Curveball: The Iraqi Defector the Bush Team Used to Sell the War

A interview with the author of a new book on the Iraqi defector code-named "Curveball," whose made-up intelligence on Saddam's WMD programs was central to the Bush Administration's case for invasion.
After four years watching the disastrous consequences of the invasion of Iraq unfold, it's easy to forget the atmosphere of panic in which the war was sold to the American public. All the talk of clandestine meetings in Prague, dubious connections between Iraq and 9/11, aluminum tubes and yellowcake from Niger is becoming a memory; it seems ages since we were warned that the "smoking gun" that proved Saddam's deadly intent might be in the form of a mushroom cloud rising from one of America's cities.

Yet it’s important to recall that after all the rhetoric about Saddam Hussein's monstrous legacy and Colin Powell's flashy charts and honey-smooth presentation at the UN, the heart of the Bush administration's case for invading Iraq -- or at least for its claims about massive stockpiles of biological weapons being driven around the country in high-tech mobile labs to avoid detection -- was an Iraqi defector code-named "Curveball."

In CURVEBALL: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War,veteran Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin, who originally broke the story, paints a picture of a desperate refugee who, while trying to gain asylum in Europe, began feeding claims about Saddam's supposed weapons programs to an intelligence community that was under intense pressure from the top to come up with a case for war.

Curveball, who claimed to be an Iraqi chemical engineer with knowledge of even the country's most secret weapons programs, spilled the beans in a big way when debriefed by German intelligence officials. But, as Drogin would later report, he was a twitchy, possibly mentally disturbed drunk who was prone to rapid mood-swings and whose story tended to shift according to what he thought investigators wanted to hear. But despite that fact, and with only the "corroboration" of a few ex-patriots associated with convicted fraudster Ahmed Chalabi, Curveball's claims passed through several layers of often skeptical intelligence professionals and became 'Exhibit A' in the administration's case for war.

Drogin's account is a detailed one from the perspective of an old national security hand, with plenty of inside scoop -- the kind of reporting, brimming with internecine fighting and bureaucratic intrigue, that will give the pundits on both sides of the war some new grist for debate. It's also a page-turner that feels more like a Tom Clancy novel than most nonfiction.

AlterNet caught up with Drogin in New York City.

Joshua Holland: You've described a very unstable character, and reported that there was no shortage of people in the intelligence community who expressed deep misgivings about his reliability. Give me a sense of how the story unfolded -- how did his claims get through all those intelligence pros?

Bob Drogin: Well, the CIA heard what it wanted to hear. It saw what it wanted to see. And it told the president what he wanted to hear. Time and again, intelligence officials discounted contradictory information, filled in gaps, and made up the dots to reach the conclusion they wanted. In part, they were caught up in the climate of fear after 9/11 and felt they couldn't afford to underestimate a possible threat. In part, there was a clear understanding by late 2002 that we were going to war and it would make no difference, and probably would hurt your career, if you tried to get in the way. But mostly, I think incompetence and poor leadership allowed unconfirmed and unreliable information to move up the chain of command. Those few intelligence officers who tried to raise red flags, or issue warnings, either were ignored or treated like heretics. And by the time Colin Powell goes to the U.N. to make the case for war, he shows the world artists' conjectures based on analysts' interpretations and extrapolations of Arabic-to-German-to-English translations of summary debriefing reports of interviews with a manic-depressive defector whom the Americans had never met. Tenet told Powell that Curveball's information was ironclad and unassailable. It was a travesty.

Holland: You wrote about the deep distrust between the American intelligence agencies -- especially the CIA -- and their German counterparts. How did that contribute to the debacle?

Drogin: I became fascinated by the mostly unknown, and truly sordid history between the CIA and its German counterpart, the BND. U.S. authorities chose one of Hitler's top spymasters, a senior figure in the Nazi high command, to start and run the West German intelligence service after World War II. It became a rat line for SS, Gestapo and even members of Adolph Eichmann's staff. Partly as a result, the BND was repeatedly penetrated by East German and other Soviet bloc forces, and it repeatedly betrayed U.S. and other Western intelligence operations. By the time the Berlin Wall came down, there were just decades of distrust and resentment between them. The new German government tried to reign in the CIA, which enjoyed almost extra-legal powers, and it produced a series of embarrassing scandals on both sides. That was the state of play when Curveball defected to Germany in 1999.

