Tuesday, July 3, 2007

"Curveball" Part 2 of 3

(Continuing to quote the article cited in Part 1)

Flawed witness

Curveball's reports were highly valued in Washington because the CIA had no Iraqi spies with access to weapons programs at the time.

One detail particularly impressed the CIA: Curveball's report of a 1998 germ weapons accident at Djerf al Nadaf. Powell cited the incident in his prewar U.N. speech. An "eyewitness" was "at the site" when an accident occurred, and 12 technicians "died from exposure to biological agents," Powell said.

Lawrence B. Wilkerson, then Powell's chief of staff, said senior CIA officials told Powell the "principal source had not only worked in mobile labs but had seen an accident and had been injured in the accident…. This gave more credibility to it."

But German intelligence officials said the CIA was wrong. Curveball only "heard rumors of an accident," the BND supervisor said. "He gave a third-hand account."

The incident led to the first questions inside the CIA about Curveball's credibility. In May 2000, the Germans allowed a doctor from the CIA's counter-proliferation branch to meet Curveball and draw a blood sample. Antibodies in the blood could indicate if he had been exposed to anthrax or other unusual pathogens in the accident.

The medical tests were inconclusive, but the meeting was memorable.

The BND, insisting Curveball spoke no English and would not meet Americans, introduced the doctor as a German. The CIA physician remained silent, because he was not fluent in German. He was surprised, he later told others, that Curveball spoke "excellent English" to others in the room.

Moreover, Curveball was "very emotional, very excitable," the doctor told one colleague. And although it was early morning, Curveball smelled of liquor and looked "very sick" from a stiff hangover.

German intelligence officials said Curveball didn't have a drinking problem. But they had other concerns.

Like many defectors, Curveball at first seemed eager to please. He thanked his new friends and laughed at their jokes. He was charming and clearly intelligent, providing complex engineering details.

But as the questions intensified, Curveball grew moody and irritable. His memory began to fail. He confused places and dates. He fretted about his personal safety, about his parents and wife in Baghdad, and about his future in Germany.

"He was between two worlds, sometimes cooperative, sometimes aggressive," said the BND supervisor. "He was not an easy-going guy."

Curveball largely ceased cooperating in 2001 after he was granted asylum, officials said. He would refuse to meet for days, and then weeks, at a time. He also increasingly asked for money.

"He knew he was important," said the BND analyst. "He was not an idiot."

Defectors are often problem sources. Viewed as traitors back home, many embellish their stories to gain favor with spy services. In the shadow world of intelligence, Curveball's inability or reluctance to provide many details actually helped convince analysts he was telling the truth.

Had Curveball claimed expertise with biological weapons or direct access to other secret programs, said the BND analyst, "It would be easier to assume he was lying."

A former British official involved with the case said Curveball's behavior should be seen through another lens. He is convinced that Curveball was under intense stress, terrified both that his visa scam would be exposed, and that his lies would be used to start a war.

"He must have been scared out of his mind," he said.

But concerns about Curveball's reliability were growing. In early 2001, the CIA's Berlin station chief sent a message to headquarters noting that a BND official had complained that the Iraqi was "out of control," and couldn't be located, Senate investigators found.

MI6 cabled the CIA that British intelligence "is not convinced that Curveball is a wholly reliable source" and that "elements of [his] behavior strike us as typical of ... fabricators," the presidential commission reported.

British intelligence also warned that spy satellite images taken in 1997 when Curveball claimed to be working at Djerf al Nadaf conflicted with his descriptions. The photos showed a wall around most of the main warehouse, clearly blocking trucks from getting in or out.

U.S. and German officials feared that Ahmad Chalabi had coached Curveball after the defector said his brother had worked as a bodyguard for the controversial Iraqi exile leader. But they found no evidence.

Curveball "had very little contact with his [bodyguard] brother," the BND supervisor said. "They are not close."

More problematic were the three sources the CIA said had corroborated Curveball's story. Two had ties to Chalabi. All three turned out to be frauds.

The most important, a former major in the Iraqi intelligence service, was deemed a liar by the CIA and DIA. In May 2002, a fabricator warning was posted in U.S. intelligence databases.

