This week the White House made a big show of declassifying intelligence alleging that in 2005 al-Qaeda considered using Iraq as a base to launch terrorist attacks on the United States. The White House didn't bother to mask the reason for the disclosure to put pressure on the Democrats to stop trying to impose a date for a withdrawal from Iraq. Meanwhile, ABC News reported that the White House recently ordered the CIA to destabilize the Iranian regime.
Both cases show how the Administration is still trying to manipulate intelligence to further its strategic goals. ABC says that Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams is behind the covert action against Iran, which reportedly stems from a "nonlethal presidential finding" signed by Bush to launch a plan that "includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions." But the CIA has consistently told this White House it can't do anything about the mullahs in Tehran short of strangling the country economically, in particular cutting off finished fuel products. That could take years, which is too long for the Bush Administration. (Both the White House and CIA refused to comment to ABC about the report.)
It's no surprise that Abrams would be behind this. But of all people he should know better. Abrams was a key player in the Iran-contra fiasco, which was rooted in lousy intelligence. In case you have forgotten, a handful of confidence men convinced the Reagan NSC, along with Abrams, that they were talking to moderate Iranians, who, properly nurtured, would supposedly change the character of the Iranian regime. It was a lie; the NSC was dealing with the most radical, hostile faction in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the same group holding our hostages in Lebanon.
Once again, neo-cons are urging the U.S. to take advantage of Iraq's long border with Iran and finally do something about the Iranian regime. I even got a call not long after the invasion from a neo-con asking if I wanted to go to Iraq to handle the Mujahideen-e-Khlaq, an Iranian dissident group on the State Department's terrorist list. The mission was supposedly to collect intelligence on Iranian nuclear facilities. (I declined, and I don't know where it went from there.) And I still keep hearing rumblings that Elliot Abrams is pressuring our Arab allies and Pakistan to fund and arm Jundallah, a fundamentalist Sunni Iranian Ballouch group, to attack the Iranian government in other words, an off-the-books covert action. But neither the MEK nor Jundallah has the wherewithal to change the regime in Tehran.
As for the intelligence on al-Qaeda and Iraq, it's even flimsier. The captured Qaeda member who provided it, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, may have been tortured, either by Pakistan, by the CIA or at Guantanamo. Even if we accept the White House's euphemism for torture "enhanced interrogation" techniques what Libbi has to say about Qaeda can't be trusted, let alone drive U.S. policy.
Never mind that no one can decide what exact role Libbi played in Qaeda, or whether he was even in a position to know bin Laden's plans. He was never on the FBI Most Wanted list (as most Qaeda leaders on whom we have sufficient evidence are). Abu Faraj al-Libbi isn't even his real name (al-Libbi means "the Libyan" in Arabic). Abu Faraj al-Libbi is often confused with Ibn Shaykh al-Libbi, who was captured shortly after 9/11 and reportedly recanted his confession about Saddam having a pre-9/11 connection to al-Qaeda, saying it was coerced. Abu Faraj was also initially confused with Anas al-Liby, who was supposedly involved in the 1998 East Africa bombings and is on the Most Wanted list. Confused? Well, that's just the way the White House likes it.
Another problem with Abu Faraj al-Libbi's confession is that it doesn't make sense. Qaeda knows as well as anyone that Iraq, where the U.S. military could knock down your door at any moment, would be one of the worst places in the world from which to launch or plan a terrorist attack on the United States. The Administration knows that America is much more vulnerable in Europe. A Qaeda terrorist with a European passport can come into this country under the visa waiver program, virtually without scrutiny.
If the Bush Administration continues to feed the American people the same dog's breakfast of bad intelligence, we'll be in Iraq until Bush leaves office. And while we're at it, just maybe in a war with Iran.
Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East and Time.com's intelligence columnist, is the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down