CIA Was Warned About Defector’s Unreliability
The only American who met a now-discredited Iraqi defector codenamed “Curveball” repeatedly warned the CIA before the war that the Baghdad engineer appeared to be an alcoholic and that his dramatic claims that Saddam Hussein had built a secret fleet of mobile germ weapons factories were not reliable.
In response, the deputy director of the CIA’s Iraqi weapons of mass destruction task force -- part of the agency’s counter-proliferation unit -- suggested in a Feb. 4, 2003, e-mail that such doubts were not welcome at the intelligence agency.
“As I said last night, let’s keep in mind the fact that this war’s going to happen regardless of what Curveball said or didn’t say, and the powers that be probably aren’t terribly interested in whether Curveball knows what he’s talking about,” the CIA official wrote, according to information released Friday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to support the Senate Intelligence Committee’s blistering, 511-page critique of America’s prewar intelligence.
“However, in the interest of truth,” the e-mail continued, “we owe somebody a sentence or two of warning, if you honestly have reservations.”
No evidence suggests such a warning was given, however. And Curveball -- the chief source of repeated U.S. assessments that Iraq had a mobile biological weapons program -- turned out to be a fraud.
The case is highlighted in the voluminous Senate report as a particularly egregious instance of flawed intelligence collection and analysis. No biological weapons, or vehicles to produce them, have been found in Iraq.
On Feb. 5, 2003 -- one day after the CIA official wrote the e-mail that “this war” would happen -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell repeatedly cited Curveball’s information as he painted a graphic portrayal of “biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails” for the U.N. Security Council.
Powell called the alleged germ-producing vehicles “one of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq.”
The Los Angeles Times first reported Curveball’s role in prewar U.S. intelligence in March. The defector, who claimed to be a project engineer who helped supervise the design and production of germ factories in Iraq, had fled to Europe in the late 1990s and was providing information to Germany’s intelligence service by 2000. The Germans then furnished the information to the Pentagon’s Defense Human Intelligence Service, which shared it with the CIA.
The American who met with the Iraqi defector in May 2000 is identified in the Senate report only as a Defense Department “detailee” to the CIA who advised the agency on bio-weapons issues. No other U.S. intelligence official was allowed to meet or interview Curveball -- or even meet regularly with his German debriefers -- before the war.
One result was that the CIA was never sure what Curveball, who spoke English, really was saying in the 112 reports they received from his debriefings.
According to the Senate report, Curveball spoke in English and Arabic to his German interrogators, who then translated his comments into German. The Pentagon intelligence officers working with the Germans then “translated the reports back into English” before passing them to other U.S. intelligence agencies.
“The translation process ... led to some misunderstandings,” the Senate report noted.
Many of the details in the Senate committee report concerning Curveball were deleted by the CIA on grounds that publication might compromise intelligence sources and methods. But between the blacked-out words, paragraphs and pages, a picture emerged of surprising carelessness concerning the claims that ultimately would provide a crucial part of the White House case for war.
According to the report, the Defense Human Intelligence Service, known as the DHS, began reporting in early 2000 that an Iraqi defector claimed to have worked on a project in Iraq to construct seven mobile biological production units capable of spewing out anthrax and other lethal pathogens.
By 2002, the CIA had spy satellite photos of buildings on farms that the defector had said were used to hide the germ production trucks. A CIA analyst told the Senate committee that the high-altitude pictures of buildings were considered corroboration, even though “we couldn’t find any evidence of the [mobile bio-production] plants being there.”
But the Senate report said the DHS, which had primary responsibility for handling the Curveball case, “limited themselves to a largely administrative role, translating and passing along reports” from Germany. The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, in turn, said the information “appears to be of major significance” despite “reporting inconsistencies.”
The one American who had met Curveball in May 2000 expressed his doubts, however.
The unidentified official “thought this guy might be an alcoholic and that bothered him a lot,” a CIA analyst familiar with the case told Senate investigators. The official repeatedly “locked horns” with the CIA’s lead analyst on Iraq’s biological weapons “over the reliability” of the defector’s account.
In one of the conversations, the report noted, the CIA analyst told the American official not to worry because the CIA had “multiple sources reporting on the program.” The American official wasn’t convinced. In an e-mail to the deputy chief of the CIA’s Iraqi weapons of mass destruction task force on Feb. 4, 2003, the American warned of his “concern with the validity of the information” from Curveball.
German officials, he added, “were having major handling issues with him and were attempting to determine if in fact, Curveball was who he said he was. These issues, in my opinion, warrant further inquiry before we use the information as the backbone of one of our major findings of the existence of a continuing Iraqi [bio-weapons] program!”
The American official later told Senate staffers that he had “had many discussions” with CIA analysts prior to 2003 “about my concerns with Curveball as this whole thing was building up and taking on a life of its own. I was becoming frustrated, and when [I was] asked to go over Colin Powell’s speech ... and I went through the speech, and I thought: ‘My gosh, we have got -- I have got to go on record and make my concerns known.’ ”
To help determine who was right, the Senate Intelligence Committee staff last fall asked U.S. intelligence officials for an assessment of Curveball and his reliability. The results were not reassuring.
In December, the DHS intelligence officer who had been responsible for collecting and reporting intelligence from Curveball’s debriefings in Germany wrote a report for the committee asserting that the defector “is not a biological weapons expert” and “never claimed that the project he was involved in was used to produce biological agents.”
Since that flatly contradicted previous DHS claims about Curveball’s credentials, the Senate committee asked for clarification of “what appeared ... a serious discrepancy.”
In January, the DHS admitted its earlier report “contained several errors” and issued a correction. The DHS officer later told the committee that he had “misread some of the intelligence reports” on the case he had supervised.