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Context of '1999: US Intelligence Agencies Hampered by Poor Intelligence on Iraqi WMDs; Vulnerable to Curveball’s Fabrications'

This is a scalable context timeline. It contains events related to the event 1999: US Intelligence Agencies Hampered by Poor Intelligence on Iraqi WMDs; Vulnerable to Curveball’s Fabrications. You can narrow or broaden the context of this timeline by adjusting the zoom level. The lower the scale, the more relevant the items on average will be, while the higher the scale, the less relevant the items, on average, will be.

Curveball, as a college student.Curveball, as a college student. [Source: CBS News]The Iraqi engineering student later known to the US and German intelligence communities as “Curveball” graduates last in his class from engineering school at Baghdad University and is hired to work at the Chemical Engineering and Design Center. (Drogin and Goetz 11/20/2005) Curveball, identified thirteen years later as Rafid Ahmed Alwan (see November 4, 2007), will tell German intelligence officials that he graduated first in his class and went on to oversee a secret Iraqi bioweapons laboratory. His claims are entirely fictional (see June 2003-Late 2003), but will become a linchpin of the US’s case for the necessity of invading Iraq (see February 5, 2003).

Bob Drogin.Bob Drogin. [Source: CBS News]Reporter Bob Drogin, in his 2007 book Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War, notes that when the Iraqi defector known as “Curveball” appears in Germany (see November 1999), the US intelligence community knows very little about the state of affairs with Iraq’s secret weapons programs. Saddam Hussein had been fascinated with chemical and biological weapons for a long time, and had a history of using chemical weapons both against the Iranians and allegedly against his own citizens. UN inspectors found thousands of chemical munitions after the 1991 Gulf War; in 1996, UN engineers destroyed what many thought could have been a bioweapons factory. The inspectors were thrown out in 1998, and after that, reliable information about Iraq’s weapons programs was scanty at best. One top CIA official will tell Drogin that the US was “almost in Chapter 11 in terms of our human intelligence collection.” But most US officials believe that Hussein has something going on, they just don’t know exactly what. According to the 2007 reflections of Defense Intelligence Agency chief Vice Admiral Thomas Wilson, the “mind-set [is] we’re going to see the WMD. I don’t know anybody who [doesn’t] believe it [is] there.” (Roane 10/21/2007)

Iraqi defector “Curveball.”Iraqi defector “Curveball.” [Source: ABC News]“Curveball,” an Iraqi in his late 20s later identified as Rafid Ahmed Alwan (see November 4, 2007), travels to Germany on a tourist visa and applies for political asylum, telling German immigration officials that he embezzled money from the Iraqi government and fears prison or worse if he returns home. The Germans send him to Zirndorf, a refugee center near Nuremberg, where other Iraqi exiles seeking German visas are being held. There, he changes his story, telling German intelligence (BND) officers that he was a chemical engineer (see 1994) who had been promoted to direct a secret mobile biological weapons plant at Djerf al Nadaf, just outside of Baghdad. The plant masqueraded as a “seed purification plant,” he claims. Curveball tells the Germans that in Iraq, he designed laboratory equipment to convert trucks into biological weapons laboratories. He offers the names of six sites where Iraq might be hiding them, three of which, he says, are already in operation. He also says that a farm program to boost crop yields is a front for Hussein’s new biological weapons production program. He tells the Germans of a warehouse at the plant that housed trucks; the trucks had been equipped to create and transport biological weapons. His story dovetails with the long-held fears by Western intelligence agencies that Saddam Hussein was cooking up biological and chemical weapons; the Germans stash him away, nickname him “Curveball,” and interrogate him every few days for the next eighteen months (see January 2000-September 2001). Curveball refuses to meet with Americans; therefore, only summaries of his debriefings will be sent to Washington. CIA analysts will be mesmerized by Alwan’s information. Former senior CIA official Tyler Drumheller recalls in late 2007, “Curveball was the one piece of evidence where they could say, ‘Look at this. If they have this capability, where they can transport biological weapons, anthrax, all these horrible weapons, they can attack our troops with them. They can give them to terrorist groups.’” Most arresting is Curveball’s story that in 1998 he saw an accidental release of a biological weapon that killed 12 people. His story is almost entirely false. (Drogin and Goetz 11/20/2005; CBS News 11/4/2007) Vincent Cannistraro, former head of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center, will tell the New Yorker in 2004 that the CIA believes that Aras Habib, the INC intelligence chief later accused of providing US intelligence to Iran, played a part in Curveball’s going to Germany. “The CIA is positive of it,” he says. (Mayer 6/7/2004)
bullet Bob Drogin, author of the 2007 book Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War, will write that Curveball gives the Germans detailed diagrams of germ-making equipment, fermenters, mixing vats, controllers, and other items, which appear “plausible,” even though they can’t be reverse-engineered to “brew anthrax” or “build a bio-lab in a garage.” Instead, he will write, Curveball’s inconsistent information will be “interpreted, summarized, reformatted and analyzed at every stage,” but will never be verified. Drogin will call the entire affair “the dark side of intelligence,” and will write that, to the CIA’s top officials, the risk of going so far on uncorroborated evidence would take care of itself once US forces found the fabled Iraqi WMDs. Once the weapons were in hand, Drogin will write, they will figure “no one would remember a bogus defector.” As a CIA supervisor will later e-mail to a frustrated agency whistleblower, “Let’s keep in mind the fact that this war’s going to happen regardless of what Curveball said or didn’t say, and that the Powers That Be probably aren’t terribly interested in whether Curveball knows what he’s talking about.” (Roane 10/21/2007)

