March 29, 2008
In the long history of U.S. intelligence fiascos, few have been as minutely examined as the "Curveball" episode – the source whose fraudulent claims were largely responsible for the pre-Iraq War view that Saddam Hussein possessed biological weapons. So it's worth noting what a new, remarkable report from the German magazine Der Spiegel tells us about the spy who lied.
According to media legend, Curveball was a creation of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi politician who headed the exiled Iraqi National Congress before Saddam's overthrow. That notion was destroyed in 2005 with the bipartisan Robb-Silberman report on intelligence. But the myth persists in many circles that, through Curveball, Mr. Chalabi had conned his neocon friends, who in turn had conned President Bush, who in turn had pressured a reluctant but spineless CIA into giving him the "intelligence" he needed to make the case for war.
But Curveball was nobody's stooge. On the contrary, he is Rafid Ahmed Alwan, an opportunistic Iraqi asylum-seeker who came to Germany in 1999. His claims to having inside knowledge of Saddam's illicit weapons program quickly made him a prized asset of Germany's intelligence service, the BND. So convinced were the Germans of the reliability of his information that in the fall of 2001 they purchased 35 million doses of smallpox vaccine for fear of what Saddam might be cooking up.
More remarkable is that even after September 11 – when then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder promised "infinite solidarity" with the U.S. – the German government refused to allow the CIA to interview Curveball in person. Often, the Germans resorted to dishonest pretexts for their lack of cooperation, such as that Curveball didn't speak English, when in fact he spoke it fluently (and as if nobody in the CIA spoke German or Arabic). "It was a blockade that made
it impossible for any other service to validate his information," David Kay, who ran the Iraq Survey Group that looked for WMD after the war, told Der Spiegel.
BND nonetheless sent some 100 reports about Curveball's information to the CIA. And while doubts about Curveball's credibility began to emerge on both sides of the Atlantic as early as 2000, the Germans persisted in believing him. In November 2002, according to Der Spiegel, Curveball's disclosures formed the centerpiece of a top secret briefing by the BND to the foreign affairs committee of the German parliament. This caused one of those who were briefed to note the "enormous discrepancy between the public statements made by the government" – which opposed the war and downplayed the Iraq threat – "and the knowledge it had in its possession."
None of this is to say that U.S. intelligence didn't commit its own grave analytical blunders, in turn compounded by the usual bureaucratic infighting, buck-passing and miscommunication. Nor is it very likely that the war's course would have changed had Curveball's fabrications been exposed sooner. But it might have prompted the Bush Administration to rely less on the WMD issue in its broader, and well-justified, case for the need to get rid of the Butcher of Baghdad.
As for Germany, it has yet to really account for its own large contribution to the bad intelligence – intelligence it later pretended never to have believed in the first place. If the Curveball story teaches anything, it's that the intelligence failures regarding Iraq were world-wide and included many of those who would later become the war's fiercest critics. (emphasis added)