Summary of the Series: Judy embedded with a group that was poorly-prepared to hunt down WMDs--but was given the central role in the first days of the war nevertheless. While there, she engaged in a pattern--announcing a big find, then quietly withdrawing that find shortly thereafter. She also used her influence (including her direct influence on Gonzales, apparently) to shift the unit's focus away from examining suspected WMD sites to finding Iraqi officials, some supplied by Ahmed Chalabi, who offered convenient excuses for the absence of WMDs. Meanwhile, over the course of her embed, Judy set the foundation--and created excuses--for the Bush Administration's "surprise" realization that they might not find WMDs in Iraq.
When we last left Judy, she had pre-empted another NYT journalist's article on Ahmed Chalabi in order to give Chalabi a friendly hearing at a time when he was actively lobbying to solidify his leadership position in the interim government of Iraq.
In this installment, Chalabi takes Judy on a wild adventure into the bowels of the Mukhabarat headquarters looking for an ancient Talmud. As with WMDs, Judy's team doesn't find the Talmud they're looking for. But they do find things that make it look like Iraq was involved in terrorist activities in Israel--crazy things like a model of the Knesset and a female mannequin dressed in an Israeli Air Force uniform. And, possibly, they find another Niger forgery.
Chalabi and Miller Channel Indiana Jones
On May 7, 2003 Judy publishes the weirdest article she writes while in Iraq. The article is notable for its unusual premise, its language, and its contents. So let's start with the premise.
A former Iraqi intelligence official tells MET Alpha that he has hidden a seventh-century Talmud in the basement of the Mukhabarat building in Baghdad.
Now it's not entirely clear who this person is or where he came from, but I think he is the guy I call Yankee Fan, the Iraqi introduced to Judy as a scientist a few weeks before, but who would later be described as an intelligence officer in Judy's July 20 article. The person in this May 7 article is described as being a high-ranking officer in the Mukhabarat. But nowhere else in her Iraq articles does Judy mention an intelligence officer--except when she's talking about someone who is definitely Yankee Fan. I suspect, if Judy had found a second high ranking intelligence officer, she would have written an article about him, just as she wrote about Yankee Fan and Hindawi. Also, it makes sense that this would be Yankee Fan, as he had earlier offered to show MET Alpha more information on the Iraqi WMD program. The character in the May 7 article told them of the Talmud a couple of days before this expedition, so it's clear he has been around a while. And just a reminder. If this guy is Yankee Fan, it means Yankee Fan--the guy who provided the key explanation for the absence of WMD--is now employed by Ahmed Chalabi, just like all those credible defectors who got us into the war in the first place.
Anyway, Judy's unit, which is tasked with inspecting suspected WMD sites but has "gone rogue" to collect HumInt instead, decides they're going to go even more rogue and hunt for this ancient Jewish text. Sounds a little far-fetched, doesn't it? Well, thankfully, Judy explains away the absurdity of the story.
MET Alpha hesitated. Its mission was hunting for proof of unconventional weapons in Iraq, not saving cultural and religious treasures. But Col. Richard R. McPhee, its commander, decided that the historic Talmud was too valuable to leave behind.
Got that? Good. It all makes sense now. So Judy and her crew set out from the INC headquarters, which are perhaps appropriately located at the Iraqi Hunting Club. And they head to a place that--really--seems like it comes right out of the set of Indiana Jones.
...the group arrived at Mukhabarat headquarters only to find the section of the building in which the precious document was said to be stored under four feet of murky, fetid water. Dead animals floated on the surface. The stairwell down to the muck was littered with shards of glass, pieces of smashed walls and other bombing debris.
Luckily, the intrepid hero of Judy's story, her "close friend" Richard Gonzales, finds the courage to forge ahead.
Temporarily daunted by the overpowering stench, MET Alpha's leader, Chief Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, and two other MET Alpha soldiers eventually collected themselves and plunged into the mire in search of the holy text as the team chaplain shook his head in disbelief.
