Truthdig | In the past two decades I have had the opportunity to participate in certain experiences pertaining to my work that fall into the category of “no one will ever believe this.” I usually file these away, calling on them only when events transpire that breathe new life into these extraordinary memories. Ron Suskind, a noted and accomplished journalist, has written a new book, “The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism,” in which he claims that the “White House had concocted a fake letter from Habbush [Tahir Jalil Habbush, the director of the Mukhabarat], to Saddam [Hussein], backdated to July 1, 2001.” According to Suskind, the letter said that “9/11 ringleader Mohammad Atta had actually trained for his mission in Iraq—thus showing, finally, that there was an operational link between Saddam and al Qaeda, something the Vice President’s Office had been pressing CIA to prove since 9/11 as a justification to invade Iraq.”
This is an extraordinary charge, which both the White House and the CIA vehemently deny. Suskind outlines a scenario which dates to the summer and fall of 2003, troubled times for the Bush administration as its case for invading Iraq was unraveling. I cannot independently confirm Suskind’s findings, but I, too, heard a similar story, from a source I trust implicitly. In my former line of work, intelligence, it was understood that establishing patterns of behavior was important. Past patterns of behavior tend to repeat themselves, and are thus of interest when assessing a set of seemingly separate circumstances around the same source. Of course, given the nature of the story line, it is better if I introduce this information within its proper context.
In the summer of 2003 I was approached by Harper’s Magazine to do a story on the work of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), a CIA-sponsored operation investigating Saddam’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs in the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. David Kay, a former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector who served briefly in Iraq in 1991 and 1992, was at that time the head of the ISG. By October 2003 the group had prepared a so-called interim report, which claimed to have eyewitness evidence of Iraqi WMD-related activities prior to the invasion in March. The key to the ISG’s interim report was the testimony of “cooperative sources,” Iraqis of unstated pedigree purportedly providing the ISG with unverifiable information. With one exception—an Iraqi nuclear scientist who had been killed by coalition forces—David Kay failed to provide the name or WMD association of any of the sources he used for his report, making any effort to verify their assertions impossible. Many of the senior Iraqis who had openly contradicted Kay’s report were, and still are to this day, muzzled behind the walls of an American prison in Baghdad. But there was another group of Iraqis, the former scientists and technicians involved in Iraq’s WMD programs who were known to have been interviewed by the ISG, and who were released back into Iraqi society. These scientists held the key to deciphering the vague pronouncements of the ISG interim report, and could help to distinguish between fact and fiction.
Many of these scientists remained intimidated by their ISG experience, which often involved lengthy imprisonment and harsh interrogation. Loath to run afoul of their American occupiers, and tethered financially to a monthly stipend designed to keep them from exporting their WMD know-how out of Iraq (and, it has been suggested, from talking too freely with the media), these Iraqi scientists possessed a wealth of data which was difficult to tap into. In my own effort to research the veracity of David Kay’s assertions, I made use of my connections within the community of former Iraqi WMD scientists to try to gain access to what they knew. One in particular, who, because of ongoing security concerns, will be identified only as Mohammed, worked to facilitate my visit, arranging for meetings with Iraqis who possessed firsthand knowledge about not only the past WMD programs but also the ongoing efforts of the ISG.
“You are welcome to Baghdad,” Mohammed wrote me in mid-October 2003, after I had informed him of my intent to travel there and what my purpose was. “You can have my full support.” After a back-and-forth exchange of e-mails with Mohammed on the subject of my visit, I finalized my agenda and reconfirmed the interviews I wanted arranged. I followed my e-mail to Mohammed on Nov. 5 with a detailed communication to the Coalition Provisional Authority, outlining both my proposed schedule in Iraq and requests for interviews with CPA and ISG officials and tours of related facilities.
My schedule had me departing the United States two days later. That morning, I did one final check of my e-mail and found a disturbing communication from Mohammed. In it, he reiterated how dangerous the situation had become in Baghdad. But he said more: “I understand that there are some people who wish to bury any new facts concerning the subject of WMD in Iraq. They are ready to liquidate any person or group who ventures into this subject.” Iraqi officials who had been involved with WMD, Mohammed said, “ … are not ready to give interviews because that endangers their life. It would endanger your life as well. I am serious in my warning,” he wrote. “Nobody can guarantee your life. Nor the fate of the material you will be collecting in Baghdad.”
