The CIA's Flim-Flam Man

A chemical engineer from Baghdad seeking political asylum in Germany in November 1999 provided detailed descriptions of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program. Most everything the informant, dubbed "Curveball," said was untrue -- though that did not stop White House officials from embracing his stories. In fact, Curveball became the sole source for the administration's allegations that Hussein had chemical weapons. Bob Drogin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning national security correspondent who exposed the story of Curveball in a series of articles for the Los Angeles Times, recently sat down to talk with TAP about pre-war intelligence, Judy Miller, and an international confidence scam.

How did you get started on the story of Curveball?
On August 26, 2002, Dick Cheney went down to Nashville to speak at a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It was a really bellicose speech. He announced that Saddam Hussein was very close to having a nuclear weapon. Cheney did not vet that speech with the CIA. And we know from [George] Tenet [the former director of the CIA] himself that Tenet did not complain about the speech to the White House. That set the stage for the run-up to war. There was a pattern of Cheney and other people pushing the intelligence beyond what was there. After Cheney gave that speech, I talked with my editor, Dean Baquet, about it, and we agreed that I should focus full time on trying to figure out what Saddam Hussein really did have.

How did you know something was wrong with Cheney's speech?
We listened to it and thought, "Jesus, we're going to war." It wasn't that we knew there were no weapons. But there's a long line between the statement that he has a program or he has intentions and saying there is a nuclear weapon. It was more a matter of trying to find out more. We said, "Let's truth-squad this thing." We ran a detailed story about Saddam's suspected WMD in September 2002. It was the day after Judy Miller's story in The New York Times in which she talked about aluminum tubes and the nuclear threat. My story said that we really don't know what's there and pointed out that the intelligence is very wiff-y.

What did you see that other people did not?
I knew something about the U.N. weapons inspectors who had gone to Iraq in the 1990s and then pulled out. And I knew that these nuclear-weapons programs had been pulled apart. And I know enough about nuclear weapons to know it's not something you build in your backyard. Also, I'd been there. I had covered the Gulf War and had gone into southern Iraq at the time. So it just didn't make sense to me on a purely technical basis that Saddam Hussein could go from less than zero and then created [create?] these weapons and that he could have done that under sanctions. I honestly do believe that Tenet and the other guys knew that not all the intelligence was accurate -- because intelligence is never accurate -- but nobody believed that all the intelligence was wrong. That is what it turned out to be.

And a lot of it was based on Curveball …
Curveball is the defining story of pre-war intelligence. What we have discovered is that all of the evidence of biological weapons -- at least what was presented to the public -- comes from him. He is the sole source. We also know that CIA guys who were looking into chemical weapons believed that the evidence about chemical weapons was inconclusive. But when they saw the evidence coming from the biological team, they thought, "Well, it's harder to make reliable biological weapons than to make chemical weapons. And we know Saddam had a chemical-weapons program in the 1980s." After they saw the high confidence of the CIA officers in their reports on biological weapons, the guys looking at chemical weapons ramped up their own conclusions.

How did you find out about Curveball?
On February 5, 2004, Tenet gave a speech at Georgetown University. It was right after David Kay [the former chief weapons inspector in Iraq] had said we were all wrong [about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction]. Tenet's speech was weird in lots of ways. He has this line, "We're still trying to get access to the key source." I am thinking, "They're still trying to get access to the key person? What the fuck is that all about?" We decided we needed to focus on the defector issue. The first story we did about Curveball ran on March 28, 2004. By then, we had confirmed the code name.

What did you think when you first heard it?
I sent a note to my editor that said, "You're not going to believe this. The chief source of phony pre-war intelligence was code-named Curveball."

Who do you think is the most to blame in this story -- the German intelligence, the CIA …
It's not a gotcha book. It's more a story of human frailty. This is not a political conspiracy. It's a conspiracy of ineptitude driven by tawdry ambitions, spineless leadership, and fear. To me what makes the story so unique is that the criticism after 9-11 is they failed to connect the dots. In the story of Curveball, they made up the dots. The trucks never existed. It was a phantom weapons program. There were numerous times when people inside the CIA could have stood up and said, "Wait a second." And in a few cases people tried to stop things. What I found astonishing [was] how petty and vindictive the CIA was to people who tried to speak truth to power. They were shunted aside. They were essentially exiled and told to seek psychiatric counseling. Intelligence is a cult, and these guys were heretics. The CIA is filled with arrogance and people who hide their incompetence behind the shield of secrecy. Their idea was that if they had found one real weapon -- even after they knew the Curveball story was imploding -- all the rest of this would be brushed aside.

You asked me earlier why I did this. I think like most people I felt betrayed. I didn't believe everything they told us but I had to assume they knew more than I did. That's the other reason I got obsessed with this story. So if there's vindication there, I found the book cathartic.

Curveball comes across as pretty sympathetic in your book.
I'm sympathetic to him. He was under immense pressure, and he was terrified for his life. He told lies to get asylum. That's more the rule than the exception. I became fascinated with the idea that one man -- a pretty simple man with modest ambitions -- could so affect the course of history. How people perceived him became more important than what he said. Other people twisted and magnified and exploited his lies to their own advantage. That to me is much more culpable. He was a small-time con man, and the administration used his information to con all of us.