The Real Story of 'Curveball' How German Intelligence Helped Justify the US Invasion of Iraq

By Erich Follath, John Goetz, and

Part 2: German Intelligence Finds a Source

Rafed was brought up often in high level meetings between intelligence community leaders and the chancellery of Gerhard Schröder to discuss how to handle his information. Both current Foreign Minster Frank-Walter Steinmeier and current BND President Ernst Uhrlau had high level positions under Schröder. The chancellery even coordinated its efforts with the Foreign Ministry under Joschka Fischer and the Ministry of Defense under Peter Struck. Serious doubts were expressed, but nobody pulled the emergency brake.

But how is such a dramatic intelligence disaster possible? And who should take the political responsibility?

Germany's secret service ignominy got its start in the winter of the year 1999, in a camp for asylum seekers known as Zirndorf. The man from the Sunni heartland of Iraq was 32 years old when he arrived in the barracks just outside of the Bavarian city of Nuremberg. The pale, low-slung buildings surrounded by barbed wire were hardly how he had envisioned freedom. Anyone who wanted to leave the premises for a visit to Nuremberg needed written permission; the camp was designed to protect the persecuted, but its resemblance to a prison was difficult to ignore. Anyone who landed here wanted just one thing -- to get out again as quickly as possible.

Among the numerous Iraqis in the camp, the rumor was making the rounds that one easy way out was via the branch office of the German secret service located just outside the Zirndorf gates. The agents there routinely questioned asylum seekers from Iraq.

An Ambitious Doctor

When Rafed walked into the interrogation office, the agent in charge wasn't alone. Rather, he was joined by an experienced Arabic interpreter, a man in his mid-sixties with gray hair who has already put in decades working at Zirndorf. The two were not interested in the stories of suffering the asylum seekers had to tell. They were looking for information about Saddam’s ruling clique, his military and, above all, his alleged weapons of mass destruction.

In Arabic, Rafed told the agents about his chemical engineering studies at Baghdad Technical University, and about his first job in the so-called “Military Industrialization Commission” -- that part of Saddam’s regime responsible for the development of new weapons systems. The translator and the BND agent pricked up their ears, but soon they were no longer able to follow. Rafed began speaking about his work in the “Chemical Engineering and Design Center” (CEDC) -- and he spoke about bioreactors.

But if the agents in Zirndorf lacked the specialist knowledge necessary to understand what Rafed was telling them, when his dossier landed on an expert's desk at intelligence headquarters in Pullach, located not far from Munich, the agent there immediately knew he had something. He was a wiry man in his forties who had gone prematurely gray, not at all the secret agent cliché. When it came to Rafed’s case, he was simply referred to as the “Doctor.” Colleagues describe the “Doctor” as open and pleasant, but also as “very ambitious.”

His nickname came from his having earned a doctorate in biology, and by the time Rafed's story appeared in his in-box, the analyst had been with German intelligence for more than 12 years. Nobody at the BND was better acquainted with the abbreviation CEDC -- the key front for Saddam's secret weapons program -- than the "Doctor." Indeed, he was apparently so excited after reading Rafed's dossier that he wanted to meet the Iraqi asylum seeker personally. Not long after, the two got together for their first tete á tete at a secret BND property in Nuremberg known as the “Burgzinne” -- the battlements.

Protective Metal Coffins

Participants to those meetings recall that it was not long before the general impression emerged that the young Iraqi knew quite a lot. “He appeared to be shy, almost timid. He was not at all the typical boastful type that we often experience," said one person who became acquainted with Rafed during this period.

International politics were never far from the agents' minds as they continued interviewing Rafed. Secret service agencies across the Western world were working on the biggest intelligence challenge of the day: the question as to whether Saddam Hussein still maintained an arsenal of monstrous weapons. Anyone able to provide an answer could expect to rapidly climb the career ladder.

