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Heroes in Error

How a fake general, a pliant media, and a master manipulator helped lead the United States into war.

Unfortunately, the story was an elaborate scam. The purported general had indeed met with American intelligence agents in Turkey, but unbeknownst to Hedges the agents had dismissed his claims out of hand. What the reporters also didn’t know, and what has never before been reported, is that it now appears that the man himself was a fake. According to an ex-INC official, the Ghurairy who met with the Times and PBS was actually a former Iraqi sergeant, then living in Turkey and known by the code name Abu Zainab. The real Lt. General Ghurairy, it seems, had never left Iraq.

THE MEETING BETWEEN THE MAN purported to be Ghurairy and the American reporters was arranged by two men who did not attend it: INC leader Ahmed Chalabi and Lowell Bergman, the former 60 Minutes producer immortalized by Al Pacino in The Insider, who was heading up a collaborative post-9/11 investigation for PBS and the New York Times. Bergman had interviewed the other INC defector, Sabah Khodada, but he was unable to go to Beirut, so he and Chalabi briefed Hedges at Brown’s Hotel in London before sending him on to meet Ghurairy.

Chalabi had been a source for Bergman since 1991, when, following the Gulf War, the CIA hired the Rendon Group, a public relations firm, to unite Saddam’s surviving enemies with the aim of destabilizing his regime. As part of that project, the Rendon Group created the INC. Led by Chalabi, an Iraqi expatriate who’d recently fled Jordan after being convicted of fraud, the INC was given millions of dollars to set up a large network of defectors and exiles, who, in addition to providing intelligence to the CIA, were charged with disseminating anti-Saddam propaganda in Iraq and to the Western media. With the help of Rendon, the INC began placing stories in the British press about Saddam’s atrocities. The aim was for the stories to then be picked up by the American media, thereby bypassing U.S. laws that prevented government funding of domestic propaganda.

This legal end run caused some unease at Langley—“What did they expect?” says the INC’s Musawi. “We were committed to overthrowing Saddam Hussein, not holding a tea party. We had to take some risks to achieve that.”—but it was the shoddy intelligence provided by the INC defectors (as well as an unauthorized and disastrous coup attempt) that caused the CIA to withdraw funding in 1996. “The quality was very bad,” said Robert Baer, the former CIA base chief in northern Iraq. (Baer’s memoir, See No Evil, inspired the George Clooney character in Syriana.) “There was a feeling that Chalabi was prepping defectors. We had no systematic way to vet the information, but it was obvious most of it was cooked.”

But Chalabi had won support within the GOP, and in 1998 the Republican-dominated Congress overwhelmingly passed the Iraq Liberation Act. Under its auspices, the State Department awarded the INC $17.3 million to carry out the “collection and dissemination of information” about Saddam’s misdeeds to the media. (By the summer of 2002, the INC was receiving $340,000 a month from the Defense Department to gather intelligence, though it appears the CIA remained suspicious of INC-generated information.) The head of the INC “information collection program” was Aras Habib, a Kurd who acted as the point man for meetings between journalists and defectors. Interviews took place in the Middle East, as well as in the United States and the United Kingdom, where many of the defectors had sought asylum. “I have worked with the CIA to make accessible useful intelligence, some of which we then passed on to journalists,” Habib told me in Baghdad in 2004, shortly before he reportedly fled to Iran, accused of working for Iranian intelligence.

Working beneath Habib were Mohammed al-Zubaidi and Abu Saud, who together ran a network of up to 100 informers and agents. Their task was to troll the large Iraqi exile communities in Damascus and Amman for those who would trade information in return for the INC’s help in obtaining asylum in the West.

Zubaidi was well suited to the job, having served as an officer in Saddam’s intelligence agency. He moved to Damascus in the early ’80s and later to Kuwait. By 1998, the then 46-year-old Zubaidi had been brought into the orbit of the INC while maintaining contacts with the Syrian regime.

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