It's a question almost too heartbreaking to contemplate. Was this whole sorry mess that America finds itself in in Iraq the product of a massive mind game by the Iranians?
The details that have been coming out about Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) appear to make the answer to the question: sadly, yes.
It all reminds me of Rudyard Kipling's classic poem, "The Naulahka":
"Now it is not good for the Christian's health to hustle the Aryan brown,
For the Christian riles, and the Aryan smiles, and it weareth the Christian down;
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: 'A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.'"
The neo-conservative cabal in the Bush administration -- Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Douglas Feith -- apparently were played for fools by Chalabi and the INC. Unfortunately, it's been the sons and daughters of our families that lay beneath the tombstones white; dead because another bunch of fools thought they could hustle the East.
For years, Chalabi and the INC have apparently been feeding American secrets to Iran, including tipping off the Iranians that the US was secretly monitoring Iran's intelligence service and had cracked its codes.
At the same time, Chalabi was passing on to the Americans faulty intelligence on Iraq, some of which had been concocted by the Iranians.
The CIA knew all this, and warned the Bush administration about it. Nothing was done. Instead, the US kept pushing millions of dollars at Chalabi and groomed him to be the next leader of Iraq. Over the past 12 years, more than $100 million was funneled to Chalabi and the INC.
One fraudulent piece of information which had its genesis in Iran was the testimony of Khidir Hamza, who claimed to be a senior member of Saddam's nuclear weapons team. He stated that Iraq was very close to developing nukes. The CIA dismissed Hamza as being without credibility, and a 20-page document provided by Hamza that supposedly outlined Iraq's nuclear program was found to be a fraud created by Iranian intelligence.
Considering how much the Iranians hate the Iraqis, Chalabi was in a perfect position to do two things -- transfer US secrets to Iran and pass on Iranian disinformation to the US with the goal of provoking it to overthrow Saddam.
It was Chalabi who assured the Bush administration that he could create a secular Shia government that would make peace with Israel. It was Chalabi who assured them that the occupation would be the proverbial piece of cake. It was Chalabi who gained control of the "de-Baathification" process, and used it as his own personal blackmail operation.
When you have people who hear only what they want to hear and pair them with people who are more than happy to tell them what they want to hear, you get a dangerous combination of certitude, stupidity and deceit. This was the mix that sent the US into a war that never needed to be waged.
The neo-cons in the Pentagon created their own intelligence agency, the Office of Special Plans, to twist and "sex up" the intelligence that Chalabi and the INC were providing about stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that never existed. But the Bush administration is not alone in being conned by Chalabi.
The New York Times may have recently published a weak mea culpa regarding how it was deceived by Chalabi, but the Times wasn't the only major news organization suckered in. According to an investigation done in March by the Knight-Ridder News Service, the INC placed 108 articles between October 2001 and May 2002 to help build the neo-con case for invading Iraq.
All those tales used to justify the war -- that Saddam had collaborated for years with Osama bin Laden and was complicit in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks; that Iraq trained Islamic extremists in the same hijacking techniques used in the 9/11 attacks; that Iraq had mobile biological weapons labs and hidden chemical weapons facilities; that Iraq was aggressively developing nuclear weapons -- all those tales that ultimately proved false were spread in INC-planted stories that appeared in major newspapers and magazines such as the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Time and The Atlantic Monthly in this country and the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian in London. News services such as Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press were also taken in.
With so many false stories echoing through the press, it was difficult for many Americans to figure out what was true and what was not. After all, if the New York Times was reporting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, how could it be a lie?
These lies were exploited by the Bush administration to discredit its critics and bolster its goals. These lies got us into an unnecessary war. And now the whole world knows that they are indeed lies, and it will be Chalabi who will take the fall.
The people who believed the lies and manipulated the lies to get the war they long wanted will likely escape punishment. But in the end, they tried to hustle the East and got burned. They so believed their idea about spreading "democracy" to the Middle East that they never bothered to consider whether it was really workable. They manipulated information to suit their needs. They truly thought that US troops would be greeted with flowers. They made no contingencies; why should they when everything is going to work out as planned?
Now we are left with the rubble of the neo-cons' ideas and the fraudster who sold out the people he was working for to one of this nation's enemies. Hundreds of our soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians dead. A country in ruins being fought over by extremists. Our national reputation soiled. Our longtime friendships strained or badly broken. A world more, rather than less, susceptible to terror attacks.
This is what a small band of scheming men have given us. And each one of them -- not just Chalabi -- should pay dearly for every lie they so eagerly believed.
Randolph T. Holhut lives in New England. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. He edited The George Seldes Reader. This originally was published in the American Reporter (www.american-reporter.com).