“I request that you adjourn your scheduled trip to Baghdad,” Mohammed pleaded. “If you decide to continue with your intention, then I am very sorry to tell you that taking the overall environment in my country I am not able to support your mission. The main reason would be to preserve my life during or after it is concluded.”
One does not view such a communication lightly. I immediately contacted Lewis Lapham at Harper’s Magazine, as well as some trusted colleagues with experience in journalism and intelligence affairs. All agreed that in this case, discretion was the better part of valor. My trip to Baghdad was called off, but not the pursuit of the fate of Iraq’s WMD. The journey of discovery had simply been re-routed, and instead of going to Mohammed, I brought Mohammed to me. Mohammed made his way to Amman, Jordan, where we met over a period of five days in December 2003 to discuss Iraq’s past proscribed weapons programs. Before we could move forward on that complex topic, however, I needed to clear up the canceled Baghdad trip and, in particular, Mohammed’s e-mail regarding a threat to his, and my, life.
“This was very real,” Mohammed said. “I had made several important contacts in regards to your trip.” I asked him to elaborate. “As you know, the situation inside Iraq is very dangerous and confused, and many people were hesitant to meet with you.” Who were they afraid of? “The Americans,” he said. “They were afraid of what the Americans might do if it was found out that they had met with you.”
One of the contacts Mohammed had arranged for me to meet with while in Baghdad was a former official in the Iraqi Mukhabarat, the intelligence arm of Saddam Hussein’s regime, who was intimately familiar with that organization’s surveillance of U.N. weapons inspectors, both in Iraq and in New York. “The Mukhabarat never went away,” Mohammed said. “They just disappeared into the shadows. They are still very much a presence in Baghdad and Iraq.”
Mohammed had passed on my proposed schedule to the Mukhabarat official, who told Mohammed he “would check with his sources” to see if my visit was feasible or not. On the evening of Dec. 5, 2003, the Mukhabarat agent appeared at Mohammed’s home. “You must cancel the visit,” he told Mohammed. “Mr. Ritter’s life is at risk if he comes here, as well as the life of any Iraqi he meets with.”
The Mukhabarat had been preparing for the American occupation of Iraq for months before the initiation of hostilities in March 2003. By January 2003, orders had been issued to the various Mukhabarat departments to begin preparations for an American occupation. Mukhabarat personnel were instructed that in the case of the occupation of Iraq by the United States, they were to return to their homes and await further instructions. Those agents who were able to do so were encouraged to join the ranks of the various opposition parties that were expected to follow the Americans into Iraq, and to actively cooperate with the American occupiers. In this manner, the Mukhabarat was able to establish a network of informers inside the very ranks of the organizations that were seeking its demise. According to Mohammed, the Mukhabarat had been very successful in this regard. And it was this success, he said, that led to the warning from the Mukhabarat about the threat to my life, and the lives of those who cooperated with me, if I were to go to Baghdad.
According to Mohammed, Baghdad in late 2003 crawled with assassination squads. In addition to simple criminal gangs interested in extortion and murder, there were squads of killers who worked on behalf of the various political forces vying for power inside occupied Baghdad, settling old scores and eliminating potential competitors. One of the major themes among those positioning themselves for a leading role in post-Saddam Iraq was de-Baathification, a policy of identifying and neutralizing the members of the former ruling party, which was associated with the most horrific abuses of the regime of Saddam Hussein. De-Baathification was a primary objective of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and major policy initiatives were passed to remove the Baathists from positions of power and influence. Opponents of the regime of Saddam Hussein were only too willing to aid and assist the CPA in its crusade against the Baathists, using their own networks of informants to locate Baathist members and sympathizers for the American occupiers. Given the abuses of power that occurred in Iraq under the Baathists, however, oftentimes the members of the newly empowered opposition took matters into their own hands, meting out street justice in the form of targeted assassination.
Among the more effective, and brutal, of these politically motivated assassination units were those run by SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) and its armed militia, the Badr Brigade. Their efforts to exterminate Baath Party remnants still loyal to Saddam Hussein, or those who were accused of committing crimes against SCIRI or its sympathizers, attracted the attention of the “black” side of the CPA-run de-Baathification efforts —covert operations run by the CIA and elite Special Operations units of the United States military. An abortive effort to formally acknowledge the role played by the various anti-Saddam militias in confronting the Baath holdouts offered a glimpse into what is an unspoken element of the U.S. policy regarding de-Baathification —let the Iraqis do the dirty work. And the Badr militia stood out among those willing and able to take the fight to the Baathist holdouts. For that reason, the Badr militia not only attracted the attention of the CPA but also the Mukhabarat, which, according to Mohammed, had infiltrated the SCIRI-run militia.
