Origins of 'Curveball' and the Iraq War
Wednesday, December 5, 2007; 12:00 PM
Los Angeles Times national security correspondent Bob Drogin, author of "Curveball: Lies, Spies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War," was online Wednesday, Dec. 05 at noon ET to examine how a single bad intelligence source, leveraged by the CIA and Bush administration, helped pull the U.S. into an invasion of Iraq.
The transcript follows.
Drogin, who has been with the Times for nearly 25 years, has won or shared multiple journalism awards -- among them the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the George Polk Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Bob Drogin: Hi everyone: I'm Bob Drogin, author of "Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War," published by Random House. I launched the book with a nerve wracking appearance on The Colbert Report. Since then, the book has drawn positive reviews in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Globe and Mail, The Economist, San Francisco Chronicle, etc. It's out in the U.K. and Holland, and translations are underway in Germany, Japan and other countries.
I wrote the book as a non-fiction spy story about what I consider the defining narrative of who we went down the rabbit hole in Iraq. It describes how one unassuming man, an Iraqi defector to Germany, played an outsize role in providing the phony intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq. He was an accused thief and a pathological liar. But in my view, the CIA conned itself with his information. They never confirmed it. They never interviewed him. They didn't even know his name. Instead, the CIA heard what it wanted to hear. It saw what it wanted to see. And it told the White House what it wanted to know.
I'm happy to answer your questions for the next hour. So let's get started.
West Coast Transplant in Florida: Hola! Former Angeleno/Los Angeles Times subscriber here. Wow. How propitious your chat is with the revelation of the NIE revelation. (Was your chat already planned or is this in response to the NIE outing?) How is it that Chalabi and Curveball (among others) are not considered criminals/frauds/cheats? How much of our (known) taxpayer monies have they helped themselves to? How do you feel about being ultimately vindicated? Thanks very much for your book/body of work. When the so-called legacy is written, your book and articles will have been deemed important parts of the "hidden" puzzle and the attempts to cover up the truth.
Bob Drogin: Thanks so much for your kind words. I don't feel vindicated. I feel betrayed, as I think many people do, by those who led the nation to war on such flimsy evidence.
As to your questions:
We arranged the chat several weeks ago. The new NIE surprised everyone. It's fascinating on many levels, not least the obvious attempt on the part of senior US intelligence officials to reassert their independence and stop a possible war.
The CIA and British intelligence both have declared Curveball a fabricator. He thus is considered a fraud. Chalabi was convicted of bank fraud and other crimes in absentia in Jordan some years back. Many at the CIA and State Department consider him a cheat. I don't know if his most vocal backers, now mostly gone from the Bush administration, have changed their views.
Curveball was and is still paid by the German government, not the U.S. Chalabi's organization, the Iraqi National Congress, was launched with CIA money in 1992. After the CIA decided he couldn't be trusted and pulled out in 1997, the INC received subsidies from the U.S. State Department for so-called "information collection." When State pulled out as well for alleged corruption, the Department of Defense began paying $335,000 a month to the INC. I don't know if Chalabi currently receives any direct U.S. support.
Washington: Was "Curveball" supposed to be a complimentary nickname? If not, why did they use him?
Bob Drogin: No, it was a code name picked from a list used by U.S. intelligence in Germany. During the Cold War, the crypt ball signified a Soviet bloc defector with information about illicit weapons program. There had been a Match Ball, a Slow Ball, etc. I was told that Curve Ball was simply next in the list, and wasn't chosen for its other obvious meaning.
Philadelphia: I have to admit I am not familiar with your book, so let me please ask an opened-ended question: Does your book examine the role that Chalabi played in advocating a war, and if so, what are your views on what Chalabi did?
Bob Drogin: I hope you'll read the book. Curveball's brother worked for Chalabi's organization, the Iraqi National Congress. The CIA became exceptionally concerned that Chalabi sent Curveball out to provide disinformation to the West, as other defectors did. In the end, the CIA interviewed the brother at Chalabi's Hunting Club residence in Baghdad.
As for my views, I consider Chalabi a charlatan who proved exceptionally capable at convincing many in Washington to support his goal of taking over Iraq.
Tampa, Fla.: Do you see any chance of the administration producing an Iranian Curveball to counteract the new NIE on Iran's nuclear weapons program? Just wondering.
Bob Drogin: Seems unlikely. But one never knows.
Rockville, Md.: I worked in intelligence for a while in the Vietnam era and am really surprised that anyone would buy this "fabricator." What happened to the controls that were in place to verify and filter? We had to follow them.
