Recycling Curveball: What Intelligence Failures in Iraq Teach Us about Spying

Image from Colin Powell's presentation at the UN Security Council on alleged WMD facilities in 2003, which according to the Bush administration was based on faulty intelligence from the informant known as Curveball.

By Elizabeth Pond

Remember Curveball? He was the star witness Secretary of State Colin Powell cited in February 2003 to "prove" to the United Nations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that it was urgent to invade Iraq and not give the UN inspection team—which until then had not found evidence that Iraq was still carrying out WMD programs—more time to find WMD traces or certify their absence.

Six weeks later, three U.S. divisions and one marine expeditionary force invaded Iraq, in the company of British, Australian, and Polish troops. Two year later the CIA concluded that President Saddam Hussein had had no WMD. Ten years later, at a cost to the United States of more than 4,480 American lives and $2.2 trillion, Iranian-influenced Nouri al-Maliki was leading Iraq in Hussein's place, a rare convergence of U.S.-Iranian interests in Afghanistan had been squandered, and a destabilizing Sunni-Shia war was gathering momentum in the Mideast.

Well, Curveball is back in the news again. This time he's being cited by U.S. intelligence agency spinmeisters as one reason why the United States needs to spy on its friends as well as its foes. The United States, they say, needs to check out the reliability of informants for allied intelligence agencies to make sure they aren't giving out bogus information that is then being passed on to the United States.

If such spinmeisters are in their mid-20s, they may not remember the circumstances of the Curveball affair. So let me fill in the gap. I was writing a short book about the sour transatlantic relations at the time and interviewing German diplomats and intelligence officials.

Germany in general, and the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) in particular, were in the doghouse with the Bush II administration. The BND had not sniffed out and thwarted the Twin Towers plan of the Arab 9/11 plotters sitting in Hamburg. And Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was flaunting his opposition to the looming American war on Iraq, in the company of French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Vice President Dick Cheney—and because of his zeal the U.S. intelligence agencies too—were pressing the BND hard for any hints of Iraqi nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons that could help justify the U.S. march to war.

Under this pressure the BND did pass on to the U.S. uncorroborated testimony from an Iraqi asylum seeker, Rafid Ahmed Alwan, who claimed he had participated in Saddam Hussein's WMD program and talked about mobile truck laboratories for producing biological weapons. The BND found the informant dodgy and repeatedly told Washington so. (The admission by Curveball himself that he had lied and simply cobbled together rumors that he had easily found on the internet would not come until 2011.) U.S. intelligence services nonetheless highlighted his information, scrubbing the accompanying German warnings at some point on their ascent up to Cheney's office.

Ironically, the one honorable exception in the American intelligence community was the State Department's own Bureau of Intelligence and Research, whose skeptical analysis never enjoyed Secretary of State Powell's full backing.

Shortly after Powell's UN presentation in February 2003, I interviewed a puzzled senior official in the German foreign ministry. On hearing Powell's unconditional UN statement that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, he and his colleagues assumed that the United States had information from other allied intelligence agencies—which they had not shared with the Germans—that went well beyond the BND's flimsy input. To their surprise, though, the suspect Curveball was identified by U.S. officials in Washington as the main source of Powell's allegations. And, perhaps not to their surprise, the Germans were made the fall guys once the Iraq war turned into a fiasco.

Of course you could argue that my German interlocutor was only feigning surprise to deflect the spin that CIA communicants were giving journalists in Washington. But, judging from the reactions I encountered at the time from working-level CIA analysts, I don't think so.

I do think that the Curveball affair holds out an important lesson for relations between friendly intelligence agencies. This lesson is not, however, that the United States needs to triangulate raw information by spying on smaller and weaker allied services to avoid being corrupted in its judgments, but something more fundamental. The real counsel to be drawn from the Curveball episode is that in order to avoid corrupt judgments, government policy makers must not warp their incoming intelligence to fit their policy preconceptions.



Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of Friendly Fire: The Near-Death of the Transatlantic Alliance.

[Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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