A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
After 9/11, the criticism was that the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies had failed to connect the dots. In Curveball, the difference is they made up the dots. In my way of thinking, it's a much more significant failure of intelligence, because never before in our history have we sacrificed so much blood and treasure and national credibility on chasing an utter delusion.
-- Bob Drogin, LA Times reporter and author, Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War
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Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War is an utterly fascinating look at how one highly dubious Iraqi defector, in German custody, became the "source" for so many of the deceptions used by the Bush administration to cajole and bully Americans into a war with Saddam Hussein.
Written by a Los Angeles Times journalist with a specialty in security and intelligence matters, the story of the defector ironically known as "Curveball" is as compelling as it is infuriating.
As Random House, the publisher, notes:
Ignoring a flood of warnings about the informant’s credibility, the CIA allows President Bush to cite Curveball’s unconfirmed claims in a State of the Union speech. Finally, Secretary of State Colin Powell highlights the Iraqi’s 'eyewitness' account during his historic address to the U.N. Security Council. Yet the entire case is based on a fraud. America’s vast intelligence apparatus conjured up demons that did not exist. And the proof was clear before the war.
Most of the events and conversations presented here have not been reported before. The portrayals -- from an obdurate president to a bamboozled secretary of state to a bungling CIA director to case handlers conned by their snitch -- are vivid and exciting. Curveball reads like an investigative spy thriller. Fast-paced and engrossing, it is an inside story of intrigue and incompetence at the highest levels of government. At a time when Americans demand answers, this authoritative book provides them with clarity and conviction.
It's an amazing true account of discredited intelligence from a discredited source being used as perhaps the primary source for going to war with Iraq.
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BuzzFlash: First of all, who is Curveball?
Bob Drogin: Curveball is an engineer who came out from Iraq in 1999 and went to Germany. He became the chief source of some of the most important intelligence that led to the war in Iraq. That's the simple version of it.
BuzzFlash: Or misintelligence.
Bob Drogin: Yes, as it turned out, he was a con man. The information that he gave was, for the most part, untrue. It was never confirmed. It was never verified. He was never vetted. The Americans never interviewed him. They didn't even know his name. The information was simply passed to them by the Germans.
Nonetheless, the information formed the chief element, the key points, when Colin Powell addressed the United Nations Security Council before the war. It became information that the President used in his 2003 State of the Union speech before the war. The President announced that Iraq had mobile biological weapons facilities, and Curveball was the reason why. And yet the entire case was built on a tissue of lies that were subsequently amplified by others -- twisted. The CIA had never met him. They'd never interviewed him, and yet they took his information to the White House because that's what the White House wanted to hear. And they never made the effort to confirm it.
BuzzFlash: He was a con man who offered tales that were useful to the White House that wanted to go to war.
Bob Drogin: Essentially. After 9/11, the criticism was that the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies had failed to connect the dots. In Curveball, the difference is they made up the dots. In my way of thinking, it's a much more significant failure of intelligence, because never before in our history have we sacrificed so much blood and treasure and national credibility on chasing an utter delusion. And he was one of the leading causes of that.
BuzzFlash: Is he still alive?
Bob Drogin: Yes. He is in the German defector protection program, which is similar to our witness protection program. To the best of my knowledge, he and his wife and their daughter have lived in southern Germany since 2004. They were not willing to speak to me. He's still under protection. They have threatened him that if he does speak to the press, he would lose that protection. Before the war, he was terrified of Saddam's people, and as far as I understand it, he is still terrified of retribution for his role in all of this. He refused to leave Germany when they tried to get him to leave. He received political asylum and he stayed there.
BuzzFlash: In the beginning of the book, you give the definition of "curveball" from the dictionary. It is intriguing how they came up with that name that was so appropriate. Tell us how he become known as Curveball.
Bob Drogin: Obviously, in retrospect, they couldn't have chosen a more apt metaphor -- a curveball, something that twists away and tricks you. In this case, it was much more mundane.
In Germany, which was, of course, the front line during the Cold War, there were very elaborate systems set up for giving cryptonyms to defectors who were coming out of the Soviet bloc. The cryptonym system is usually set up with two words. One of the cryptonyms that was used for Soviet defectors coming out with information about weapons was the word "ball" -- B-A-L-L. There was a Matchball, and apparently a Snowball, and what not. And when Curveball came out, the people in Munich who were working for the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, simply went back to the old play book and gave him the next name on the list, which happened to be Curveball. It seems to be one of those lovely accidents of history.
