The Pentagon, the CIA, and Secret Iran Meetings

The Senate Intelligence Committee is about to release a report that sheds new light on "inappropriate" back-channel contacts between Pentagon officials and a group of Iranian informants—including a key figure from the Iran-contra affair.

In December 2001, two Pentagon Mideast experts—Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode—secretly traveled to Rome. They met with a group of Iranians who supposedly had information about plans by Iranian-backed terrorists to attack Americans—including U.S. troops who were then closing in on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The meetings were approved by high-level officials at the White House and the Pentagon. The CIA, however, was kept in the dark. When the CIA and the State Department found out about the meetings a few weeks later, they strenuously protested to the White House and demanded that the contacts be terminated immediately. At least officially, the White House complied.

Now, years later, the Senate Intelligence Committee is finally producing a report on its investigation of those meetings. The document is part of the panel's "phase two" investigation into the misuse of pre-Iraq War intelligence. The report is not likely to satisfy either the White House or the administration's most vocal critics. While Intelligence Committee officials are keeping details of the report under wraps, several sources familiar with its contents—who asked for anonymity discussing an unpublished report—said that congressional investigators found nothing illegal about the secret contacts. The meetings were brokered by two Iran-contra figures: Michael Ledeen, a Washington academic and prominent neoconservative activist who was close to a number of senior Bush administration officials at the time, and Manucher Ghorbanifar, a Paris-based Iranian businessman who served as a middleman for arms deals in the 1980s and was long ago branded a "fabricator" by the CIA. U.S. intelligence agencies said at the time that Ghorbanifar had a history of offering information that proved unreliable.

But in the report, the panel does conclude that senior Bush administration officials (including then deputy Defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and deputy national-security adviser Stephen Hadley) approved the meetings without informing the CIA or its director at the time, George Tenet, thereby allowing intelligence gathering outside of normal channels. The sources say the report also suggests that Ledeen misled the National Security Council about the meetings--a charge that Ledeen strongly denied this week in an e-mail exchange with NEWSWEEK.

The Rome meetings provoked controversy when they were first disclosed in the summer of 2003. They seemed typical of the rocky relations between the Pentagon and CIA during the early years of the Bush administration. According to Ledeen, there was a reason the CIA was excluded from the secret discussions: the Iranians, he said, wanted nothing to do with the agency. That would not be surprising, given the CIA's deep antipathy toward Ghorbanifar. Three intelligence sources familiar with the investigation told NEWSWEEK that the Senate report questions whether Ledeen, who first approached administration officials about meeting with the Iranian informants, made up the claim that the Iranians refused to deal with the CIA. The report, the sources said, notes that the two Pentagon officials involved in the discussions said the issue never came up. In an e-mail to NEWSWEEK, however, Ledeen said he is sure he told senior officials who authorized the contacts—including Hadley and Zalmay Khalilzad (now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations)—that the Iranians "did not want to talk to CIA people."

According to several accounts of the Rome meetings—including one published by former CIA director Tenet in his memoir "At the Center of the Storm"—Ledeen persuaded Wolfowitz and Hadley, now White House national-security adviser, to allow him to set up the secret sessions. Only later did it emerge that the Iranian informants were in fact contacts of Ghorbanifar. (In his book, Tenet himself labeled Ghorbanifar a "con man and fabricator.") "Steve, this whole operation smells," Tenet wrote that he told Hadley after he learned about the contacts. In 2003, administration officials close to Hadley told NEWSWEEK that Hadley had become concerned that Ledeen and Ghorbanifar might be dragging the Bush administration into a repeat performance of the Iran-contra affair, and ordered that the contacts be cut off.

In an interview with NEWSWEEK in Paris in November 2003, Ghorbanifar said that despite the official cease-and-desist order, he still kept in contact with both Rhode and Franklin for months. Ghorbanifar said he told the Americans he could help them recover hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cash that, he claimed, Saddam Hussein had buried. He envisioned splitting the money with the U.S. government: the United States could use part of it to overthrow Saddam; he would use the rest to finance an effort to overthrow the clerical regime in Tehran. The scheme came to nothing.

In e-mails to NEWSWEEK, Ledeen said that the Rome meetings were productive and useful. "We obtained information on Iranian support for terror operations in Afghanistan; that information saved American lives. But the CIA and State then threw a joint tantrum and cut off all contact with proven sources of information. Go figure."

Despite the unorthodox way in which the meetings were arranged and the problematic histories of the people who arranged them, sources familiar with the congressional inquiry said investigators could not declare that the Rome contacts broke the law. The reason: even if the CIA was cut out of the meetings, it was not illegal for National Security Council officials to authorize the contacts. If the committee's criticism of the administration's performance is as mild as advance reports suggest, critics who felt the Rome meetings could unravel deeper Bush scandals about the selling of the Iraq War are likely to be disappointed.