‘Curveball’ lies low and denies it all
Rafid Ahmed Alwan hoped for an easier life when he came here from Iraq nine years ago. He also hoped for a reward for his cooperation with German intelligence officers.
“For what I’ve done, I should be treated like a king,” he said outside a cramped, low-rent apartment he shares with his family.
Instead, the Iraqi informant code-named Curveball has flipped burgers at McDonald’s and Burger King, washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant and baked pretzels in an all-night bakery. He also has faced withering international scorn for peddling discredited intelligence that helped spur an invasion of his native country.
Now, in his first public comments, the 41-year-old engineer from Baghdad complains that the CIA and other spy agencies are blaming him for their mistakes.
“I’m not guilty,” Alwan said, insisting that he made no false claims. “Believe me, I’m not guilty.”
It was intelligence attributed to Alwan -- as Curveball -- that the White House used in making its case that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. He described what turned out to be fictional mobile germ factories. The CIA belatedly branded him a liar.
After Curveball’s role in the pre-invasion intelligence fiasco was disclosed by the Los Angeles Times four years ago, the con man behind the code name remained in the shadows. His security was protected and his identity concealed by the BND, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service.
But when a reporter knocked on his door one Sunday morning this year, Alwan seemed neither alarmed nor surprised. In a series of sometimes reluctant interviews that followed, he emerged as a defiant and pugnacious defender of his intelligence contributions and reputation.
“Everything that’s been written about me isn’t true,” Alwan repeated.
Along with confirmation of Curveball’s identity, however, have come fresh disclosures raising doubts about his honesty -- much of that new detail coming from friends, associates and past employers.
“He was corrupt,” said a family friend who once employed him.
“He always lied,” said a fellow Burger King worker.
And records reveal that when Alwan fled to Germany, one step ahead of the Iraq Justice Ministry, an arrest warrant had been issued alleging that he sold filched camera equipment on the Baghdad black market.
The reporter at his door that morning offered Alwan a chance to defend himself publicly.
He was calm, unshaven, wearing a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. Alwan tried to bargain for an interview fee. When he didn’t get one, he shut the door, saying he was “risking my family” by talking.
Over the next few weeks, Alwan dodged attempts to reopen conversations and took steps to elude the reporter. He altered his appearance by shaving his bushy mustache. He pulled his name from a mailbox. He failed to show up at promised appointments.
Eventually, he agreed to a series of brief interviews. In every encounter, he was combative and unapologetic. Others, he insisted, had twisted or misinterpreted his information.
“I never said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, never in my whole life,” he said. “I challenge anyone in the world to get a piece of paper from me, anything with my signature, that proves I said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
How did the Bush administration get it so wrong?
“I’m not the source of these problems,” he said.
Alwan’s life as a secret informant began in January 2000, soon after he applied for political asylum at Zirndorf, a refugee camp outside Nuremberg. He told a BND team he had helped run a secret Iraqi program to produce biological weapons, records show.
In 52 meetings with BND handlers over the next year and a half, he provided hand-drawn sketches and other details. German officials said they met mostly on Saturday mornings at a BND safe house. He liked to go for pizza afterward.
Alwan didn’t share all his secrets. He didn’t disclose that he had been fired at least twice for dishonesty, or that he fled Iraq to avoid arrest. But he did tell some whoppers that should have raised warnings about his credibility.
He claimed, for example, that the son of his former boss, Basil Latif, secretly headed a vast weapons of mass destruction procurement and smuggling scheme from England. British investigators found, however, that Latif’s son was a 16-year-old exchange student, not a criminal mastermind.
When a Western intelligence team interviewed Latif outside Iraq in early 2002, a year before the war, he warned that Alwan had been fired for falsifying invoices at work. Latif also denied that anyone produced biological weapons at the plant where he worked with Alwan.
“They thought I was lying,” Latif, who now lives in Oman, said in an interview. “But I was telling the truth. It upset me very much.”
German officials instead believed Alwan’s story that he helped manage an Iraqi factory that installed fermenters, spray dryers and piping within tractor-trailers to brew anthrax, botulinum toxin and other biological agents. CIA and Pentagon biological warfare analysts embraced Alwan’s account without corroborating evidence or directly questioning the informant.
President Bush declared in his State of the Union address in January 2003 that “we know” that Iraq built mobile germ factories. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell highlighted Alwan’s supposed “eyewitness” account to the U.N. Security Council when he pressed the case for war.
In October 2004, more than a year after the invasion, a CIA-led investigation concluded that Baghdad had abandoned all chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The germ trucks never existed.
