Francis Brooke, a Democrat, joined GOP efforts to depose Saddam Hussein, serving as right-hand man to controversial Iraqi dissident Ahmad Chalabi. His motivation, he says, sprang from a combination of religious calling and noblesse oblige.
Originally published in Duke Magazine.
Above: A 2004 C-SPAN interview with Brooke.
FRANCIS BROOKE WAS STILL ASLEEP in Baghdad’s Mansour neighborhood when one of his houseboys came running in, shouting about a commotion on the street outside. It was 10:30 on a Thursday morning, and Brooke had spent the previous night with Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress. The two men had eaten a late dinner — a heaping platter of rice accompanied by roasted lamb, tomatoes, eggplant, and okra — before retiring to Chalabi’s study to talk about the country’s political future. The sun was already rising by the time Brooke left his friend’s townhouse, crossed the street, and crawled into his own bed.
Chalabi owed his sandy-haired neighbor a lot. Brooke ’83 had spent more than a decade promoting the legitimacy of Iraq’s political dissidents, many of whom had fled the country after a 1958 military coup. Until recently, Chalabi had been considered the most promising of those dissidents — a likely successor to Saddam Hussein — by neoconservatives like Vice President Dick Cheney and former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. A U.S.-educated former banker, he had won allies within the Bush administration with his Western style, his support for Israel, and his prediction that Saddam could easily be toppled. Even after Chalabi fell out of favor, his American consultant Brooke maintained relationships with key officials like John Hannah ’84, Cheney’s national security adviser. “I was on the phone twice a day with the White House,” Brooke says.
So when the houseboy barged into his bedroom in May 2004, “I assumed it was a screw-up,” Brooke says. Leaving his pistol under the pillow, Brooke threw on some flip-flops and ran outside in his Duke basketball shorts and a T-shirt in time to witness a raid on Chalabi’s house. With U.S. soldiers and contractors standing by, Iraqi police had swooped inside and rousted Chalabi from his bed. “The whole thing was just complete confusion,” Brooke recalls. “I started screaming, ‘Who’s the commanding officer?'” Someone directed Brooke to a young American soldier. “The guy said, ‘Hold on, sir, I’m on the horn to higher.’ Then he disappeared with his Humvee, never to reappear again.”
By morning’s end, police had raided not only Chalabi’s residence but also two offices of the Iraqi National Congress (INC). They pulled cables from walls and seized documents, computers, and rifles. According to members of Chalabi’s staff, some of the contractors looted the politician’s refrigerator, helping themselves to baklava and diet soda. Afterward, U.S. and Iraqi officials said the police were hunting down fifteen INC associates accused of kidnapping, theft, and torture. Chalabi himself was accused of passing U.S. intelligence secrets to Iran, a charge he vigorously denied.
Chalabi insisted he was being punished for criticizing the U.S.-led occupation of his country, particularly the slow transition to Iraqi self-rule and the decision to restore members of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party to power. To disseminate that message, Brooke booked him on the next Sunday’s talk shows. “I have become a person who is calling for complete sovereignty in Iraq,” Chalabi told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos during a live hookup from Baghdad. “I refuse to have Iraq become a state of terror run by covert action agencies under diplomatic cover. That is the reason that all this is happening.”
Brooke spent the next two weeks in Baghdad, working with Chalabi on the transition to the new government. Then he returned to Washington, where his family lives. In the taxi back from Dulles Airport, he called his wife, Sharon Hogan Brooke ’83. She broke the news: London’s Sunday Telegraph had just published an article saying that a Baghdad judge had ordered his arrest. “The warrant is for interfering with the work of the Iraqi police in their legitimate business,” Judge Zuhair Al-Maliky told the British newspaper. That day, Brooke protested his innocence to The Washington Post, saying he hoped for “a fair venue to defend myself.” Privately, he found the notion of mounting a legal defense in Iraq unsettling: “They are a sovereign court. They were in the middle of [the abuses at] Abu Ghraib. That’s where I would have gone if I had been found guilty.”