I'll stop with the direct quotes because, after all, Judy does have this tripe copyrighted. But rest assured, the evocative language continues: "inched their way by flashlight," "slogging," "dank hallway," "foul water." Right out of Indiana Jones.
Oh, and did I mention, there's a Lost Ark of a sort that they speculate may have held the ancient Jewish scroll? Well, a box for one anyway, just like in Indiana Jones.
That view [that the text was still in the basement] was reinforced by the recovery of a wooden box with Hebrew writing, which the former Iraqi intelligence officer said might have contained the priceless artifact.
One more comment about this. Yankee Fan dragged Judy's group here to see this Talmud. If he supposedly saved it and hid it, don't you think he'd know, for sure, what kind of box it had been in?
What Judy Doesn't Say
There's something that Judy probably should have told us, before we got this far, but didn't. Something her colleague at NYT, Patrick Tyler, reported on two days earlier, on May 5, 2003. That's the news that Chalabi had already claimed to have cleaned out the Mukhabarat of tons of files. From Tyler's article,
In an interview today, he said his supporters had seized as much as 60 tons of documents from the Baath Party and Iraqi secret police and intelligence services. The files document Mr. Hussein's relationship with Arab leaders and foreign governments, he said.
Armed with this incendiary material in a region where under-the-table payoffs to buy protection, loyalty or silence are the seamy side of political life, Mr. Chalabi and his aides have been sending out pointed warnings -- that he can give as good as he has been getting -- to Arab leaders who have dismissed him as a lackey financed by the Central Intelligence Agency, or as an accused embezzler from the bank he ran in Jordan during the 1980's. [emphasis mine]
"Iraqi secret police and intelligence services" is pretty clearly the Mukhabarat. The INC has already been here. Not only that, but Chalabi has already begun sharing some of this material with the DIA.
Though Mr. Chalabi has yet to make any of the files public, he has allowed Defense Intelligence Agency officers to begin examining them.
Now, in previous articles, Judy describes members of her team as being members of DIA. There's no way to know whether the DIA officers Chalabi was sharing intelligence with are members of MET Alpha or a unit that hasn't gone rogue. But Judy's pretty close to Chalabi. You'd think he would let her know that he had already cleaned the Mukhabarat out of incriminating documents, before taking her there on a crazy Talmud hunt. You'd also think Chalabi would have cleared out the mucky water in the basement of the Mukhabarat while he was down there. You would think...
Ancient Texts and Israeli Intelligence
But back to Judy's article. It wouldn't be a Judy Miller article if it didn't have some kind of "find" that implicated Iraq in all kinds of nefarious deeds. In this case, the bulk of these "finds" is evidence that might suggest Iraq had been involved in planning terrorist activities against Israel going back to 1991. The evidence includes a map of the presumed Scud missile hits from the first Gulf War (did they keep the map up for 12 years so they could revel in their glory days of getting soundly tromped in 1991?). It includes maps of terrorist strikes in Israel since the Gulf War. And it contains books. Ordinary books of the sort that the Iraqi intelligence would be negligent if it didn't have. Moshe Ben-Shaul's Generals of Israel. David Ben-Gurion's Memoirs. And Bernard Lewis' Semites and Anti-Semites. (Was this last book Judy's nod to a good friend?)
Oh, and have I mentioned that this entire article appears as if it has been designed by a Hollywood set designer, all visual and whatnot? In addition to the papers and maps, this scene features a
"perfect mock-up of the Knesset" and a female mannequin dressed in an Israeli Air Force uniform. Which of course sets up the colorful picture of Judy and her friends, floating their perfect mock-up of the Knesset down their Indiana Jones corridors for all NYT readers to enjoy. (Note, apparently a photo of the floating Knesset accompanied the original article--if anyone has access to NYT's archived photos without paying $200, I'd love to see Judy and her floating Knesset.)
Is this Article Hiding Another Niger Forgery?