Bob Drogin: The book examines the complete breakdown of such controls. There were several reasons -- the climate of fear after Sept. 11, the layers of secrecy that concealed doubts and warnings about the source, plus poor tradecraft and weak leadership. After Sept. 11, we heard that the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities failed to connect the dots. In Curveball, in my view, they made up the dots. They filled in the gaps, and discounted evidence that challenged or contradicted their assumptions.
Detroit: Can one really think that Curveball was "the Con Man Who Caused a War"? It certainly seemed to me at the time of the lead-up to the war that this administration was looking for any excuse to invade Iraq. Had he not been around, given the mindset of the administration, war still was inevitable.
Bob Drogin: Obviously, President Bush was the commander in chief, and he is responsible for the decision to go to war. As you say, the administration appeared determined to go to war against Saddam My book focuses on how the WMD fiasco occurred, not speculative scenarios. The bottom line is the administration chose the WMD threat to build support for war in Iraq. And without the supposed intelligence from Curveball, they would have found it much hard to make Saddam's WMD threat seem credible.
Peaks Island, Maine: Please comment on the point at which competent bioengineers would have recognized that Curveball's germ truck scenario did not make sense. At what point did bioweapons experts (who were familiar with U.S. and Russian Cold-War bioweapons programs and who were aware of the real-world problems of producing agents and loading them into disseminating devices) become involved in assessing Curveball's claims?
Bob Drogin: Some were involved early on within the intelligence community. The problem is they too seemed to filled in the gaps, or suspended their scientific disbelief. Two examples: when Colin Powell went to the U.N. Security Council and made Curveball's so-called "eyewitness" account the highlight of his speech, Powell said they only brewed anthrax from Thursday night to Friday because it was the Muslim holy day and U.N. weapons inspectors would not intrude. In fact, you can't ferment, dry, grind and aerosolize anthrax in 24 hours - it takes days and days. Secondly, he showed drawings of trucks with canvas sides. Any competent bio-weapons scientist should have asked about standard bio-containment and normal safety precautions if they really were brewing such deadly biological agents. Those who raised such objections were ignored.
Anonymous: How did the CIA find out about Curveball's existence?
Bob Drogin: He defected to Germany in 1999 and sought political asylum. He began cooperating in early 2000 Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, known as the BND. Based on their interviews with him, they routinely fed reports to a local U.S. team from the Defense HUMINT Service, part of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. They shared the reports in classified U.S. channels, including the CIA. The Germans refused to let U.S. intelligence authorities interview Curveball until a year after the invasion, however. So all the intelligence came in third-hand, with Arabic-to-German-to-English translations of reports (not transcripts) and analysis, that passed from agency to agency. The chain of mistranslations, miscommunications, misjudgments, misinterpretations and other mistakes became like a child's game of telephone -- the information grew steadily more terrifying.
Freising, Germany: Well, here I am at the center of the action. One of the interesting aspects of the Mobile Chemical Weapons Truck story was that, for a while, it actually looked like these trucks were found in Iraq. The euphoria only lasted a couple of days, after which the trucks were found to have other, nonlethal purposes. Curveball was a chemist, so the question is, did he pull this story out of thin air, or were these Mobile Weapons Trucks a synthesis of his knowledge as a chemist and equipment that he saw in use in Iraq? It was, after all, a convincing story.
Bob Drogin: The CIA published a report in May 2003 arguing that two trailers found after the war were, indeed, for biological weapons. The Iraqis insisted they were designed to produce hydrogen for military weather balloons, but the CIA dismissed this as a "cover story." President Bush repeatedly hailed the two trailers as vindication for the invasion, announcing that, "We found the weapons of mass destruction." It was yet another phenomenal screw-up. At CIA behest, the Germans showed pictures of the two trucks to Curveball and when he confirmed certain components, the CIA claimed victory. It was a farce since he, of course, was the source of the faulty claims in the first place. In the end, the Iraq Survey Group determined that the two trucks could not produce biological agents and indeed were what the Iraqis claimed -- built to chemically produce hydrogen for artillery balloons.
Rockville, Md.: It seems that Iraq fooled the West as much as the Allies had Germany thinking the "real invasion" would be Gen. Patton and an army that did not exist. Why don't they get more credit? We seem to go on with the idea that our intelligence was perfect and only some criminal activity by our side caused this deception.
Bob Drogin: I'm not sure I agree. After all, the Iraqis repeatedly claimed in Baghdad and at the U.N. that they did not possess any weapons of mass destruction. What part of "no" fooled us? The problem was the U.N. weapons inspectors could not resolve a series of outstanding questions left over from their earlier inspections. And Saddam's regime had no credibility in the West. Most governments assumed the worst about Saddam given his history.
