Tuesday, July 3, 2007

"Curveball" Part 1 of 3

From an article that was originally published on Sunday, November 20, 2005, by the Los Angeles Times, is this story entitled How U.S. Fell Under the Spell of 'Curveball'. The original link to the LA Times no longer works, but you can do an Internet search and find the article reproduced; also, other news services carried stories on Curveball. I reproduce this version here:

The Iraqi informant's German handlers say they had told U.S. officials that his information was 'not proven,' and were shocked when President Bush and Colin L. Powell used it in key prewar speeches

by Bob Drogin and John Goetz

BERLIN — The German intelligence officials responsible for one of the most important informants on Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of mass destruction say that the Bush administration and the CIA repeatedly exaggerated his claims during the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Five senior officials from Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, or BND, said in interviews with The Times that they warned U.S. intelligence authorities that the source, an Iraqi defector code-named Curveball, never claimed to produce germ weapons and never saw anyone else do so.

According to the Germans, President Bush mischaracterized Curveball's information when he warned before the war that Iraq had at least seven mobile factories brewing biological poisons. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also misstated Curveball's accounts in his prewar presentation to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, the Germans said.

Curveball's German handlers for the last six years said his information was often vague, mostly secondhand and impossible to confirm.

"This was not substantial evidence," said a senior German intelligence official. "We made clear we could not verify the things he said."

The German authorities, speaking about the case for the first time, also said that their informant suffered from emotional and mental problems. "He is not a stable, psychologically stable guy," said a BND official who supervised the case. "He is not a completely normal person," agreed a BND analyst.

Curveball was the chief source of inaccurate prewar U.S. accusations that Baghdad had biological weapons, a commission appointed by Bush reported this year. The commission did not interview Curveball, who still insists his story was true, or the German officials who handled his case.

The German account emerges as the White House is lashing out at domestic critics, particularly Senate Democrats, over allegations the administration manipulated intelligence to go to war. Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney called such claims reprehensible and pernicious.

In Congress, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is resuming its long-stalled investigation of the administration's use of prewar intelligence. Committee members said last week that the Curveball case would be a key part of their review. House Democrats are calling for a similar inquiry.

An investigation by The Times based on interviews since May with about 30 current and former intelligence officials in the U.S., Germany, England, Iraq and the United Nations, as well as other experts, shows that U.S. bungling in the Curveball case was worse than official reports have disclosed.

The White House, for example, ignored evidence gathered by United Nations weapons inspectors shortly before the war that disproved Curveball's account. Bush and his aides issued increasingly dire warnings about Iraq's biological weapons before the war even though intelligence from Curveball had not changed in two years.

At the Central Intelligence Agency, officials embraced Curveball's account even though they could not confirm it or interview him until a year after the invasion. They ignored multiple warnings about his reliability before the war, punished in-house critics who provided proof that he had lied and refused to admit error until May 2004, 14 months after the invasion.

After the CIA vouched for Curveball's accounts, Bush declared in his 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq had "mobile biological weapons labs" designed to produce "germ warfare agents." Bush cited the mobile germ factories in at least four prewar speeches and statements, and other world leaders repeated the charge.

Powell also highlighted Curveball's "eyewitness" account when he warned the United Nations Security Council on the eve of war that Iraq's mobile labs could brew enough weapons-grade microbes "in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people."

The senior BND officer who supervised Curveball's case said he was aghast when he watched Powell misstate Curveball's claims as a justification for war.

"We were shocked," the official said. "Mein Gott! We had always told them it was not proven…. It was not hard intelligence."

In a telephone interview, Powell said that George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, and his top deputies personally assured him before his U.N. speech that U.S. intelligence on the mobile labs was "solid." Since then, Powell said, the case "has totally blown up in our faces."

Many officials interviewed for this report, including the German intelligence officers, spoke on the condition they not be identified because they were bound by secrecy agreements, were not authorized to speak to the news media or because the case involved classified sources and methods.

