The man who sold the war

"Curveball" author Bob Drogin talks about the Iraqi defector responsible for much of the CIA's bogus prewar intelligence about Iraqi WMD.

Published October 16, 2007 10:33AM (EDT)

For some, it can be tempting to lay the blame for the Iraq war at the feet of a small, disingenuous neoconservative cabal. In reality, the debacle was a collective effort, involving legions of people, some dishonest, others well-intentioned. But there is one man, still obscure, whose claim to being the prime mover in the selling of the war is at least as strong as that of any Beltway hawk, and whose agenda was wholly personal, not political.

In his new book, "Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War," Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin gives the most comprehensive account to date of the man who was the source of much of the faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify the U.S. invasion. Drogin explains how "Curveball," a still-anonymous Iraqi who defected to Germany in 1999, came to be a principal source for American intelligence, even though the CIA didn't even know who he really was until after the war had begun. Drogin's narrative is simpler and sadder and, in some ways, more disturbing than if this really was just a tale about a known liar and the neocons who loved him. Instead, it's the story of a man desperate for political asylum and what he was willing to say to get it; of German intelligence officers who wanted to tweak their American rivals; and of American intelligence officers who were determined to give their bosses what their bosses wanted. Salon spoke to Drogin by telephone.

Who is Curveball?

Curveball is an Iraqi engineer, a very low-level engineer, who defected to Germany in 1999 and was plucked out of a refugee line. He was in an asylum camp. And he began to spin a rather fantastic story. They interviewed him and interrogated him through most of 2000 and 2001. And his story was unconfirmed and unverified. He was never vetted in the sense of people going to Baghdad and tracking down to see whether his background was what he claimed it to be -- because under those conditions it was impossible to do. But after 9/11 his story suddenly was literally plucked out of a safe at the CIA, and within weeks the official CIA analysis of Saddam's threat from biological weapons changed quite dramatically. This is in 2001. And by the time we get to the fall of 2002 and the real run-up to the war, his information is so dominant at the CIA that they virtually hang all of the biological weapons information on him, despite the fact that they had never met him and didn't even know his name. All the information was coming from the Germans.

By the time we get to the president's State of the Union speech in 2003 before the war, that contained some of the information from Curveball. And, as we all remember, when [then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell spoke to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 just before the war, these pictures of trucks, these cartoon drawings of trucks that the CIA had prepared, were the highlight of his presentation. He referred to this eyewitness who had worked directly on these trucks, who had witnessed an accident that had killed a dozen people. And ... [Powell] told me later, it was the most important part, the most credible part of his entire speech. Unfortunately it was all a fraud. So that's who Curveball was.

How does this all go so wrong? How does the Bush administration and the CIA come to see Curveball as this incontrovertible source?

My take on the CIA is that it's a lot like any other bureaucracy, except that the people there are trained to lie, cheat and steal. But in terms of motivations -- in terms of what drives decisions -- it's not a whole lot different from perhaps what drives Enron. That is, there are a lot of ambitious people, there are a lot of rivalries, there's a lot of bureaucratic infighting, not only within the agency, but between the CIA and its rivals in Washington -- the Defense Intelligence Agency and some of the others. And especially between the CIA and ... foreign intelligence services belonging to other governments. And what happened in this case was a confluence of those forces, those really rather tawdry forces, combined with really spineless leadership, which allowed this unconfirmed information to rise to the top.

And what's fascinating to me is that we now know in retrospect that a huge amount of the prewar intelligence did rest on Curveball's shoulders. And the reason I say this is because, if you go back to just before the war, the CIA did not claim that Saddam had nuclear weapons. They said he was eight to 10 years out. And the International Atomic Energy Agency, the director, Mohamed El-Baradei, went up to the U.N. Security Council on March 7 and announced that we have been to all of these sites, and there is no evidence of the kinds of infrastructure you would need to build nuclear weapons. And also, by the way, [El-Baradei said,] the evidence that has been furnished to us, the documents, was what he referred to as "not authentic," which translated as forged. This was the American paperwork that was given to him.

So the nuclear stuff had all fallen apart. That left only the chemical and the biological. All of the postwar investigations in this country and in Britain said basically that all of the bad intelligence on biological weapons came from Curveball, that without him they really had no case whatsoever. But the surprise was that, at least at the CIA, the analysts in the chemical weapons department, the third leg of this triad, if you will, before the war they were unsure of what they had. They thought the evidence was quite ambiguous on the chemical weapons. They said they were "drifting."

