Bad Information: US Officials Accuse German Intelligence of Pre-Iraq War Failures

Five years ago, US troops marched into Iraq, convinced they would find weapons of mass destruction. One threat seemed particularly palpable -- biological weapons produced in mobile facilities. US officials now say the assumption originated in part from bad intelligence out of Germany.

Five years after the US invasion of Iraq, intelligence agency failures in the run-up to the war are once again taking center stage. Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), provided the Bush administration with critical -- and questionable -- information regarding alleged mobile biological weapons laboratories, according to former US government officials.

Indeed, when then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his infamous presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 during which he made the case that Iraq presented an immediate threat to global security, his comments about Saddam Hussein's alleged biological weapons program were based largely on information provided by the BND.

The information, as it famously turned out, was completely wrong -- and it came from one single source, codenamed "Curveball." An Iraqi engineer who came to Germany seeking asylum in the winter of 1999, "Curveball" was ultimately interviewed by BND agents more than 50 times by the summer of 2001 and provided them with detailed information about the alleged mobile biological weapons laboratories.

According to Lawrence Wilkerson, a close aide to Powell at the time, the BND "did not just send their information about Curveball as a chance operation. It was carefully considered what they sent to us, each and every word was weighed very carefully." He continues: "I can’t exclude the Germans completely here from their share of guilt."

Wilkerson is not alone in pointing the finger at Germany. The former US weapons inspector in Iraq David Kay is clear in his criticism of the way the BND handled "Curveball." He says the BND did not make "all the appropriate efforts to validate the source." He also says that, by rejecting CIA requests to be allowed to question "Curveball" directly, German intelligence prevented others from taking over the job of evaluation. "That was dishonest, unprofessional and irresponsible," Kay says.

In 2004, the CIA officially classified "Curveball" as a "fabricator" -- secret service lingo for liar. The BND, however, has never officially admitted to having been taken in by a fraud. The spy agency still provides cover for "Curveball" and even today refuses to answer questions about their source -- due to “fundamental considerations."

Instead, the government refers to a letter sent to then-CIA head George Tenet by then-BND President August Hanning on Dec. 20, 2002. The information provided by "Curveball," Hanning wrote, "was in essence judged as plausible and convincing, but it couldn't be confirmed."

Gunter Pleuger, who was Germany's ambassador to the United Nations at the time, says: "For me it was a perfectly clear warning, and I assumed that the information provided by 'Curveball' would no longer be used by the Americans."

SPIEGEL has now managed to find "Curveball" in southern Germany, where he lives with his family and is soon to become a naturalized German citizen. Last September, German officials agreed in principal to granting him a passport. "Curveball" told SPIEGEL: “I am not to blame. I never said that Iraq had weapons for mass destruction. Not at all, not in my entire life.”

Check back on Saturday for the entire story as to how "Curveball" managed to fool German intelligence.

cgh/spiegel

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