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February 15, 2011

WMD "Source" Curveball: Yeah, I Made It All Up

I was just talking about Iraqi WMDs with AllenG. in the comments. What is harrowing is, as I understand it, while we had a lot of circumstantial evidence that Saddam had an ongoing WMD program (including the hard-to-get-around fact that he just had one three or four years before, and in fact deployed the fruits thereof against the Kurds), we had little first-hand witness testimony to this proposition.

Enter Curveball, an Iraqi defector working with the German intelligence agencies. He provided that first-hand witness testimony. He saw the program; he'd worked on the program. Or so he said.

I used to believe that our intelligence agencies knew something about foreign governments, that they had a few reliable agents-in-place in most countries.

In fact, they don't. And not just ours, but almost all of Europe's too. Israel seems to still do real intelligence; almost everyone else does it the easy and unreliable way, using only intercepts and paying off sources. And the trouble with paying off sources is of course you're giving them a terrific cash-money incentive to tell you what you want to hear.

(Leon Panetta just confidently winked to the press that Mubarak would be abdicating last Friday. Turns out that's the impression he got from watching tv reports. There's Today's CIA for you, watching the same newsfeeds you do. Open a Twitter account and maybe you too can shape CIA intelligence reports.)

At any rate, we relied almost entirely on one man and he was just making it up. He now says he was doing so for the patriotic purpose of impelling us to remove Saddam from power; I think he's forgetting about the part about the Germans setting him up with a nice apartment and stipend, too.

The defector who convinced the White House that Iraq had a secret biological weapons programme has admitted for the first time that he lied about his story, then watched in shock as it was used to justify the war.

Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, codenamed Curveball by German and American intelligence officials who dealt with his claims, has told the Guardian that he fabricated tales of mobile bioweapons trucks and clandestine factories in an attempt to bring down the Saddam Hussein regime, from which he had fled in 1995.

"Maybe I was right, maybe I was not right," he said. "They gave me this chance. I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that and we are proud that we were the reason to give Iraq the margin of democracy."

The former CIA chief in Europe Tyler Drumheller describes Janabi's admission as "fascinating", and said the emergence of the truth "makes me feel better". "I think there are still a number of people who still thought there was something in that. Even now," said Drumheller.

The Guardian, in reporting this, is of course invested in proving that Curveball had "already" been "proven a liar" when Colin Powell referenced mobile WMD trucks in his United Nations speech. Their evidence? Well, Curveball claimed that the son of an Iraqi official in the Military Industries Commission was abroad for the purposes of procuring WMD. That official said that Curveball was lying. Case closed, the Guardian claims triumphantly.

What? One source says Iraq had mobile weapons lab and the man in the Military Industries Commission accused of facilitating WMD procurement says Oh no we don't and the Guardian thinks that the case has been proven and this should have been oh so obvious to the world's intelligence services?

While knocking Western intelligence for being credulous and not understanding that people might have motive to lie they credulously accept the word of a high military/industrial official in Saddam's regime as the definitive statement on the matter.

Um, doesn't he have a motive to lie, too?

If the Guardian and the left generally wants to demonstrate it's more wordly, savvy, and wise than the dummy-dumb-dumbs in the intelligence bureaus, shouldn't their conclusion be something far more modest like "The evidence was conflicting and scant, and should have given decision-makers pause" rather than "Oh gee, Saddam's accused of something but one of his Top Henchmen says Nuh-uhhh so obviously the case for war was a lie"?

This reminds me very much of Joe Wilson's SuperSpy Investigative Techniques in debunking the claim that Saddam was shopping abroad for uranium in Niger.

In the late 1980s, the Iraqi representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency—Iraq's senior public envoy for nuclear matters, in effect—was a man named Wissam al-Zahawie. After the Kuwait war in 1991, when Rolf Ekeus arrived in Baghdad to begin the inspection and disarmament work of UNSCOM, he was greeted by Zahawie, who told him in a bitter manner that "now that you have come to take away our assets," the two men could no longer be friends. (They had known each other in earlier incarnations at the United Nations in New York.)