Mohammed’s Mukhabarat connection had disturbing news. According to the source, the CPA had passed to the Badr militia my name, the dates of my planned trip to Baghdad, my proposed agenda and a list of Iraqis I had planned to meet with, including Mohammed. This information was in turn passed on to the unit in the Badr militia which specialized in targeted assassination in Baghdad. “Mr. Ritter cannot come to Iraq,” the Mukhabarat agent told Mohammed. “If he does, his life is at risk, your life is at risk, and everyone associated with his visit’s life will be at risk.” And so Mohammed sent his e-mailed warning to me.
On the surface, Mohammed’s story was too much to believe. I was willing to accept any account that held that specific Iraqi groups, such as Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, were opposed to my visit to the extent that they might issue threats in an effort to intimidate me from coming. But the concept of the United States government being involved boggled the mind.
The problem with disbelieving was there were too many pieces of this puzzle that seemed to fit together. The timing of the threat coincided too neatly with my communication with the CPA about my plans while in Baghdad. People in the CPA certainly had the information if they decided to pass it on—I had telephoned and sent faxes and e-mails providing my dates of travel, where I wanted to stay and how I wanted to interact with the CPA. The ability of the U.S. intelligence community to monitor my e-mail communications with Mohammed was a given. And then there was the disturbing fact that, since the time that I had notified the CPA of my intent to travel to Iraq to write this story for Harper’s Magazine, I had been red-flagged by the United States government. On both occasions that I left the United States on assignment for Harper’s Magazine (once to London and Prague, the other to Amman), I had been pulled aside by U.S. immigration and customs officials upon my return for special treatment.
Apparently taking their cues from computer instructions, the customs officials involved were very interested in where I had traveled, whom I had met with, and any documents I might be carrying. When I asked a senior customs official in Washington’s Dulles Airport what the problem was, he simply shrugged. “I guess it’s just because you are who you are,” he said. A customs officer in New York’s JFK Airport, after looking at instructions sent to him on his computer, looked up to me. “You used to work for the U.S. government?” he asked. Prompted again by the computer, he called over a supervisor, who was very interested in documents I had in my possession concerning Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. In both cases, the only thing that seemed to save me from an even greater intrusion into my personal belongings was a letter from Lewis Lapham identifying me with Harper’s Magazine. The letter was carefully examined by customs officers and photocopied, and became the apparent subject of intense exchanges between the customs officers and whoever was on the other end of the computer. In both cases, my First Amendment rights prevailed over the concerns of the U.S. government, and I was allowed to proceed with my notes intact.
Mohammed’s dire warning aside, it seemed clear that my new assignment for Harper’s Magazine had caught the attention of someone in the U.S. government. What about my probing into the weapons-of-mass-destruction issue could prompt such extreme measures? What would make the U.S. government so afraid as to justify its attempt to intimidate a journalist—even an activist journalist such as myself—from carrying out his work? As a former weapons inspector with the United Nations, I was intimately familiar with the fraudulent case made by the Bush administration before the 2003 invasion, and had quite publicly challenged the president’s allegations. I do not believe the Bush administration would undertake any activity, directly or indirectly, beyond simply harassing me, because of my stance on pre-war WMD claims. However, knowing that I was going to Baghdad to meet with Iraqis who had firsthand knowledge of what had transpired since the invasion was another matter. What could I have learned that troubled them so? I will relay the story as I received it from Mohammed.
On a bright morning one day in late June 2003 Mohammed waited patiently on the side of a street in the Jadariyah district of Baghdad. As a former official in the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein, he had knowledge of programs and activities of interest to the Americans who now occupied the palaces of the former Iraqi president; these programs and activities included but were not limited to weapons of mass destruction. Mohammed had been summoned to a meeting with a special intelligence cell that reported not to David Kay’s Iraq Survey Group, but instead directly to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Shortly before 9 in the morning, a small convoy consisting of three unmarked Toyota Land Cruisers pulled up alongside Mohammed. Seated in the front passenger seat of the lead vehicle was a short, stocky blond woman named Stacey. One might not have guessed from her plain khaki cargo pants and simple white T-shirt that she was a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. Stacey motioned for Mohammed to enter the vehicle, and the small convoy sped off.
