Both before and after Iraq's liberation, State Department officials criticized Chalabi as an exile with little connection to his own country. CIA analysts seconded such pronouncements. On September 6, 2004, for example, Judith Yaphe, a former CIA Iraq analyst now at the National Defense University, told the Associated Press that "over the years, [CIA favorite Ayad] Allawi's contacts were proven to be real while Chalabi's were never what Chalabi told us." Former Defense Intelligence Agency official W. Patrick Lang described Chalabi as "basically an émigré politician" and told an Australian radio station that the CIA and State Department "didn't trust what he said [and] didn't think he understood Iraq, really." General Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. Central Command, belittled Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress as "some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London."
But, in the months before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Chalabi returned to Iraq. And after liberation, he became an irritant to Washington policymakers. While Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer sought to run Iraq by diktat, Chalabi agitated for direct elections and restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. He clashed with Meghan O'Sullivan, now deputy national security adviser for Iraq, when she worked to undermine and eventually reverse de-Baathification. He undercut White House attempts to internationalize responsibility for Iraq in the months prior to the 2004 U.S. elections when his Governing Council auditing commission began to investigate the U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal.
In a West Wing meeting, then–national security adviser Condoleezza Rice called Chalabi's opposition to the ill-fated Fallujah Brigade "unhelpful." Soon afterward, she directed her staff to outline ways to "marginalize" Chalabi. There followed espionage and counterfeiting charges — the former never seriously pursued by the FBI and the latter thrown out of an Iraqi court. Following the June 28, 2004, transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, John Negroponte — then U.S. ambassador to Iraq and now the director of national intelligence — refused to meet Chalabi. Cut off from U.S. patronage and without any serious Iraqi base, the analysts said, Chalabi would fade away.
He did not. Nor has he simply reinvented himself, as a State Department official suggested following Chalabi's November 9 address at the American Enterprise Institute. Rather, his relevance has remained constant. Unlike those of other Iraqi figures embraced by various bureaucracies in Washington, Chalabi's fortunes have not depended on U.S. patronage. His survival — and, indeed, his recent ascent against the obstacles thrown in his path by Washington — underlines the failures of diplomats and intelligence analysts to put aside departmental agendas to provide the White House with an objective and accurate analysis of the sources of legitimacy inside Iraq.
So far, when it comes to Iraq, the score is Chalabi 1, Rice 0.