In the 1980s Saddam had a huge chemical weapons program and he only really started up -- he had a crash program for the production of biological warfare agents just before the 1991 war. So, in this case what happens is that when they see that the biological weapons people are claiming with high confidence that Saddam not only has a robust biological weapons program but that it's even larger and more developed than it was before the first Gulf War, they looked around and said, "Well, geez, if he's got that, then he must have chemical weapons, too, because that's the way he did it last time." And so they just ramped up their conclusions. They basically said, "Well, forget about our doubts, it must be true." And so it all sort of pinpoints back down to this one guy. He's obviously not the only reason we went to war. He wasn't the only pretext. But, more and more, the evidence seems to hang on his shoulders, ironically.

I was struck by something you wrote in your epilogue, which is that the defector didn't con the spies so much as the spies conned themselves.

You know, I came out of this almost sympathetic to Curveball. In the sense that he is, as best I can tell, not a whole lot different from -- that he was basically a shlub. Here's a guy who's basically a middle-class guy, he's running away from tyranny to find freedom in the West. You know, my great-grandparents did that, most Americans have somebody in their background who did that. And he gets there and he does something in Germany that is very common there, because -- I looked at this at some length. Because, you know, Germany is the most popular place anywhere in Europe to apply for asylum ... but still, it's a very tricky thing to do. Only one in 25 applicants in general gets asylum in Germany. It's better for Iraqis, but still it's only one in 25 overall. So what he tried to do was jump the line. He told some lies, and he jumped the line. And the reason I say they conned themselves is because, when you look at what he actually said -- to the extent that's available -- and you look at how it got twisted by the time Colin Powell is telling the world about it, there's a big difference. I'm not suggesting that Colin Powell made that up. What I'm saying is that the passage of information -- the way it came down the bureaucracy, the rivalries, the problems of translation, the problems of perception, the problems of who was analyzing what -- they managed to not only embrace his account, they twisted and they magnified it, until it really took on a life of its own and became something very different from what his original account was.

Curveball has been portrayed as a tool of those in the Bush administration looking to go to war. And you see him more as a consequence of people just trying to do what they saw as their job, not as some sort of Cheney-ite plot.

I really feel quite strongly on this. It is self-evident that George Bush took us to war, that he's the one who's responsible, and that he made a political decision based on the information that he was given. Where I disagree with the conspiracy theories about all of this [is] this idea that there was this little cabal of people who were determined to do this, that they were going to twist the intelligence and that they cherry-picked the intelligence. The point of the Curveball story, and the rest of the prewar intelligence, is that they didn't have to do that. They were being served twisted intelligence by the shovel load by the CIA. If you look at the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, it is wrong in every single statement regarding chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. They didn't have to go cherry-pick anything. They didn't need the [Pentagon's] Office of Special Plans. They didn't need these guys in the Pentagon feeding them stuff. They didn't even need [Iraqi émigré and prominent neoconservative ally Ahmed] Chalabi. They had all of this stuff coming in through the portholes.

My take on it is that, before 9/11, the accusation was that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement failed to connect the dots. With Curveball, they made up the dots. In my way of thinking, it's a much worse situation. To me, this was the worst intelligence failure in American history. Never before has America gone to war and sacrificed so much blood, treasure and prestige on chasing an utter delusion. Curveball is the defining story of the prewar intelligence period. It explains the forces that led to this fiasco, and it tells how it is and why it is that we went down this rabbit hole in Iraq.

The problem here is that for the CIA -- and, by their nature, the intelligence services -- there is accountability within the [congressional] oversight committees. But there is no public accountability. In this case, [former CIA director] George Tenet got his Medal of Freedom afterward. I mean, it's sort of bizarre to me. The whole thing would be a farce, except the stakes were so dreadfully, awfully high.

You reported on Curveball for the Los Angeles Times. How did you get interested in him in the first place?

I had been covering national security and intelligence for the paper in Washington since 1998. And in the summer of 2002, I think it was Aug. 26, Dick Cheney went to Nashville to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and gave a very bellicose speech in which he said flat-out, Saddam is two years away or so from having a nuclear weapon and there is "no doubt" that he has chemical and biological weapons. And it was sort of a shot across our bows, for anyone who was listening, that basically was saying, "OK, thanks, we're done with Afghanistan, we're now going to turn our gun sights on Iraq." And that had sort of been rumored for a while, but this was a very clear and deliberate statement. And I began at that point focusing full-time on trying to understand what it was we really knew and what it was we didn't know about Saddam's weapons program. I went to Iraq after the liberation of Baghdad and spent some time with the weapons hunters ... I went out on some of these attempts to find WMD, and came back even more disillusioned. The weapons hunts at that point just seemed to me absurd. They had no idea what they were doing, and we had been told with such certainty that these weapons existed, and we'd go out there, and they were just sort of bumbling around in the desert at that point.