At a later 1995 U.N. special session on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Zahawie was the Iraqi delegate and spoke heatedly about the urgent need to counterbalance Israel's nuclear capacity. At the time, most democratic countries did not have full diplomatic relations with Saddam's regime, and there were few fully accredited Iraqi ambassadors overseas... To this very important and sensitive post in Rome, Zahawie was appointed in 1997, holding the job of Saddam's ambassador to the Holy See until 2000....

In February 1999, Zahawie left his Vatican office for a few days and paid an official visit to Niger, a country known for absolutely nothing except its vast deposits of uranium ore. It was from Niger that Iraq had originally acquired uranium in 1981, as confirmed in the Duelfer Report. In order to take the Joseph Wilson view of this Baathist ambassadorial initiative, you have to be able to believe that Saddam Hussein's long-term main man on nuclear issues was in Niger to talk about something other than the obvious. Italian intelligence (which first noticed the Zahawie trip from Rome) found it difficult to take this view and alerted French intelligence (which has better contacts in West Africa and a stronger interest in nuclear questions). In due time, the French tipped off the British, who in their cousinly way conveyed the suggestive information to Washington. As everyone now knows, the disclosure appeared in watered-down and secondhand form in the president's State of the Union address in January 2003.

If the above was all that was known, it would surely be universally agreed that no responsible American administration could have overlooked such an amazingly sinister pattern. Given the past Iraqi record of surreptitious dealing, cheating of inspectors, concealment of sites and caches, and declared ambition to equip the technicians referred to openly in the Baathist press as "nuclear mujahideen," one could scarcely operate on the presumption of


The European intelligence services, and the Bush administration, only ever asserted that the Iraqi regime had apparently tried to open (or rather, reopen) a yellowcake trade "in Africa." It has never been claimed that an agreement was actually reached.


A few paragraphs later [in a credulous Time Magazine article clearing Saddam of all wrong doing because they said so, yo] appear, the wonderful and unchallenged words from Zahawie: "Frankly, I didn't know that Niger produced uranium at all." Well, sorry for the inconvenience of the questions, then, my old IAEA and NPT "veteran" (whose nuclear qualifications go unmentioned in the Time article). Instead, we are told that Zahawie visited Niger and other West African countries to encourage them to break the embargo on flights to Baghdad, as they had broken the sanctions on Qaddafi's Libya. A bit of a lowly mission, one might think, for one of the Iraqi regime's most senior and specialized envoys.

And what ultimately proved the case, as far as the left is concerned, that Iraq never attempted to re-open the old uranium trade with Niger? Why, Joseph Wilson "drank sweet tea" with an official who swore they had discussed no such thing.

Case closed. I guess.

Did Iraq have WMDs? At the moment, the answer appears to be "mostly no," except for some not-particularly-menacing artillery shells filled with gas which are technically WMD but not the sort of thing we'd mount a massive land invasion over. (We'd just do what Clinton did, bomb the shit out of them; oddly enough, no one ever gets around to pointing out that if Iraq was clean of WMDs during this period then Clinton bombed a country for no particularly good reason.)

Did Iraq want WMDs, and did it continue its practice of attempting to reconstitute their programs? Certainly. Unless you believe The Narrative of the left, in which a confirmed alcoholic-for-WMDs Saddam Hussein goes to AA, admits he's got a problem, and then twelve-steps himself to WMD sobriety, carrying around his 5-Years-Sober chip and telling everyone how great it is to wake up in the mornings with a clear head and clear conscience.

Oh yeah, and you also have to ignore stuff like Zahawie's trip to the bankrupt state of Niger, bankrupt of everything except uranium, and also turn off your skepticism and common sense and just believe everything officials of a hostile foreign regime say in their press releases.

That's the left's idea of "intelligence," and obviously that's a whole lot more sophisticated and savvy than the dunderheads in world intelligence.