Alwan grew up in the middle-class Dora neighborhood of southern Baghdad. The youngest of five children, he was raised by his mother after his father died, according to family friends. They were Sunni Muslims, members of the influential Janabi clan, and his eldest brother became a brigadier in Hussein’s Republican Guard.
Alwan studied chemical engineering at the Technical University of Baghdad, records show, graduating in 1990 with a D average. His best subject: “Culture and History of Iraq.” But he learned English, the language of instruction, and applied to join the ruling Baath Party.
He worked as an appliance repairman, then as a junior engineer at the state-run Chemical Engineering and Design Center. In late 1994, he was named site engineer at Djerf al Nadaf, a new warehouse complex about 10 miles south of Baghdad.
His direct supervisor was Hilal Freah, a British-trained engineer and friend of Alwan’s mother. Freah, who now lives in Jordan, viewed himself as Alwan’s mentor but had trouble trusting his protege.
“Rafid told five or 10 stories every day,” Freah said in an interview. “I’d ask, ‘Where have you been?’ And he’d say, ‘I had a problem with my car.’ Or, ‘My family was sick.’ But I knew he was lying.”
He had a gift for it and “was not embarrassed when caught in a lie,” Freah said.
At the Djerf al Nadaf warehouse, laborers treated seeds from local farmers with fungicides to prevent mold and rot. But Alwan convinced his BND handlers that the site’s corn-filled sheds were part of Iraq’s secret germ weapons program. He worked there, he told them, until 1998, when an unreported biological accident occurred.
In fact, Alwan had been dismissed three years earlier, in 1995, after inflating expenses and faking receipts for tools, supplies and lamb for a party.
“I fired him,” Freah said. “He was corrupt and he was found stealing.” But the family friend gave Alwan one more chance.
Freah, Alwan and two other friends formed a business to sell locally made shampoo and cleaners. Freah says Alwan overcharged the partners for each shampoo bottle, and the company collapsed. So did their friendship. Alwan’s embarrassed mother later repaid her son’s debts.
Alwan next created a line of cosmetics, selling an eye shadow named “Whisper” in Arabic. That failed amid allegations that he cheated his suppliers, Freah said.
He then worked as a technician at Babel, a Baghdad film and TV company that produced adoring documentaries about Hussein. Alwan’s alleged sale of Babel camera lenses and other gear on the black market led the Iraqi Justice Ministry to issue an arrest warrant, signed by a judge, in August 1998.
Alwan already had fled. Officials say smugglers helped him make his way through Jordan, Egypt, Libya and Morocco before he reached southern Germany in late 1999. He brought no blueprints, photos or other evidence, but he quickly won the confidence of the BND officers.
“He was understated,” said one former BND officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case. “He was the opposite of a braggart, and that was impressive.”
The BND set him up in a small apartment and provided living expenses. Alwan started dressing in stylish suits, bought a heavy gold necklace and kept a cupboard stocked with whiskey, according to former neighbors. He left his TV blaring all day and hit a local disco at night.
He arranged to divorce the wife he had left in Baghdad and married a Moroccan woman. They now have two children. The family moved to Erlangen and then to another German location that The Times agreed not to disclose.
Alwan’s fanciful accounts to BND officers were echoed in his tall tales to friends and co-workers.
In early 2002, a year before the war, he told co-workers at the Burger King that he spied for Iraqi intelligence and would report any fellow Iraqi worker who criticized Hussein’s regime.
They couldn’t decide if he was dangerous or crazy.
“During breaks, he told stories about what a big man he was in Baghdad,” said Hamza Hamad Rashid, who remembered an odd scene with the pudgy Alwan in his too-tight Burger King uniform praising Hussein in the home of der Whopper. “But he always lied. We never believed anything he said.”
Another Iraqi friend, Ghazwan Adnan, remembers laughing when he applied for a job at a local Princess Garden Chinese Restaurant and discovered Alwan washing dishes in the back while claiming to be “a big deal” in Iraq. “How could America believe such a person?”
But an unrepentant Alwan is unfazed.
“Everything I said was true,” he said. “And everything that’s been written about me is wrong. It’s all wrong. The main thing is, I’m an honest man.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
About this story
Four years ago, The Times broke a story about an Iraqi refugee living in Germany whose bogus intelligence about a Baghdad biological weapons program was used to justify the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. John Goetz, an American freelance journalist in Germany, worked with Times staff writer Bob Drogin on subsequent coverage of the informant, code-named Curveball.
Goetz, now a reporter for Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, recently interviewed Curveball as part of a German reporting team that included Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark. Der Spiegel shared its material with The Times, which conducted additional reporting. This article was written for The Times by Goetz and Drogin.