BuzzFlash: It's serendipitous, but highly appropriate. You're a long-time journalist for the L.A. Times. You specialize in security issues. A book like this takes enormous research, interviews, and so forth. Why did you decide to devote so much time to it? What did you find so compelling?
Bob Drogin: I had covered the pre-war intelligence period and had been writing about intelligence for several years. I felt really betrayed, as I think a lot of people did, when no weapons were found after the war, when no chemical, biological and nuclear weapons or programs were found after the war. As a journalist, I felt really determined to try to understand what happened.
But the story of Curveball which I broke with a colleague in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, just seemed to me the defining story of that period. We know a great deal more now, obviously, than we did when it was actually happening. But it just became increasingly clear that more and more of the entire edifice of misinformation and disinformation and mistakes and misperceptions, really hung on this one man's shoulders. All of the post-war investigations concluded that the CIA claims about Saddam's biological weapons were based on the words of Curveball. The whole biological program rested on him.
We subsequently learned that the evidence for the entire chemical weapons program was very ambiguous. The people who were writing these reports were not at all certain about what to do. Then they saw the Curveball reports, and they thought: if the biological people are so convinced, and they have such high confidence, well, we better ramp up our conclusions as well. They changed the analysis entirely because the biological stuff based on Curveball was so "strong."
Both of those two legs, if you will, rested on Curveball. And the only other leg left was the nuclear. And, you know, for those of us who were following it, it was very clear before the war that Saddam had no nuclear weapons. The only one who claimed he did was Dick Cheney.
So part of my motivation was that sense of betrayal. And part of it was that, when you really stripped it away and you tried to get down to the core, a great deal of the case really rested on this one guy's shoulders. I was really intrigued as a writer by this idea of one rather modest man with a modest ambition having this extraordinary impact on history.
BuzzFlash: Now let's consider the issue of supply and demand. Cheney had visited the CIA many times. This was information that Cheney wanted to hear.
Bob Drogin: Yes. I have a chapter in which I trace some of the CIA reports -- some of the declassified material, and how it changed. The language changed dramatically after 9/11.
Curveball was basically providing his story to the Germans during interrogations from early 2000 until early September of 2001. During that time, they put out nearly one report a week, which is extraordinary. Usually most defector debriefings take place over a few weeks or months at most. They don't last for a great deal of time, and two years' worth of that is really unusual. But the Germans added caveats to their reporting. They said that "It's one man, it's unconfirmed, we don't really know. We can't prove it."
And suddenly, literally within weeks after 9/11, the reporting changed. It was taken that this information must be true. We shouldn't forget the level of anxiety and fear in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. That, I think, played a huge role here in terms of just changing the way people looked at this intelligence. But it's equally clear that there was no push-back from anyone in the system, and surely not from the White House.
After 9/11, and certainly after Afghanistan, they were aiming their sights on Iraq. Some people were doing it before we went into Afghanistan. By the time Colin Powell went to the United Nations, in February 2003, a month before the invasion, Curveball's information had taken on a life of its own. The CIA told him that of all the intelligence they had, the stuff on the mobile weapons labs, the germ weapons, was the strongest, most irrefutable intelligence they had.
BuzzFlash: You're an expert in this. Isn't there a basic expectation that the intelligence services confirm from a variety of sources and don't rely on just one person for declaring war?
Bob Drogin: We would like to think so. I certainly used to think so. Part of what was happening was what they call an echo effect. Information from other sources would sort of filter out into intelligence channels. And because of their efforts to protect the identity of the source, or the method used to collect it, it comes out, it moves around, and then it sort of comes back to asking somebody, do you know anything about this? And they say, yes, we got this information that we collected from such-and-such, and without knowing it, you're getting it from the same person.
So when Colin Powell went up to the UN, he said we have three other sources. Well, what we essentially learned, and what he was furious to discover, is none of those three other sources who were supposedly corroborating Curveball said anything remotely similar to what he said. They had different stories or were essentially contradicting each other. One failed a polygraph test and was deemed to have lied, and his information was hearsay anyway. Another one, the one that's the most outrageous, had already been declared a fabricator -- that is, within U.S. intelligence channels, within the field, there was a file saying this man cannot be trusted. He is a known fabricator. His information had been mined off the Internet. Do not trust this man. And yet, for a variety of excuses, his information continued to be used after he was declared to be a liar. So all of the corroborating evidence for Curveball turned out to be false information.
