WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is paying $340,000 a month to the Iraqi political organization led by Ahmad Chalabi, a member of the interim Iraqi government who has close ties to the Bush administration, for "intelligence collection" about Iraq, according to Defense Department officials.
The classified program, run by the Defense Intelligence Agency since summer 2002, continues a longstanding partnership between the Pentagon and the organization, the Iraqi National Congress, even as the group jockeys for power in a future government. Internal government reviews have found that much of the information generated by the program before the U.S. invasion last year was useless, misleading or even fabricated.
Under the unusual arrangement, the CIA is required to get permission from the Pentagon before interviewing informants from the Iraqi National Congress, according to government officials who have been briefed on the procedures.
The CIA has been working with another Iraqi group, the Iraqi National Accord, to help establish an independent Iraqi intelligence service. The relationship between the CIA and Chalabi's group has been strained for years.
A U.S. intelligence official said the maintenance of the separate, exclusive channel between Chalabi's group and the Defense Intelligence Agency was not interfering with the CIA's effort to set up the new Iraqi service.
Among several defectors introduced by Chalabi's organization to U.S. intelligence officials before the war, at least one was formally labeled a fabricator by the DIA. Others were viewed as having been coached by the Iraqi group to provide intelligence critical of Saddam Hussein's rule. Internal reviews by the Pentagon agency and the National Intelligence Council this year concluded that little of the information from the group had any value.
The payments to the group as part of an "intelligence collection program" was authorized by Congress in 1998 under the Iraq Liberation Act. Knight-Ridder newspapers first reported last month that the arrangement has continued since the war.
A Defense Department official who defended the continuing ties with the Iraqi National Congress said the arrangement was proving more useful now than it had before the war, in part because the agency was taking new pains to corroborate the intelligence provided.
In the days after Hussein's government fell in April, INC officials took a vast quantity of secret government documents, and the group has kept custody of them, to the dismay of some at the CIA, according to government officials. Defense Department officials said the Pentagon agency had been permitted to review the documents but not to take custody of them.
Another government official outside the Pentagon who has been critical of the earlier relationship said he believed that the current partnership might be valuable. "This is an organization that has a lot of access, and people who know the country and speak Arabic, and we ought to take the information as long as we're careful about it," the official said.