Throwing a Curve on Iraq
October 13, 2007

In January 2004, the morning after David Kay, the chief weapons inspector in Iraq, told a stunned Senate committee that prewar claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction were "all wrong," President Bush invited him to lunch. Throughout the often tense 90-minute session, Mr. Bush kept returning to the question that haunted him: "What went wrong?" he asked the embarrassed Mr. Kay. "Why did we get it so wrong?"

In "Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War," Bob Drogin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, attempts to answer that question through the story of an Iraqi engineer and defector who arrived in Germany in 1999 in search of political asylum and creature comforts. He dreamed, Mr. Drogin writes, of owning a "gleaming Mercedes sedan with buttery soft leather seats." Curveball -- such was his American codename -- helped to convince Germany, the U.S. and several other countries that Iraq had seven mobile vans that could make deadly bioweapons in violation of its disarmament pledges to the United Nations.

The defector knew impressive details about the trailers and Iraq's biological weapons programs. His claims were at the heart of the pivotal National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, the intelligence community's "gold standard" report. It concluded with "high confidence" that Iraq had chemical and biological arms. Curveball's information also found its way into Mr. Bush's State of the Union address in January 2003, which prepared the country for war, and into Secretary of State Colin Powell's February presentation to the U.N., which persuaded many skeptics of Iraq's danger and duplicity.

None of it was true. As Mr. Drogin and his colleague Greg Miller first disclosed in the Los Angeles Times in early 2004, Curveball was a fabricator whom the Germans were eager to keep to themselves, providing other countries only with transcripts of their interrogations. The Germans were worried, they said, about protecting their source and thus did not allow the CIA to interview Curveball until a year after the invasion. The "paper thin" sources who supposedly corroborated Curveball's claims, Mr. Drogin concludes, eventually proved to be worthless.

Discredited, too, were the administration's assertions that two trailers that the U.S. military found in Iraq soon after the invasion were mobile germ labs of the sort described by Curveball. After an exhaustive study, the Iraq Survey Group concluded in fall 2004 that the trailers were configured to make not germs but hydrogen gas for artillery weather balloons. Curveball, Mr. Drogin shows, was a chain-smoking, mentally unstable "con man" -- fired from his engineering post at government's Chemical Engineering and Design Center in Baghdad and a former taxi driver. He lives today somewhere in Germany under intelligence protection -- presumably without his Mercedes.

Mr. Drogin breathes life into this saga, offering fascinating detail and creating suspense even though we now know how the story will end. What is more, he provides an instructive inside look at the clandestine community's closed culture. He shows, for instance, that an enmity between the German and American intelligence services -- rooted in Cold War rivalries -- played a role in Germany's unwillingness to give the CIA access to its cherished, if dubious, source.

We see the Defense Intelligence Agency, acting as a conduit between the Germans and the CIA, handling the Curveball material ineptly, passing along sloppy translations and making scant effort to vet Curveball's veracity for itself. We see the childish bickering between the CIA and the DIA and, at times, between CIA officials themselves. We have a seat at the conference table during a heated clash, in December 2002, over Curveball's reliability between "Beth," the CIA's chief analyst, whose division had endorsed Curveball, and "Margaret," the skeptical CIA's operations group chief for Germany, who invites Beth, memorably, to "kiss my ass in Macy's window."

Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses the United Nations regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in February 2003. Behind him are CIA Director George Tenet (left) and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Negroponte.

How the CIA came to trust a source it couldn't interview and why it insisted on his veracity long after the agency should have walked away from him is at the heart of this page-turner (which has been bought for a feature film). In depressing detail, Mr. Drogin portrays a U.S. intelligence apparatus in utter disarray, burdened by poor spycraft, a risk-averse culture, bureaucratic rivalries, poor communication and, at times, a reluctance to deliver news that is at odds with what higher-ups most want to hear.

