Three Days in Rome Redux: The Cocktail Napkin Plan for an Iran Coup

More on the covert meetings between Pentagon officials and shady Iranian expats, plus other intel details from a new Senate report.

Art: Steve Brodner

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Enlisting high-level contacts in the White House, Pentagon and Congress, Iran-Contra figure Michael Ledeen relentlessly pushed a freelance intelligence collection and Iran regime change plan on behalf of another veteran of the scandal, according to a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (PDF) released Thursday.

The proposed plan to change the Iran regime, which requested $5 million in initial “seed” money from the U.S. government, was outlined on a cocktail napkin by Iran contra arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar at a Rome bar during a three-day meeting in December 2001 that brought the Iran contra actors together with two officials from the Pentagon. (Read the original Mother Jones story.) The Pentagon officials’ attendance at the meeting was authorized by Stephen Hadley, now the top White House national security advisor, the report found. Revelations that Iran Contra figures Ledeen and Ghorbanifar were involved in a new channel to the Bush administration set off alarm bells throughout the US government, and prompted multiple inquiries into whether the channel amounted to an unauthorized covert action and a possible counterintelligence threat. The latter issue was never resolved, after a top Pentagon official shut down the counterintelligence inquiry only a month after it had begun.

Later operations would require as much as $25 million, Ledeen and Ghorbanifar advised US officials, but could be financed in part, they said, by a foreign government in exchange for commitments of future Iran oil contracts to the foreign government’s state energy company, believed to be Italy’s ENI. Italy’s military intelligence service Sismi facilitated Ledeen’s Rome meeting, which, highly unusually, was not cleared with the US embassy in Rome or the CIA, even though it involved interaction with a foreign intelligence service.

The new Senate Intelligence committee report presents more evidence that the U.S. government under the Bush administration has been uniquely vulnerable to the intelligence schemes and foreign policy freelancing of discredited individuals and deemed fabricators such as Manoucher Ghorbanifar, and potentially even counterintelligence threats of an Iranian or other nature. It details how top officials in the Bush administration endeavored to permit such an ill-advised channel, took affirmative measures to conceal it in order to bypass the professional intelligence service, and then took steps to protect their role in the matter by shutting down the counterintelligence investigation launched by the Pentagon and to stall the Senate probe. The report also documents that Ghorbanifar has been able to influence US policy and intelligence channels in particular through Ledeen’s contacts within Cheney’s office and the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz Pentagon.

“The questions is: is information from Ledeen and Ghorbanifar still going to the vice president’s office, and is it affecting them?” a former senior CIA offiicial said. “It’s a logical assumption. That is what is known in the intelligence business as circular reporting: the same information, coming through the same source, peddled through different channels, slightly altered to make it look like it’s coming from multiple sources. And it’s one of the biggest dangers in the intelligence business. That is what Iraq Niger was all about.”

On one of the December evenings in an unidentified Roman bar, Ghorbanifar used the cocktail napkin to sketch out a coup plan that would start with the “simultaneous disruption of traffic at key intersections leading to Tehran,” the report states. The traffic jams “would create anxiety, work stoppages and other disruptive measures.” Ghorbanifar wanted $5 million to get the plan off the ground.

Ledeen and Ghorbanifar advised US officials of a foreign government—presumably Italy—“support for this information collection opportunity and financing by [foreign] corporate enterprises midway through the interviews,” the report states. The contracts “would be part of “multimillion-dollar business deals that the [Italian] government arranged for the two Iranian interlocutors.” Ledeen refused to identity the two Iranians who Ghorbanifar had brought to the meeting to Pentagon human intelligence officers, the report found, until the US government indicated it was committing to the Ghorbanifar plan.

The report sheds additional light on the actions of highly placed U.S. officials who were involved in approving the Ledeen Iran channel and suppressing knowledge of it from normal US government intelligence channels.

