U.S. Officials Peddle False Intel to Support Terror Plot Claims
Analysis by Gareth Porter*
WASHINGTON, Oct 17, 2011 (IPS) - 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 Revolutionary Guard
Corps (IRGC) were involved in a plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador
Adel al-Jubeir in Washington, D.C.
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 the administration.
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 counterterrorism 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 Quds Force" of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Shahlai
had long been regarded by U.S. officials as a key figure in the Quds
Force's relationship to Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Iraq.
The primary objective of the FBI sting operation involving Iranian-
American Manssor Arbabsiar and a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
informant that was started last June now appears to have been to use
Arbabsiar to implicate Shahlai in a terror plot.
U.S. officials had learned from the DEA informant that Arbabsiar
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 Jan. 20, 2007 attack" by Mahdi Army "Special
Groups" on U.S. troops at the Provincial Coordination Center in
Arbabsiar'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. Arbabsiar implicates Shahlai in providing him with
thousands of dollars for his expenses.
But Arbabsiar's charge against Shahlai was self-interested. Arbabsiar
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 Arbabsiar'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 assassination plot.
Laying the foundation for press stories on the theme, the Treasury
Department announced Tuesday that it was sanctioning Shahlai, along
with Arbabsiar and three other Quds Force officials, including the
head of the organisation, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, for being
"connected to" the assassination plot.
But Michael Issikof of NBC News reported the same day that Shahlai
"had previously been accused of plotting a highly sophisticated attack
that killed five U.S. soldiers in Iraq, according to U.S. 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 Issikof 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
Moqtada al Sadr", which had carried out an attack on U.S. 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 U.S. 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 Quds Force…." But he didn't refer to
any evidence that Shahlai personally had anything to do with the
In fact, U.S. officials acknowledged in the months after the Karbala
attack that they had found no evidence of any Iranian involvement in
Talking with reporters about the memo on Apr. 26, 2007, several weeks
after it had been captured, Gen. 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 Jul. 2, 2007, Gen. Kevin Bergner
confirmed that the attack in Karbala had been authorised by the Iraqi
chief of the militia in question, Kais Khazali, not by any Iranian
Col. Michael X. Garrett, who had been commander of the U.S. Fourth
Brigade combat team in Karbala, confirmed to this writer in December
2008 that the Karbala attack "was definitely an inside job".
Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds 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 U.S. intelligence that two
wire transfers totaling 100,000 dollars at the behest of Arbabsiar to
a bank account controlled by the FBI implicates Soleimani in the
"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 CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center who was also
National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East until his retirement
Pillar told IPS 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
specialising in U.S. 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.
5552 Lee Highway
Arlington, VA 22207
H: 703 532-0124
C: 703 600-9057