'Curveball' and A Slam Dunk

By James Bamford,
the author of "A Pretext For War: 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies" and "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency"
Tuesday, December 12, 2006


An Insider's Account of How the White House Compromised American Intelligence

By Tyler Drumheller with Elaine Monaghan

Carroll & Graf. 296 pp. $26.95

On Dec. 14, 2004, a suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint inside Baghdad's Green Zone, killing seven people and wounding at least 13 others. Further north, in Mosul, insurgents shot dead a provincial council member, and soldiers discovered the bloody corpses of eight more murdered Iraqis. Meanwhile, two Marines were reported killed by roadside bombs, bringing the total service members killed in the conflict to more than 1,100.

Half a world away, in a glittery White House ceremony, President Bush hung the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, around the neck of George J. Tenet. The president had been determined to launch a war against Iraq, and his loyal director of central intelligence had come through with the casus belli.

"The whole scene stank of hypocrisy," recalls Tyler Drumheller, the CIA's former chief spy for Europe. In "On the Brink," written with Elaine Monaghan, Drumheller describes his frustrating -- and ultimately unsuccessful -- efforts to warn senior CIA and White House officials that they were on the road to disaster. Their key source on Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, Drumheller knew, was a fraudster. As Tenet smiled his thanks in the East Room, he probably should have offered to share the award with a former Baghdad taxi driver and con man code-named Curveball, without whom the invasion might never have taken place.

For years, the CIA had zero intelligence on Iraq -- until reports from this Iraqi source began coming in from the German spy organization BND. A defector seeking political asylum in Germany, Curveball told BND officers that he had been an engineer in Iraq and personally knew about Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program -- in particular, a mobile bioweapons van. As Tenet and the White House began building their case for war, which rested heavily on Curveball's claims, Drumheller's German counterpart told him to watch out. "I personally think he could be a fabricator," the German spy said. "He's a very erratic character."

Around the same time, Drumheller began getting far more credible intelligence from a high-level informant within the Iraqi regime's inner circle. Although for security reasons he doesn't mention it in his book, the official -- as revealed by CBS News's "60 Minutes" -- was Naji Sabri, Iraq's foreign minister. "He was the closest thing anyone had to a solid source in Baghdad," Drumheller notes. Sabri made a convincing case that Hussein had destroyed all of his weapons of mass destruction years before. Taking the intelligence together -- Curveball's lies and Sabri's inside information -- Drumheller was convinced that the fast-approaching war was a disastrous mistake.

Like Paul Revere in a trench coat, he began racing through the CIA attempting to spread the warning. But it was too late; war fever had gripped Tenet and his top aides, as well as the CIA's weapons analysts. "The White House took our work and twisted it for its own ends," Drumheller writes, "and Tenet set a tone whereby people knew what he and the White House wanted to hear. We all felt under pressure," and war seemed "inevitable." The Bush administration, he adds, "has compromised the work of this nation's intelligence community like none before."

Later, as the war turned into a debacle, many of those same officials denied having heard the warnings that Iraq might not have doomsday weapons programs. But Drumheller has the evidence in the form of paper trails. Nevertheless, in Republican-dominated Washington, no one wanted to point fingers, and most of those responsible for the screw-ups either retired with golden parachutes or were promoted.

Although a great deal has been written about Curveball, this is the first time the CIA official at the center of the controversy has told his story. Nevertheless, the book has some flaws. Because Drumheller had to submit his manuscript to the CIA for a pre-publication review, he was sometimes forced to tell the story in an awkward style to avoid breaching security. Many references to Germany, for example, had to be removed (it is sometimes referred to as "our European ally"), and many of the key CIA people involved are referred to simply by their titles. Also, while most of the story is told in the first person, other parts are told by his co-author.

Despite the censors, "On the Brink" provides a critical piece of the puzzle -- a piece that shows how easy it was for a small cadre of senior intelligence officials, intent on war, to send the country into a bloody quagmire. As a CIA official told one of Drumheller's colleagues: "It's time you learned it's not about intelligence anymore. It's about regime change." Added Drumheller: "The books had been cooked, the bets placed. It was insane. I had joined the CIA to stop wars -- but not a needless one launched by my very own government."

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