Models of the biological weapons facility described by Curveball.Models of the biological weapons facility described by Curveball. [Source: CBS News]Two German intelligence (BND) case officers debrief Iraqi defector “Curveball” with help from a team of chemists, biologists, and other experts. Curveball claims to have knowledge of a clandestine Iraqi biological weapons program (see November 1999). He speaks to his BND debriefers in Arabic through a translator, and also in broken English and German. Curveball says that he worked for Iraq’s Military Industrial Commission after graduating first in his class from engineering school at Baghdad University in 1994. (He actually graduated last—see 1994.) A year later, he says, he was assigned to work for “Dr. Germ,” British-trained microbiologist Rihab Rashid Taha, to construct mobile biological weapons labs. But Curveball never says that he actually produced biological weapons or witnessed anyone else doing so and the BND is unable to verify his claims. Curveball’s statements are recorded in German, shared with a local Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) team, and sent to the US, where they are translated into English for analysis at the DIA’s directorate for human intelligence in Clarendon, Virginia, though CIA agents are not allowed to talk to Curveball themselves. “This was not substantial evidence,” one senior German intelligence official later recalls in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We made clear we could not verify the things he said.” The reports are then sent to the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC), whose experts analyze the data and share it with artists who use Curveball’s accounts to render sketches. The Clarendon office sends a total of 95 reports to WINPAC during this period. US spy satellites are directed to take pictures of sites named by Curveball as biological weapons facilities. According to a later investigation by the Los Angeles Times, “At the CIA, bio-warfare experts viewed [Curveball’s] reports as sophisticated and technically feasible. They also matched the analysts’ expectations.” (Drogin and Goetz 11/20/2005) The Germans also share some of Curveball’s allegations with the British. However, according to Robin Butler, head of the British inquiry into prewar intelligence, what the Germans provided was “incomplete.” For instance, German intelligence misled them to believe that the alleged mobile weapon labs were capable of producing weapons-grade bio-agents such as anthrax spores, when Curveball’s actual statements only suggested they had the capability to produce a liquid slurry that would not be suitable for bombs or warheads. (Drogin and Goetz 11/20/2005)
bullet In 2007, reporter Bob Drogin, author of Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War, will write extensively of the tensions between the BND and the CIA that lead to the Germans’ reluctance to provide the CIA direct access to Curveball, and result in the CIA building a huge case for Iraqi bioweapons on Curveball’s unsubstantiated, unverified assertions. The Germans repeatedly state that Curveball speaks no English, and hates Americans; in fact, Curveball speaks better English than he does German, and likes Americans. The fault lies with both agencies, Drogin will write, saying the CIA routinely refuses to allow other agencies to meet with their sources, either. “The CIA won’t even let other US intelligence agencies interview a CIA source,” Drogin will note. “The fact is the US went to war after relying in part on information from a guy they had never met, so they’ve tried really hard to blame others.” (Holland 10/22/2007)