So, when George Tenet gave a speech at Georgetown University in February of 2004, exactly one year after Powell's speech, he made a reference at that time that said we're still trying to get access to the chief source on the mobile and biological weapons units. And when that happened it was like a red flag, it was like, What do you mean you're still trying to get access? You mean you haven't talked to him? And I was working with a colleague, a great reporter named Greg Miller, and he and I spent a month or so trying to track that down, and that led to the first Curveball story. So we broke that in March of 2004, and followed that up with several stories, and then I wound up with a very extensive investigation with another reporter in the fall of 2005, and that led to the book.

What's the role that Ahmed Chalabi plays here?

In this case he becomes a detour. He becomes a dot. What happened here was that, after Curveball came out -- and this was not known at the time -- it turned out that he had an older brother who fled Iraq in 1992, and who had joined Chalabi's organization in England in its early stages. But he and his brother were estranged. And there's a back story here, which is that it appears that Curveball went to jail in Baghdad before he fled, for either an unpaid debt or a theft, something involving money that the brother owed. So the two brothers were estranged. And in 2001, they haven't spoken now for nearly a decade, the elder brother working for Chalabi calls up Curveball in Germany and says, "Dr. Chalabi would like to know, we heard you're in Germany, do you have any information about weapons of mass destruction that we can give to the Americans, we're trying to help them with all of this." And Curveball, who's a semi-psychotic at this point in terms of his paranoia -- I shouldn't say psychotic; his behavior was very bizarre and he was clearly terrified of assassinations and reprisals, and the Germans had to move him several times and change his name and change his address and all of that. The phone call from the brother apparently just sent him over the edge. He was convinced they had tracked him down. And so that was the end of his cooperation with the Germans.

None of this came out until after the war, when the Americans in Baghdad -- the CIA in Baghdad -- tracked down Curveball's mother and she told them about the brother, and they found him [Curveball's brother] then in Baghdad working in Chalabi's organization at a place called the Hunting Club, and they were able to confirm the telephone call. So he did have a brother who worked for Chalabi. But no one was able to prove -- and Chalabi repeatedly, angrily denied -- that he had sent Curveball out as a deliberate plant. And the reason that this is credible in this case is that Chalabi did send out numerous people -- I think 20 is the number who have been identified -- who came out through the Iraqi National Congress, and in almost every case proved to be providing false information of one kind or another. But in every one of those cases, they were handed off directly to the Americans.

When the CIA found out about the brother, they totally freaked out because they thought, Oh my God, we've been set up, Chalabi really pulled the wool over us on this one. But in the end it was determined that it was just another fluke in this case, but one that sent them all going crazy for quite a while.

You mentioned that the Germans kept changing Curveball's name, and I noticed in the very front of your book that you're not using his real name. Do you know his real name? Did the CIA know his real name?

Well, I know names that I've been given. But in the absence of finding him -- which I was unable to do, I made three trips to Germany -- I can't say for sure that I do. The name I used in the book is the name I was told he used when he first came into Germany. But I never saw any paperwork on that. That was just the name I was given. And I say flat-out [in the book] that was not his name, so I'm trying to be very careful about that. The CIA -- there's an interesting story here. The Germans refused to identify their source to the Americans; in part this was "pride of service," as they called it, like "We have this great source, and you don't, na na na," and in part this was sort of the nature of the business. You as a reporter wouldn't give me your best confidential source, and the CIA certainly doesn't turn over its best sources to the German intelligence, and the Germans feel the same way. And part of it was a deliberate deception on the part of the Germans that I think backfired, in which they claimed that Curveball did not speak English and that he hated Americans. In fact, he spoke much better English than he spoke German, and according to his mother, at least, what Curveball essentially said was that he loved America and he wanted to move here. So the Germans refused to give up his name.

But [the Americans] did eventually track [Curveball] down. And they finally got access to Curveball in Germany. In March of 2004, they were finally allowed to do an interview with him. And that was the first time they ever met him, a year after the war. And it was on the basis of that that they declared him a fabricator.

