Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


The Los Angeles Times has presented the best, most in-depth tale yet of Curveball, the Iraqi defector who provided most of the false intelligence that justifed the push to war. In its own way, this article gives Stephen King a run for his money.

Many maddening elements emerge. One is the persistent, ridiculous and needless turf battles between groups that are supposed to be on the same side. On 9/11 it was policeman and firemen tragically not communicating; before 9/11 it was the FBI and CIA, among others, who did not share information; here, it was Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (the BND) preventing the American CIA any access to their prize informant, Curveball. The lack of access was exacerbated by mistranslations... LA Times journalists Bob Drogin and John Goetz report:

It got worse, like a children's game of "telephone," in which information gets increasingly distorted. The BND sent German summaries of their English and Arabic interview reports to Munich House and to British intelligence. The DIA team translated the German back to English and prepared its own summaries. Those went to DIA's directorate for human intelligence, at a high-rise office in Clarendon, Va.

Still, for any mistranslations that contributed to the false belief that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his WMD programs, at several points the CIA was told that Curveball was not reliable at best, and a liar at worst. George Tenet claims he never received this information. However, as Director of Central Intelligence at the time, and considering Curveball's accounts played a crucial role in the public case for war, it is inconceivable Tenet did not know the intelligence was suspect.

Hanlon's Razor states that one should "never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity." One could easily add in ignorance and incompetence. If DCI Tenet really did not know that Curveball was unreliable, then the CIA was even more poorly managed than previously reported.

Turf battles apparently occured within the CIA as well. Several sources in the article comment on the CIA's stubborn unwillingness to admit its own mistakes and learn from them. Apparently, those agents who questioned Curveball's veracity were punished for making waves. David Kay, who searched for WMD after the war, observes that the CIA is "very, very vindictive." While the article shows that there were (and no doubt still are) very capable, professional CIA agents, their efforts appear to have been stymied. Something in the culture or the management prevented the accurate view on Curveball to emerge, let alone dominate.

Psychologists have long known that typically, human beings tend to look for evidence to support their views, not for evidence to contradict them. This dynamic makes the thorough vetting of critical intelligence all the more crucial. Consider the following incident:

Soon after U.S. troops entered Baghdad, the discovery of two trucks loaded with lab equipment in northern Iraq brought cheers to the CIA weapons center.

Curveball examined photos relayed to Germany and said that while he hadn't worked on the two trucks, equipment in the pictures looked like components he had installed at Djerf al Nadaf.

Days later, the CIA and DIA rushed to publish a White Paper declaring the trucks part of Hussein's biological warfare program. The report dismissed Iraq's explanation that the equipment generated hydrogen as a "cover story." A day later, Bush told a Polish TV reporter: "We found the weapons of mass destruction."

But bio-weapons experts in the intelligence community were sharply critical. A former senior official of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research called the unclassified report an unprecedented "rush to judgment."

The DIA then ordered a classified review of the evidence. One of 15 analysts held to the initial finding that the trucks were built for germ warfare. The sole believer was the CIA analyst who helped draft the original White Paper.

Hamish Killip, a former British army officer and biological weapons expert, flew to Baghdad in July 2003 as part of the Iraq Survey Group, the CIA-led Iraqi weapons hunt. He inspected the truck trailers and was immediately skeptical.

"The equipment was singularly inappropriate" for biological weapons, he said. "We were in hysterics over this. You'd have better luck putting a couple of dust bins on the back of the truck and brewing it in there."

The trucks were built to generate hydrogen, not germs, he said. But the CIA refused to back down. In March 2004, Killip quit, protesting that the CIA was covering up the truth.

Rod Barton, an Australian intelligence officer and another bio-weapons expert, also quit over what he said was the CIA's refusal to admit error. "Of course the trailers had nothing to do with Curveball," Barton wrote in a recent e-mail.

The Iraq Survey Group ultimately agreed. An "exhaustive investigation" showed the trailers could not "be part of any BW program," it reported in October 2004.

Why the intial rushed and erroneous assessment? Were the CIA and DIA too eager to please? Were they biased toward the idea that Iraq just must have WMD? Why is it that, with sober analysis, 14 of 15 analysts said the trucks couldn't have been used for WMD, but that the wrong view initially prevailed? The Bush administration must take a large share of the blame. Many people forget, as mentioned above, that Bush claimed weapons of mass destruction had in fact been found, and he repeated this claim several times. He later went on to deliberately substitute the argument that "Hussein had WMD" to "Hussein wanted WMD."

