Dual Loyalties

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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

MSNBC - Lost Opportunity?

MSNBC - Lost Opportunity?: "Lost Opportunity?
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Defense officials were offered a secret, back-channel opportunity to talk peace with SaddamNewsweek Web ExclusiveNov. 5, 2003 - A key member of a secret Bush administration intelligence unit arranged a meeting earlier this year between a top Pentagon official and a wealthy Lebanese-American businessman who was trying to set up back-channel talks with senior aides to Saddam Hussein to avert a war in Iraq, NEWSWEEK has learned.

The murky overture—which bypassed normal diplomatic procedures—never went anywhere in part because immediately after the meeting, the businessman, Imad El-Hage, was detained at Washington’s Dulles International Airport on suspicions that he was trying to smuggle weapons out of the country. U.S. Customs inspectors discovered an undeclared semiautomatic .45 caliber pistol and four stun guns in El-Hage’s luggage. They also found he was carrying the business card of Pentagon official Jaymie Durnan. Although he was questioned by FBI agents, El-Hage was allowed to board a plane home to Lebanon because he was carrying a Liberian diplomatic passport.

In any event, Pentagon officials insisted the businessman’s approach was never taken seriously and likened it to one of many “crackpot” ideas that got presented to the U.S. government on the eve of war. Nevertheless, the meeting between El-Hage and Durnan, then special assistant to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, has attracted the attention of congressional investigators who are probing the Bush administration’s handling of intelligence during the run up to the war on Iraq.

Sources tell NEWSWEEK that investigators want to know if White House officials blew an opportunity to avoid an invasion of Iraq. Others see the meeting, and others that took place overseas involving Pentagon officials as part of a secretive intelligence operation that was set up by administration hard-liners within the Defense Department and functioned outside the boundaries of the U.S. intelligence community—and without congressional oversight. “It was a renegade operation,” says one Democratic investigator. But Bush administration officials insist the secret intelligence team was a benign effort to alert policymakers to proposals and information that was being ignored by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.

Still, El-Hage’s purported peace overture sheds new light on the back-channel diplomacy that involved some Bush administration officials on the eve of war. The story begins late last year when the CIA was approached by Syrian intermediaries with an unusual offer that reportedly came from Lt. Gen. Tahir Jalil Habbush, Saddam Hussein’s chief of intelligence. The Iraqis allegedly wanted to avert war and were willing to go to great lengths to appease the Bush administration, which eventually might have included permitting the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq and free elections.

The CIA attempted to follow up by arranging to discuss the proposal directly with Iraqi officials at several meetings in Morocco. But the Iraqis never showed up, causing the agency to conclude the whole idea was a nonstarter.

This in turn triggered new overtures on behalf of the plan by El-Hage, whose Beirut-based insurance conglomerate, American Underwriters Group, does extensive business in Africa, including dealings with the government of now deposed Liberian president Charles Taylor, sources said. El-Hage contacted Michael Maloof, a veteran Defense Department intelligence and export-control official. Maloof cofounded a secret Pentagon intelligence unit that was assigned the job of investigating links between Al Qaeda operatives and secular Arab governments that conservatives have long suspected of having links to international terrorism, including the Saudis and the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein.

Sources say Maloof arranged for El-Hage to meet with Richard Perle, a member of the Defense Policy Board and an influential advisor to top Pentagon policymakers Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith. Perle told NEWSWEEK that he had several meetings with El-Hage last year “on a variety of issues,” and at one point the Lebanese businessman tried to retain him as a consultant—an offer he said he summarily rejected. At his last meeting with El-Hage in London, Perle said, the businessman pushed a purported Iraqi peace overture. “I didn’t take this very seriously,” Perle said.

Maloof also set up a meeting for El-Hage with Durnan, a senior aide to Wolfowitz on Jan. 28, 2003. Durnan confirmed he met with El-Hage and Maloof at a downtown Washington coffee shop next to the Army-Navy Club. During their half-hour meeting, Durnan said, El-Hage claimed he could arrange for Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group, and the Syrian Intelligence services to “help us with Iraq.” But he said he remembered little else about the meeting and didn’t recall El-Hage pushing any particular peace plan. “I just listened to him,” Durnan said. “It was a nonevent.” Durnan said he instructed Maloof that if he thought there was any follow up to be done with El-Hage’s overture, Maloof should take it up with Defense policy officials not him.