THE NEWS OF HIS IMPENDING ARREST was an unusually public moment for Brooke. Since he first joined the effort to depose Saddam Hussein in 1991, the lanky Duke graduate has positioned himself squarely behind the scenes. He has lobbied for key foreign-policy legislation, helped broker the relationship between Chalabi and U.S. officials, and even commanded a battalion of Iraqi soldiers, all without calling attention to himself. A native Virginian descended from a prominent family of politicians and intellectuals (“From my point of view, my life begins many hundreds of years before I was born.”), Brooke describes his work in terms of both religious calling and noblesse oblige. “Coming from a privileged enough background that I’ve had time to ruminate on existence, I ask, ‘Why are we here?'” he says. “If you are Christian, the answer is clear: The golden rule is to love God above all things, and to serve others as you’d serve yourself.”
For Brooke, this has meant helping Iraq make the switch from dictatorship to democracy. He considers Chalabi the politician most capable of spearheading that transition. It’s a controversial viewpoint, to put it mildly: Chalabi has faced criticism by everyone from former Secretary of State Colin Powell to Senator Hillary Clinton, and the Iraqi’s fellow citizens eye him with suspicion. “He is at his best working behind closed doors with a very small constituency of politicians,” says Toby Dodge, a fellow at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. “He’s at his worst when he has to get democratic support, which he can’t do.”
On Capitol Hill, many of Brooke’s fellow Democrats go further, calling Chalabi a shadowy opportunist who supplied the U.S. with faulty intelligence during the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “Chalabi’s crimes cannot go unanswered,” Representative George Miller, a California Democrat, said on the House floor last November, calling for the Iraqi’s arrest and interrogation. “Our idea of democracy is not propping up a bank swindler, kidnapper, and extortionist.”
Brooke considers such rhetoric partisan and unfounded. He calls Chalabi a “fine man” whose values were forged as a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago during the social upheavals of the 1960s. “He loves the United States,” Brooke says of his Baghdad neighbor. “He thinks the model by which it allows its people to express their political will is a good example for Iraq.”
Brooke first met Chalabi in 1991. He had graduated from Duke eight years earlier with a major in Medieval and Renaissance studies. After college, he says, “most of my friends went off to Wall Street and turned into arbitrage managers. They got estates on Fire Island and townhouses on the Upper East Side. That was not my goal.” Instead, he went into politics, working for Democratic Senate candidate Hamilton Jordan and helping the beer industry fight a beverage tax he calls regressive.
Finally, after the first Gulf War, Brooke landed a job with a public-relations firm headed by John Rendon, former executive director of the Democratic National Committee. His assignment was to mount a political offensive against Saddam Hussein. Rendon offered a salary of more than $200,000 a year, heady money for a thirty-year-old who hadn’t even paid attention to the war. Brooke says his boss was “vague” about naming the client. “He intimated it was the Kuwaiti government, but he never said so directly.” When Brooke called his father, a former military intelligence officer, the older man was more direct. “That’s a CIA job,” he correctly told his son. “You take it if you want it.”
Brooke took it. Working from London, he spent his first month reading up on Iraq’s recent history. “It became clear to me that the United States had made a grave mistake by not finishing the job the first time,” he says. “President Bush the First had made a speech on Voice of America encouraging the people of Iraq to rise up against their dictatorship, and the Iraqi people had taken him at his word. Most of Iraq had gone completely out of control. The United States not only didn’t support the rebellion — they actively inhibited its success. From a moral point of view, it was horrible.” In his research, Brooke learned that the CIA had supported Iraq’s Ba’ath Party in the 1950s and Sixties as an antidote to communism, paving the way for Saddam Hussein’s ascension.
Brooke’s job at the Rendon Group had two prongs. First, he ran a PR campaign, complete with a traveling exhibition, detailing Saddam’s atrocities. (“Doing anti-Saddam propaganda is as easy as falling off a log,” he says.) Second, he helped organize Iraqi dissidents — some living in exile, others in Kurdistan — into a coalition known as the Iraqi National Congress. Working with Chalabi to plan the INC’s kickoff gathering, Brooke was taken by the exile’s “brilliant intellect” and command of politics.
Brooke stayed in London until 1994, when the Clinton administration shifted its focus away from supporting the Iraqi opposition. “I was sitting in a very nice office but essentially playing video games,” he says. He returned to the U.S. and settled in Atlanta, but not for long: In 1996, Saddam Hussein’s forces swept into Erbil, a Kurdish city under international protection. The Clinton administration failed to intervene, and the resulting massacre left hundreds dead. “People were calling from Iraq to Atlanta: ‘They’re coming over the hill. They’re going to kill us,'” Brooke says. “I had 200 people I knew lined up and slaughtered. I was physically ill for a long time. And I felt it was my responsibility to fix it.”
