How U.S. fooled itself into Iraq

Review

November 11, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,[Sun Reporter]

Curveball

Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War

By Bob Drogin

Random House / 343 pages / $26.95

You knew the case for going to war in Iraq was shaky, that Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction," which President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the CIA swore existed, never existed. You may not have realized just how cravenly eager they all were, in the months before Bush launched the war, to swallow a shoddy, half-baked story told by a two-bit Iraqi who defected to Germany hoping for a Mercedes and a nice apartment.

Only a few knew at the time that virtually the entire case for war rested on the say-so of one man, code-named Curveball, who spun stories that fit so perfectly into what the Bush administration wanted to believe that no one ever checked him out. The CIA, it turns out, never even talked to the guy before American troops poured over the border in March 2003.

Curveball, the Americans found out when they asked around Baghdad after the invasion, was considered a joke. He was not a high-level technocrat in Hussein's secret bio-weapons program. There was no secret bio-weapons program. Curveball drove a taxi. Meantime, in the mess left behind in Iraq, more than 3,000 Americans have died in battle and 28,000 have been wounded, and the war goes on, 41 months after the Central Intelligence Agency reluctantly notified all its stations around the world that Curveball was a complete fraud.

This is a serious book, exhaustively reported and by turns hilarious, astonishing and deeply distressing. Drogin, a prize-winning correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, devoured spy thrillers as a kid. But this is no airport novel: It is fact, the awful evidence of failure painstakingly assembled from hard reporting on three continents and interviews with more than 80 participants. It's an engrossing read and an important story, coming amid a growing confrontation with Iran over what the White House asserts is Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Here, in Drogin's riveting insider account, is a senior German intelligence officer watching Powell's solemn presentation to the United Nations in February 2003, weeks before the war was launched. Much of the world saw Powell deliver a sober and devastating indictment of Hussein's secret weapons programs, brandishing sketches of mobile bio-weapons labs. The Germans who had interrogated Curveball knew better.

Werner Kappel "had expected to see photographs, hard evidence. Powell's illustrations weren't proof. They were hearsay," Drogin writes. "Kappel couldn't get over it. Powell had used artists' conjectures based on analysts' interpretations of Arabic-to-German-to-English translations of debriefing reports of a manic-depressive defector the Americans had never talked to. And the Americans were going to war on this?"

Powell, of course, had asked whether there was corroboration and was told, yep, there's a good second source, another Iraqi who had verified Curveball's account of the secret weapons projects. No one remembered that the Defense Intelligence Agency, a year earlier, had warned that this source was a "fabricator/provocateur."

During the 1980s Hussein had assembled a WMD arsenal, subsequently dismantled by intrepid United Nations inspectors. Further searches turned up nothing. The CIA had not one single agent in Iraq, but it became convinced that Hussein was hiding weapons. "If the UN searches turned up nothing, the CIA reasoned, it only proved how well the Iraqis had concealed them," Drogin writes, adding an apt summation of the entire sorry mess: "The absence of evidence became proof of their existence."

david.wood@baltsun.com

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