THE (DIS)INFORMATION WAR GETS UGLY US officials peddle false intel
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Officials of the Barack Obama administration have aggressively
leaked information supposedly based on classified intelligence in recent days
to bolster its allegation that two higher-ranking officials from Iran's Islamic
Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were involved in a plot to assassinate Saudi
ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in Washington.
The media stories generated by the leaks helped divert press attention from the
fact that there is no verifiable evidence of any official Iranian involvement
in the alleged assassination plan, contrary to the broad claim being made by
But the information about the two Iranian officials leaked to NBC
News, the Washington Post and Reuters was unambiguously false and misleading,
as confirmed by official documents in one case and a former senior intelligence
and counter-terrorism official in the other.
The main target of the official leaks was Abdul Reza Shahlai, who was
identified publicly by the Obama administration as a "deputy commander in the
Qods force" of the IRGC. Shahlai had long been regarded by US officials as a
key figure in the Qods force's relationship to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's
Mahdi Army in Iraq.
The primary objective of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sting
operation involving Iranian-American Manssor Arabsiar and a Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA) informant that was started last June now appears to have
been to use Arabsiar to implicate Shahlai in a terror plot.
United States officials had learned from the DEA informant that Arabsiar
claimed that Shahlai was his cousin.
In September 2008, the Treasury Department designated Shahlai as an individual
"providing financial, material and technical support for acts of violence that
threaten the peace and stability of Iraq" and thus subject to specific
financial sanctions. The announcement said Shahlai had provided "material
support" to the Mahdi Army in 2006 and that he had "planned the January 20,
2007, attack" by Mahdi Army "Special Groups" on US troops at the Provincial
Coordination Center in Karbala, Iraq.
Arabsiar's confession claims that Shahlai approached him in early spring 2011
and asked him to find "someone in the narcotics business" to kidnap the Saudi
ambassador to the United States, according to the FBI account. Arabsiar
implicates Shahlai in providing him with thousands of dollars for his expenses.
But Arabsiar's charge against Shahlai was self-interested. Arabsiar had become
the cornerstone of the administration's case against Shahlai in order to obtain
leniency on charges against him.
There is no indication in the FBI account of the investigation that there is
any independent evidence to support Arabsiar's claim of Shahlai's involvement
in a plan to kill the ambassador.
The Obama administration planted stories suggesting that Shahlai had a
terrorist past, and that it was therefore credible that he could be part of an
Laying the foundation for press stories on the theme, the Treasury Department
announced on Tuesday that it was sanctioning Shahlai, along with Arabsiar and
three other Qods force officials, including the head of the organization, Major
General Qasem Soleimani, for being "connected to" the assassination plot.
But Michael Isikoff of NBC News reported the same day that Shahlai "had
previously been accused of plotting a highly sophisticated attack that killed
five US soldiers in Iraq, according to US government officials and documents
made public Tuesday afternoon".
Isikoff, who is called "National Investigative Correspondent" at NBC News,
reported that the Treasury Department had designated Shahlai as a "terrorist"
in 2008, despite the fact that the Treasury announcement of the designation had
not used the term "terrorist".
On Saturday, the Washington Post published a report closely paralleling the
Isikoff story but going even further in claiming documentary proof of Shahlai's
responsibility for the January 2007 attack in Karbala. Post reporter Peter Finn
wrote that Shahlai "was known as the guiding hand behind an elite militia of
the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr", which had carried out an attack on US troops in
Karbala in January 2007.
Finn cited the fact that the Treasury Department named Shahlai as the "final
approving and coordinating authority" for training Sadr's militiamen in Iran.
That fact would not in itself be evidence of involvement in a specific attack
on US forces. On the contrary, it would suggest that he was not involved in
operational aspects of the Mahdi Army in Iraq.
Finn then referred to a "22-page memo that detailed preparations for the
operation and tied it to the Qods force ..." But he didn't refer to any
evidence that Shahlai personally had anything to do with the operation.
In fact, US officials acknowledged in the months after the Karbala attack that
they had found no evidence of any Iranian involvement in the operation.
Talking with reporters about the memo on April 26, 2007, several weeks after it
had been captured, General David Petraeus conceded that it did not show that
any Iranian official was linked to the planning of the Karbala operation. When
a journalist asked him whether there was evidence of Iranian involvement in the
Karbala operation, Petraeus responded, "No. No. No. [W]e do not have a direct
link to Iran involvement in that particular case."
In a news briefing in Baghdad on July 2, 2007, General Kevin Bergner confirmed
that the attack in Karbala had been authorized by the Iraqi chief of the
militia in question, Kais Khazali, not by any Iranian official.
Colonel Michael X Garrett, who had been commander of the US Fourth Brigade
combat team in Karbala, confirmed to this writer in December 2008 that the
Karbala attack "was definitely an inside job".
Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Qods force, is on the list of
those Iranian officials "linked" to the alleged terror plot, because he
"oversees the IRGC-QF officers who were involved in this plot", as the Treasury
Department announcement explained. But a Reuters story on Friday reported a
claim of US intelligence that two wire transfers totaling US$100,000 at the
behest of Arabsiar to a bank account controlled by the FBI implicates Soleimani
in the assassination plot.
"While details are still classified," wrote Mark Hosenball and Caren Bohan,
"one official said the wire transfers apparently had some kind of hallmark
indicating they were personally approved" by Soleimani.
But the suggestion that forensic examination of the wire transfers could
somehow show who had approved them is misleading. The wire transfers were from
two separate non-Iranian banks in a foreign country, according to the FBI's
account. It would be impossible to deduce who approved the transfer by looking
at the documents.
"I have no idea what such a 'hallmark' could be," said Paul Pillar, a former
head of the Central Intelligence Agency's Counter-Terrorism Center who was also
national intelligence officer for the Middle East until his retirement in 2005.
Pillar told Inter Press Service that the "hallmark" notion "pops up frequently
in commentary after actual terrorist attacks", but the concept is usually
invoked "along the lines of 'the method used in this attack had the hallmark of
group such and such'."
That "hallmark" idea "assumes exclusive ownership of a method of attack which
does not really exist," said Pillar. "I expect the same could be said of
methods of transferring money."
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.