BERLIN – German intelligence officials responsible for one of the most important informants on Saddam Hussein’s suspected weapons of mass destruction say the Bush administration and the CIA repeatedly exaggerated his claims during the run-up to the Iraq war.
Five senior officials from Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, or BND, said in interviews with the Los Angeles Times that they warned U.S. intelligence authorities that the source, an Iraqi defector codenamed Curveball, never claimed to produce germ weapons and never saw anyone else do so.
According to the Germans, President Bush mischaracterized Curveball’s information when he warned before the war that Iraq had at least seven mobile factories brewing biological poisons. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also misstated Curveball’s claims in his pre-war presentation to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, the Germans said.
Curveball’s German handlers for the last six years said his information was often vague, mostly second-hand and impossible to confirm.
“This was not substantial evidence,” said a senior German intelligence of ficial. “We made clear we could not verify the things he said.”
The German authorities, speaking about the case for the first time, also said that their informant suffered from emotional and mental problems. “He is not a stable, psychologically stable guy,” said a BND official who supervised the case. “He is not a completely normal person,” agreed a BND analyst.
Curveball was the chief source of inaccurate prewar U.S. claims that Baghdad had a biological weapons arsenal, a commission appointed by President Bush reported earlier this year. U.S. investigators did not interview Curveball, who still insists his story was true, or the German officials who handled his case.
The German account emerges as Washington is engaged in a political battle over prewar intelligence. The White House lashed out last week at Senate Democrats and other critics who allege the administration manipulated intelligence to go to war. Democrats have forced the Senate intelligence committee to resume a long-stalled inquiry. Democrats in the House are calling for a similar inquiry.
An investigation by the Times based on interviews since May with about 30 current and former intelligence officials in the U.S., Germany, England, Iraq and the United Nations shows that U.S. bungling in the Curveball case was far worse than official reports have disclosed.
The White House, for example, ignored evidence that United Nations weapons inspectors disproved virtually all of Curveball’s accounts before the war. Bush and his aides issued increasingly dire warnings about Iraq’s germ weapons as the invasion neared, even though intelligence from Curveball had not changed.
At the Central Intelligence Agency, senior officials embraced Curveball’s claims even though they could not verify them or interview him until a year after the invasion. They ignored multiple warnings about his reliability, punished in-house critics who provided proof that he had lied and refused to admit error until May 2004, 14 months after invasion.
After the CIA vouched for Curveball’s information, Bush warned in his State of the Union Speech in January 2003 that Iraq had “mobile biological weapons labs” designed to produce “germ warfare agents.” The next month, Bush said in a radio address and a statement that Iraq “has at least seven mobile factories” for germ warfare.
Curveball told his German handlers, however, he had assembled equipment on only one truck and heard second-hand about other sites. Moreover, he could not identify what the equipment was designed to produce.
“His information to us was very vague,” said the senior German intelligence official. “He could not say if these things functioned.”
David Kay, who headed the CIA’s post-invasion search for illicit weapons, said Curveball’s accounts were maddeningly murky. “He was not in charge of trucks or production,” Kay said. “He had nothing to do with actual production of biological agent. He never saw them actually produce agent.”
Powell also highlighted Curveball’s “eyewitness” account when he warned the U.N. Security Council on the eve of war that Iraq’s trucks could brew enough weapons-grade microbes “in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people.”
The BND supervisor said he was aghast when he watched Powell misstate Curveball’s information as a justification for war.
“We were shocked,” the German official said. “Mein Gott! We had always told them it was not proven. … It was not hard intelligence.”
In a telephone interview, Powell said CIA director George J. Tenet and his top deputies personally assured him before the Feb. 5, 2003, speech that intelligence on the mobile labs was “solid.” Since then, Powell said, the case “has totally blown up in our faces.”
Powell said no one warned him that veterans in the CIA’s clandestine division, including the European division chief, had voiced growing doubts to supervisors about Curveball’s credibility.
“This is one we really pressed on, really spent a lot of time on,” Powell recalled. “We knew how important it was.”
“All the (CIA) leadership stood by it,” agreed Lawrence Wilkerson, then Powell’s chief of staff. “They were convinced, of all the things Powell was presenting, that this was the most solid and most incontrovertible evidence they had.”
At the U.N., Powell said the “eyewitness” was at the site of a 1998 weapons accident that killed 12 technicians. Wilkerson said CIA leaders had explained that the “principal source had not only worked in the mobile labs, but had seen an accident and had been injured in the accident. … This gave more credibility to it.”
But German intelligence officials say the CIA was wrong. Curveball “only heard rumors of an accident,” the BND supervisor said. “He gave a third-hand account.”
Tenet has denied ignoring warnings that Curveball might be a fabricator. He declined to be interviewed. Curveball also could not be interviewed. BND officials threatened last summer to strip him of his salary, housing and protection if he agreed to meet talk. Curveball now lives under an assumed name in southern Germany. The BND provides him and his family a furnished apartment, language lessons and a stipend. They have relocated him twice over concerns that his life was in danger, and still watch him closely.
The German government opposed the Iraq invasion, but German intelligence authorities insisted they shared all they gleaned from Iraqi informants.
CIA officials now concede that he fused fact, research off the Internet and what former co-workers called “water cooler gossip” into a nightmarish fantasy that played on U.S. fears after the Sept. 11 attacks. His motive, they say, was to get a German visa, not start a war.
After the invasion, the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, headed by Kay, found that Curveball was fired from his job in 1995, at the time he said he was starting work on germ weapons.
A former CIA official said records showed he had been jailed for an apparent sex crime and that for some time he drove a Baghdad taxi. His childhood friends called him a “great liar” and a “con artist.”
“The Iraqis were all laughing when we asked about him,” recalled a former CIA investigator. “They were saying, `This guy? You’ve got to be kidding.”’
The case began in November 1999, when the Baghdad-born chemical engineer flew into Munich on a tourist visa and applied for political asylum. The Germans sent him to a refugee center outside Nuremburg.
During interrogations in 2000 and 2001, the Iraqi told BND officers he had worked on a secret weapons program between 1995 and 1999. He said he worked for Dr. Rihab Taha, known as “Dr. Germ,” and had helped build a mobile germ factory at Djerf al Nadaf, a grain handling facility southeast of Baghdad.
The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, working from a clandestine operating base called Munich House, became the liaison for U.S. intelligence and assigned his code name. German officials insisted Curveball hated Americans, so the DIA was not allowed to interview him.
As a result, the DIA – like the BND – never tried to check Curveball’s background. Despite that failure, CIA analysts accepted the incoming intelligence reports as credible and passed them to senior policymakers. CIA officials admit now the system failed.
“Look, analysts were studying drawings made by artists working from descriptions by a guy we couldn’t talk to,” explained a former senior CIA official who helped supervise the case and the post-war investigation. “It was hard to figure out.”
“Our fear is that as it was analyzed and translated and re-analyzed and re-translated, and comments got added, it could have gotten sexed up by accident,” agreed a former CIA operations official.
“His whole story has a lot of bumps in the road, a lot of ups and downs,” said the BND supervisor. “He was between two worlds, sometimes cooperative, sometimes aggressive. He was not an easy-going guy.”
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