Crossing the 14th of July Bridge, the convoy turned right, into the grounds of the Republican Palace. Through gates once manned by the most elite forces of the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Special Republican Guard, the small convoy now negotiated checkpoints manned by the soldiers of Iraq’s new master, the United States. The Land Cruisers snaked past the main palace building itself, where four large bronze heads of Saddam sporting a Moghul helmet stared impassively above them (these statues were later removed under the orders of the then-head of the CPA, Paul Bremer). The SUVs moved north toward the far end of the former palace complex, now known as the Green Zone. In front of the former offices of the Iraqi National Security Committee, the convoy turned right, cutting through some administrative buildings before emerging on an embankment road running alongside the Tigris River. Heading south, the three vehicles came upon a villa complex surrounded by small decorative ponds, each pond connected with a small footbridge. On each island was an open barbecue pit, complete with accompanying stack of firewood, of the type favored by the former Iraqi president. Disembarking from the Land Cruiser, Stacey led Mohammed to the main villa, where they were ushered in by security personnel wearing similar nondescript clothing.
Seated on a couch in the middle of the elaborately furnished villa was a small, thin woman in her late 30s with short blond hair who introduced herself as Carol. On the table before the couch were plates full of sweets and fruit slices, imported from Kuwait, which Carol invited Mohammed to taste. Stacey joined them, and soon she and Carol began questioning Mohammed. About five minutes into the session, the two women were joined by a third person, an Army lieutenant colonel who introduced himself as Dave. Dave was dressed in the same khaki trousers as Stacey and Carol, but sported a gray T-shirt emblazoned with the seal of the United States and the words “U.S. Embassy Kuwait.” A short, athletic-looking man with gray hair, Dave quickly took over the proceedings, with Carol and Stacey taking notes. For four hours Dave questioned Mohammed about various matters dealing with the Iraqi’s former work.
The final line of questioning focused on weapons of mass destruction. Dave was on his feet, pacing before Mohammed, before turning to him and asking straight out, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?” Mohammed, who had intimate knowledge of certain aspects of the Iraqi WMD effort, replied straight back: “There are no WMD in Iraq.”
Dave continued pacing back and forth in front of Mohammed. “My president,” he said, “is in trouble. Can you help him?”
Mohammed was taken aback by the question. “Excuse me?” he asked. “Could you repeat yourself?”
Dave sat down next to the Iraqi. “George Bush is in trouble. Our people did not find any WMD in Iraq. Can you help us?”
Mohammed looked back at Dave. “How?”
“Can we prepare something for that? We could bring in some nuclear material from the former Soviet Union, and pretend they are Iraqi.”
Mohammed, stunned by the unexpected nature of the request, indicated that such a ploy could be easily uncovered by forensic examination of the evidence by outside experts, such as UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Commission) or the IAEA, who would undoubtedly be called in to verify such a finding. Dave sat in silence for a few moments, before springing to his feet. “I have to leave for a meeting,” he said. “Stacey will show you out.”
Mohammed was to meet again with Dave, Stacey and Carol in the weeks that followed. The subject of WMD, Iraqi or otherwise, was never again broached by Dave or anyone else in his team.
In my extensive dealings with him, Mohammed has never lied to me or exaggerated about events he was personally involved in. His story establishes a pattern of behavior which shows how the Bush administration, especially when operating in the form of small, ideologically motivated teams functioning outside the norms and conventions of the mainstream, was able to consider (in Mohammed’s case) manufacturing data and circumstances to bolster its false case for invading Iraq, and (per author Ron Suskind) actually manufacture such data and circumstances. I trust Mohammed. And so I am willing to believe Suskind and his sources about similar cases of fraud, this time in the form of the CIA’s manufactured Mukhabarat document.
The question is, what is Congress doing about this? At what point in time will it become clear that a crime against America has been committed, not by any foreign terrorist group, but rather the highest officials in the land, those entrusted with safeguarding the Constitution? If the rule of law is to have any meaning today, Congress has no choice but to institute proceedings mandated by the Constitution against those high officials who have committed high crimes and misdemeanors against the American people. Far from stating that impeachment is off the table, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi rightfully has no option but to instruct the House of Representatives to initiate investigations into the crime of fraud and other related obstructions of government undertaken by the administration of President George W. Bush. And if these investigations confirm that such crimes have indeed occurred, she must, as a servant of the Constitution, undertake impeachment proceedings. That Bush is a lame-duck president, and his time in office is short, is no excuse for failure to defend the rule of law to its fullest.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence specialist and was a chief weapons inspector for the United Nations in Iraq. He is the author of many books, including “Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein” and “Target Iran: The Truth About the White House’s Plans for Regime Change.”
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