Cooking up some intel for Iran next?

Could the hunt for the elusive Osama bin Laden lead to Tehran?

Published June 20, 2005 7:44PM (EDT)

Though it's been nearly four years since the 9/11 attacks, nobody seems to know where Osama bin Laden is these days -- except for CIA chief Porter Goss, that is, who tells Time Magazine in a Q&A published Monday that he has an "excellent idea" of the terrorist mastermind's whereabouts. Goss also emphasizes that diplomacy is one of the greatest obstacles to nabbing him:

TIME: When will we get Osama bin Laden?

GOSS: That is a question that goes far deeper than you know. In the chain that you need to successfully wrap up the war on terror, we have some weak links. And I find that until we strengthen all the links, we're probably not going to be able to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice. We are making very good progress on it. But when you go to the very difficult question of dealing with sanctuaries in sovereign states, you're dealing with a problem of our sense of international obligation, fair play. We have to find a way to work in a conventional world in unconventional ways that are acceptable to the international community.

TIME: It sounds like you have a pretty good idea of where he is.

GOSS: I have an excellent idea of where he is. What's the next question?

One of them, from Time's Timothy Burger, is whether or not the U.S. could "go to war again based on false intelligence."

GOSS: I would not agree to surmise that America has gone to war based on false intelligence. I would say that the right question is: Should America be checking out threats to America? The answer is yes. And will we find some threats were more talk than real? Yes, we will.

What may turn out to be "more talk than real" seems to lead right back to the remarkably elusive bin Laden -- and to another card-carrying member of the Axis of Evil. Republican Congressman Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a member of the Homeland Security Committee, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Sunday that he "knows for sure" that bin Laden has been "in and out of Iran, where Ayatollah Khomenei has been protecting him with his Revolutionary Guard."

Oddly enough, the storyline starts to sound more and more familiar from there: Apparrently Weldon's take doesn't jive with a high-level assessment at the CIA. As Blitzer pointed out during the interview, Weldon's information on bin Laden and Iran is based on a sole secret source known as "Ali," who claims to have information regarding the location of bin Laden, future terrorist threats and Iran's nuclear weapons program -- and who has been tagged as bunk by at least one knowledgeable member of the agency. CIA Officer Bill Murray told The New York Times on June 9 that he met with "Ali" when he was stationed in Paris: "He's never given us any information that was the slightest bit credible," Murray said. "This guy was a waste of my time and resources."

That assessment didn't do anything to dissuade Weldon about a connection between the al-Qaida mastermind and Iran. From the "Late Edition" transcript:

BLITZER: How can you be so confident of that when the CIA says they're not confident of that? They dismiss it.

WELDON: Two years ago, the CIA was totally dismissing that bin Laden would be in Iran. But if you look at the recent comments coming out of both the CIA and some of our military generals in theater, they're now acknowledging the same thing that I've been saying -- that in fact, he's been in and out of Iran. No one can prove it exactly until we capture him. But you asked my opinion. My opinion is he's been in and out of Iran several times over the past several years.

Appearing on the same broadcast, Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, offered a different opinion. "I don't think, after looking into it carefully and checking it out throughout our intelligence community, that this source, 'Ali', who was an associate of the late shah and lives outside of Iran, has information that I would rely on," Harman said. "We've already seen this movie. A guy named 'Curveball' brought us really bad intelligence products on Iraq, and I don't want to repeat the mistakes."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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Cia Iran Iraq Middle East Osama Bin Laden Terrorism War Room