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Bob Drogin is the author of the newly released book Curveball, the code name for the Iraqi defector whose pre-war claims about Saddam Hussein’s alleged mobile germ-warfare labs were seized upon by the CIA and Bush administration. Drogin has covered intelligence and national security in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times since 1998. A former foreign correspondent in Asia and Africa, he has won or shared numerous journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, two Robert F. Kennedy Awards, and an Overseas Press Club of America award. Curveball is his first book. I recently spoke to Drogin about the case of Curveball–who currently lives in Germany and whose true name remains unknown–and its significance in paving the way for the Iraq War. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. The subtitle of your book describes Curveball as “the con man who caused a war.” Was his role really that important?
The Curveball case explains the forces at play that led to worst intelligence failure in American history and it also explains how we went down a rabbit hole in Iraq. It’s not the only reason we went into Iraq but when you deconstruct the intelligence, obviously with benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that a predominance of critical intelligence cited by the administration rested on his shoulders. We knew before the war that Saddam had no nuclear infrastructure. On March 7th, 2003 Mohammed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency stood up and said that the famous documents from Niger were “not authentic” and that inspectors in Iraq had found no sign of nuclear infrastructure. Without that, you can’t build a weapon; you can’t do it in your backyard. So then you’re left with the threat of biological and chemical weapons. All of the post-war investigations have concluded that Curveball was the chief source, and essentially the only source, on biological weapons–without him the administration would have had no platform on which to base its assertions about Saddam’s bio-weapons. What we also learned after the war, and what I confirmed with my reporting, was that the chemical weapons analysts at the CIA were very skeptical about whether Saddam had built a new poison gas program. They saw the evidence as ambiguous. But they ramped up their own conclusions when they saw the high confidence in the estimates on bio-weapons. In other words, when they saw the bio guys saying Saddam had weapons, the chemical guys decided that he must have chemical weapons too.
2. How did Curveball end up as such an important source of information for the CIA?
Curveball fled Iraq and by November of 1999 had made his way to Germany and applied for political asylum. He was sent to a refugee-processing center and essentially told to get in line. I later visited the camp, it was a miserable place that looked like a prison. After a month or so there, someone noticed information on his paperwork that said he had been an engineer and had worked for an Iraqi government military program. So they pulled him out of line and began questioning him, and he started talking about bio-weapons and Saddam. The questioning began around Christmas of 1999. Debriefing a defector normally takes a few weeks, maybe a few months for someone high-level. But Curveball was a real problem for them and his debriefing lasted until September of 2001. During that time the Germans shared information with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency but they refused to allow Americans to interview their source. Curveball proved to be very problematic–he kept changing his story, he tried to run away, and he became quite paranoid. Finally they put him in a defector protection program, changed his name, and gave him a new identity. The information he provided was put into intelligence channels, then sat there. After September 11, when there was new interest in Iraq at the White House, his reports were suddenly looked at in a new light. Whereas before the U.S. analysis of Curveball’s information was heavily qualified and skeptical, after September 11 all of the caveats and qualifications fell aside. Suddenly the story told by this one man, who had never been interviewed by the CIA and whose information had never been verified, was accepted as gospel. In October of 2002, a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq concluded that Saddam had an active biological weapons program. All of the info about that came from Curveball, even though the CIA had still never interviewed him and didn’t even know his name.
3. What were Curveball’s major allegations?
That Saddam had built an armada of trucks that could drive around the countryside churning out anthrax, botulinum toxin, and other deadly microbes and toxins, and do it with a great degree of sophistication. He said he worked at one of the places where the trucks were built and that similar vehicles were being produced at five other locations in Iraq. He further claimed that six of these units were already roaming around Iraq. The CIA took a WAG, which is a term of art that means a “Wild Assed Guess,” and made the ludicrous conclusion that these trucks could run nonstop for six months. They came up with increasingly dramatic and frightening predictions before the war, saying that Saddam had greater capacity and stockpiles than he did before the Persian Gulf War. In January 2003, President Bush gave his State of the Union address. It’s mostly remembered for those sixteen words on Niger but he also for first time publicly cited intelligence from Curveball. A week later Colin Powell made his famous presentation at the UN Security Council, and information from Curveball was the absolute highlight of his speech. He even showed pictures of the supposed bio-trucks. But the trucks never existed–it was all an illusion. The CIA didn’t just fail to connect the dots, it made up the dots.
4. What were Curveball’s motives in making this stuff up?
Curveball was a poor man with a modest ambition: he fled tyranny to find a better life. I actually found myself sympathetic to him–my great-grandparents did the same thing at the turn of the 20th century. He was not trying to start a war. He went to Germany and told a few lies to try to get asylum. German officials told me that every Iraqi told lies to get asylum. In this case, other people, especially in Washington, twisted those lies to the point that the U.S. President and secretary of state were quoting him to the world. That wasn’t his fault. In the end, the flood of mistranslations and misperceptions proved more important than anything he actually said. The story he told was that he worked on vehicles that contained German-made equipment, which is one reason the Germans were very nervous about his story and why they never let the Americans talk to Curveball directly. He said that the whole program was run under the guise of a civilian agricultural program to improve seeds. And what happened was that three days after Colin Powell’s speech, UN teams went directly to the site where Curveball had worked and they found, among other things, three trailers filled with German equipment. But they were just trailers, they weren’t bio-weapons trucks. As with every really good lie, there was a kernel of truth. You could check some pieces and substantiate it but when you put it all together it didn’t add up.
5. So did the CIA screw up or did the Bush Administration cherry-pick the intelligence it was given?
The real scandal here was the intelligence failure. The administration didn’t have to cherry-pick intelligence to go to war, because the CIA served it to them on a silver platter. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is supposed to be the gold standard for U.S. intelligence. It typically takes about six months or a year to produce a major NIE. It’s a deliberative process and the final product is usually filled with caveats. The Iraq NIE of late 2002 was produced in 19 days. It’s too simple to assume that three guys sitting in a room caused the war. The causes have more to do with bureaucracy and groupthink. Time and again CIA leaders ignored contrary evidence, brushed aside complaints, and even punished skeptics. Those who tried to bring truth to power were treated like heretics. There was tawdry ambition, frightening ineptitude and spineless leadership
6. So are you arguing that Bush was a victim of the CIA?
A starting point for me is that George Bush led the country to war and is solely responsible for that as President and Commander in Chief. But the debate before the war was not really about whether Saddam had WMD. The Iraqis were the only ones saying there were no WMDs and it turns out they were telling the truth. Otherwise, intelligence organizations and governments universally believed that he did have them, even the French and the Germans, though they thought he was in a box and so it wasn’t worth going to war. What I tried to do was figure out what went wrong and how and agency that spent $45 billion a year (and more now) led us into the worst foreign policy nightmare of the past forty years. Never before has American sacrificed so much blood, treasure, and prestige in pursuit of a delusion, and Curveball was a big part of the reason for that.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”