Satellite photo of the Djerf al Nadaf site.Satellite photo of the Djerf al Nadaf site. [Source: CBS News]US and German intelligence experts meet in Munich to discuss the information provided by the Iraqi defector code-named “Curveball” (see November 1999). Using satellite imagery, they examine photos of the Djerf al Nadaf site, where Curveball claimed to have been a senior project director for a secret mobile biological weapons laboratory. The photos match with Curveball’s description, except for one detail. According to former CIA official Tyler Drumheller, “If you look at the photos, all the way back to 1998, there was a wall that was built there. Like a cinderblock wall that was built there, that nothing could go through.” The wall stood exactly where Curveball claimed the trucks would go into the warehouse. But CIA analysts convinced of Curveball’s veracity has an explanation: “There was an idea that it could have been a fake wall,” Drumheller recalls. (CBS News 11/4/2007)

Dr. Basil al-Sa’ati.Dr. Basil al-Sa’ati. [Source: CBS News]The Iraqi defector known as Curveball (see November 4, 2007), who is providing German and US intelligence analysts with fascinating but fallacious stories of his involvement with what he claims is a secret Iraqi mobile biological weapons laboratory (see November 1999), provides the names of real Iraqis with whom he claims to have worked, further convincing the analysts of his veracity. One name he cites is that of nuclear scientist Dr. Basil al-Sa’ati, whom he claims was one of the mobile bioweapons program’s senior officials. In late 2007, long after Curveball has been proven to be a complete fabricator, a reporter asks al-Sa’ati, “[Curveball] told German intelligence that you personally were fully involved in the project to use [a laboratory site at] Djerf al Nadaf for mobile biological weapons.” Al-Sa’ati’s reply: “Big lie.” Had anything of that nature gone on there, he will say, he would “definitely” have known about it. “It was… really seed purification” and not a bioweapons facility, al-Sa’ati will say. Al-Sa’ati is equally dismissive with the Germans. If Curveball were involved in something so secret, al-Sa’ati asks the Germans, why did Saddam Hussein let him emigrate in 1999? Curveball had not known of al-Sa’ati’s emigration and subsequent availability to Western intelligence agencies, and becomes less cooperative and more reticent. Doubts about Curveball’s veracity began to grow among the Germans. (CBS News 11/4/2007)

Larry Wilkerson.Larry Wilkerson. [Source: CBS News]Secretary of State Colin Powell, preparing for his critically important presentation to the United Nations that will assert the reality of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (see February 5, 2003), sends his chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, to the CIA to prepare for the presentation. CIA Director George Tenet and his experts regale Wilkerson with the information about mobile bioweapons labs provided by the Iraqi defector Curveball (see November 1999). In 2007, Wilkerson will recall, “They presented it in a very dynamic, dramatic, ‘we know this is accurate,’ way.” Curveball’s assertion that he is a firsthand witness is very important, Wilkerson will say. “This was a man who had actually been in the belly of the beast. He had been in the lab. He had been there when an accident occurred. He’d seen people killed. And the implication was, strong implication, that they weren’t killed because of the accident in the explosion, they were killed because they were contaminated. Yes, the source was very credible. As it was presented by the CIA.” Wilkerson later says that both he and Powell accept the claims because they depend on the intelligence community for good information: “And you depend on the director of central intelligence to assimilate all the intelligence community’s input and give it to you.” Wilkerson feels the section on mobile bioweapons is the strongest part of the presentation, as does Powell. Others at the CIA are not so convinced of Curveball’s truthfulness (see September 2002, January 27, 2003, and December 2002). (CBS News 11/4/2007)

CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin’s executive assistant sends a memo to Tyler Drumheller requesting that he look into the whereabouts of Curveball. McLaughlin wants to be certain that Curveball won’t pop up after Colin Powell’s UN speech (see February 5, 2003) and say something to the press that would contradict the information presented by Powell. “[W]e want to take every precaution against unwelcome surprises that might emerge concerning the intel case; clearly, public statements by this emigre, press accounts of his reporting or credibility, or even direct press access to him would cause a number of potential concerns,” the memo states. (Isikoff and Corn 2006, pp. 183) Drumheller is astonished to learn that Powell’s presentation will include a claim that Iraq’s mobile bioweapons labs can create enough toxins “in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people.” Drumheller recognizes the claim as originating with the Iraqi defector Curveball (see November 1999). Drumheller meets with McLaughlin, who promises an immediate investigation. What McLaughlin does or does not do is unclear, but Powell never hears about Drumheller’s objections. UN weapons inspector David Kay will later note, “[A]ll the fine-grained stuff that might have caused [Powell] not to use it, he wasn’t given an opportunity to hear firsthand.” (McLaughlin will later deny that Drumheller ever warned him about the Curveball intelligence: “If someone had made these doubts clear to me, I would not have permitted the reporting to be used in Secretary Powell’s speech.”) (Unger 2007, pp. 281, 283)

The CIA sends one of its best officers to Germany to interrogate the Iraqi defector known as Curveball (see November 1999 and November 4, 2007). Until now, both Curveball and German intelligence officials have resisted allowing the US to interview Curveball for themselves, but evidence that Curveball is not who he says he is has already surfaced (see June 2003-Late 2003). The CIA officer, fluent in German and experienced at questioning reluctant sources, quickly determines that Curveball is a fabricator. Each night, the officer files a report summarizing the day’s interrogation session, and then follows up with a phone call to Tyler Drumheller, the head of CIA spying in Europe. “After the first couple of days, he said, ‘This doesn’t sound good,’” Drumheller later recalls. “After the first week, he said, ‘This guy is lying. He’s lying about a bunch of stuff.’” (Drogin and Goetz 11/20/2005)
Unable to Explain Discrepancy in Statements - One key item was Curveball’s inability to explain the discrepancies between his description of the supposed mobile bioweapons facility at Djerf al Nadaf, in particular why there was a wall blocking what Curveball claimed was a secret entrance to a warehouse where mobile bioweapons trucks entered (see Mid- and Late 2001). Drumheller says in 2007, “[T]he key thing, I think, was the wall. He showed him pictures of the wall.” Curveball retorts, according to Drumheller, “‘You doctored these pictures.’ And [the CIA interrogator] said, ‘No, we didn’t.’” Curveball would have no way of knowing about the wall because it had been built in 1997, two years after he had left Djerf al Nadaf. Drumheller recalls, “… Curveball said, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna say anything else.’” (CBS News 11/4/2007) Curveball never admits he’s lying. “He never said, ‘You got me,’” according to Drumheller. “He just shrugged, and didn’t say anything. It was all over. We told our guy, ‘You might as well wrap it up and come home.’” (Drogin and Goetz 11/20/2005)
Reporter: Curveball a Liar and Con Artist - In October 2007, reporter Bob Drogin, author of Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War, calls Curveball “a twitchy, possibly mentally disturbed drunk who was prone to rapid mood-swings and whose story tended to shift according to what he thought investigators wanted to hear.” (Holland 10/22/2007)

Rafid Ahmed Alwan.Rafid Ahmed Alwan. [Source: CBS News]CBS News reveals the identity of the infamous Iraqi defector, “Curveball,” whose information was used by the Bush administration to build its case for Iraqi biological weapons. Curveball’s real identity is Rafid Ahmed Alwan, an Iraqi who defected to Germany in November 1999, where he requested asylum at a refugee center near Nuremberg (see November 1999). The evidence Curveball provided was detailed, compelling, and completely false, but instrumental in driving the US towards invading Iraq. Former senior CIA official Tyler Drumheller, who was unable to convince either his superiors in the agency or senior officials in the White House that Curveball was untrustworthy (see September 2002), says of Curveball’s contribution to the rhetoric of war, “If they [the Bush administration] had not had Curveball they would have probably found something else. ‘Cause there was a great determination to do it. But going to war in Iraq, under the circumstances we did, Curveball was the absolutely essential case.” CBS reporter Bob Simon says Curveball is “not only a liar, but also a thief and a poor student instead of the chemical engineering whiz he claimed to be.” The CIA eventually acknowledged Alwan as a fraud. The question remains, why did he spin such an elaborate tale? Drumheller thinks it was for the most prosaic of reasons. “It was a guy trying to get his Green Card, essentially, in Germany, playing the system for what it was worth. It just shows sort of the law of unintended consequences.” Alwan is believed to be still living in Germany, most likely under an assumed name. (CBS News 11/4/2007)

