Fat Steve's Blatherings

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Extended Thoughts On “Curveball”

        In her latest Newsweek column, “Murtha’s Moment,” Eleanor Clift says:
        If Bush wants to retrieve his credibility, he should call off the attack dogs and make a televised speech to the American people conceding that the certainty he presented about weapons of mass destruction was not there, and that the administration relied on a single source, aptly named “Curveball,” who was later discredited.  Bush can then present his case--what he saw, why he acted, and why he still believes he did the right thing.

        I rebutted Clift’s column here, but the Curveball story I found while researching the rebuttal is itself worth looking at.

        The best source for Curveball material is The Silberman-Robb Commission Report, (all the others, aside from the Senate Select Committee Report, seem to be recycles of journalist’s comments; if you know of any other original sources, I’d love to see them), and I found out this:
        By 1999, the CIA assessed that there was some Iraqi research and development on BW and that Iraq could restart production of biological weapons within a short period of time.  The 1999 NIE on Worldwide BW Programs judged that Iraq was “revitalizing its BW program” and was “probably continuing work to develop and produce BW agents.” 233 f

        The Intelligence Community’s concern about Iraq’s BW program increased in early 2000, and the Community began to adjust upward its estimates of the Iraq BW threat, based on a “substantial volume” of “new information” regarding mobile BW facilities in Iraq. 234  This information came from an Iraqi chemical engineer, subsequently codenamed “Curveball”, who came to the attention of the Intelligence Community through a foreign liaison service.  That liaison service debriefed Curveball and then shared the debriefing results with the United States.  The foreign liaison service would not, however, provide the United States with direct access to Curveball.

        STOP! Was there really a “Curveball?”  Did he really tell the “foreign liaison service” anything?  Who is this foreign liaison service?  [Update, 4/14/2006: It was Germany's foreign intelligence service, according to newspaper articles from April of 2006.]  Why wouldn’t they allow the U.S. to speak to Curveball directly?  Are they hiding something?  If so, what?  We may never know, as nobody seems to want to follow this story up.  And what does it say about the CIA, that they swallowed the Curveball story from the beginning, without getting suspicious of the foreign service?  For that matter, what does it say about the Silverman-Robb Commission, that they accept this stuff so easily?

        But maybe I’m being too hard on the CIA and DIA, as the Silberman-Robb report says the “several” other foreign intelligence services found Curveball credible.  Then again, the CIA and DIA didn’t bother to attempt to “validate” Curveball’s information.  Perhaps the other foreign services were equally slipshod?

        So, the CIA was getting information that allegedly originated with Curveball.  What is it he supposedly said?

        “Curveball”, an Iraqi chemical engineer, defected to the unidentified foreign country in 1999.  He claimed (or so the foreign service said) to have worked in Saddam’s biological weapons program, and offered information, saying that Iraq had “mobile fermenters” that could move from place to place producing biological weapons.  ‘His’ technical information was highly detailed, initially appeared to check out (for instance, designs he had allegedly worked on were sent to the U.S., where the CIA had them built.  They worked), and other human sources corroborated him.  Also, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) had turned up Iraqi military documents that referred to mobile fermenters. (see text to footnote 342)

        Question: if the “foreign laison service” was so ready to give us this information, why did they not want us to talk to him?  Hypothesis: the foreign country this service is part of had helped Iraq in its biowarfare program.  To keep things confused, they took a real Iraqi defector, and falsely ascribed information to him.  Some of the information was true, others false.  But none of it originated with Curveball.

        Anyhow, in May, 2000, a Department of Defense (DoD) “detailee” (a DoD official assigned to work with the CIA) managed to meet with the person the foreign service said was Curveball.  The DoD official noted that Curveball appeared hung over.  Since Curveball knew he had a meeting the next morning with DoD, but got drunk the night before anyway, this suggested Curveball might be an alcoholic.  Further, the person identified as Curveball spoke excellent English, while the “foreign service” had told the U.S. several times that Curveball didn’t speak English.

        It’s worth noting, though, that the first record of the DoD official saying this is on February 3rd, 2003.  If the detailee really thought Curveball might be unreliable in 2000, why didn’t he note that at the time?  I’ll address this at length in another post.

        Regardless of whether Curveball was hung over, and whether it was reported, at this point, someone should have asked what was going on, and why the “foreign service” wasn’t telling the U.S. the truth.  But they didn’t.  Nor did the U.S. “Intelligence Community” ask if Curveball might have personal problems that would throw doubt on his credibility.

