WASHINGTON – U.S. intelligence officials have told Fox News that reports of a frantic last-ditch effort by Iraq to avert an impending war were simply a facade by "third parties, charlatans and independent actors" aimed at preventing the U.S.-led invasion.
According to reports in The New York Times' online edition Wednesday night, an influential adviser to the Pentagon (search) received a secret message from a Lebanese-American businessman indicating that Saddam Hussein wanted to make a deal.
The Times reported that the chief of the Iraqi Intelligence Service (search) and other Iraqi officials had told the businessman, Imad Hage, that they wanted Washington to know that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction and offered to let American troops and experts do an independent search. The Iraqi officials also offered to hand over a man accused of being involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who was being held in Baghdad, the Times reported.
Messages from Baghdad, first relayed by Hage in February to an analyst in the office of Douglas Feith (search), the undersecretary of defense for policy and planning, were part of an attempt by Iraqi officers to persuade the Bush administration to open talks through a clandestine channel, people involved in the discussion told the Times.
One U.S. official told Fox News that while there were numerous offers and leads as the war neared, they were all thoroughly investigated and it was determined that they weren't in a position to deliver anything that would have been acceptable to the United States.
Additionally, this official says there were several attempts to meet with Iraqi intelligence officers, but each time, those officers were no-shows.
The attempts were portrayed by Iraqi officials as having Saddam's endorsement, but it was not clear if American officials viewed them as legitimate.
In early March, Richard Perle (search), an adviser to top Pentagon officials, reportedly met in London with Hage. According to both men, Hage laid out the Iraqis' position and pressed the Iraqi request for a direct meeting with Perle or other U.S. representatives.
Perle said the CIA authorized his meeting with the Iraqis, but CIA officials eventually told him they didn't want to pursue the channel.
Perle told the Times in Wednesday's story that he was dubious Saddam would make legitimate proposals in such a circuitous fashion. "There were so many other ways to communicate," he said. "There were any number of governments involved in the end game, the Russians, French, Saudis."
But should the accounts of Baghdad's backroads attempts to reach out to Washington be true, it would indicate Saddam's growing panic over and anticipation of an invasion his regime could not survive.
The Times quoted internal Pentagon e-mails from Mike Maloof, the analyst in Feith's office, to an aide to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, outlining the Iraqi overtures. It was unclear, however, if top officials at the Pentagon pursued the matter. Maloof, who lost his security clearance over another issue, is on paid administrative leave from the Pentagon.
Hage previously lived in suburban Washington, where he started an insurance company. He moved to Lebanon in the 1990s and has been trying for 10 years to break into politics there but so far with little success.
He could not be reached immediately in Lebanon for comment.
Fox News' Bret Baier, Ian McCaleb and The Associated Press contributed to this report.