Rafed was able to provide the "Doctor" with a plausible explanation as to why UN inspectors had failed to find anything thus far: The biological weapons program, he said, was mobile. The laboratories, he claimed, were mounted on truck trailers so they could be easily hidden from inspectors. One of these mini germ factories was up and running when he left Iraq, Rafed said, and six others were being built. Another detail sounded particularly alarming: He said he knew of a 1998 accident that resulted in 12 casualties. The contaminated corpses, he said, were buried in protective metal coffins.

It wasn't long before Rafed's claims rose up the chain of command -- onto the desk of the BND president, inside the German Foreign Ministry, into the chancellery, and even across the Atlantic to the White House. The interest in such information had been high throughout the decade. Since 1991, the UN had been attempting to find out whether Saddam still hoarded weapons of mass destruction, and for years a special UN commission, consisting of hundreds of experts, had been scouring Iraq for deadly weapons.

Amorous Adventures

One year before “Curveball” appeared on the scene, Saddam threw the inspectors out of the country. But did he really destroy all of his weapons? That was the claim made by Hussein Kamil Hassan, Saddam's son-in-law who had defected to Jordan in 1995. The BND also interviewed Kamil, and was told that there was "nothing, absolutely nothing left at all." But the agents in Germany refused to believe a single word of Kamil’s account. The "Doctor" was particularly skeptical. Indeed he was well known in the BND for his conviction that Saddam was still producing weapons of mass destruction.

“Curveball” was, for the “Doctor,” flesh and blood validation for his deep-seated doubts. Rafed could not only map out every single office in the secret fifth floor of the Baghdad CEDC Center and say who worked in them, but he even chatted away about the amorous adventures of his superiors.

In the secret service business, refugees are generally not considered to be the most reliable of sources. They often overstate things because of bitterness harbored toward the countries they left or to try and inflate their own importance. But Rafed remained perennially calm and reserved -- which is precisely why he was believed. The BND, so they thought, had stumbled across a real blue-chip source.

And Rafed delivered detail after detail. The meetings were usually held on Saturdays, in the relaxed atmosphere of various dwellings belonging to German intelligence. On one occasion, Rafed stood up, walked over to the wall and flipped over a pin-up calendar. The naked women seemed to bother him. Although he could not have been described as a strict believer, he identified himself as a Muslim. He didn't, though, take time out for prayer during the interminable interrogations. Nevertheless, he was careful to avoid eating pork at the regular joint dinners. Eventually, by the beginning of the year 2003, the BND had prepared some 100 top secret reports on these meetings and send them to Washington. The British, the French and the Israelis were also kept in the loop.

Intelligence experts and UN inspectors had long considered mobile weapons laboratories to be a possible explanation for the fact that nothing could be found. It was once claimed that the stuff was hidden in the trucks of an ice cream company. On another occasion, American U2-spy planes flew special missions in search of mobile laboratories -- with no success. The UN inspectors were so taken with the idea that they seriously considered erecting surprise road blocks -- and even wanted to use helicopters to spray special foam on the roads to force suspicious trucks to stop.

Still, soon after the initial enthusiasm for "Curveball," the first doubts began to surface. US intelligence aimed a spy satellite at one of the filling stations that Rafed had described in great detail. On the crystal clear photos, a solid wall could be seen where, according to Rafed's account, the entrance to the compound should have been. But both the Americans and the Germans wanted to believe their new source and pushed their doubts aside. The wall, surely, was only a fake.

Rafed was allowed to leave the Zirndorf camp for good after just a three week stay, and two months later he had his own apartment in Erlangen. He was granted political asylum soon thereafter. His Iraqi acquaintances who visited him from Zirndorf were envious. Rafed now wore suits. There was whiskey in the cupboard, and a television and stereo system in the living room. The BND arranged for more than 50 meetings, after which it seemed there wasn't a detail Rafed hadn't already mentioned. The “Doctor” met with him for the last time in the summer of 2001.

Then came September 11.


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