It’s instructive to read the recent Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the 2001-2003 meetings between Pentagon officials and Iran contra figures Michael Ledeen and Manucher Ghorbanifar, side by side with the 2007 memoir of former CIA director George Tenet, At the Center of the Storm (Harper Collins, 2007, pp. 311-313). Indeed, doing so fills in a few details that were redacted in the Senate report, and amplifies others.
A couple points jump out in Tenet’s account of what he dubs “the Sons of Iran-contra” episode. Chiefly, related to my latest article on signs of a possible federal investigation reviewing the matter, that Tenet writes that CIA lawyers threatened in 2002 to file a crimes report with the Justice Department if the channel to Ghorbanifar persisted. And persisted the channel of course did, for more than a year. Tenet:
On July 11, 2002, a senior CIA officer was told by the ambassador to Italy that Ledeen had called him to say he would be returning to Rome the next month to “continue what he had started.” Our Rome representative met with his Italian counterparts and asked them not to provide any assistance to Ledeen unless the ambassador or CIA requested that they do so. A senior CIA lawyer contacted his NSC opposite number and asked whether anyone at the NSC had authorized Ledeen’s visit. If not, he suggested, CIA might have to file a “crimes report” with the Justice Department., a requirement when we learn of a possible violation of the law.
About two weeks later, the NSC lawyer contacted CIA to say that Steve Hadley had called Ledeen in and “read him the riot act,” telling him to “knock it off.” In light of that, he said, they didn’t see any need for a crimes report.
But Ledeen, and a Pentagon official Harold Rhode, did not “knock it off.” Indeed, Rhode went on to meet with Ghorbanifar in Paris in June 2003 – in a meeting Ghorbanifar, laughing at the absurdity of the claim, told me was not in any way accidental, and which the Senate report further documents was planned (Rhode flew from Turkey to Paris for the meeting), but was not apparently authorized by the White House. There may also have been further meetings between Rhode and Ghorbanifar associates in London, the Senate report documents. And possibly another meeting as well in the fall of 2003, on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Rome, that Ledeen definitely and Rhode possibly attended, according to the Senate report, which was never able to definitively determine if Rhode was there.
Did CIA or, perhaps more likely, the Defense Department itself, ultimately file a crimes report — or a possible counterintelligence report — with the Justice Department about the strangely persistent Pentagon-Ledeen-Ghorbanifar channel after all? That would explain what I reported: that Rhode has told associates he’s hired a defense attorney in connection to a federal investigation.
Another interesting point, according to Tenet’s memoir and other accounts. Then national security advisor Condoleezza Rice was apparently lied to about the nature of Rhode’s June 2003 Paris meeting with Ghorbanifar. Rice herself told Tenet that she was told the meeting was accidental. Tenet:
I called Condi Rice and urged the NSC staff, once again, to get to the bottom of the matter. “If you don’t,” I said, “this will all end up on the president’s desk, and he will take the blame.” Condi mentioned that after the first meeting in Rome, the DOD officials had “accidentally bumped into” the Iranians again in Paris, while crossing the street or some such thing.
The Senate report among many other accounts found that was a lie. Rhode’s June 2003 meeting with Ghorbanifar was no accident (he flew to Paris specifically for it from Istanbul after getting a phone call from Ledeen, according to one of his accounts to the Senate intelligence committee.) Indeed, it’s worth reading p. 26 of the Senate intelligence committee report to get a sense for how strangely difficult it is for the Senate Intelligence committee, the DoD inspector general investigators, and others to get a straight account of how this meeting came about. Apparently the Pentagon in March 2008 “corrected” an account originally provided by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in February 2004 to the Senate intelligence committee. And Ledeen’s and Rhode’s accounts of how the meeting came about don’t match up either. Rhode originally told the Senate Intelligence committee that he and Ledeen were together at an Istanbul meeting when the idea to see Ghorbanifar in Paris came up. Ledeen disputed this, reviewing his passport stamps as proof he wasn’t in Istanbul at the time. Rhode later said Ledeen called him while Rhode was in Istanbul to propose the meeting with Ghorbanifar in Paris in late June 2003. Ledeen says he can’t recall even that, and suggested that Rhode could have contacted Ghorbanifar himself. Rhode disputes that, saying he only communicated to Ghorbanifar via Ledeen, and didn’t even have Ghorbanifar’s contact information.
Ledeen seems intent in his accounts to the Senate intelligence committee to distance himself from any role in setting in motion Rhode’s June 2003 Paris meeting with Ghorbanifar. Why? Perhaps because Hadley had “read him the riot act” more than a year before to “knock it off” with Ghorbanifar, who had proposed that for $25 million in US government support he could set about a coup in Iran. But Rhode’s accounts to the Senate Intelligence committee and DoD investigators consistently suggest Ledeen was involved in setting up the meeting.
Wonder why it’s so hard for everybody to get their stories straight on this? Probably because the White House seems to have initially been completely in the dark, and later directly lied to by the Pentagon on the matter, as Tenet’s account of Rice’s comments suggests. Indeed, it’s hard to see evidence that Rhode’s June 2003 meeting with Ghorbanifar was in fact authorized by the White House. Which some readings of the National Security Act might suggest would in fact make it illegal. Hence, all the confusion and memory loss and contradictory accounts about how that meeting came to be.
Update: Am told the CIA did not file a crimes report with the Justice Department over the matter. Did the Pentagon?
(Photograh of Manucher Ghorbanifar courtesy of Cooperative Research).