Finally, though, I don't think this article was primarily intended to create proof that Iraq supported terrorist strikes on Israel. Rather, I think it may have been intended to close the loop on the Niger document forgeries. Hidden in the middle of Judy's article is this remarkable paragraph:
Of even greater interest to MET Alpha was a ''top secret'' intelligence memo found in a room on another floor. Written in Arabic and dated May 20, 2001, the memo from the Iraqi intelligence station chief in an African country described an offer by a ''holy warrior'' to sell uranium and other nuclear material. The bid was rejected, the memo states, because of the United Nations ''sanctions situation.'' But the station chief wrote that the source was eager to provide similar help at a more convenient time. [emphasis mine]
Now, as far as I recall, this passage was passed over without comment when the piece first ran. But to me, having recently scoured the SSCI Report to understand more about the Niger forgeries, the language is uncanny. A document appears that talks about uranium deals with an unnamed African country. Which is how those SISMI documents were described for public consumption a year earlier. According to this document, the uranium bid itself didn't happen. But the document suggests such uranium sales might take place, some time in the future. So if you pretend for a minute that the Niger forgeries were real, then this document would make perfect sense. It would explain why the Intelligence Community hadn't been able to find evidence of a uranium deal. But it would also hold out the possibility that Niger (or Somalia or Congo, one of the other countries alleged to be dealing uranium to Iraq) would be happy to do so in the future.
Mind you, if you accept all the intelligence collected over the previous year and a half that cast doubt on the Niger forgeries, then you would probably find this document equally implausible. But I asked you to pretend, didn't I?
So this document provides justification--just as the Niger forgeries did--for one of Dick Cheney's most incendiary justifications for the war. The US had to invade because Iraq was trying to resucitate their uranium program.
What makes this document more suspicious is its reference to a "holy warrior." It made me think immediately of the most absurd of the forgeries, the one claiming to establish a "Global Support" group.
The group directed by the ambassadors of Niger, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Iran have [plural in original] decided that "Global Support" which is composed of specialists belonging to different military corps of the allied countries will be active immediately.
This, admittedly, is a stretch. The language used--"holy warrior" versus "global support"--is different.
It's not a stretch, however, to read this document as claiming that someone calling himself a mujahadeen was dealing uranium to Iraq. Perhaps someone with ties to Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, Iraq, uranium, all in one convenient document.
And let's consider the timing. This article appears in the NYT on May 7. It appears one day after Nicholas Kristof's column first using Wilson as a source appeared. So just one day after Kristof publishes a column stating this...
Consider the now-disproved claims by President Bush and Colin Powell that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger so it could build nuclear weapons. As Seymour Hersh noted in The New Yorker, the claims were based on documents that had been forged so amateurishly that they should never have been taken seriously.
I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.
...Judy publishes an article in the same newspaper seemingly giving reason to take the Niger claims seriously again.
If I'm right in my supposition that they planted this to corroborate the discredited Niger forgeries, then it's not clear why they didn't keep pursuing it. Certainly, the mention of this text seems tentative--the Indiana Jones stuff is the focus of the story, not the uranium letter. Perhaps they were not yet sure whether they were going to try to argue that there really was something to the Niger forgeries. Then, given the attention folks in the States started paying to the uranium claims, perhaps they backed off, figuring they had already gone to the well one too many times on Niger forgeries.
The thing to do with this new uranium allegation, of course, would be to forward the document to the INR analyst or IAEA expert who were able to debunk the first Niger documents immediately. Let one of them figure out whether we should worry about a mujahadeen uranium dealer somewhere in Africa.
Only, it appears that's not what happened.
We know from experience that if Judy makes a find, then it will soon be withdrawn. Only this time there's a twist. The evidence is not so much withdrawn as it is disappeared. Two days later, when Judy's gang returns to the basement of the Mukhabarat, their evidence is all gone.
''It is clear that in the past 48 hours, someone has removed many of the most critical items that we had hoped to salvage,'' said Chief Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzalez, the team's leader. For instance, items that the team carefully put aside after its first exploration of the building, when it was still filled with four feet of fetid water, were removed.
