Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The CIA and the Iraq Survey Group failed to pursue information that Iraq smuggled uranium to Iran five years ago, according to a former State Department official.

The former Reagan administration official, Michael Ledeen, said in an interview that the CIA also blocked the Pentagon from pursuing contacts with an Iranian informant who provided information that “saved lives” of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The reason the CIA did not want to pursue the leads or have any contacts with two Iranian exiles is that the information and meetings were brokered by Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian exile who was a key figure in the 1980s Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal, Mr. Ledeen said.

Mr. Ledeen was a Pentagon and National Security Council staff consultant at the time.

“The CIA never spoke to the people who claim to have [smuggled the uranium] and never went to the people who had the information,” said Mr. Ledeen, a counterterrorism adviser to President Reagan’s first secretary of state, Alexander Haig. “There was no investigation of this.”

Mr. Ledeen said David Kay, the CIA’s representative to the Iraq Survey Group, searching for Saddam Hussein’s hidden weapons, was told of the uranium smuggling and planned to probe it, but the CIA dissuaded the investigators from pursuing the lead.

Mr. Ledeen said he knows Mr. Ghorbanifar and views him as a credible source of valuable information about the inner workings of the Iranian government.

A man in Iraq identified only as “an Iraqi Shi’ite” learned of the uranium smuggling from several people involved in the Iraqi government effort, Mr. Ledeen said.

The Iraqi Shi’ite contacted Mr. Ghorbanifar, who in turn contacted Mr. Ledeen. The Iraqi was pursuing the information with the hope of getting a reward the U.S. government has announced it is offering to people who help find hidden arms.

The information came from several Iraqis who say they are suffering from radiation sickness as a result of handling an unspecified amount of uranium sent to Iran five years ago.

U.S. officials said the CIA is reluctant to investigate claims about uranium because of the recent furor over intelligence regarding reports of Saddam trying to buy uranium from Niger.

Regarding the Afghanistan intelligence, Mr. Ledeen said that in December 2001, two Pentagon officials met with another Iranian informant in Rome who provided detailed information on Iranian government activities against the United States in Afghanistan.

The information was used by the Pentagon to protect troops and conduct operations against al Qaeda and Taliban forces.

“The information saved American lives,” Mr. Ledeen said.

A CIA spokesman denied Mr. Ledeen’s claim on the uranium but admitted the agency does not trust Mr. Ghorbanifar.

“We aggressively pursue all legitimate leads on weapons of mass destruction,” chief CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said.

“It is true that we have no interest in meeting Mr. Ghorbanifar since he long ago was proven to be a fabricator and someone who sought to peddle false information for financial gain,” Mr. Harlow said.

Mr. Ghorbanifar was a central figure in the Reagan administration’s covert operation to provide arms to Iran in exchange for Tehran’s help in winning the release of U.S. hostages held by Muslim terrorists in Lebanon.

The operation led to resignations of senior officials and numerous congressional and legal investigations.

“I think the main reason [the CIA] didn’t go look for these people [who claim to have smuggled the uranium] is because it was preferable not to find them,” Mr. Ledeen said.

“But whatever their motives, the president is badly served by this kind of behavior.”

A U.S. official said the CIA looked into the information but found nothing that would substantiate it.

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