        Not really addressed by Silberman-Robb: why was the DoD official allowed access to “Curveball,” but no one else from the U.S.?  The Senate Committee report says the DoD guy was supposed to “administer DELETED,” and Silberman-Robb says that U.S. Intelligence was wondering about a report that Curveball had possibly been exposed to a biological warfare agent.  So it sounds like a test to see if he had blood antigens to the agent, or a vaccine against it.  It also sounds like an excuse for not making Curveball available to the U.S.

        Getting back to our story, by early 2001, the “foreign service” was reporting that Curveball was “‘out of control,’” and could not be located.  I find it hard to believe that the foreign spies couldn’t find Curveball, but perhaps I’m wrong.  Still, it suggests to me a “cover your ass” maneuver designed to excuse them if his information was later discredited, as it was.

        In April 2002 (STOP!  Note that this is over two years after Curveball has defected to the unnamed foreign country, and over a year since the “foreign service” said Curveball was “out of control;” what happened during that year?), a second foreign country expressed doubts about Curveball’s veracity.  Still, they thought he Curveball was telling the truth about some things at least.

        Later in 2002, some CIA analysts developed doubts concerning Curveball.  A CIA division chief allegedly met with the a member of the foreign intelligence service that had custody of Curveball, and was told that there were serious doubts about the defectors mental stability and reliability, that Curveball had had a nervous breakdown, that Curveball might be a “fabricator” — and that the foreign intelligence service would “publicly and officially” deny all this if the CIA raised the issue.  The division chief definitely communicated his opinion that Curveball was unreliable to his subordinates.  The division chief also allegedly told an exectutive assistant to the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence about his concerns, and finally George Tenet, then Director of Central Intelligence.  The DCI, the DDCI, and the DDCI’s executive assistant all said that’s not what they remember.  Other people involved in the affair have differing recolections too.

        The Silberman-Robb commission sums up by saying there were serious doubts about Curveball within the CIA (though not, apparently, so serious that anyone produced a written record of them that could be used later), but that none of these doubts ever got to Secretary of State Powell, who incorporated Curveball’s material into his United Nation’s speech.  Powell and his staff, by the way, wanted the CIA to exclude any information they had doubts about.  The Commission judged it a serious failure on the CIA’s part that the information was in the speech.

        After the Iraq invasion, discrepancies piled up between what the Iraq Survey Group found and Curveball’s story (or anyway, the story the “foreign liaison service” ascribed to Curveball).  The ISG also turned up travel records indicating Curveball wasn’t in Iraq when he said he was.  A year after the invasion, the CIA finally armtwisted the foreign service to let them meet directly with Curveball.  They then definitely concluded that he was a liar.  (Which raises the question, why did the portions of his technical information that could be tested before the war all check out?  And why did the Iraqi military produce documents concerning “‘mobile fermentation’ capability” if they never had any, or never planned to?  The Silberman-Robb Commission didn’t address that issue.)

        In a swamp like this, it’s hard to be sure of anything.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but this whole Curveball story stinks on ice.  Curveball defects to a “Western European Country” where English is not spoken (France?), and gives them information that they believe.  They pass it on to us, but whenever we try to talk to the source directly, there’s a reason it can’t be done.  First Curveball won’t speak to Americans, then he can’t speak English, then he’s behaving erraticly . . . the only constants are the unnamed foreign country’s refusal to let us near him, and their willingness for us to use Curveball’s information as long as we didn’t identify him or the foreign country vouching for him.  Finally, in 2004, we put enough pressure on, and the foreigners let us see him.  When he can’t explain various things, we conclude he’s a liar.  But some of the problems with the information allegedly supplied by Curveball came up before the invasion.  The fact that the foreign service didn’t use that info to tackle his credibility suggests they weren’t interested, or knew he was a liar all along.  Which further suggests that they were trying to manipulate us.

        Why?  I don’t know, and I could be wrong.  But it ought to be possible to find out who the foreign liaison service is.  Why isn’t anyone interested in this?

        One other certainty is that the U.S. intelligence community was fooled.  They accepted various information and assumptions far too readily.  But the Silberman-Robb Commission and the Senate Select Committee did the same.  To a great extent, this is a problem of human beings, not readily fixable by anyone or anything.  Few people want their subordinates telling them they’re idiots, fools, ignorami, etc.  Partly it’s the result of too much secrecy.  But we might be able to get a better intelligence service if we tried.

        But I’m not holding my breath on this.

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