WASHINGTON -- In late 2002, two strong-willed CIA officers, identified only as Beth and Margaret, were at daggers drawn. They had diametrically opposing views about the veracity of an Iraqi defector's reports concerning Saddam Hussein's biological weapons programs, and especially the notorious but never seen mobile weapons labs.
"Look," said Beth defiantly, "we can validate a lot of what this guy says."
Margaret, angry and incredulous: "Where did you validate it?"
Beth: "On the Internet."
Margaret: "Exactly, it's on the Internet. That's where he got it too!"
Margaret was right in that episode, recounted in the new book "Curveball" by Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times. Curveball was the code name of the Iraqi defector in Germany on whose reports the Bush administration relied heavily in its argument that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction justified a preventive war.
In 1999, Curveball defected to Germany, which has a significant portion of the Iraqi diaspora. Seeking the good life -- a prestigious job, a Mercedes -- he jumped to the head of the line of asylum-seekers and got the attention of Germany's intelligence agency with the word "Biowaffen," germ weapons. He claimed to have been deeply involved in Saddam's sophisticated and deadly science, particularly those notorious mobile labs. Notorious and, we now know, nonexistent.
German intelligence officials -- partly because intelligence agencies are like this and partly because they thought Germany had been unfairly blamed by the United States for not detecting the Hamburg cell from which three of the four 9/11 pilots came -- refused to allow U.S. officials to interview Curveball. Yet by March 2001, the Germans were expressing doubts about him; by April 2002, the British were, too.
So were some U.S. officials, such as Margaret. But others became invested in Curveball's credibility, and soon they could not back down without risking personal mortification and institutional disgrace -- both of which came, of course, after the invasion. Then some of Curveball's Iraqi acquaintances were located and identified him as a "congenital liar" who was not a scientist but a taxi driver. But before the invasion, he supplied an important rationale for launching it: He was the most important source for Colin Powell's 80-minute address to the U.N. Security Council detailing Iraq's WMD programs, the address that solidified American support for war.
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