WASHINGTON In the fall of 2002, a senior CIA official was dispatched on a secret mission to bolster one of the United States’ most alarming claims about Saddam Hussein.
The claim – that Saddam was building a hidden network of mobile labs in Iraq capable of producing a witch’s brew of biological weapons – was based almost entirely on the account of a single Iraqi defector, codenamed Curveball, who had been cooperating with German intelligence officials.
But according to the report issued Thursday by the presidential commission on intelligence, agency officials had never actually met the defector, the subject of about 100 American intelligence reports.
So, with the Bush administration pressing for an invasion of Iraq, the senior CIA official asked the German government for direct access. The Americans wanted to evaluate his information and credibility for themselves.
“You don’t want to see him because he’s crazy,” the agency official recalled being told, according to the commission report.
Curveball, the official was told, had had a nervous breakdown. There were also reports of a drinking problem and unexplained disappearances. What was more, the official was told, there were serious reservations about the reliability of Curveball’s information and about whether he was a “fabricator.”
In the months after that critical meeting, several senior CIA officials waged a quiet campaign at the highest levels of the agency to stop the United States from continuing to rely upon Curveball’s claims. According to the commission report, these officials took their concerns to several top agency managers, including John McLaughlin, then the deputy director, and even George Tenet, then the director.
But their efforts were futile. Their repeated warnings, the commission concluded, were never passed on to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who made Curveball’s claims regarding mobile labs a key part of his presentation to the UN Security Council in February 2003.
The tense struggle over Curveball is perhaps the commission’s most significant new information about U.S. prewar intelligence failures, already richly chronicled in prior inquiries by the Senate and the 9/11 commission.
As pieced together by the intelligence commission, the story of Curveball shows how a frightening claim embraced by the White House rested “almost exclusively” on a single, shaky pillar of evidence. It also reveals how a “culture of enforced consensus” inside the CIA acted to suppress and resist any doubts raised.
Analysts who voiced concern about Curveball were “forced to leave” the unit most responsible for analyzing his claims, the commission found. One analyst, after arguing that Curveball might indeed be a fabricator, recalled being “read the riot act” by a supervisor.
Instead, Curveball’s largely unverified claims became the primary basis for the administration’s assertion – which American investigators after the war discovered to be groundless – that Saddam was aggressively acquiring biological weapons.
Tenet, who was awarded a Medal of Freedom last year by President George W. Bush after resigning from the agency, told the commission that he never received any warning that Curveball might not be reliable. “Mr. Tenet noted,” the report said, “that it is inconceivable that he would have failed to raise with Secretary Powell any concerns about information in the speech about which Mr. Tenet had been made aware.”
Nevertheless, the commission concluded, the failure of senior CIA managers to warn Powell about potential problems with Curveball “represents a serious failure of management and leadership.”