That's not to let western intelligence off the hook -- they did a piss-poor job all the way 'round and wound up knowing almost nothing at all. That was the situation Bush was actually faced with -- with a great black void of unknowns shot through with the occasional dim star of sketchy and suggestive data, as well as false stars of concocted defector testimony.

Faced with that, he assumed the worst, and acted. He can be faulted for that -- as I can be faulted for that for supporting him in that assumption -- but the left's whole narrative is not that the situation was murky and shadowy, but rather that it was blazing brightly clear, that they had all the answers, and they know they had all the answers, because Iraqi ministers and ambassadors and military industrial procurement officials told them so.

That's their idea of a sophisticated alternative to CIA analysis. The CIA was unable to find definite proof and so wrongly concluded that where there's smoke there's fire; so the left proposes instead that the proper analysis should be where there's smoke there's no fire, so long as a top Saddam henchman tells you there's no fire.

Omission: I took out an important piece of the Guardian's narrative, because I don't think it's all that important. But the left would, so here it is, and my response:

That claim was proven false, and Latif strongly denied Janabi's claim of mobile bioweapons trucks and another allegation that 12 people had died during an accident at a secret bioweapons facility in south-east Baghdad.

The German officials returned to confront him with Latif's version. "He says, 'There are no trucks,' and I say, 'OK, when [Latif says] there no trucks then [there are none],'" Janabi recalled.

It is upon this [bracketed paraphrase] passage that they base their claim that "Curveball" had already been discredited before the invasion of Iraq. That he apparently said something like "if he claims that, then fine."

Note the Guardian doesn't quote him explicitly, instead resorting to [bracketed paraphrases], and on this point, if the Guardian wants to hang so much on what seems at best to be a weak demurral, I'm going to have to insist on actual quotation. Not the Guardian's version of what he said.

So to me this is guy being pressed for further information or proof and (having none) saying "Fine, if that's what he says." That doesn't seem to sound anything like a confession, and I'm not surprised that no one took it as such at the time.

Furthermore, I don't trust Curveball now, either. We already know, by self-confession, he's a longtime liar who tells interested parties what they wish to hear. His current version of reality is that the spun these lies for the patriotic purpose of deposing a tyrant; he doesn't mention that valued intelligence assets get money and nice little protected apartments, too.

Bear in mind, later in the article, he gets angry when he learns that Germany has shared his stories with the CIA -- he had an explicit agreement with Germany that they would share his intelligence with no other countries.

Why did he stipulate this? Well, in hindsight -- probably because he feared that if his made-up stuff was checked against what foreign governments knew, he'd be exposed as a fraud. Thus he wanted to keep his information private between himself and Germany.

But note how that conflicts badly with his claim that he did this all to topple Saddam. If he wanted his information to serve as a pretext for toppling Saddam Hussein -- Why on earth would he demand, insistently, that the Germans could not tell any other country what he'd told them?

Does that make any kind of sense? That a man is spinning lies for the purpose of generating world condemnation and probably world military action against the tyrant he wants to see deposed, but he, for reasons unfathomable, demands that the world never know this information?

What? Did he expect that pacifist-by-constitutional-edict Germany was going to invade Iraq with no allies?

No. The most likely explanation is that he did not have a larger purpose of dethroning Saddam Hussein; that's a proven liar's attempt to put a gloss of noble purpose on his lies. His reason for demanding the information be kept secret is that he didn't want to be found out, and wanted to just keep briefing German intelligence every few months while keeping the rent-free apartment and occasional injections of walking-around money.

Now, given this, exactly how much credence should I put into his new tale, designed to please his new clientele, the leftist media? A story in which Saddam is no longer the bad guy, but instead the intelligence services that debriefed him are the buffoonish villains?

Apparently, according to the Guardian, I should bet everything on Curveball's new tales. And I should just forget that a man who once created a clientele with pleasing, assumptions-confirming perjured witness testimony just might be capable of pleasing a new clientele with pleasing, assumptions-confirming perjured witness testimony.

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posted by Ace at 02:43 PM

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