During the interrogation period, Curveball's BND case officer remembered the bad old days and refused to allow the Americans to interview his source. It was a matter of pride for him and his colleagues. So they came up with a silly lie - that Curveball spoke no English and hated Americans. Actually he liked Americans. And he spoke better English than German. There was another problem at a higher level. After 9/11, the Bush administration repeatedly blamed German authorities for not stopping the Hamburg Cell led by Mohammed Atta. The head of the German intelligence system during Curveball was the former Hamburg police chief. And this guy deeply resented the notion that the Americans blamed him for 9/11. He didn't trust the CIA -- didn't like them -- and it really colored his thinking.

After the Curveball story broke, of course, the CIA tried to blame the Germans for their unwillingness to let them meet Curveball. That was pure spin, or disinformation. The CIA would never let the BND meet an important CIA source, either. The CIA won't even let other U.S. intelligence agencies interview a CIA source. The fact is the U.S. went to war after relying in part on information from a guy they had never met, so they've tried really hard to blame others.

Holland: As an old hand covering national security, do you think anything has changed in that respect? You, know, as a result of the agency's experience with Curveball?

Drogin: Not really. What happened in this case was a systemic failure that took place at multiple levels over a period of years. The most dramatic changes took place immediately after 9/11, when all the caveats about Curveball simply disappeared from classified reports. The secrecy and compartmentalization that permeates intelligence meant that it became increasingly difficult for anyone to know for sure what Curveball really said, or whether it was corroborated, or if any of his information was true. I don't see that any of the post-war reorganization schemes, or the new bureaucracy under the director of national intelligence, makes that less likely.

Holland: I guess the big question that will surely be debated again with your book is to what degree the Bush administration manipulated the intelligence to get us into a war with Iraq. You're surely no apologist for Bush, but the subtitle of your book suggests that Curveball -- or, more accurately, bad intelligence -- led to the invasion. And while you say in the book that U.S. officials "twisted and magnified his account in grotesque ways," you also told Harper's that it was more an intelligence failure than a case of "cherry-picking." Can you square that for me? Isn't stripping equivocations and caveats from intelligence reports what "cherry-picking" means?

Drogin: I don't see that as an either-or proposition. Both happened. The White House clearly manipulated information to make its case for war. It exaggerated the supposed link between Saddam and 9/11, for example, going far beyond what the CIA believed. My point to Harpers was that the White House didn't need to "cherry pick" intelligence on Saddam's WMD because the CIA stuff was all wrong. And it flowed into the White House by the truckload. Go back and read Powell's 2003 U.N. speech, or the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, the so-called gold standard of the U.S. intelligence community. Virtually every sentence is wrong. That was the official view. It gave them the pretext for war.

So, to be clear: I believe George Bush will go down as one of the worst presidents in our history. He took the nation into an unnecessary war that is now a tragedy of epic proportions. He alone is responsible for that decision. I assume that my readers understand that. So in the book, I try to unravel the CIA role in this, not absolve Bush. This is not a book about policy, or reform proposals, or internal debates in the White House. I wanted to understand how an intelligence system that spends about $50 billion a year could produce the worst intelligence disaster in our history. The cascade of mistakes in the Curveball case is a big part of the answer.

Holland: I want to go outside of the book for a moment, and take advantage of your experience covering national security and intelligence issues for the Los Angeles Times. A vital question, that I think hasn't been aired accurately is this: how did the debate over Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction become a kind of proxy for the debate about whether Iraq was a threat?

Drogin: I'm not sure what you mean. That was the debate; it wasn't a proxy for anything.