Chief Gonzalez said that among the missing items were several from what he said appeared to be the secret police's operations center. These included mock-ups of the Israeli Parliament and other well-known Israeli buildings.
How about that? Everything--even their floating Knesset--gone.
Luckily, there's a ready suspect to blame for the disappearances.
As the team and members of the Iraqi National Congress arrived at the Mukhabarat headquarters, soldiers found a well-dressed, physically fit young man with a neatly clipped beard and mustache moving into the building.
Team members said he was carrying false identification papers and a telephone directory with numbers from Arab countries including Yemen. One member of MET Alpha, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he seemed to be well versed in counterinterrogation techniques. The man, whom the military did not publicly identify, was turned over to military authorities for questioning.
We seem to be having the same kind of remarkable identification issues we had with Yankee Fan, who handed the 101st Airborne a pseudonymous letter that nevertheless identified him sufficiently for Richard Gonzales to find him. Here, Judy tells us our physically fit young man is carrying "false identification papers" but she doesn't appear to know what his identity is. Now granted, our fit young man might have been carrying a false ID of someone recognizable (my brother, for example, once got busted because he was using the ID of a swimmer who had set a new world record that same day on the other side of the world). But otherwise, how do these guys figure out the ID is fake if they don't know who this guy is?
And once again, we've got Judy's soldiers getting all shy about putting their name in print precisely when it comes to verifying the credibility of a key witness. Or perhaps Judy's soldier won't go on the record regarding the familiarity of our physically fit young man with counterinterrogation techniques because he--Judy's soldier--has no training in interrogation techniques himself and probably doesn't have any way of recognizing the signs?
But Judy doesn't totally bury the other weird aspects of this story. Namely that the INC may have had some control over the evidence in the interim period.
Also missing was an entire shelf of books, a filing cabinet full of documents, and other documents that the team was unable to retrieve after its first visit on Tuesday. The team intended to return the next day but was unable to find the water pumps needed to drain the basement so that the site could be fully explored.
Members of the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmad Chalabi, managed to secure the equipment and began pumping the foul-smelling water out of the basement about noon today. But when the team entered the basement area once more, it discovered that many important documents and other material had been removed or burned. [emphasis mine]
I hate to question MET Alpha, but I think they've got their equipment needs screwy. They had already set aside some important evidence. Presumably, someplace dry. It seems like they could have taken it with them on May 7, unless they needed a truck to haul their Knesset in. Not pumps.
And with regard to those pumps. It's possible that the INC really couldn't get pumps for an extra day--this was still a war zone, even if Bush had already declared "Mission Accomplished!" But then again, it's also possible that the INC stalled for a day. Further, from the way Judy describes it, the INC does the pumping, not MET Alpha. Which would imply they were present at the Mukhabarat before the MET Alpha was. (On the other hand, Judy also describes finding the physically fit young man "as they arrive," which suggests they were together.) I mean, I don't really have evidence this is BS. But it seems like a really ridiculous excuse to explain why supposedly important evidence was left for two days without guard. Particularly once you consider the information that Judy doesn't seem to think is important for this story--that the INC has already been here and removed much of its contents.
One more question. Why does Judy mention the evidence had been "removed or burned"? Is she saying there were signs that some papers had been burned? Then why doesn't she say so? If not, why mention burning at all? What I find really curious about the burning comment is this. The contents of the basement had been soaking, presumably, for weeks. Four feet of water. And until the pumps came in, there apparently wasn't a lot of dry space. It strikes me that this stuff--the floating Knesset and its Air Force mannequin--probably wasn't very flammable, even after drying off for two days.
But if things got burned, rather than simply removed, it would explain why they would never be found again. Like that document alleging a uranium deal. As far as I know, that hasn't been found again.
Did they get better at covering their tracks this time, making sure that no one could ever look at their forgeries and discredit them obvious fakes?
Next installment: A chastened Judy returns home and explains what went wrong