Curveball lives under an assumed name in southern Germany. The BND has given him a furnished apartment, language lessons and a stipend generous enough that he does not need to work. His wife has emigrated from Iraq, and they have an infant daughter.

The BND has relocated him twice because of concerns that his life was in danger. They still watch him closely. "He is difficult to integrate" into local society, said a BND operations officer. "We are still busy with him."

Curveball could not be interviewed for this report. BND officials threatened last summer to strip him of his salary, housing and protection if he agreed to meet with The Times.

"We told him, 'If you talk to anyone on the outside… you are out and you get no more help from us,' " the BND supervisor said.

CIA officials now concede that the Iraqi fused fact, research he gleaned on the Internet and what his former co-workers called "water cooler gossip" into a nightmarish fantasy that played on U.S. fears after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Curveball's motive, CIA officials said, was not to start a war. He simply was seeking a German visa.

German journey

The Curveball chronicle began in November 1999, when the dark-haired Iraqi in his late 20s flew into Munich's Franz Josef Strauss Airport with a tourist visa.

The Baghdad-born chemical engineer promptly applied for political asylum in Arabic and halting English. He told German immigration officials he had embezzled Iraqi government money and faced prison or worse if sent home.

The Germans sent him to Zirndorf, a refugee center near Nuremberg once used for Soviet defectors, where he joined a long line of Iraqi exiles seeking German visas.

Abruptly, his story changed.

He once led a team, he told BND officers, that equipped trucks to brew deadly bio-agents. He named six sites where Iraq might be hiding biological warfare vehicles. Three already were operating. A farm program to boost crop yields was cover for Iraq's new biological weapons production program, he said.

Germany provided Europe's most generous benefits to Iraqi refugees, and several hundred arrived each month. But few had useful credible intelligence on Baghdad's suspected weapons programs. Intelligence agents became accustomed to exaggerated claims.

"The Iraqis were adept at feeding us what we wanted to hear," said a former official of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency who helped debrief about 50 Iraqi emigres in Germany before the war. "Most of it was garbage."

But for this defector, the Germans assigned two case officers as well as a team of chemists, biologists and other experts. They debriefed him from January 2000 to September 2001.

Since the Iraqi had arrived in Munich, U.S. liaison with German intelligence was assigned to the local DIA team. Their clandestine operating base was an elegant 19th century mansion known as Munich House. There he was assigned his codename: Curveball.

The base cryptonym "ball" was used to signify weapons, two former U.S. intelligence officials said. An earlier informant in Germany, for example, was called Matchball.

In DIA files, Iraqi sources were listed as "red" if U.S. intelligence could interview them. Curveball was a "blue" source, meaning the Germans would not permit U.S. access to him.

Curveball said he hated Americans, the Germans explained.

As a result, the DIA — like the BND — never tried to check Curveball's background or verify his accounts before sending reports to other U.S. intelligence agencies. Despite that failure, CIA analysts accepted the incoming reports as credible and quickly passed them to senior policymakers.

The reports had problems, however. The Germans usually interviewed Curveball in Arabic, using a translator, although the Iraqi sometimes spoke English.

"But a case officer wants to speak directly to his source," said the senior BND officer. "Curveball began to learn German, and thus there was a big mix [of languages] that went on. This explains some of the confusion."

It got worse, like a children's game of "telephone," in which information gets increasingly distorted. The BND sent German summaries of their English and Arabic interview reports to Munich House and to British intelligence. The DIA team translated the German back to English and prepared its own summaries. Those went to DIA's directorate for human intelligence, at a high-rise office in Clarendon, Va.

Clarendon passed 95 DIA reports to the Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Center, known as WINPAC, at CIA headquarters in nearby Langley. Experts there called other specialists, including an independent laboratory, to help evaluate the data. Spy satellites were directed to focus on Curveball's sites. CIA artists prepared detailed drawings from Curveball's crude sketches.

The system led to confusion, not clarity.

"Analysts were studying drawings made by artists working from descriptions by a guy we couldn't talk to," explained a former senior CIA official who helped supervise the case and the postwar investigation. "It was hard to figure out."