Holland: What I mean is this: if Saddam Hussein had some chemical weapons or some biological weapons -- I think the nuclear case was the thinnest -- but no delivery system and no obvious intent to use them, then he didn't pose a direct threat to the security of the United States. But it seemed like that issue wasn't really debated separate from the question of what he might have had hidden away somewhere.

Drogin: It's a good point, because in my view, having covered the debate -- I went to the UN for every one of Powell's visits, I was writing about this in Washington -- there is a sort of revisionism that's happening now, where people are saying 'well we knew he had no weapons of mass destruction. Everyone knew this -- Bush knew it and the CIA knew it.' But the fact is, if you go back and read what Hans Blix, head of the UN's weapons inspection program, wrote at the time, he didn't say 'Saddam Hussein has no weapons.' Only Saddam was saying that. The French didn't say that, the Germans didn't say that and the Russians didn't say that. The debate in the UN -- and you're right, not in this country -- was not whether he has them, but what is the nature of that threat and how best to counter it. The issues were: how should we deal with it in terms of stronger sanctions, more overflights, getting the inspectors back in, giving them more tools, getting them greater access to things, how much time would they need -- that was the debate at the UN. The problem is -- and this is where the administration was very deceitful -- is that there is a long, long chain of events and activities between having zero weapons and the famous statement that we wouldn't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud. On any of those weapons systems, between intentions, capabilities, programs, stockpiles, delivery systems -- these are very elaborate things but it was all sort of conflated into 'oh my God, he's got WMD, we've got to take him out.'

That debate did not happen here, in part because the intelligence was so bad. It was like witchcraft -- the failure to find proof was considered proof itself. So it became 'not only does he have them, but look at how good he is at hiding them.' So the threat was even greater. Our fears blinded us, I think -- and the politicians used that to engender a state of national concern. But I think -- and I know not everyone agrees with this -- I don't know anyone in the intelligence community, any weapons inspector (except for Scott Ritter who is in a separate category for a number of reasons) who did not believe [Hussein] had ongoing programs of some kind. Whatever they might have been, they thought he had ongoing programs of some kind. Stockpiles were another issue, and a lot of people thought he had so-called "just in time" programs -- that he didn't need to build armories of these things as long as he had a system in place that can create what he needed when he needed it.

But the question was: how great is the threat and how best to counter it and that's where the debate should have been in this country, but we never had it. And you know, people blame the press, but I blame Congress. I mean, I was in Washington and there was no debate. Democrats were running absolutely scared, running with their tails between their legs and the Republicans all lined up behind Bush. And the press can only do so much -- in the end, I'm a reporter and I can't prove a negative. I'm not going to go out and say he doesn't have weapons, I don't see the intelligence, I don't know …

Holland: OK, but the question is: do you think they did an adequate job exploring the context? And specifically around this question, you talk about the debate at the UN … how did we get past the discussion everyone else was having about the appropriate response, and do you think the media did it's job in terms of presenting that …

Drogin: Right, but who's the media here? Define "the media."

Holland: Well, I would say …

Drogin: Did you write about it?

Holland: Yes I did.

Drogin: Well you're the media.

Holland: Yes. The alternative media.

Drogin: Well I wrote about it.

Holland: About whether he was a threat aside from …

Drogin: No, my issue was … I get my hackles up a bit when people say the press failed. What they're sort of saying is: 'The New York Times failed.' And they did. The media is not monolithic, and some outlets were better than others. I think we were very skeptical at the Los Angeles Times, where I work. I mean, should we have done a better job? Of course. Did the New York Times screw up? Or Fox News? Yes. But it's a pretty broad spectrum out there these days and it depends on where you get your information. So I think people mean the New York Times and it's true that they set the agenda. But, honestly … if members of Congress had fought that battle then it would have been covered and the debate would have been there. There's only so much you can do as a reporter to create a debate. You write a story and it gets picked up or it doesn't -- I'm not an editorial writer…

Holland: But 6 out of 10 House Democrats voted against the resolution to go to war, they must have expressed a reason …

Drogin: Do you remember the debate?

Holland: I remember what passed for a debate …

Drogin: Exactly.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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