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The mother of all cons

Kit R. Roane has covered conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Who’s to blame for America’s ill-advised invasion of Iraq? A few well-known public officials likely come to mind. But in “Curveball,” Bob Drogin points to another culprit, a man one wouldn’t think could merit a footnote in such an expansive policy but who became a crucial linchpin for all that followed.

Known as “Curveball” to the Western intelligence community, he was just another Iraqi asylum seeker when he flew to Germany in November 1999. But what he had to say set him apart. Curveball “wanted to share a secret,” Drogin, the national security reporter for the Los Angeles Times, writes. “Biowaffen” was the word that made it into German intelligence reports. Germ weapons to you and me.

It was explosive stuff. Curveball was seen as a one-in-a-thousand find, a talkative chemical engineer who had helped design and build Saddam Hussein’s mobile germ warfare program and could sketch out the proof for all to see. His information changed the focus of America’s spy agencies, infected their analysis of the threat posed by Hussein and in the end became the Bush administration’s hammer in its call for war on Iraq.

But Curveball was lying. Worse, Drogin shows, many people who doubted him, including some at high levels in the U.S. government, didn’t seem to care. He gave them “evidence” for a theory they already believed and became the needed spark for a war they’d already planned.

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“Curveball,” based on reporting Drogin and others did for The Times, is a sad illumination of just how dysfunctional the West’s spy apparatus had become and how prone its reports were to spin and manipulation. This was “the dark side of intelligence,” writes Drogin, adding that the CIA’s leaders took a calculated risk when they chose not to reveal their doubts before the invasion of Iraq. Once U.S. troops reached Baghdad and found the stockpiled weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), they figured, “no one would remember a bogus defector.”

Whatever Hussein’s ultimate plans were, a postwar search of Iraq found no WMDs of any kind. When the hunters returned empty-handed, the public wanted to know why. Curveball is the sad answer.

How this Iraqi defector entered the intelligence firmament and successfully exploited the spy apparatus is the first question Drogin answers in his book. He gracefully describes how fear of Hussein’s military ambition, before and after Sept. 11, led the West’s spy agencies to listen to Curveball; how the historic friction between the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency left him Unchallenged; and how the stubborn inability of their leaders to come clean about this mistake left his lies tucked into important intelligence reports that were used as the basis for war.

From the Iraqi defector’s point of view, he landed on the German spy agency’s doorstep at a most opportune time. Hussein had had a long and well-known love affair with chemical and biological weapons. During the later stages of its war with Iran in the 1980s, Iraq unleashed chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, against Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.N. Security Council ordered Iraq to surrender its WMDs, and inspectors found thousands of chemical munitions. In 1995, the Iraqi government admitted researching biological weapons; in 1996, U.N. engineers destroyed what was believed to be a germ factory. In 1998, the inspectors, who had been the CIA’s eyes and ears, were thrown out of the country. There were few potential replacements; Hussein had pushed out or killed most of his opponents, and few in the Iraqi exile community could be trusted or had useful connections back home. As a top CIA official told Drogin, it was a period of nail-biting inertia, with the United States “almost in Chapter 11 in terms of our human intelligence collection.”

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Still, most officials believed that Hussein still had a bioweapons program brewing. They just needed someone to help them find it. The “mind-set was we’re going to see the WMD,” retired Vice Adm. Thomas R. Wilson, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, tells Drogin. “I don’t know anybody who didn’t believe it was there.”

Curveball filled in the frame for these true believers, offering intricate diagrams of germ-making equipment, fermenters, mixing vats, controllers and all sorts of ghastly things. The diagrams, Drogin notes, “were plausible,” even though they couldn’t be reverse-engineered to “brew anthrax” or “build a bio-lab in a garage.”

Drogin tells Curveball’s story with an eye toward intrigue. He keeps the pace moving, even as he catalogs the snowballing intelligence blunders that kept this alcoholic and increasingly erratic source on the German agency’s payroll and ensured that his unverifiable information was dutifully sent up the chain. In a prime example of “Garbage in, garbage out,” his inconsistent information was “interpreted, summarized, reformatted and analyzed at every stage,” notes Drogin, but it was never verified.

The author also illuminates the way in which human frailty infected the intelligence-gathering process. He makes clear that the CIA and the Germans allowed their mission to be corrupted by ego and an inability to admit mistakes. The Germans failed to act, Drogin writes, because doing so would have put "[c]areers and pensions” at stake. CIA leaders worried that “backtracking” would throw into doubt “two years of classified reports and threat assessments” and briefings given to the White House and Congress. It would also “embarrass the CIA,” writes Drogin, and mean that the agency “didn’t back a crucial part of the White House case for war.”

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Had doubters decided to “burn” Curveball as a source and retract the tainted intelligence trail he spawned, the Bush administration would have had a much harder time making its public case for war. Instead, his assertions became the centerpiece for the administration’s push.

When the vice president’s office gave then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell a draft for his prewar U.N. speech featuring “a laundry list of unconfirmed rumors based on dubious evidence,” Powell turned to the CIA to help unravel fact from fiction. But Drogin reveals that CIA skeptics chose not to wave Powell off Curveball. Instead, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet assured everyone that the information was “totally reliable,” Powell recalls.

When Powell took the podium in February 2003, Drogin writes, “Virtually every word . . . was coming from Curveball, although he wisely didn’t mention the odd code name.”

Even if the CIA had come clean about Curveball’s problems, Drogin makes it clear that it might not have changed the course of history. Information meant to confirm the mobile weapons lab, from a second Iraqi defector who was clearly “deemed a fabricator,” also made its way into the administration’s case for war. And there was a growing sense among U.S. spies who were trying to steer the administration away from its reliance on Curveball’s lies that they were unlikely to prevent the war. “Let’s keep in mind the fact that this war’s going to happen regardless of what Curveball said or didn’t say, and that the Powers That Be probably aren’t terribly interested in whether Curveball knows what he’s talking about,” e-mailed one supervisor to a frustrated CIA whistle-blower.

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In the end, Drogin may overstate Curveball’s importance when he calls him “the con man who caused a war.” But there is little doubt, after reading Drogin’s well-written and researched book, that this chain-smoking charlatan provided just the pretext the Bush administration needed when it decided the deed had to be done.

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EXCERPT: To read Chapter 1 of “Curveball,” go to latimes.com /curveball.


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