been paid to a Landover, Maryland, company called Quality Support, Inc., for the sole purpose of organizing conferences, setting up a luxurious office the consultants could use in London (the INC already an office there), and so-called “administrative services.”1
In one boondoggle organized at Ricciardone’s behest, Quality Support brought 300 Iraqi exiles to New York for a “national assembly” in October 1999 that cost U.S. taxpayers $2.1 million, or $7,000 per head.
Why did it cost so much? For one thing, in a move reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s Travelgate fiasco, Quality Support insisted on buying all the tickets through their own travel agent at well above the going rates.
One INC member offered to buy his own ticket from Los Angeles to New York for the conference for $344. Quality Support refused, and insisted on overnighting him a full-fare ticket that cost U.S. taxpayers $1,800. INC members in London offered to buy tickets for under $500, but Quality Support turned them down, giving the business to their own travel agent, who charged an average of $2,000 per ticket. “Those payments went through the State Department audit without a hitch,” INC executive board member Sherif Ali bin Hussein al Hashimi told me. “But when it came to our budget, Kathy Allegrone,” the State Department officer who was managing the INC account, “argued day and night with us over an eight-dollar rounding error,” he said.
That was how the shadow warriors worked. They knew all the ins and outs of the bureaucratic process. Like the lawyers in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, they knew that if they could delay things long enough their opponents would probably forget what the fight was all about.
“The INC had problems with their bookkeeping,” another Ricciardone deputy told me in February 2001, in response to my question about why the congressionally appropriated funds were never spent on their intended purpose against Saddam. “Until just recently, they had no legal standing. We had to get them incorporated before they could receive funds under the program. That’s why the money had to be paid out through consultants.”
Put simply, it was a crock.
“Quality Support’s mandate was to pile up money on the street and burn it,” INC advisor Francis Brooke told me. But if you only read the version of these events that has appeared in the Washington Post or the New York Times, you would be convinced that the INC was wasting vast amounts of U.S. taxpayer money.
Ricciardone was unhappy when I called him to inquire about Quality Support and why more money was not getting to the Iraqi opposition.
“Rather than looking at Quality Support, I’d like to see someone investigate all that money that’s been going to John Rendon,” he said. Wink wink, nod nod. “And you know where that’s coming from!”
Of course I did. The Rendon Group’s contract with the CIA was one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets. But because it was still secret, people could characterize it any way they wanted.
And they did.
But wait a minute, I can hear Bill O’Reilly saying. This Chalabi character is a crook!
Wasn’t he arrested by U.S. agents in Baghdad in 2004 and accused of selling intelligence to Iran?
Wasn’t he the one who fabricated the evidence on Saddam’s WMD to suck us into a war we didn’t need?
Jane Mayer called him “The Manipulator,” in a feature story that appeared in The New Yorker. Newsweek even put him on the cover, calling him a “convicted felon,” “one of the great con men of history,” and “Bush’s Mr. Wrong.”2
Left-wing blogger Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation s...