On Jan. 20, 2004, Bush lauded Kay and the Iraq Survey Group in his State of the Union Speech for finding "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities…. Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction program would continue to this day."

I still find this deeply insulting. While some media outlets pointed out Bush's craven slight-of-hand, this sort of deceptive skullduggery requires loud trumpets. ("The President is trying to pull a fast one!") No one doubted Hussein wanted WMD. The question was whether he had them, and whether he could actually get them.

Other articles have explored how Bush's White House Iraq Group (WHIG), Feith's special plans group, and related parties "stovepiped" intelligence from the CIA, bypassing the normal (or perhaps not so normal) vetting process. The CIA author of the White Paper mentioned above, whose view was that Hussein had WMD, had his views elevated and hocked while more measured, professional and experienced views were ignored. What does it say that, consistently, the more knowledgeable intelligence experts were shunted aside while Bush excitedly crows publically, 'we found the WMD!'...? This is not good leadership, management, or empiricism. Later on, was Bush ever given the "fourteen out of fifteen" figure? I would love to know exactly when their assessment was known, because I believe Bush repeated that the WMD were found several times... Just as Cheney repeatedly claimed an Iraq-Al Qaedea link, Rice claimed huclear weapons, ans so on. This abuse of intelligence is what still needs to be investigated fully, and what Pat Roberts is still fighting to impede.

Paul O'Neill's greatest lament was that Bush lacked honest brokers, advisors who would tell him the truth even if unpleasant, and who were not pushing their own agenda. Granted, Cheney and Rumsfeld are forceful personalities, but ultimately, it's Bush who chose to value their views over others.

Normally, while politicians may lie to the public, behind closed doors on matters of genuine importance, they don't lie to each other... or at least, career civil servants don't. However, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq was only generated at Congress' insistence, and was deeply flawed and misleading. However, not only Congress, but Colin Powell, a key figure in the Bush administration, appears to have been misled:

More problematic were the three sources the CIA said had corroborated Curveball's story. Two had ties to Chalabi. All three turned out to be frauds.

The most important, a former major in the Iraqi intelligence service, was deemed a liar by the CIA and DIA. In May 2002, a fabricator warning was posted in U.S. intelligence databases.

Powell said he was never warned, during three days of intense briefings at CIA headquarters before his U.N. speech, that he was using material that both the DIA and CIA had determined was false. "As you can imagine, I was not pleased," Powell said. "What really made me not pleased was they had put out a burn notice on this guy, and people who were even present at my briefings knew it."

But BND officials said their U.S. colleagues repeatedly assured them Curveball's story had been corroborated.

"They kept on telling us there were three or four sources," said the senior German intelligence official. "They said it many times."

Powell also claims he really pushed his CIA briefers on Curveball's veracity, but was constantly and consistently told the man was reliable. If Powell's account is accurate, someone in the room knew better and was either lying or gutless.

Whatever Powell is, he's no idiot. And if he was being so misled, as he claims, was Bush getting anything close to an accurate picture? Did he put a premium on demanding one?

When I studied World War I in college, one of the most striking elements was learning that so many countries wanted war. In Germany in particular, the votes to go to war were overwhelming. Not only did many countries possess a nationalistic fervor, war had previously been profitable to some in power, and no modern war had ever devastated the home front before. They simply had no idea what they were in for.

If only folks like Dick "they will greet us as liberators" Cheney has studied history, or reality, rather than their own neocon fantasies. As soon as Bush and his gang started speaking about the threat of Hussein, it was rather obvious he wanted to go to war. Of course the intelligence was cherry-picked. Of course the Bush administration had more information than Congress. Of course, as the Downing Street memo states, intelligence was "being fixed" around the need to go to war. At best the administration was incompetent, but at worse they were liars. Some of them are far too smart not to know they were being deceptive. While I'm sure some of them believed they were lying to achieve a greater good (the liberation of Iraq... and to their minds, the re-election of George Bush), they were still willfully deceptive. To finish:

Other warnings poured in. The CIA Berlin station chief wrote that the BND had "not been able to verify" Curveball's claims. The CIA doctor who met Curveball wrote to his supervisor shortly before Powell's speech questioning "the validity" of the Iraqi's information.

"Keep in mind that this war is going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say and the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about," his supervisor wrote back, Senate investigators found. The supervisor later told them he was only voicing his opinion that war appeared inevitable.

(REVISED somewhat 12/15)

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