Powell said he was never warned, during three days of intense briefings at CIA headquarters before his U.N. speech, that he was using material that both the DIA and CIA had determined was false. "As you can imagine, I was not pleased," Powell said. "What really made me not pleased was they had put out a burn notice on this guy, and people who were even present at my briefings knew it."

But BND officials said their U.S. colleagues repeatedly assured them Curveball's story had been corroborated.

"They kept on telling us there were three or four sources," said the senior German intelligence official. "They said it many times."

Behind the scenes, the CIA stepped up pressure to interview Curveball. The BND finally accepted a compromise in the fall of 2002. They let CIA analysts send questions, but they could not interview the Iraqi.

The frustration was intense at the CIA. But it wasn't surprising.

Relations long have been rocky between the CIA and BND, officials in both spy services acknowledged. The friction dates to the Cold War, when the BND complained it was treated as a second-class agency.

Spy services jealously guard their sources, and the BND was not obligated to share access to Curveball. "We would never let them see one of ours," said the former CIA operations officer.

Intelligence shift

Despite the lack of access or any new reports from Curveball, U.S. intelligence sharply upgraded its assessments of Iraq's biological weapons before the war. The shift is reflected in declassified portions of National Intelligence Estimates, which are produced as the authoritative judgment of the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies.

In May 1999, before Curveball defected, a national intelligence estimate on worldwide biological warfare programs said Iraq was "probably continuing work to develop and produce BW [bio-warfare] agents," and could restart production in six months.

In December 2000, after a year of Curveball's reports, another national intelligence estimate cautiously noted that "new intelligence" had caused U.S. intelligence "to adjust our assessment upward" and "suggests Baghdad has expanded'' its bio-weapons program.

But the caveats disappeared after the Sept. 11 attacks and the still-unsolved mailing of anthrax-laced letters to several U.S. states.

Iraq "continues to produce at least … three BW agents" and its mobile germ factories provide "capabilities surpassing the pre-Gulf War era," the CIA weapons center warned in October 2001. The CIA followed up with a public White Paper and briefings for the White House and three Senate committees.

The CIA hadn't seen new intelligence on Iraq's germ weapons. Instead, analysts had estimated what they believed would be the maximum output from seven mobile labs — only one of which Curveball said he had seen — operating nonstop or six months. But even Curveball's description of a single lab was a fiction.

Similar misjudgments filled the most important prewar intelligence document, the National Intelligence Estimate issued in October 2002. It was sent to Congress days before lawmakers voted to authorize use of military force if Hussein refused to give up his illicit arsenal.

For the first time, the new estimate warned with "high confidence" that Iraq "has now established large-scale, redundant and concealed BW agent production capabilities."

It said "all key aspects" of Iraq's offensive BW program "are active and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War."

The assessment was based "largely on information from a single source — Curveball," the presidential commission concluded. It was one of "the most important and alarming" judgments in the document, the panel added. And it was utterly wrong.

A handful of bio-analysts in the weapons center, part of the CIA's intelligence directorate, controlled the Curveball reports and remained confident in their veracity. But across the CIA bureaucracy, the clandestine service officers who usually handle defectors and other human sources were increasingly skeptical.

Tyler Drumheller, then the head of CIA spying in Europe, called the BND station chief at the German embassy in Washington in September 2002 seeking access to Curveball.

Drumheller and the station chief met for lunch at the German's favorite seafood restaurant in upscale Georgetown. The German officer warned that Curveball had suffered a mental breakdown and was "crazy," the now-retired CIA veteran recalled.

"He said, first off, 'They won't let you see him,' " Drumheller said. " 'Second, there are a lot of problems. Principally, we think he's probably a fabricator.'"

The BND station chief, contacted by The Times during the summer, said he could not "discuss any of this." He has since been reassigned back to Germany. His BND supervisors declined to discuss the lunch meeting.

Drumheller, a veteran of 26 years in the CIA clandestine service, said he and several aides repeatedly raised alarms after the lunch in tense exchanges with CIA analysts working on the Curveball case.

"The fact is, there was a lot of yelling and screaming about this guy," said James Pavitt, then chief of clandestine services, who retired from the CIA in August 2004. "My people were saying, 'We think he's a stinker.'"

The analysts refused to back down. In one meeting, the chief analyst fiercely defended Curveball's account, saying she had confirmed on the Internet many of the details he cited. "Exactly, it's on the Internet!" the operations group chief for Germany, now a CIA station chief in Europe, exploded in response. "That's where he got it too," according to a participant at the meeting.

