It is now generally accepted that the Iraq War came about as a result in large part of manipulation of intelligence, which skewed the decision-making process. Ahmed Chalabi, the multi-millionaire confidence trickster who headed the Iraqi National Congress, fed fabricated information to his neoconservative allies in the Pentagon and White House. The so-called intelligence was repackaged in Doug Feith’s Office of Special Plans (OSP) and stove-piped up to the decision makers, thereby circumventing the normal checks and balances in place at the Central Intelligence Agency for the vetting of raw information. Alleged “reliable sources” provided detailed descriptions of drones capable of flying across the Atlantic Ocean, links with al-Qaeda, chemical and biological stockpiles, and hidden nuclear weapons programs, all of which became the menu du jour for policymakers. Garbage in, garbage out developed into the standard operating procedure as the United States government willy-nilly began a war of aggression against an enemy that presented no threat, Washington’s complete ignorance of facts on the ground best exemplified by its post-invasion futile search for weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.
Less well known is the role played by private neoconservative organizations in cooking the books to make the case for war. In 2001, the United States spent more than $20 billion per year on intelligence gathering and analysis, but the White House still felt it desirable to bring in outside advisers to provide additional insights. President George W. Bush was regularly briefed by “experts” from the American Enterprise Institute and other neocon think tanks, some of whom were simultaneously working at Feith’s OSP while also writing articles for publications including the Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal to make the case for war. It was a perfect trifecta: forge the intelligence, exploit access to the media, and brief a befuddled president based on your own contrived narrative.
In an essentially broken system where any bit of information appeared to be as relevant and reliable as any other bit, it was inevitable that everyone would soon wind up developing his or her own sources. Pentagon number two Paul Wolfowitz, often described as the architect of the Iraq War, was not slow to rise to the bait. In late 2002 and early 2003, Wolfowitz regularly met secretly with a group of Iraqi expatriates, consisting mostly of Shias but also including several Sunnis, who resided in the Washington area and were opponents of the Saddam Hussein regime. The Iraqis had not been in their country of birth for many years but they claimed to have regular contact with well-informed family members and political allies, an assertion not unlike that made by Chalabi. The Iraqi advisers provided Wolfowitz with a now-familiar refrain, i.e. that the Iraqi people would rise up to support invading Americans and overthrow the hated Saddam. They would greet their liberators with bouquets of flowers and shouts of joy.
Well, of course, it didn’t turn out that way. When Iraq began to turn sour shortly after the invasion, Wolfowitz began to panic and called in his sources for a meeting. He demanded to know why they, not he, had misjudged the response of the Iraqis, who were growing increasingly uncooperative and striking back against the coalition forces. The expats replied defensively that they had been hearing that the American soldiers had frequently behaved brutally towards the local people, turning possible allies into enemies, but apart from that they could not provide much insight into developments back at home. Wolfowitz angrily dismissed the group, never to meet with them again.
And just as Ahmed Chalabi eventually turned out to be something akin to a double agent, feathering his own nest while providing U.S. intelligence to the Iranians, there is also a back story to the Wolfowitz group. The Iraqis were headed by one Dr. Ali A. al-Attar, born in Baghdad in 1963, a 1989 graduate of the American University of Beirut Faculty of Medicine. He subsequently emigrated to the United States and set up a practice in internal medicine in Greenbelt, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C. Al-Attar eventually expanded his business to include nine practices that he wholly or partly owned in Virginia and Maryland.
Al-Attar prospered and moved to upscale McLean, Virginia, but he soon found himself in trouble with both regulatory and tax authorities. In April 2009, his license to practice medicine was suspended by the Maryland State Board of Physicians due to “questionable billing practices.” Al-Attar refused to cooperate with the Board in subsequent investigations, which included inquiry into the level of care he was providing as well as his “unprofessional conduct” relating to sexual relationships with patients. His license to practice medicine was revoked in September 2011.
Al-Attar was also being investigated by the FBI for large scale health care fraud in 2008-9. He and his partner Dr. Abdul H. Fadul charged insurance companies more than $2.3 million for services their patients did not actually receive, with many of the false claims using names of diplomats and employees enrolled in a group plan at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. In one case, the doctors claimed an embassy employee visited three of their clinics every 26 days between May 2007 and August 2008 to have the same testing done each time. The insurance company paid the doctors $55,000 for more than 400 nonexistent procedures for that one patient alone.
Al-Attar exploited the fact that he had a number practices in two states with separate billing and banking arrangements, including individual tax numbers, which enabled him to shift money around to fool his own accountants regarding his actual income. As in the case of the Egyptian Embassy, he was able to multiple-bill for the frequently fabricated services rendered once he obtained insurance information.
Al-Attar was indicted by the federal government acting on behalf of the IRS in March 2012 for having fraudulently prepared tax returns between 2004 and 2006. The IRS claimed that he and his business partner Fadul systematically diverted payments from the accounts of their several offices into their personal accounts, siphoning off more than $500,000. The government case involved the instances of fraud that were easiest to prove in court, but it was likely just the tip of an iceberg with millions more in additional money being diverted to offshore accounts in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Dr. Ali A. Al-Attar fled the United States after the indictment to avoid arrest and imprisonment. Late in 2012 he was observed in Beirut, Lebanon conversing with a Hezbollah official. It turns out that al-Attar is only a first generation Iraqi. He was born in Baghdad, but his parents were both from Iran.
It would be possible to merely observe that it was just another day in the hubristic lives of power brokers inside the Beltway if Wolfowitz’s meetings had not contributed to a war that broke the back of the United States. Wolfowitz was rewarded by George W. Bush for his dismantlement of Iraq with the position of President of the World Bank. His poor judgment quickly came to the fore yet again when he was forced to resign that post over an “inappropriate relationship” with a female employee. He now holds a senior position at the neocon American Enterprise Institute.
Given his less than glorious track record vis-à-vis Iraq, one might reasonably ask Paul Wolfowitz how he discovered Dr. al-Attar. It would also be interesting to learn about the extent to which Wolfowitz checked out the backgrounds of the people he was talking to in his haste to overthrow Saddam. One might also ponder why the United States spends tens of billions of dollars on intelligence gathering if it is still necessary to assemble ad hoc and secretive groups of foreign-born residents of questionable loyalties to determine what is going on overseas. Given al-Attar’s national origin and his friends in Lebanon, it might also be intriguing to speculate whether the upper levels of the Bush administration were the gullible victims of a conspiracy orchestrated by Tehran to entice the United States into destroying the one Arab state that truly threatened the regional dominance of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That would be quite a story.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.