WASHINGTON - Ahmad Chalabi, the one-time White House favorite who has been implicated in an alleged Iranian spy operation, sent Iraqi defectors to at least eight Western spy services before the war in an apparent effort to dupe them about Saddam Hussein's illicit weapons programs, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said.
U.S. investigators now are seeking to determine if the effort was secretly supported by Iran's intelligence service to help persuade the Bush administration to oust the Baghdad regime, Tehran's longtime enemy.
Officials said other evidence indicates that Chalabi's longtime intelligence chief furnished Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security highly classified information on U.S. troop movements, top-secret communications, plans of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, and other closely guarded material on U.S. operations in Iraq.
The U.S. investigation into the suspected spy operation was a key reason behind the raid Thursday on Chalabi's Baghdad home and the offices of his Iraqi National Congress. The former exile leader denounced the raids as retaliation for his increasingly sharp criticism of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. He has not been accused of any crime.
It is not clear whether Iran had any role in using the INC to provide disinformation to the West. U.S. officials say the INC may have been acting on its own when it sent a stream of defectors between 1998 and 2003 with apparently coordinated claims about Baghdad's purported weapons of mass destruction.
Chalabi's group sent defectors with inaccurate or misleading information to Denmark, England, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and the United States, the officials said.
As a result, the officials said, U.S. intelligence analysts in some cases used information from now-discredited "foreign intelligence sources" to corroborate their own assessments of Hussein's suspected chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
"We had a lot of sources, but it was all coming from the same pot," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They were all INC guys. And none of them panned out."
A U.S. official confirmed that defectors from Chalabi's organization had provided suspect information to numerous Western intelligence agencies. "It's safe to say he tried to game the system," the official said.
The INC, which began as an umbrella group for Iraqi exiles, long has maintained an office in Iran. Chalabi has repeatedly visited Tehran, and some critics in Congress have questioned his growing ties to the ruling Shiite regime there.
A U.S. official said Chalabi "shared [information] with people who provided it" to Tehran. "There's real concern he was passing very sensitive, highly classified information to the Iranians."