It's now pretty clear what happened in the Ahmed Chalabi "spying" fiasco. According to a piece in today's New York Times (free site registration may be required), a drunk American official told Chalabi that the U.S. had broken the code used by Iran's intelligence service. Chalabi passed this extremely damaging piece of information on to the chief Iranian spook in Baghdad, who, in turn, advised his superiors in Teheran – inexplicably using the broken code. The U.S. intercepted that message and thus learned that Chalabi – the man the civilian leadership in the Pentagon wanted to seat as the head of the new Iraqi government – had betrayed the U.S.
Or so the story goes.
"The inquiry, still in an early phase, is focused on a very small number of people who were close to Mr. Chalabi and also had access to the highly restricted information about the Iran code," the Times reports. "Some of the people the FBI expects to interview are civilians at the Pentagon who were among Mr. Chalabi's strongest supporters and served as his main point of contact with the government, the officials said."
And here's why the leak was so damaging: "American officials said the leak about the Iranian codes was a serious loss because the Iranian intelligence service's highly encrypted cable traffic was a crucial source of information, supplying Washington with information about Iranian operations inside Iraq, where Tehran's agents have become increasingly active. It also helped the United States keep track of Iranian intelligence operations around the world."
Chalabi maintains he did nothing wrong. When this story first began to emerge, he said, "I have never passed any classified information to Iran or have done anything — participated in any scheme of intelligence against the United States. This charge is false. I have never seen a U.S. classified document, and I have never seen — had a U.S. classified briefing."
But, of course, in this case there was no document and no briefing – just betrayal of an important secret let drop by an intoxicated U.S. official. It's sad. It's also the kind of offense that could involve prison time for that U.S. official (though it's unlikely in this pass-the-buck administration).
And how about Chalabi? He's already been sentenced to a couple of decades in prison in absentia by Jordan for bank fraud. If the evidence in the Iranian case is as ironclad as those in the know seem to think, why don't we prosecute him? Too messy, perhaps?