BuzzFlash: He was a defector to Germany. He was cooperating with the German intelligence service. One of the things you discuss in your book, which is sort of fascinating and sometimes overlooked, is that there was a lot of friction between the German intelligence service and the CIA. You had the basic problem that this was going from Arabic, to German, to English, to boot. What was going on between the German intelligence service and the CIA?
Bob Drogin: Well, if you think of the rivalry between the CIA and the FBI, which we know a lot about because of 9/11 -- then magnify that by a hundred fold to get some sense of the distrust and the rivalry between the CIA and other intelligence services around the world, including the British, who they are supposedly so close with.
The Germans were really a unique case. They were set up after World War II, and it was initially under CIA control as a "rat line" for war criminals from Himmler's staff, Eichmann's staff, and the Gestapo, in some cases. The German service was repeatedly and wantonly infiltrated by Soviet and East German intelligence, so much so it was just considered an absolutely useless service. The CIA viewed itself as this very elite special operation, but looked at the Germans as unreliable, untrustworthy, immature and sort of a little brother, sort of this little puppet service.
It became a factor in this case, because when the Germans finally got Curveball, they had a source who was much better than any source the Americans had in Iraq. The CIA basically had no one in Iraq, despite all their attempts to spy on Iraq. They had a useless operation there, and the Germans had this guy, and they refused to let the Americans interview him. They made up a story that said he hates Americans and he doesn't speak English, neither of which, even if true -- would have mattered. Obviously, they could have put in somebody who spoke German or Arabic and didn't have to identify him as an American, but they refused to do that. They kept him under wraps, and, in fact, didn't let the Americans speak to him until a year after the war.
BuzzFlash: So none of the information that the U.S. intelligence services in the Bush administration were relying on in relationship to Curveball came from a face-to-face encounter.
Bob Drogin: There was one American who met him, a doctor who went in and took blood from him, because they were concerned about whether he'd been exposed to anthrax. He was never identified as an American, and he never talked to Curveball because they told him he didn't speak English, and if he thinks you're an American, he'll go crazy. Well, he was concerned. He thought the guy was a drunk, and couldn't figure out why the Germans were so protective of him, and the whole thing seemed very bizarre to him. He tried to blow the whistle later and was ignored.
But the rest of the time, that's correct. All of the information was coming from the Germans, and they refused to even share the transcripts of the interviews. They would simply say, our analysis is perfectly good. Here it is. Take it. They would interview him in German with an Arabic translator, who then translated answers back to German again. And then they would have to translate it to English. Then the analysis would be re-analyzed. It was sort of like a children's game of telephone. The story kept changing. People kept filling in gaps so his story became steadily more frightening. Things he later claimed that he never said became a huge part of his story, and some information essentially turned out to be simply rumors that he had passed along. There's a big difference as to whether he was an eye witness, or was simply reporting water-cooler gossip.
BuzzFlash: In your book, you point to some heroes. Tyler Drumheller of the European desk for the CIA -- you mention that some CIA leaders were upset with him for "embarrassing" the CIA. But Drumheller left the CIA in early 2005, embittered about the case, and he wrote a book about his career. He regretted not fighting harder to ring the alarm on Curveball. It was unimaginable to me, he explained, that the entire war was based on reporting from one poor Iraqi. Can you tell us a little bit more about Drumheller?
Bob Drogin: Drumheller joined the CIA out of a sense of patriotism and excitement. He'd lived abroad as a kid. His father was, as I recall, in the Air Force in Germany. Drumheller spoke a lot of languages and had a pretty successful career in the clandestine service, mostly in Africa. He was in Zambia, and in Germany, and in Vienna. And one of the reasons he was successful is probably because he was not your image of the spy. He is not this James Bond kind of guy. He's this big, shambling, heavy-set sort of guy, and balding. You wouldn't expect to see him playing baccarat at Cannes, even though he does. It's easier to picture him playing the slots in Atlantic City.
