The Iranian government learned recently that American intelligence has deciphered its codes and can read its mail. This is a blow to American interests, for it means losing the ability to access the enemy's confidential communications, with all the advantages that offers.
Who is to blame for this development?
Ahmad Chalabi — the Iraqi politician whom I have known, worked with, supported, and admired since 1991 — has for the past month sat in the hot seat, accused by unnamed intelligence officials of informing the Iranian regime that its codes had been cracked.
Mr. Chalabi denies the accusation, saying that he and his organization, the Iraqi National Congress, have not received "any classified information" from the American government. For what it is worth, the Iranians also deny that Mr. Chalabi told them about American code breaking.
Thinking this through logically, I conclude that Mr.Chalabi is not responsible for the damage to American interests; rather, the blame falls on his opponents in the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department. Here is my logic, a form of "walking back the cat" (spook-speak, defined by William Safire as applying "what is now known to the actions and events of a previous time").
To begin with, I make three assumptions: First, that the reaction in Washington, which includes possible criminal prosecutions, bespeaks sincerity and confirms that American cryptographers did indeed crack the Iranian codes. Second, that Tehran interprets the American reaction as proof that its codes were cracked. Third, that it is taking the necessary steps to regain secrecy.
One possibility is that Mr. Chalabi told the Iranians nothing. In which case, the allegation that he did so originated elsewhere:
- Perhaps State or the CIA made it up. (Plausible: Time magazine has documented how, since April, the White House has been attempting to marginalize Mr. Chalabi.)
- Or the Iranians floated it to check if their codes were broken. (Plausible: It would explain why they used that same code to tell about the code break.)
Or Mr. Chalabi did tell them that Washington had cracked the code. In which case:
- Perhaps he made this up and just happened to be right. (Plausible: Mr. Chalabi reportedly took steps in 1995 to trick the Iranians.)
- Or he thought he was providing disinformation but actually was telling the truth. (Unlikely: Too convoluted.)
- Or he knowingly divulged classified information. (Unlikely: Why should the Americans give Mr. Chalabi, a British subject known to be in close contact with the Iranian regime, a crown jewel of American state secrets?)
Whichever scenario actually took place, the implication is identical: the brouhaha in D.C., not what Mr. Chalabi did or did not say, signaled Tehran that the Americans broke their code.
That's because anyone can assert that the code was cracked, but why should he be believed? The Iranians surely would not accept Mr. Chalabi's assertion on its own and go to the huge trouble and expense of changing codes because of his say-so. They would seek confirmation from American intelligence; and this is what the unnamed sources who leaked this story did — they supplied that proof. Their fury at Mr. Chalabi instructed the Iranians to change codes.
In the end, what Mr. Chalabi did or did not do is nearly irrelevant; his detractors in the American government, ironically, bear the onus for having informed the Iranian opponent about a vital piece of intelligence.
Americans might pay heavily for the rank irresponsibility of those in State and the agency who publicly confirmed the code break as part of their turf wars with the Defense Department and, more broadly, their fight with the so-called neoconservatives.
On this latter point, note how gleefully elements of the American press exploited the allegations against Mr. Chalabi. To take one example of many, the Los Angeles Times on June 10 published "A Tough Time for ‘Neocons'" which states that neoconservatives are "under siege" partly because, "in a grave threat to their reputation, Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi — is enmeshed in an FBI investigation of alleged intelligence leaks that supplied secrets to Iran."
Were the press properly doing its duty, it would stop playing the Washington favorites game and investigate the likely damage Mr. Chalabi's opponents have done. Were State and CIA managements doing their job, they would be punishing the elements who conveyed a vital secret to the militant Islamic government in Iran.
June 23, 2004 update: Alan H. Stein of the University of Connecticut adds another possibility: U.S. intelligence having had trouble cracking the Iranian codes, thought that if the Iranians thought them cracked would change those codes, making them perhaps easier for the Americans to crack.