Internal Pentagon e-mails indicate, however, that in late February—nearly a month after his coffee-shop meeting with El-Hage—Durnan sent messages to other Pentagon officials inquiring about what intelligence agencies knew about the Beirut businessman. “Has the intel community come up with anything on the Lebanese american [sic] I met with a couple of weeks ago. It is important,” Durnan wrote on Feb. 20. The next day, Durnan sent intelligence aides a follow up insisting: “I need an answer today. Please check with the entire intel community.” Durnan’s queries appear to have been launched in response to a message Maloof received on Feb. 19 from El-Hage—which was then forwarded to the Pentagon—in which El-Hage reported that he had just returned from meetings in Iraq with Saddam aides Habbush, Tariq Aziz, Amer Saadi and Naji Sabri.

Those men wanted a confidential meeting with a top U.S. representative to discuss Iraqi concessions including support for any U.S. proposals for an Arab/Israel peace plan, cooperation with the United States against terrorists and giving the United States “1st priority” [sic] for Iraqi oil rights. Sources say Maloof later relayed to the Pentagon even more detailed proposals, which included a plan that would allow the deployment of 5,000 U.S. troops—and possibly other experts—in Iraq as weapons inspectors and a commitment to conduct free elections at some point in the near future. Asked about his February e-mails, Durnan said: “I wasn’t concerned about the issues. I was concerned that [El-Hage] had my name and phone number and that I could become a target of some a—hole from the Middle East.”

Pentagon officials insist that any suggestion that El-Hage’s offers could have avoided war is nonsense. “Iraq and Saddam had ample opportunity through highly credible sources over a period of several years to take serious action to avoid war and had the means to use highly credible channels to do that,” says Larry DiRita, chief of Pentagon public affairs. “Nobody needed to use questionable channels to convey messages.”

Questions about El-Hage soon cast a cloud over the whole matter. Only hours after his meeting with Durnan, as El-Hage was attempting to board an overseas flight at Dulles Airport, he was stopped for questioning by U.S. customs investigators after screeners discovered the semiautomatic pistol and stun guns in his luggage. El-Hage had failed to obtain an export license for the pistol and also had failed to declare it to the airline, according to sources.

After FBI and Customs agents allowed El-Hage to leave on a flight home to Lebanon, FBI agents contacted Durnan and arranged to question him as a result of the discovery of his business card in El-Hage’s possessions. Durnan told NEWSWEEK he actually never gave El-Hage his card. He later learned that Maloof had done so. “I was pissed,” Durnan said.

Customs agents also seized El-Hage’s handgun, which sources say he had been given for personal protection by a cousin. Later, Maloof contacted Customs in posession of a power-of-attorney signed by El-Hage in an effort to get the gun back.

Several weeks later, in mid-April of this year, a Defense Intelligence Agency panel revoked Maloof’s high-level security clearances. The defense official had originally lost his clearances in December 2001, allegedly for failing to properly report his second marriage to a citizen of a former Soviet republic. But the clearances later were restored after intervention by senior Pentagon civilians.

Sources say that Maloof and his close associates believe his clearances were revoked for the second time because both the CIA and DIA were angry with him for questioning official analyses that played down alleged state sponsorship of Al Qaeda, and that Maloof’s role in introducing El-Hage to Durnan was characterized by his enemies in the intelligence world as evidence that Maloof and other Pentagon hard-liners were conducting “rogue operations” behind the backs of the CIA and DIA. But Maloof’s associates insist he kept top intelligence and defense officials fully informed of all of his dealings with El-Hage over the purported Iraqi-Syrian peace proposal.

Maloof, who is currently on paid leave from the Pentagon, declined to comment for this story.

After stories about the El-Hage gun incident appeared in two U.S. regional newspapers, the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera picked up on the story, and El-Hage was subsequently attacked by gunmen in Lebanon in what his associates believe was an assassination attempt. El-Hage could not be immediately reached for comment.

A senior U.S. intelligence official said: “During the run up to the war there were a wide variety of people sending signals that some Iraqis might have an interest in negotiation. These signals came via a broad range of foreign intelligence services, other governments, third parties, charlatans and independent actors. Every lead that was at all plausible—and some that weren’t—were followed up. In the end, we were aware of no one in a position to make any deal anywhere near acceptable to the United States.”"


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