Maybe that was one of the reasons he was quite successful. In this case, he was asked in the fall of 2002 to go find out about Curveball and see if the CIA could talk to him. He approached the then-station chief for German intelligence in Washington, and they had lunch. The German actually warned him that Curveball might be a fabricator, and he'd had a nervous breakdown, and they thought he was crazy.
At that point, Drumheller went back to Langley and organized his staff to try and get more information. They wrote memos, and e-mails, and held a series of meetings, and issued a series of warnings that obviously were ignored. Some people took the position that we knew Curveball was a phony, but we didn't think he was all that important, so why should I worry about it, and it wasn't our case anyway. And the people on the other side of the street, in the analysis division, basically said, well, those guys don't know what they're talking about. This is our case, and Curveball's information is really good, and it's really strong. And we've analyzed this to the max, and everything he says makes perfect sense.
Partly at issue was the question of what people meant by the word "credible." For the people in operations, when you say someone is credible, that is different from what it means to the analysts. Among the actual people who steal secrets, the spies, when you say someone is credible, the implication is that he's trustworthy -- that we have vetted him and we have checked out his story, and he is who he says he is, and we believe him because he's trustworthy, he's reliable, and he has a record.
But to the analysts, when you say something or someone is "credible," it means something different. It means that it makes sense. It means it's plausible, or the information is consistent with other reporting. It's sort of a different way of approaching it.
The analysts were saying he's credible -- that the story makes sense to them about these labs. And the operatives are saying: How can you say he's credible? You've never even vetted him. You've never even checked out any of this information. You don't even know where he came from. You don't even know his name. So there was a bitter debate about that.
BuzzFlash: It does seem extraordinary. I'm just a layperson, but I do read about intelligence agencies a bit. They have networks, and there's confirmation and re-confirmation. It just seems astounding that everything was based on one Iraqi defector of questionable mental stability, to whom the U.S. had no direct access, and all the information was transmitted in translation in summary form through a foreign intelligence agency to the United States. And this became the basis for war. Didn't we have other people in Iraq? Was it really that bad that this was all we could rely on?
Bob Drogin: In retrospect, it's clear that a great deal hung on him. At the time, that wasn't as clear. In their defense, they believed a variety of other evidence that also turned out to be wrong, or they misinterpreted the evidence. Curveball wasn't the only defector, for example. And there were satellite pictures. The problem was that you can't prove a negative. They couldn't find any weapons of mass destruction, even when the UN went in. The mindset was, well, this just shows how Saddam has been in hiding them. It was sort of like medieval clerics searching for witchcraft. The failure to find proof was proof itself.
BuzzFlash: You did say that Colin Powell found out after his UN speech that there were people who had contradictory evidence, not corroborating evidence?
Bob Drogin: Right.
BuzzFlash: So there was an attempt to squeeze it all through Curveball and say this is the real thing.
Bob Drogin: The investigations concluded that, basically, without Curveball, there was no case on germ weapons. And they also said that without the case on germ weapons, the chemical weapons would not have been viewed in nearly the same light. And there really were no nuclear weapons, although the administration was saying there were. Just think of the Manhattan Project. That's not something you can do overnight with six guys in a garage. At the UN, they were quite confident there was no active, ongoing nuclear program, whatever Saddam's intentions might have been. Obviously, a great deal of it hung on Curveball.
BuzzFlash: What are the implications? Everyone knows that Cheney had a wish to go to Iraq. But in terms of the corroborating intelligence, the key factor for this super power was a guy that they had never met in Germany, who was a defector, who didn't speak English.
Bob Drogin: It actually turns out he did speak English. But the Germans said he didn't.
BuzzFlash: The Germans were basically trying to keep him under wraps. They said you can't talk to him because he hates Americans and he doesn't speak English. So what was their stake in this? Did they really think they were doing the Americans a favor?
Bob Drogin: It sort of goes both ways. If you remember, it was the period of the Gerhardt Schroeder government. He was the strongest figure in Europe opposing the war in Iraq. The German public was universally against it. There were massive demonstrations against the war. Germany, of course, was and remains very supportive of the operation in Afghanistan. But they felt the evidence on Iraq was very different.
BuzzFlash: What was at issue for Germany?