"Our fear is that as it was analyzed and translated and reanalyzed and retranslated, and comments got added, it could have gotten sexed up by accident," agreed a former CIA operations official.

The British Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, blamed the BND for omitting what a Parliamentary inquiry called "significant detail" in the reports they sent to London. At issue were Curveball's trucks.

In an e-mail to The Times, Robin Butler, head of the British inquiry into prewar intelligence, said "incomplete reporting" by the BND misled the British to assume the trucks could produce weapons-grade bio-agents such as anthrax spores. But Curveball only spoke of producing a liquid slurry unsuitable for bombs or warheads.

At the CIA, bio-warfare experts viewed the defector's reports as sophisticated and technically feasible. They also matched the analysts' expectations.

After the 1991 Gulf War, U.N. inspectors struggled to unravel Baghdad's secret biological weapons program. They speculated that the regime produced germs in mobile factories to evade detection.

American U-2 spy planes looked for suspicious vehicles, and U.N. teams raided parking lots.

In 1994, acting on tips from Israeli intelligence, U.N. inspectors even stopped red-and-white trucks in Baghdad marked: "Tip Top Ice Cream." Inside they found ice cream.

"We thought they could easily transport other materials around," said Rolf Ekeus, who headed the U.N. inspectors from 1991 to 1997.

Finally, in mid-1995, Iraq officials admitted that before the Gulf War they had secretly produced 30,000 liters of anthrax, botulinum toxin, aflatoxin and other lethal bio-agents. They had deployed hundreds of germ-filled munitions and researched other deadly diseases for military use. They denied they ever had mobile production facilities.

Curveball's story to the Germans in 2000 and 2001 neatly dovetailed with that history and continuing CIA suspicions.

The Iraqi defector said he was recruited out of engineering school at Baghdad University in 1994 by Iraq's Military Industrial Commission, headed by Saddam Hussein's son-in-law Hussein Kamil. He said he went to work the following year for "Dr. Germ," British-trained microbiologist Rihab Rashid Taha, to build bio-warfare vehicles. Kamil and Taha had headed the pre-1991 bio-weapons program.

Curveball said he was assigned to the Chemical Engineering and Design Center, behind the Rashid Hotel in central Baghdad.

That also fit a pattern, as the center provided a cover story for Iraq's first bio-warfare program.

Curveball said he had helped assemble one truck-mounted germ factory in 1997 at Djerf al Nadaf, a tumble-down cluster of warehouses in a gritty industrial area 10 miles southeast of Baghdad. He helped the Germans build a scale model of the facility, showing how vehicles were hidden in a two-story building — and how they entered and exited on either end.

He designed laboratory equipment for the trucks, he said, providing dimensions, temperature ranges and other details. He sketched diagrams of how the system operated, and identified more than a dozen co-workers.

But the story had holes.

"His information to us was very vague," said the senior German intelligence official. "He could not say if these things functioned, if they worked."

Curveball also said he could not identify what microbes the trucks were designed to produce.

"He didn't know … whether it was anthrax or not," said the BND supervisor. "He had nothing to do with actual production of [a biological] agent. He was in the equipment testing phase. And the equipment worked."

David Kay, who read the Curveball file when he headed the CIA's search for hidden weapons in 2003, said Curveball's accounts were maddeningly murky.

"He was not in charge of trucks or production," Kay said. "He had nothing to do with actual production of biological agent. He never saw them actually produce [an] agent."

But the CIA and the White House overlooked the holes in the story.

In a February 2003 radio address and statement, Bush warned that "first-hand witnesses have informed us that Iraq has at least seven mobile factories" for germ warfare. With these, Bush said, "Iraq could produce within just months hundreds of pounds of biological poisons."

Curveball had told the Germans that Taha's team planned to build mobile factories at six sites across Iraq, from Numaniyah in the south to Tikrit in the north. But he visited only Djerf al Nadaf, he said. His information about the other sites, he told the Germans, was second-hand.

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