Temporarily leaving his family behind, Brooke relocated to Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood, a short walk from the Presbyterian church one of his ancestors founded. (“We wanted to build a Southern church in Yankee land,” he explains.) He moved into a townhouse owned by Chalabi, and the two men cohabitated “as bachelors.” Without drawing a salary — “Money shows up when you need it,” Brooke says — he set out to shift U.S. foreign policy.
BROOKE AND CHALABI FOUND THEIR ALLIES among Washington’s Republicans. Brooke, a lifelong Democrat, says he felt comfortable crossing party lines to seek assistance. “They’re friends of mine,” he says of the GOP leaders. “We all went to the same country club. We have a very similar background. We’re American patriots.” Brooke says he met daily with the drafters of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which called explicitly for military assistance to opposition groups seeking Saddam’s removal. The bill, introduced by Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, in the Senate and New York Republican Benjamin Gilman in the House, swept both chambers and was signed into law by President Clinton.
The bill’s easy passage showed just how much traction Chalabi had gained in D.C. But the Iraqi’s popularity didn’t reach its apex until after President George W. Bush’s 2000 election. In the new White House, Chalabi found an enthusiastic reception from neoconservatives: not just Cheney and Wolfowitz, but also Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle, then chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. Chalabi was an attractive embodiment of Saddam’s enemies. “He’s very adept at public relations,” says Azmat Hassan, a retired Pakistani diplomat who now teaches at Seton Hall University. “He speaks in the Western idiom. He dresses well. He had all the makings of an Iraqi who can impress a Western audience.”
What’s more, Chalabi offered a compelling message. “He told the neocons what they wanted to hear: Iraq would be a free-market democracy supporting the United States and Israel,” says Toby Dodge, the Middle East scholar. “When someone says, ‘Everything you want in Iraq, I can give to you,’ it’s like Christmas and Easter all rolled into one.”
On September 11, 2001, Brooke heard the attack on the Pentagon from his Georgetown porch. He knew some of the victims, across the Potomac and in the World Trade Center. And he realized that the upcoming meeting of the Defense Policy Board, to which he was invited, would take on a new importance. A week later, he boarded a bus with the other meeting participants and traveled with police escort to the Pentagon, where the effort to recover bodies was still under way.
Once inside, he listened as the secretive board heard from Chalabi and neoconservative Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis. According to an account in Vanity Fair, Lewis spoke first, prodding the Pentagon to flex its military muscle in the Muslim world. Lewis also urged support for Iraq’s democratic reformers — “such as my friend here, Dr. Chalabi.” In turn, Chalabi told the board that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destructions (WMD) and possibly served as a breeding ground for terrorists.
Coming out of the meeting, Brooke saw a rare opportunity. “The environment was red hot,” he says. Administration officials were eager for a confrontation with Iraq and looking for evidence of WMD to justify going to war. Seizing the moment, Brooke rustled up his contacts among Iraqi defectors. “I said, ‘If you’ve got it, bring it on, because now’s the time,'” he says.
The stories that emerged were harrowing. A civil engineer named Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri reported that Saddam had hidden secret weapons laboratories inside subterranean wells and private estates, and underneath a Baghdad hospital. An army defector named Sabah Khalifa Khodada Alami described a terrorist training camp near Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. In the end, though, many of the stories didn’t check out. Saeed failed a lie-detector test, and none of the weapons he described ever emerged. U.S. officials now believe the Salman Pak camp was probably a counterterrorism facility. In 2003, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that most of the information provided by defectors recruited by the INC was practically worthless.
Hassan, the retired diplomat, believes that in his eagerness to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Chalabi knowingly channeled bad intelligence. “This evidence was doctored,” he says. “It was cooked up. Ahmad Chalabi and the INC were behind this information. So surely they knew.” But Brooke says it was not the INC’s job to verify the quality of the reports. “A person comes to us and says, ‘We have information,'” he says. “We verify that the person is who he says. We know what tribe he’s from. We also verify the particulars of his CV: ‘He was a lieutenant colonel in the 5th Brigade from ’91 to ’92.’ That’s it. There’s no sense of doing anything else.” Adds Brooke, “We haven’t provided any false information to the United States — and no one can prove any different.”