Bob Drogin: There were conflicting currents. On one hand, maybe they sort of lorded it over the Americans. Hey, we've got this guy. You don't have him. You don't have anybody. And then they got cold feet when they realized that, oh, my God, the Americans are going to war. They are going to use this, so we're not going to let them talk to him. And I heard this from everybody who remembers the bad old days of relationships. The CIA would never, ever, ever let us talk to any of their people. They would look at us and think we were crazy. So why should we let them talk to him? There's a real sense of resentment there. I think that was part of it.
BuzzFlash: We tend to forget that intelligence-gathering services are composed of people. And people have personalities. The agencies engage in rivalries sometimes. So there was this tension historically between the German intelligence service and the CIA that affected the way in which the Curveball material was handled.
Bob Drogin: Yes. We never see James Bond filing his expense reports, but in real life, that's what you do. Except on the spy side of it, they are trained to lie, cheat and steal in service of the country. Then they go around the world and break laws. That's what they are empowered to do. It creates this obviously very fascinating, largely unknown world.
What I tried to do here was not write a political conspiracy book, which I think that many people believe, but to try and really understand on a much more fundamental level how something like this could go so wrong. It's not like three people were involved. This involves entire systems, where checks and balances don't work. There are so many places along the way where I discovered a red flag should have been raised, or one was raised and was ignored. There was really tawdry ambition and, frankly, spineless leadership and zeal in the post 9/11 period. Bureaucratic rivalry trumped common sense. As a result, we wound up with this one case which should never have gone forward, and it wound up dominating the system.
There are some parts of this that are absurd. But in the end, it's a tragedy. It's dreadful.
BuzzFlash: At BuzzFlash, we certainly have strong feelings about Dick Cheney's visits to the CIA, and the attempt to build the case to fit the mission, and not necessarily around the facts. In all likelihood, that also affected the mindset of the CIA and certainly George Tenet.
The administration was relying heavily on the CIA. We also wonder what was going on in the Pentagon in terms of their own intelligence agency that runs up there with Douglas Feith.
You're someone with a long history of looking at security services. If the purpose of any national intelligence agency is to serve the interests of its nation, whether the US or any other country, how far can an intelligence agency go to be independent of the direction that the civilian leadership is taking the country? How far can the CIA go in saying this is all wrong? Don't invade Iraq. There are no nukes. There are no biological labs. It's a bunch of poppycock. If you want to go invade, go ahead, but we have no intelligence to justify that. They're serving at the pleasure of the executive branch of the government.
Bob Drogin: I've thought about this a lot, and my answer is this. Every president in modern times, certainly since Franklin Roosevelt, has lied to the American people about issues of national security. You can go back to World War II, and back to Truman, and later to Vietnam. So I take that as a given -- not saying that it's a good thing. But I just take that as the nature of our political system -- that our leaders feel it's sometimes necessary to shade, hide, twist, conceal the truth for what they consider to be the greater political good.
But we have a system that's built to deal with that which is our elections. If you don't like the way they've done, vote them out of office.
I am much more bothered, honestly -- and I think it is a much greater scandal -- that the information that they were given in this case turned out to be so egregiously -- treacherously -- wrong. If they're going to make policy, whether it's good policy or bad policy, whether they're going to speak to us truthfully or not, one hopes that it at least is based on reasonable intelligence.
And in this case, it was wrong at virtually every level. Certainly on the WMD side of it, and certainly on other things. To me, that is the greater scandal.
George Bush is the man who's responsible for taking us to war. It's his decision. He's Commander in Chief and history will judge him for it. But I honestly believe that the intelligence that he was given was so flat-out wrong that, whatever decision he makes at that point is going to be the wrong decision, because the information he's given is wrong.
But to answer your question, the intelligence agencies' charters actually call for them to be independent. They serve the president. Their customer is the Executive Branch. But they are required -- in fact, it's built into their system, and their esprit de corps -- it is drummed into them absolutely as their sense of mission, that they have to give their honest and best analysis. Not to say things for political purposes.
In this case, that did happen. And that was one of the many things the post-war commission faulted them for.
BuzzFlash: Thank you very much. Wonderful book. We're proud to sell it, and we look forward to your continued reporting.
Bob Drogin: Thank you so much.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War (Hardcover), by Bob Drogin, a BuzzFlash premium.
"How U.S. Fell Under the Spell of 'Curveball'" (Los Angeles Times, Bob Drogin and John Goetz, 11/20/05)
Faulty Intel Source "Curve Ball" Revealed ("60 Minutes")
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW