This article is adapted from “The Exile” the first episode of Slow Burn’s new season.
George W. Bush made the call to launch the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but it wasn’t what he’d come into office to do. Bush, like any president, was influenced by people in his administration. Some of them had been spooked by 9/11; others had been pushing to get rid of Saddam Hussein for a lot longer. For Ahmad Chalabi, deposing Saddam was his life’s work.
Chalabi was an aristocrat—an Iraqi exile who was brilliant and charismatic. He was also a bullshit virtuoso with a core of absolute conviction. If you’ve heard of him, it’s probably because he played a very public role in the push for war after 9/11. But he’d tried to start another war with Iraq a few years earlier—and he got weirdly close to pulling it off.
By 1995, it had been four years since the U.S. had defeated Saddam in the Gulf War. But he remained in power. He had a big army, and he was still a brutal dictator. The U.S. didn’t want him to stay in charge, but he wasn’t high on its priority list. Foreign-policy problems like this one—hard problems with no obvious solutions—tend to get kicked over to the CIA. And that’s what happened to Iraq in the ’90s.
Bob Baer was the CIA’s directorate of operations at the time. He’s the kind of spy you see in the movies: action-oriented, kind of a maverick. In fact, George Clooney played a character based on him in Syriana. Baer describes his job this way: “Essentially you’re sent overseas to recruit sources with access to clandestine information or, you know, secrets of a foreign government. And you get them to steal those secrets. You’re basically hired as a thief.”
When the Gulf War was over, Baer went on a mission to Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region north of Baghdad. The CIA didn’t give him tons of resources; the office he worked out of was kind of a backwater. But he did have one important tool.
“In those days, we had a ‘lethal finding’ against Saddam Hussein. That means we could use lethal force when it was occasioned to overthrow him,” he says. “From a Hollywood standpoint, I call it a license to kill.”
The Clinton administration had inherited that lethal finding—but they weren’t in a huge rush to act on it. Baer’s bosses in the CIA believed that if the U.S. kept the pressure on Saddam, he’d eventually self-destruct.
Baer didn’t totally agree. The way he saw it, Saddam was a bad guy, and he, Bob Baer, had the legal authority to do something about it.
So, from an isolated office in Kurdistan, he ended up trying to overthrow one of the most notorious dictators in modern history.
Kurdistan was the perfect place to find allies for a revolution.
The Kurds’ land is divided up among Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. No one wants to give up their piece of Kurdistan, because it’s got oil. So the Kurds are ethnic minorities in four different nations. And in Saddam’s Iraq they were targeted—brutally. By the early 1990s, Kurds had been tortured and executed by Saddam’s regime in massive numbers. And Kurdish nationalists were long past ready to rise up.
When Bob Baer showed up in Kurdistan, Ahmad Chalabi was already recruiting Kurdish nationalists for his own campaign to overthrow Saddam.
“He was probably one of the more charming people I’ve met in the world and one of the most intelligent people I’ve met,” Baer says of Chalabi now.
The Iraqi was a sophisticated businessman with the face of a character actor. His family had fled the country when he was a teenager in the 1950s. But in the ’90s, he was back in Kurdistan to help Iraqis imagine a better future.
Chalabi had $4 million from the CIA—money he used to launch an opposition group called the Iraqi National Congress. He imagined it as a kind of government in waiting.
Ahmad Chalabi was not a humble man. His Iraqi National Congress was modeled on the Indian National Congress and the African National Congress, groups associated with Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. He also liked to compare himself to Charles DeGaulle.
But Chalabi was an unlikely candidate to lead a popular uprising. He was back in Iraq for the first time in decades. And Kurdistan, where he was based, wasn’t where he was from. Chalabi had grown up in Baghdad, the nation’s most cosmopolitan city. Now he was holed up in the country’s most impoverished region.
But Chalabi wasn’t the kind of person to live a hardscrabble life. The electricity in Kurdistan wasn’t great, so he got a private generator, which he used to watch Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited. He also had a private chef who made him Peking duck. “We made furniture locally,” he told his biographer Rich Bonin, in 2008. “Designs made by people like Frank Lloyd Wright and MacIntosh.”
Bonin spoke to Chalabi for more than 60 hours over several years, and the author used those interviews to write his book, Arrows of the Night. (The tapes have never been aired before this season of Slow Burn.) “Fighting Saddam does not mean you have to live in—eat bad food or live in shabby surroundings and have dirty bathrooms. Certainly not,” Chalabi told him.
When the CIA gave Chalabi $4 million dollars, they didn’t think they were financing a revolution. They mostly wanted him to produce anti-Saddam propaganda to build opposition to the regime.
But Chalabi didn’t take that job seriously. The Iraqi National Congress was supposed to be publishing a local newspaper. But its office was empty—the paper didn’t exist. Chalabi himself was hard to keep tabs on. The CIA gave him an encrypted phone, but he hacked it so they couldn’t listen in on him.
No one at the agency put a stop to any of this. The Americans just wanted some kind of opposition to Saddam, and Chalabi gave them that.
So, despite his many shortcomings, the CIA thought of Chalabi as an asset. What they didn’t realize, is that he was using them.
“We never worked with the CIA on providing them the intelligence on Iraq. We never did,” Chalabi told Bonin. “That was completely outside what we were doing.” Instead, he said all that time that he was being paid by the CIA, Chalabi was putting together his own scheme. “That’s what annoyed them.”
He was going to oust Saddam, using the CIA’s money, resources, and manpower. His plan involved a group of generals in Saddam’s army who, Chalabi said, were ready to seize power. He introduced one to Bob Baer.
“Chalabi brings him to me and says, here, talk to this guy. He knows. He can change the regime,” Baer says. ”So we sit down, and he walks me through this secret committee in Baghdad of Sunni generals who are ready to move. He gives me the names. I trace them. They’re real people. There’s a possibility they could be dissidents.”
The rest of Chalabi’s pitch to Baer on his plan went like this:
The disaffected Iraqi generals would join forces with the Kurdish nationalists, who’d been brutalized by Saddam and were desperate to get rid of him. The generals and the Kurds would get help from Iran, which had its own longstanding beef with Saddam.
Chalabi said this supergroup could take down the Iraqi dictator … if the U.S. would give them a hand.
And what would come after that?
“For Chalabi, removing Saddam was only half the goal,” biographer Bonin told me last year. “The other half of the goal was to become the leader of Iraq himself […] He believed in his heart of hearts that he was the most qualified Iraqi to lead Iraq into the modern world.”
Baer wrote to CIA headquarters to tell them about these disaffected generals who might rise up. His boss wrote back: “This is not a plan.” So … not an encouraging answer. But Baer heard what he wanted to hear. No one had literally said, “Don’t try to start a coup.”
Baer did wonder if Chalabi was playing him, but he put that thought out of his mind. This was the chance to do something big.
So there they were, Bob and Ahmad, two men with the same absurdly ambitious goal, and the same taste for rolling the dice.