U.S. INTELLIGENCE OFFICIALS HAD LONG DOUBTED Chalabi’s credibility. Two years ago, former CIA agent Robert Baer spoke with The New Yorker about Chalabi’s stint as a paid informant during the mid-1990s. “He was reporting no intel; it was total trash,” said Baer, whose book See No Evil inspired the recent movie Syriana. “The INC’s intelligence was so bad, we weren’t even sending it in.”
Still, during Bush’s first term, the INC received $335,000 a month as part of an operation called the Information Collection Program. Brooke was hired as the program’s chief analyst, and later named a colonel in a 700-man battalion of Iraqi-born soldiers whose job included hunting down Saddam’s loyalists. Brooke, who had no prior military experience, had insisted on the rank. “It’s absolutely obvious,” he declares, “that no Virginian can serve as less than a colonel in a foreign army.”
In 2003, the U.S. military airlifted Brooke and his soldiers into Southern Iraq. Finding himself at an abandoned military base, he hitched a ride on an agricultural truck to Nasiriyah in search of water to drink and sheep to slaughter. (Five farm workers stayed behind to guarantee Brooke’s safe return. “It was my first experience taking hostages,” he says.) Eventually, Brooke’s battalion made its way to Baghdad, where it set up shop in the Iraqi Hunting Club, a once-Ba’athist country club adorned with velvet furniture and red shag carpets.
Brooke looks back at that period with great satisfaction. “We captured a lot of bad guys,” he says. “We got shot at some, and we shot back.” Dodging bullets, he says, didn’t faze him. “I’m from Virginia. I’m perfectly competent with weapons. Going to war is not unknown in my family.” He says he is particularly proud of recovering $269 million in U.S. $100 bills — stashed by a nervous banker in a locked truck in downtown Baghdad — and returning it to the country’s central bank.
According to General Richard Myers, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chalabi and Brooke’s operation provided information that “saved soldiers’ lives.” At a May 2004 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Myers described the intelligence as “accurate and useful in many cases.” However, that month the Pentagon announced it was ending the program. A later report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service cited the “escalating” controversy over the “quality of the INC’s pre-war intelligence.”
Two days later came the raid on Chalabi’s home.
IN AN IRAQI COURT LAST YEAR, Brooke was cleared of wrongdoing during the 2004 raid. He continues to believe the incident was revenge for Chalabi’s criticism of the occupation. “The raid was intended to demonstrate that Dr. Chalabi was an enemy to the U.S. and injurious to the new Iraqi state,” Brooke says. U.S. officials deny this. “This was an Iraqi matter, conducted by the Iraqi police,” Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said at a Baghdad press briefing.
Though he is no longer on the U.S. payroll, Brooke still commutes regularly between Washington and Baghdad. He has watched his friend Chalabi rise and fall several times in both cities. In Washington, Chalabi was persona non grata for a while. Then, in November, he was invited to meet with Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Democrats were quick to express their outrage. “He is under active investigation by the FBI for having sold American secrets to the Iranians,”
Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat from Illinois, said during a floor speech, “If this man is suspected of endangering our troops, he should be called in for questioning, if not more. Instead, he is being called in for a cup of coffee and a cookie.”
Back in Baghdad, Chalabi allied himself with a Shiite religious coalition, which fared well in the January 2005 provisional balloting, and was named deputy prime minister. But as the December full-term elections approached, Chalabi bolted from the ticket. Running instead on a secular slate, he received less than 1 percent of the vote. “He made a very bad calculation in thinking there would be an opening for people like him,” says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “An awful lot of voters wanted to circle the wagons and embrace ethnic unity.” Still, Clawson adds, Chalabi “remains one of the sharpest technocrats in Iraq. His day will come when there’s a peaceful Iraq.”
By the time Chalabi’s day comes, though, Brooke may be gone from the scene. “Iraq is for Iraqis to govern,” Brooke says. He’s thinking of turning his attention to problems within his own country. Despite the alliances he formed with the Bush administration, he remains a Democrat. “I am eager to come home,” he says, “and to work to help us produce the next U.S. government.”
Brooke also wants to make use of his experience ferreting out information in Iraq — maybe to teach the U.S. government a thing or two. “The war has exposed a tremendous shortcoming on the part of the U.S. intelligence and military establishment,” he says. “As an American, it behooves me to address those shortcomings.”