What did you think of the review of your book that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, written by another important figure in the story of prewar intelligence, [former New York Times reporter] Judy Miller?

Certainly the first half of her review is all positive. I think she gets it, she understands the story. The bottom half of her review ... she does two things there that surprised me.

She's arguing that the problem in the book is that I'm accusing George Tenet and these other guys of lying, but that I don't really identify them and the evidence for that is weak and I should have stayed with the thrust of my story, which is that this is about incompetence at lots of levels at U.S. intelligence agencies. I guess my response to that is, well, [incompetence] is what the book is about; it's not about accusing individuals of lying, it's about a system that was so ham-fisted that people who raised questions were shoved to the side, contradictory evidence was ignored, skeptics were sort of sidelined and the story just snowballed at lots of levels.

I've never quite understood -- this is not just about the review -- the fixation that people have to try and prove that George Bush or George Tenet or somebody else deliberately lied. I mean, they took us into a war based on shockingly insufficient evidence; isn't that bad enough?

And then the second part of Judy's review that surprised me is, in a sense I think she got suckered again. She really fell for George Tenet's argument in his book that this was entirely the fault of [former CIA chief of covert operations in Europe] Tyler Drumheller, that Tyler Drumheller didn't ring the alarm loudly enough or enough times. She says George Tenet says he met with Tyler 22 times between February of 2003 and July of 2004. That may be, but guess what -- that's all after the war. So what's the point? And whether Tyler said something before those 22 meetings is indisputable; there's documentary evidence, there are witnesses, that he repeatedly raised red flags at different stages. He was the only one, he and his aides, the only one in the CIA to get it right. And Tenet -- and, I think, those around him, and apparently Judy -- can't seem to forgive him for that.

I'm very grateful to her for writing this review, I'm very grateful to the Wall Street Journal ... I really don't want to get into a pissing match here with Judy Miller, who was hired to write a review, does a review and is entitled to her opinion ... I think Judy was very unfairly vilified for the reporting she did ... I think her reporting, she honestly did what she thought was right and, like with this thing with Tenet, she was a victim of the sources she had.

When you've got a story this convoluted, how do you as a reporter untangle it?

You know, I look at this case, and I say so in the introduction or the author's note, that this is a "Rashomon" kind of case. "Rashomon" was, you know, a Kurosawa film about a murder, in which the version you get as the viewer is from the four people involved in it, and you get violently different versions of events. And what I was trying to do with this story, as I understood it as I tracked it, was I became increasingly aware that it depended on where you sat as to how you viewed this case as it was developing.

The infighting within the CIA turned, really, in some cases, on an understanding of a word. It was so odd. The Directorate of Operations, the D.O., which is the clandestine service, for them when you say [a source] is "credible," that means that person has been vetted, his information is reliable, he's a known source, he's a proven person who is trustworthy. But for the analysts who are coming out of the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, the D.I., the word "credible" meant that the story itself, that is, the information, was plausible. And that's two very different things. So they were sometimes talking and speaking the same language in the same meetings, and yet taking away very different understandings about what was going on. And the D.O. side was furious, just absolutely jumping up and down, trying to stop this case or at least raise warnings that Curveball had not been vetted, he was not credible in their eyes. And the D.I. side, which ultimately won the battle, was saying, "Hey, he's credible, his story makes sense, everything we can look at here makes sense to us, so we're going to go with it."

So I'm looking at this and trying to meld these various points of view and tell the story as it was happening in real time. So that we have some understanding of how something this awful, something so truly tragic, could happen. And frankly, I don't see anything out there in the various reforms that would stop this from happening again -- that's the real sad part of this. This was about leaders who were trying to please the president, and there was no attempt to stop it.

Every time there were whistle-blowers in the organizations, the CIA or wherever, who tried to raise red flags, they were either shut down by their supervisors, who basically said it's not your problem, don't worry about it, somebody else must know about this. Or else, in a couple of cases after the war, when people tried to bring truth to power to make people understand, they were literally treated like heretics. It was like a cult over there. They were banished. One guy was told -- it was like the Soviet Union -- he was told he needed psychiatric counseling. He went into work one day, and he was told he had a new office. He was put in the visitors' room, with no secure computer and no phone. Another guy, he was banished to what he called Siberia, an office at the end of a long corridor where there was construction going on. That's their way of dealing with people.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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