In his new book, former CIA Director George Tenet reveals that Vice President Cheney and Pentagon officials pressed for the installation of an Iraqi government led by Ahmed Chalabi, an exile who provided bad information on Iraq’s supposed weapons programs.
Tenet says Cheney and company broke with the recommendations of the State Department, CIA, and the National Security Council, who “favored a more inclusive and transparent approach, in which Iraqis representing the many tribes, sects, and interest groups in the country would be brought together to consult and put together some sort of rough constituent assembly that might then select an advisory council and a group of ministers to govern the country.” Tenet writes:
Rather than risking an open-ended political process that Americans could influence but not control, they wanted to be able to limit the Iraqis’ power and handpick those Iraqis who would participate. … You had the impression that some Office of the Vice President and DOD reps were writing Chalabi’s name over and over again in their notes, like schoolgirls with their first crush.
The plan never was implemented, according to Tenet, because the administration couldn’t reach a consensus on Chalabi. Yet Tenet highlights the episode as deeply revelatory of how neoconservatives planned to “help Iraq achieve democracy and freedom“:
The vice president himself summed up the dilemma: The choice, he said, was between “control and legitimacy.” [Undersecretary of Defense] Doug Feith clearly stated his belief that it would not be necessary for the Iraqi exiles to legitimize themselves: “We can legitimize them,” he said, through our economic assistance and the good governance the U.S. would provide. They never understood that, fundamentally, political control depends on the consent of the governed.
Tenet wrote that by early 2004 President Bush asked Condoleezza Rice at a White House meeting to stop using Chalabi for intelligence. “I want Chalabi off the payroll,” Tenet quotes Bush as saying. In a subsequent meeting, the Defense Intelligence Agency said it was paying Chalabi’s organization $350,000 a month to provide information. “Somehow the president’s direction to pull the plug on the arrangement continued to be ignored,” Tenet wrote. Today, Chalabi oversees the implementation of the escalation strategy on the Iraqi end.