When WMD Meets Office Space

A word of advice to reporters seeking to embed in Iraq: it helps to avoid the whole WMD thing. In March, I met an Army officer for dinner at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. In the course of a general discussion about whether the war’s fortunes were as bad as they seemed, the conversation turned to Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. The whole reason the two of us were in Iraq in the first place, I mused, was the Bush administration’s deception, and self-deception, over WMDs, as surreal as that long-ago justification seems in retrospect.

My dinner companion took my reminder of the years-old debacle as something of an affront. His compatriots didn’t care about WMD, he said: whatever the reason they were sent to Iraq, the fact remains that they’re there now. Remarking upon the long-disproven rationale for the war seemed to the officer to be an unfair distraction from the military’s current efforts.

That night, over dinner, we were truly talking past one another. But on reflection, my friend’s annoyance is completely understandable: no one serving in Iraq has the luxury of ruminating on past history. WMDs matter little when you’re driving nervously down a road full of IEDs. And this is one more transgression wrought by the war: that salvaging what can be salvaged in Iraq requires ignoring the very reasons we invaded in the first place.

Enter Bob Drogin’s new book, Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War, an insightful and compelling account of one crucial component of the war’s origins. Drogin, a national security correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, meticulously recreates the story of a twenty-something Iraqi (codenamed “Curveball”) who leveraged a desire for plush asylum in Germany into an inconsistent, fantastical account of biowarfare machines hidden on trucks. This nonsense claimed by Curveball traversed tensions between partner intelligence agencies and internecine battles within the CIA to provide a pretext for the invasion. Had Drogin merely pieced together Curveball’s story, it alone would have made for a thrilling book. But he provides something more: a frightening glimpse at how easily we could make the same mistakes again.

Ahmed Hassan Mohammed was the false name on the passport Curveball used to fly to Munich in 1999 and apply for asylum. (Curveball still lives in Germany, under official protection; his real identity is a German state secret.) At the time, he was anything but political. Curveball, a chain-smoking manic depressive, wanted the perquisites befitting his talents as a chemical engineerincluding “a gleaming Mercedes sedan with buttery soft leather seats,” as Drogin tantalizingly envisionsand figured that the Germans, with their passion for engineering, would be the ones to provide them to him.

His key to getting asylum was to tell a compelling, if untrue, story of weapons programs in Iraq. The German intelligence servicethe Bundesnachrichten- dienst, or BNDbought Mohammed’s story, and kept buying it, even after the tale began to fray. Much of the German willingness to believe Curveball had to do with an unlikely contributor to the Iraq War’s origins: the institutional history between the BND and the CIA. Throughout the cold war and into the 1990s, the partner agencies developed a thorough distaste for each other. The BND was notorious for being infiltrated by the East Germans and the Soviets, and its reputation for incompetence led the CIA to amplify the condescension it often displays to its partner services. The Germans, unsurprisingly, resented this. Now, in 1999, with Curveball in hand, the BND had something the U.S. desireda defector claiming firsthand knowledge of a concealed Iraqi bioweapons programand the BND was eager to repay the CIA for more than forty years of slights. Therefore, when senior BND officials decided to pass on to the Americans what they knew about Curveball, they bypassed the CIA, and instead formed a liaison with the Defense Intelligence Agency, a sister intelligence service with which the CIA frequently clashed.

Even though the CIA had been shut out of the game, Curveball’s handler, a BND agent known as Schumann, steadfastly refused DIA or any other American access to his prize defector, acting out of pure professional parochialism. He concocted a nonsensical story that Curveball hated the United States and wouldn’t consent to an interview with an American, and the DIA, clueless about the BND’s poor reputation, accepted that their only access to Curveball would be through the Germans. Curveball had confirmed what the U.S. and partner agencies suspected: that Iraq had retained its bioweapons program in spite of UN sanctions. (This ran contrary to the testimony of the defector Hussein Kamil, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, who claimed that Iraq’s WMD efforts were defunct by 1995.) Curveball added to his story the revelation that the program now relied on crafting bioagents inside trucks that were then driven into concealed facilities to store the toxinsa simple explanation for how inspectors could have missed what everyone had assumed was an ongoing program.

