November 25, 2007

Bob Drogin, Curveball

In 2003 Colin Powell laid out to the Security Council a series of facts about the Iraqi program to build weapons of mass destruction that he claimed the United States and its allies had discovered. Powell's statement was at its most convincing when he referred to the construction of numerous trucks by Saddam to carry biological agent around Iraq. All of that depended Powell said upon three sources, but the three sources swiftly became one when it was found that two of them were frauds. Indeed as Bob Drogin proves in a recent book, almost everything Powell said about Biological weapons depended on things that the CIA had inferred from one source. Everything he said about chemical weapons depended on that evidence being so strong and the chemical analysts presuming that if Saddam had a biological program he must have a chemical one. Ultimately the conviction of the CIA and of Colin Powell himself in the case depended upon one source- one solitary man who was held not by the Americans but by the Germans in Munich. The man's name is still a secret and noone knows it- his codename was Curveball. Bob Drogin has just written a fascinating book about the case.

Curveball arrived in Germany in 1999 and claimed asylum. Once there as an Iraqi he naturally gravitated towards the German intelligence service, the BND, who interviewed him intensively about his past in Saddam's Iraq. They had noticed that he claimed on entry to Germany to having been a chemical engineer and when they interviewed him, he told them he had been part of Saddam's biological weapons program and gave them details of it. The Germans were persuaded and told other intelligence agencies about Curveball, though they refused to let anyone else interview him- particularly the CIA. The BND and the CIA had historically had awful relations with each other- since the second world war the CIA beleived that the Germans were filled with communist spies and the Germans resented the Americans' obvious lack of trust in them. Personal matters such as CIA privileges after 1990 in Germany and their efforts to force out a German attache in Washington didn't make things better either.

Bad relations between the intelligence services of the two countries meant that Curveball was interviewed by the Germans on their own- only one American came into contact with him until 2004. The Germans interviewed him over a two year period running from 1999 until 2001, by 2001 Curveball was going through a mental breakdown and his story was unravelling. He was inconsistant and seemed to be confusing things. The Germans told other intelligence agencies about him, they told them that he was unreliable and then let it lie. Things had gone cold- Curveball settled in Germany and everything went quiet.

Until that is CIA officers after September 11th and particularly in 2002 began digging up their own files about Saddam's WMD and came across Curveball. They found his evidence interesting and contacted the BND who were non committal, telling the CIA not to trust Curveball. The CIA analysts pressed ahead, what they saw from Curveball they asserted could work, the idea of biological weapons trucks had been referred to once before in 1995 by an Iraqi, there were other sources (later found to be fraudulent) even if they contradicted Curveball and it could be done. There were battles in Langley between the analysts and the operations people. The analysts asserted it could be done, the operations team wanted to know more about the source. Those battles went right up into the heart of the bureacracy and ultimately George Tenet's immediate staff decided that the analysts won, they needed to produce WMD for a White House which was readying for war and this was the peice of evidence they needed.

Collin Powell arrived in the beggining of 2003 to work over his speech with Tenet and his staff. Powell dismissed almost all the intelligence that he had received from the White House, he and the CIA thought it was laughable relying on evidence from the discredited Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. Powell needed evidence and he wanted it to be rock solid, so he turned to Tenet and Tenet gave him Curveball. Tenet told Powell that Curveball had been checked out, that he had been passed as a good source despite the fact that Tenet's Director of European Operations, Tyler Drumheller, had phoned him that morning to tell him that the source was unreliable. Tenet assured Powell that it could go in the speech and Powell made the famous speech, using artist's impressions to convey the scale of one of these bio warfare trucks.

In the German intelligence agency the reaction was one of stunned fury. They sat there in absolute astonishment as Powell produced evidence that they knew was wrong and furthermore had told the Americans was wrong. The top German spy in Washington had gone as far as to phone his American contact- Tyler Drumheller- to tell him this. But Drumheller had lost the bureacratic battles inside the CIA, lost them because Tenet and his juniors knew that the message that Curveball was a fake would be unacceptable to a White House that was geared up for war. If the Germans couldn't beleive it then neither could the weapons inspectors- especially when they started looking at the sites Curveball had named. Curveball named seven sites and Blix's team went to everyone and found nothing. At the central site he named, they found a wall that prohibited the movement of any large vehicle- a wall that they knew had been there since 1997 because they had satallite photographs.

After the war was over, the US eventually organised a team to start inspecting the sites that they had identified as possible stores for WMD. Some of those sites had been identified from satallite evidence- often the satallite images were just of circular chicken coops- so much so that weapons searchers had t shirts engraved with 'Ballistic Chicken Farm Inspection Team' on the front. At other times steel drums for drying corn had been identified as silos filled with missiles. The Vice President's Chief of Staff Scooter Libby woke David Kay, the chief US weapons inspector, up at 2 in the morning demanding that he search a place in Iraq for WMD- Kay looked at a map and the coordinates Libby had given him were in Libya. Everything kept coming back to Curveball and his evidence but no evidence for his point appeared (save for two trucks originally labelled by none other than George Bush as trucks for the transport of biological agent, and later found to be trucks used for the transport of seeds).

So David Kay and his team started to investigate Curveball himself and what they found stunned them. He hadn't been a chemical weapons engineer, he had been a chemical engineer working in agriculture. He had described meticulously the Iraqi method of distributing seed not anthrax and everything he said about trucks was true only they were never used for WMD, just for agriculture. He had been sacked in the mid nineties and had become a taxi driver. He had a reputation for lying, had spent time in jail for robbery and was an untrustworthy individual. He had made his way to Germany to claim asylum, and wanted to be there to get a mercedes and a nice lifestyle. Everything that they had presumed about him was absolutely and completely wrong. At least one CIA agent almost had a nervous breakdown over the story.

The fact that Drogin has got all this evidence and there is more is stunning. His work is truly impressive as is his skill in telling the tale. Commentators from George Will to Judy Miller have been impressed with what he says. The problem as ever is what it means. Largely Drogin is right in my view to draw attention to the fact that this was a crisis created by an institutional framework. The CIA's heirarchical bureacractic battlefighting meant that people were working towards the will of those at the top. They wanted to impress- finding WMD would impress in the Washington battle. Furthermore the CIA was in constant conflict within itself- operations and analysis despised each other and worked against each other. The Pentagon was seen as the enemy and quite frequently through this the Pentagon and CIA could have seen that Curveball was a fake had they only worked together. Furthermore the CIA was suspicious of the Germans- were they working against the CIA to embarrass it throughout was a question recurring through the minds of various CIA operatives.

This is a fascinating book and story, I reckon there is much more to say about it than we can probe here but it is something that needs talking about. Curveball was a disaster for the CIA, a disaster for the United States because he encouraged a false confidence that WMD were somewhere in the sands of Mesopotamia. The failure of American intelligence in this case not to follow the pictures that they wanted to see, to not fall in love with a story, is something that is very true about the Iraq war.

We are in an uncertain world- and this book reinforces how hard it is to gather good intelligence about that world, and furthermore how much the CIA and Western Intelligence agencies have failed up till now in doing so.


Vino S said...

Interesting to hear that so much of Colin Powell's tale was based on one dodgy source. Goes to show how murky the world of intelligence is. People see what they want to see and so, once the US had decided Iraq had plans to make these weapons, they just looked for evidence to justify this hypothesis.