Then deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz placed the meeting plan on a “close-hold” status to protect it from unwelcome inquiries. Later, then Pentagon intelligence czar Steve Cambone ordered halted a Pentagon counterintelligence inquiry of the channel, which had raised the possibility that “Ghorbanifar or his associates are being used as agents of a foreign intelligence service to leverage[e] his continuing contact with Michael Ledeen and others to reach into and influence the highest levels of the US government.”

Cambone also rejected Pentagon counterintelligence investigators’ recommendations, including that a comprehensive “analysis be conducted of the counterintelligence implications related to the ability of Mr. Ghorbanifar or his associates to directly or indirectly influence or access U.S. government officials.” The Senate Intelligence committee described Cambone’s decision to kill the counterintelligence inquiry as “premature,” and criticized his failure to implement the group’s recommendations for further analysis of the counterintelligence implications of Ghorbanifar’s contacts to the US government through Ledeen.

Some top officials in the State Department and CIA became indignant when they discovered the plans of the two veterans of the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal. That led to repeated efforts by the White House’s Hadley to curtail the meetings. But Ghorbanifar’s pipeline to the U.S. government remained open, the report documents, because of persistent efforts by Ledeen and many current and former US officials he enlisted to champion his plan. Among them: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former assistant secretary of defense for low intensity conflict Thomas O’Connell, and even then Senate Intelligence committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS), who stalled the Senate committee’s investigation of pre-war intelligence issues for years.

U.S. officials became concerned that the Ledeen-Ghorbanifar pipeline amounted to an illegal covert action that would require a finding signed by the President and that Congress be notified. The Ledeen plan ran into concerns about the legality of meetings between unpaid private consultants, Pentagon bureaucrats and members of foreign intelligence agencies and the requirements for reporting them to intelligence agencies.

‘“Once again, the Pentagon didn’t understand any of the rules: about country clearance, interagency coordination, the need to do name traces on the supposed Iranians Ghorbanifar brought to the meeting.” the former CIA official said. He pointed out that one of the figures Ghorbanifar brought to a second June 2003 meeting in Paris with Pentagon civilian Harold Rhode, Ayatollah Maliki “does not exist.” He said of Ledeen and the Pentagon officials’ refusal to do name traces on the other supposed Iranians Ghorbanifar brought to the Rome meeting: “How do you know who you are dealing with? How do we know that these guys have not walked into 15 other embassies? They probably have.”

“It’s always the same with Ghorbanifar,” the former intelligence official added. “The napkin. He makes some dramatic presentation. I’m telling you, for three days those guys talked about that Iran regime change plan. And they talked about money. Ghorbanifar is lying through his teeth. That is obvious to anybody.”

The report chastised several officials for their role in authorizing the meetings and keeping them secret. “Deputy National Security Advisor Hadley failed to inform [Director of Central Intelligence] Tenet and Deputy Secretary of State Armitage of the full nature of the planned contact with the Iranians in Rome, to include the involvement of Mr. Ledeen and Mr. Ghorbanifar in proposing and facilitating the meeting,” the report stated.

“The role Mr. Ledeen played as interlocutor for Mr. Ghorbanifar and in setting up the Rome meeting, and potentially the Paris meeting, was inappropriate,” the report further said.

In 1984, during Iran-Contra scandal, the CIA had issued a “burn notice” on Ghorbanifar. The Iranian exile, the report quotes the CIA, “should be regarded as an intelligence fabricator and a nuisance.” The agency’s distrust of Ghorbanifar appeared to extend to Ledeen and led to a protracted war of polemics by Ledeen against the intelligence agency.

Ledeen repeatedly told U.S. officials that the two unidentified Iranians would refuse to talk to the CIA. But the Iranians apparently expressed no such reservations at the Rome meeting, according to Senate committee interviews. “It is likely that this allegation was used by Mr. Ledeen, Mr. Ghorbanifar or others as a means of circumventing the Intelligence Community’s knowledge of and involvement in the meeting given the CIA’s fabrication notice against Ghorbanifar,” the report concluded.

(Illustration of Iran contra figure Manucher Ghorbanifar by Steve Brodner, for Mother Jones.)


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