I certainly don't claim our intelligence was perfect. Nor do I suggest that the problems involved criminal activity by our side. Rather I found time after time where the system was corrupted by tawdry ambition, bureaucratic rivalries, poor tradecraft, inept analysis, and weak leadership.
Philadelphia: Are you familiar with "Ali," who provided intelligence information to Rep. Curt Weldon? If not, I ask because it is interesting that one anonymous source seems to be able to attempt to influence our decision-makers. What should be done to better ascertain the credibility of someone who is the only source of a piece of intelligence?
Bob Drogin: I recall the case, but not the details. There is nothing inherently wrong with relying on single-source information if you know the source is reliable, has known access, can document or otherwise provide proof, and the information can be verified through independent means. None of that happened here.
Lake Luzerne, N.Y.: What was Colin Powell's motivation for going along with a story that to someone with his background must have seemed like a thin case at best? Did he win something from Bush/Cheney in exchange for doing the speech?
Bob Drogin: I have a fascinating chapter in the book on Powell's four days at the CIA prior to delivering the speech at the U.N. He tossed out a suggested script that the vice president's office had prepared. He instead used what the CIA assured him, repeatedly, was their best stuff. And Curveball, as you recall, was the utter highlight of that.
Powell was secretary of state, not in charge of intelligence, so had to rely on the CIA to give him their best information. He publicly expressed doubts in his speech about some aspects, including Iraq's attempts to purchase aluminum tubes. And he didn't mention the supposed attempts to obtain uranium from Africa, as the president had alleged a week earlier. So Powell shared his skepticism on that level. I don't know that he "won" something as a quid pro quo. He was quite angry when the Curveball case "blew up in our faces," as he told me.
New York: Is this surprising NIE release a honest attempt to rebuild confidence in analytic independence within the intelligence agencies, or maybe a charade, or is it part of larger diplomatic machinations?
Bob Drogin: I don't see any evidence that it's a charade. My sense is the intelligence community was trying to reassert its independence from policy after being burned so badly on Iraq. I suspect, but cannot prove, that senior intelligence officials put this out in a deliberate attempt to stop the Bush administration from attacking Iran before it leaves office. The NIE clearly plays into various diplomatic initiatives, but I don't believe it was designed as such. That's giving the administration too much credit, I think.
Lake Luzerne, N.Y.: My hang-up prior to the war was always the Hans Blix conundrum: if U.S. intelligence knew there were WMDs, and Blix's team had devices sensitive enough to detect the presence of such agents long after they had been removed, why couldn't the U.S. simply tell Blix where to look? What's the answer to that?
Bob Drogin: They did. U.S., British, German and other intelligence agencies all shared information with the U.N. And the U.N. weapons inspectors found no evidence at any of the sites.
The problem, in part, was the inspectors were in a bind: if they found WMD, the U.S. would gain the proof it needed to convince the Security Council to support an invasion. In the end, the administration took the failure to find a 'smoking gun' as proof that Saddam was hiding his WMD and therefore posed an intolerable danger. Blix, unfortunately, proved incapable of threading that needle. He never stood up at the U.N. and declared Iraq disarmed under U.N. resolutions, and that gave the U.S. enough of a legal loophole.
Baltimore: What role did the media play in advancing Chalabi's agenda? For example, I seem to remember him being on "60 Minutes" at one point, but I can't remember if it was before or after the invasion. (I think he might have also been on "Meet the Press," but, again, I'm not sure). Was the media complicit in advancing the administration's agenda by giving Chalabi so much air time?
Bob Drogin: Probably. But ignoring Chalabi would not make him go away. Nor is that how our media is supposed to operate. He was talking to members of Congress, to influential people in Washington, and to the senior administration officials. How senior? Chalabi sat directly behind Laura Bush as a White House guest when the president delivered his State of the Union speech in January 2004.
Boston: Who has been held responsible in the U.S. intel community for the information from Curveball?
Bob Drogin: No one. George Tenet was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Are there lessons to be learned from your book for a current intelligence system that states that Iran is not a nuclear threat, versus an executive branch that fears Iran may be pushing us towards World War III?
Bob Drogin: I hope so. But I wrote my book as a spy story, not a book on policy. It describes how intelligence is supposed to work, and how in this case, it went so catastrophically wrong.
Bob Drogin: I've gone over my allotted hour, so I need to wrap up. Thank you all for such informed questions. I sorry I could not get to everyone. Take a look at my Web site for further details and some of my reviews. I hope you enjoy the book. If you have follow up questions, click here to e-mail me.
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