But Mr. Drogin goes further. He insists that the WMD fiasco was caused by outright "lies" and by officials for whom "tawdry ambitions and spineless leadership proved more important than professional integrity." He alludes to the visits of Vice President Cheney to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and to Scooter Libby's draft of Secretary Powell's U.N. speech, implying that they are evidence of soul-compromising political pressure. He says that Curveball might have "fused fact and fiction" but that "others twisted and magnified his account in grotesque ways."

But those "others" mostly go unnamed. Indeed, Mr. Drogin's case for the lying of U.S. officials is weak, relying mostly on speculation and innuendo. Mr. Drogin's own reporting suggests that the dysfunction of post-9/11 Langley -- a place of intense bureaucratic in-fighting and a willingness to go with the political flow -- better explains how the CIA came to embrace Curveball's claims.

For his account, Mr. Drogin relies heavily on intelligence officials allied with Tyler Drumheller, then a veteran CIA senior operations chief whose finely honed instincts about Curveball turned out to be right and whose objections to the use of Curveball's information infuriated the agency analysts who believed the defector. But Mr. Drumheller's version of events -- in which he is loudly denouncing Curveball while his co-workers ignore him in favor of a more convenient truth -- has been challenged by many other participants, including George Tenet. The former director of central intelligence insisted in his recent memoir, "At the Center of the Storm," that Mr. Drumheller never raised concerns about Curveball in their 22 meetings between February 2003 and July 2004. John McLaughlin, the CIA's No. 2 at the time -- whom Mr. Drogin denigrates as a "company man" -- also disputes Mr. Drumheller's characterization. Yes, Mr. McLaughlin told me in an interview, there was plenty of internal discussion about Curveball, as there would be about any major intelligence source, but high-level concerns that Curveball might have been a fabricator were never brought forward. "Tyler Drumheller," he said, "is no Paul Revere."

Who is right? Exactly why did the CIA endorse Curveball's story? As a reporter who was widely criticized for having written several exclusive newspaper reports based on the flawed prewar intelligence estimates, I know how hard it is discern the extent to which bias or preconceived notions shape ostensible evidence. No doubt all sorts of forces were in play. But none of the panels that have examined the WMD intelligence fiasco -- particularly the bipartisan Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the U.S. Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction -- concludes as Mr. Drogin does that political pressure, leading to outright lying, was to blame. "Analysts universally asserted," the bipartisan WMD commission stated, "that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments."

Rather than giving us heroes and villains, Mr. Drogin might have given a fairer rendition of the other side of his narrative. He dismisses in a paragraph or two the reasons why "Beth," the CIA analyst, so ardently believed in Curveball's information -- its precision and technical detail and its endorsement by an independent laboratory, and perhaps her unconscious determination, in a post-9/11 world, never to be accused of having underestimated a WMD threat. Such thinking surely played a major part in the CIA's judgments. But Mr. Drogin prefers simply to assert that those writing the pivotal National Intelligence Estimate on WMD were given -- as he quotes an anonymous document-drafter saying -- "clear marching orders" to write a report that buttressed the nation's case for going to war.

Several of the officials whom Mr. Drogin discusses in his book -- not only Mr. Tenet and Mr. McLaughlin but also Bill Harlow, the former CIA spokesman, and Alan Foley, another former senior official, and others who decline to be named -- have strongly disputed the assertion. Even the author's hero, Mr. Drumheller -- who told me in an interview that he thought that Mr. Tenet was "weak" and called Mr. Tenet's denials of prewar knowledge about the Curveball dispute "sad" -- apparently does not believe that the agency was asked or ordered lie about the intelligence. "No one ever said: find something false. We want to go to war," he told me. Nor does he think that the disinformation provided by Curveball caused the war (as Mr. Drogin's subtitle asserts). "Curveball may have been lying," Mr. Drumheller said. "But the rest were suspending their skepticism. It's a more complex story."

Ms. Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who wrote about national security for the New York Times, is now a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.

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