Journalist Seymour Hersh says that a new CIA assessment concludes, in his words, that “there’s no evidence Iran is doing anything that puts them close to a bomb. There’s no secret program of significant bomb making.” However, the White House is ignoring that assessment and still moving forward with plans to launch a military strike against Iran.
'Stovepiping' - Hersh says that President Bush and Vice President Cheney are “stovepiping” intelligence [funnelling selected intelligence directly to top officials] and keeping information provided by the Israelis hidden from the CIA. According to Hersh, the Israelis have informed White House officials that Israel has a reliable agent inside Iraq, and that agent reports that Iran is working on a trigger for a nuclear device (see November 2005). “[T]he CIA isn’t getting a good look at the Israeli intelligence. It’s the old word, stovepiping. It’s the President and the Vice President, it’s pretty much being kept in the White House. Of course the people in the CIA want to know who [the agent] is, obviously,” Hersh tells a reporter. “They certainly want to know what other evidence he has of actual making of a warhead. This is the internecine fight that’s going on—the same fight, by the way, that we had before Iraq.” The CIA has no way of verifying the Israeli intelligence claims, but in light of recent events with unverifiable evidence such as the “Curveball” debacle (see November 1999), that agency is understandably wary of such dramatic claims that contradict their own findings. (CNN 11/19/2007)
Israeli Claims Unverifiable - A former senior intelligence official says of the Israeli’s claim: “The problem is that no one can verify it. We don’t know who the Israeli source is. The briefing says the Iranians are testing trigger mechanisms,” simulating a zero-yield nuclear explosion without any weapons-grade materials, “but there are no diagrams, no significant facts. Where is the test site? How often have they done it? How big is the warhead—a breadbox or a refrigerator? They don’t have that.” But the report is being used by the White House to “prove the White House’s theory that the Iranians are on track. And tests leave no radioactive track, which is why we can’t find it.” Another problem that evokes the “stovepiping” of pre-war Iraq intelligence is the fact that White House officials have asked the Israelis for the raw intelligence, the original, unanalyzed, and unvetted material. Similar requests were used to draw false conclusions about Iraq’s WMD program before the US invasion of that country. A Pentagon consultant says, “Many presidents in the past have done the same thing, but intelligence professionals are always aghast when presidents ask for stuff in the raw. They see it as asking a second grader to read Ulysses.” (Hersh 11/27/2006)
Similar to Iraq Intelligence Problems - Former State Department intelligence expert Greg Thielmann noted in October 2003 that before the Iraq war, “garbage was being shoved straight to the President.” (Hersh 10/27/2003) Hersh suggests the same effect is happening now. (CNN 11/19/2007)
White House Hostile to CIA Analysis - According to a current senior intelligence official, the White House is actively hostile to the CIA analysis, which is based on satellite imagery and other empirical evidence such as measurement of the radioactivity of water samples and highly classified radiation-detection devices surreptitiously placed near the Iranian nuclear facilities. Empirical data or not, the CIA analysis does not fit the White House’s needs, the intelligence official says. In its analysis, the CIA specifically warns that it would be a mistake to conclude that the failure to find a secret nuclear-weapons program in Iran is evidence that the Iranians are hiding it well. According to a former senior intelligence official, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviets were quite effective at deception and misdirection, but the US intelligence community was readily able to discern the details of their nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs. But, the former official says, many in the White House, particularly in Cheney’s office, are making just such an assumption: “the lack of evidence means they must have it.” (Hersh 11/27/2006)

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