Other warnings poured in. The CIA Berlin station chief wrote that the BND had "not been able to verify" Curveball's claims. The CIA doctor who met Curveball wrote to his supervisor shortly before Powell's speech questioning "the validity" of the Iraqi's information.

"Keep in mind that this war is going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say and the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about," his supervisor wrote back, Senate investigators found. The supervisor later told them he was only voicing his opinion that war appeared inevitable.

Tenet has denied receiving warnings that Curveball might be a fabricator. He declined to be interviewed for this report.

Powell said that at the time he prepared for his U.N. speech in early 2003, no one warned him of the debate inside the CIA over Curveball's credibility. "I was being as careful as I possibly could," he said.

Working from a CIA conference room adjoining CIA Director Tenet's seventh-floor office suite, Powell and his aides repeatedly challenged the credibility of CIA evidence — including the mobile germ factories.

"We pressed as hard as we could, and the CIA stood by it adamantly," Powell recalled. "This is one we really pressed on, really spent a lot time on…. We knew how important it was."

No smoking gun

On Feb. 5, 2003, Powell told the packed U.N. chamber that his account was based on "solid sources" and "facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." "We thought maybe they had the smoking gun," recalled the BND supervisor, who watched Powell on TV. "My gut feeling was the Americans must have so much from reconnaissance planes and satellites, from infiltrated spotter teams from Special Forces, and other systems. We thought they must have tons of stuff."

Instead, Powell emphasized Curveball's "eyewitness" account, calling it "one of the most worrisome things that emerge from the thick intelligence file."

A congressional staffer on intelligence said she realized the case was weak when she saw Powell display CIA drawings of trucks but not photos. "A drawing isn't evidence," she said. "It's hearsay."

Powell's speech failed to sway many diplomats, but it had an immediate impact in Baghdad.

"The Iraqis scoured the country for trailers," said a former CIA official who helped interrogate Iraqi officials and scientists in U.S. custody after the war. "They were in real panic mode. They were terrified that this was real, and they couldn't explain it."

An explanation was available within days, but U.S. officials ignored it.

On Feb. 8, three days after Powell's speech, the U.N.'s Team Bravo conducted the first search of Curveball's former work site. The raid by the American-led biological weapons experts lasted 3 1/2 hours. It was long enough to prove Curveball had lied.

Djerf al Nadaf was on a dusty road lined with auto repair shops and small factories, near the former Tuwaitha nuclear facility and a sewage-filled tributary of the Tigris River.

Behind a high wall, a two-story grain silo adjoined the warehouse that Curveball had identified as the truck assembly facility.

"That's the one where the mobile labs were supposed to be," said a former U.N. inspector who worked with the U.S. and other intelligence agencies. "That's the one we were interested in."

The doors were locked, so Boston microbiologist Rocco Casagrande climbed on a white U.N. vehicle, yanked open a metal flap in the wall, and crawled inside. After scrambling over a huge pile of corn, he scraped two samples of residue from cracks in the cement floor, two more from holes in the wall and one from a discarded shower basin outside.

Back at the Canal Hotel that afternoon, he tested the samples for bacterial or viral DNA. He was searching for any signs that germs were produced at the site or any traces of the 1998 bio-weapons accident. Test results were all negative.

"No threat agents detected," Casagrande wrote in his computer journal that night. "Got to climb on a jeep and crawl into buildings and play second-story man, but otherwise spent the day in the lab."

A British inspector, who had helped bring the intelligence file from New York, found another surprise.

Curveball had said the germ trucks could enter the warehouse from either end. But there were no garage doors and a solid, 6-foot-high wall surrounded most of the building. The wall British intelligence saw in 1997 satellite photos clearly made impossible the traffic patterns Curveball had described.

U.N. teams also raided the other sites Curveball had named. They interrogated managers, seized documents and used ground-penetrating radar, according to U.N. reports.

The U.N. inspectors "could find nothing to corroborate Curveball's reporting," the CIA's Iraq Survey Group reported last year.

On March 7, 2003, Hans Blix, the chief U.N. inspector, told the Security Council that a series of searches had found "no evidence" of mobile biological production facilities in Iraq. It drew little notice at the time.

The invasion of Iraq began two weeks later.

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