In 2001, Schumann and his colleagues started to discover discrepancies in Curveball’s story. Early on, for instance, Curveball claimed to have worked only at Baghdad’s Chemical Engineering and Design Center on the bioweapons project; in later interrogations, he claimed to have been assigned to Djerf al Nadaf, a different facility southeast of Baghdad. In addition, much of what he told interrogators about WMD logistics made little sense, and interrogators found it hard to distinguish between what he claimed to have seen himself and what he had overheard. Making matters worse, Curveball was starting to despair over his inability to land a high-status engineering job and growing increasingly irritable when his interviewers asked him to reconcile the emerging problems in his story. Schumann’s colleagues finally told superiors that Curveball was “emotionally unbalanced” and “psychologically unstable.” With the exception of one CIA doctor who performed a physical on Curveball at BND request (and who noted only that he was hungover), the Germans refused to allow the U.S. access to Curveballbut in mid-2001, they asked the U.S., the U.K., and Israel for help in corroborating his information.

What should have happened next was the opposite of what did. The CIA’s little- esteemed weapons-analysis directorate, known as WINPAC, had tantalizing hints about Curveball from the DIA. But the DIA liaison to Curveball never filed reports assessing the Iraqi’s credibility. The Germans looked “desperate,” according to a senior BND official, for any scraps of intelligence that could support Curveball’s statements. Yet the CIA considered the best source to potentially corroborate Curveball’s accounta defector provided by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congressto be a fabricator. None of this, unfortunately, diminished WINPAC’s enthusiasm for Curveball.

It was a series of compounding errors, and office politics were again the primary culprit. WINPAC was sick of its reputation as a backwater organization, and this grievance apparently colored the perspective of two of its key analysts, known as Beth and Jerry, who became “true believers” in Curveball. Curveball’s account was just what WINPAC neededevidence that Saddam had an ongoing and deadly bioweapons programparticularly after it became clear to the CIA that the Bush administration was gearing up to attack Iraq. Before 9/11, WINPAC’s assessments on Iraq’s weapons were larded with caveats. After 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, writes Drogin, “all such caution, all such doubt, disappeared.” WINPAC analysts pushed Curveball’s allegations through the CIA to its craven director, George Tenet, and from there to the White House and Capitol Hill in advance of the October 2002 vote for the invasion.

The only bulwark against the layers of willful delusion was the CIA’s Europe chief, a longtime operative named Tyler Drumheller. Having learned that the BND secretly suspected that Curveball was lying, Drumheller tried to put on the brakes at Langley. But it was futile. Tenet’s senior staff was trying to marshal evidence in support of the forthcoming invasion, and WINPAC took Drumheller’s warnings as an affront to its professionalism. When Drumheller all but begged Tenet to excise Curveball’s material from the address Colin Powell was preparing for the United Nations, Tenet replied, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

All of this fraudulence would soon be exposed in Baghdad, and massive recrimination followed. The BND claimed to have resented the CIA’s use of Curveball in Powell’s speech, insisting to Drumheller that the agency had never vouched for the Iraqi’s storysomething true on its face and false in its substance. DIA officials contended that it was never their job to vet Curveball, only to pass along the German reports to U.S. intelligence. Jerry ultimately went to Baghdad to join David Kay’s CIA-led weapons hunt and refused to believe that Curveball was wrong. When the conclusion became unavoidable, Jerry, desperate to atone for his mistake, crusaded to get the CIA to formally rescind its endorsement of Curveballsomething it finally did in late 2004and was hounded out of Langley for embarrassing the agency. (Curveball, it was learned in 2003, had been fired from the Chemical Engineering and Design Center in 1995 “for unspecified sexual offenses,” which meant he could not have witnessed most of what he claimed to.) Drumheller’s reward was a caustic and foolish attack on his integrity in George Tenet’s recent memoir.

The disgraceful episode has had two lasting impacts. The first, of course, is the Iraq War. The second is the reconfiguration of the intelligence community that Congress and President Bush mandated after the 9/11 and WMD intelligence failures. That fix, which centralized control of the community under an agency- independent intel czar, was intended to prevent Curveball-like episodes from ever happening again.

Alas, it probably won’t help. The real value of Drogin’s book is its meticulous demonstration that bureaucratic imperative often leads to self-delusion. The BND wanted to prove its value to the CIA; WINPAC wanted to do the same. Analysts viewing Drumheller’s warnings sniffed that a case officer couldn’t possibly see the bigger picturein which the only rational conclusion was that Curveball was legit. Drumheller’s bosses were only interested in giving the Bush administration its war and shielding the CIA if something went wrong.

The bureaucratic boxes can be shuffled endlessly. But intramural competition in international intelligence partnerships is an enduring fact. As long as rival bureaus care more about proving a point than about accessing the truth, it’s only a matter of time before another Curveball poisons the intelligence well. With the next crisis set to flare over, say, Iran, or Pakistan’s Waziristan Province, the surest possible safeguard against another such situation is to understand how Curveball managed to play into the worst impulses among intelligence professionals. If we don’t learn that lesson, my officer friend had better pack his bags now for the next expedition.

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