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Intelligence Analysts Whiffed on a 'Curveball'

Report says one Iraqi defector singlehandedly corrupted prewar weapons estimates.

April 01, 2005|Greg Miller and Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Prewar claims by the United States that Iraq was producing biological weapons were based almost entirely on accounts from a defector who was described as "crazy" by his intelligence handlers and a "congenital liar" by his friends.

The defector, code-named "Curveball," spoke with alarming specificity about Iraq's alleged biological weapons programs and fleet of mobile labs. But postwar investigations showed that he wasn't even in the country at times when he claimed to have taken part in illicit weapons work.

Despite persistent doubts about his credibility, Curveball's claims were included in the Bush administration's case for war without so much as a caveat. And when CIA analysts argued after the war that the agency needed to admit it had been duped, they were forced out of their jobs.

The disclosures about Curveball and the extensive role he played in corrupting U.S. intelligence estimates on Iraq were included in a devastating report released Thursday by a commission established by President Bush to evaluate U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.

The 601-page document is a sweeping assessment of U.S. intelligence failures that identifies breakdowns in dozens of cases involving multiple countries and terrorist organizations.

But in many ways, Curveball's story is the centerpiece of the report, a cautionary tale told in excruciating detail to highlight failures that plagued U.S. spy agencies at almost every step in the intelligence process -- from collection to analysis to presentation to policymakers.

U.S. intelligence agencies' reliance on Curveball and their failure to scrutinize his claims are described in the report as the "primary reason" that the CIA and other spy agencies "fundamentally misjudged the status of Iraq's [biological weapons] programs." No other episode is explored in as much detail, or recounted with as much evident dismay.

"Worse than having no human sources," the commission said, "is being seduced by a human source who is telling lies."

Curveball even influenced assessments in areas where he claimed no inside knowledge, the commission said. One analyst told the panel that Curveball's descriptions of biological weapons activity in Iraq "pushed" chemical weapons experts to be more aggressive in their judgments. "Much of the CW confidence was built on the BW confidence," the analyst said.

Curveball's identity has never been publicly revealed. His code name and the role he played in leading U.S. spy agencies to assess that Iraq possessed biological weapons was first described in an article in the Los Angeles Times in March 2004. The commission's report describes Curveball as an Iraqi chemical engineer who defected at a time when U.S. and other spy agencies were desperate for new sources on Iraq's weapons programs, after U.N. inspectors had left the country in 1998. The CIA never had access to Curveball. Instead, he was controlled by Germany's intelligence service, which passed along the information it collected to the United States through the Defense Intelligence Agency, a Pentagon spy agency that handled information from Iraqi defectors.

Between January 2000 and September 2001, the report said, the DIA disseminated "almost 100 reports" from Curveball, who was seen as a valuable new source. Among his most alarming claims was that Iraq had assembled a fleet of mobile labs to manufacture biological weapons and evade detection.

The reports triggered a flurry of escalating U.S. intelligence assessments on Iraq, even though the DIA "did not even attempt to determine Curveball's veracity," according to the report. Curveball's claims gained new currency after the Sept. 11 attacks, as the Bush administration adopted a policy of preempting international threats and turned its focus to Iraq.

Curveball's claims were crucial to the case for war. An October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iraq "has" biological weapons was "based almost exclusively on information obtained" from Curveball, according to the report.

Four months later, when then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made a presentation to the United Nations, he showed illustrations of Iraq's alleged bioweapons labs and described an accident in which 12 Iraqis had died operating one of the vehicles. Curveball was the main source for both assertions. Concerns about Curveball's credibility were never conveyed to Powell or other administration officials, the commission found.

But there were problems with Curveball's claims at an early stage. Some CIA officials noted that Curveball's memory showed significant "improvement" as he pursued a European immigration deal and deteriorated when it was granted.

In May 2000, a Defense Department official assigned to the CIA was allowed to meet with Curveball, apparently to examine the source physically to see whether he bore signs of having survived a biological weapons accident or had been vaccinated for exposure to such agents.

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