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

By Erich Follath, John Goetz, and Holger Stark

Part 3: Justification for the American War

It was only a few days after the attacks in New York and Washington that the White House made the preliminary decision to go to war – and the focus was not just to be on Afghanistan. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the administration's hawks, also wanted to go after Iraq. But for that to come to pass, a doubting global community would have to be convinced that it was necessary. Saddam must be made to appear as dangerous as possible.

This marked the beginning of Rafed’s second career -- “Curveball” and the warmongers in Washington were a perfect match. The result of their collaboration was like a Hollywood film script, with the climax coming in the form of a dramatic appearance before the UN performed by lead actor Colin Powell.

The first draft of the Powell presentation was produced by the neoconservatives Cheney had surrounded himself with. The section on weapons of mass destruction -- closely written sheets oozing with accusations -- took up a total of 48 pages. Powell’s closest advisors, including his chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, moved into CIA headquarters in Langley for several days and nights. It didn’t take long, however, before the Cheney draft was tossed into the trash can.

An official intelligence assessment from October 2002 became the basis for the new draft. That assessment was the product of a White House order and saw US intelligence scraping together any charges against Saddam's regime they could find. But apart from an airy story about alleged nuclear weapons research and purported connections between the government and al-Qaida, only the material from Germany remained.

The 'Crown Jewel'

"Curveball" was suddenly the man of the hour -- more than a year after Germany's BND had deactivated him as a source. Rafed, the biological weapons snitch who had come from Iraq to southern Germany suddenly became the "crown jewel," says Wilkerson today. "The file was so thick that the whole story just couldn’t be wrong."

President Bush was likewise triumphant in the knowledge that he now had a key witness against Saddam. The president knew the story of "Curveball" from his CIA head George Tenet. Tenet's job involved briefing the White House every day on intelligence developments in addition to a personal meeting with Powell.

The mobile biological laboratories, Tenet insisted, represented iron clad information. There was just one hitch: The material came from a country which, together with France and Russia, formed the core of war opposition. More than 80 percent of the German population opposed a military campaign against Baghdad. Heading up the skeptics was German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who had won re-election in 2002 on the strength of his anti-war rhetoric. On the other side of the aisle was then-opposition leader Angela Merkel. She insisted that the option "to use military means as a last resort" had to be kept open.

August Hanning -- then BND president and today a deputy in the Interior Ministry -- had already committed himself in public on one point. On Nov. 7, 2002 he asserted that German intelligence had "no independent information" indicating that Saddam Hussein had provided support to al-Qaida. Even the constantly repeated warning from the US government that Saddam was attempting to acquire nuclear weapons fell on deaf ears in the BND. On that point, Germany's intelligence community could hardly be counted among the warmongers.

'In a Position to Prove All of This'

What the BND did believe, however, was discussed behind closed doors at 8:30 a.m. on a foggy Wednesday morning. It was Nov. 13, 2002 and the German parliament's foreign affairs committee met in room 2.800 on the second floor of the Paul-Löbe-Haus, a building in Berlin's new government quarter. Not even a refreshment cart was allowed in for the top secret meeting that morning.

BND President Hanning opened the proceedings, speaking in a calm voice with his hands folded in front of him. Initially, he spoke in generalities about Saddam's aspirations to obtain weapons of mass destruction and said there were indications that Iraq was hiding biological and chemical weapons that had proven difficult for the inspectors to locate. He then turned the proceedings over to his specialist, Hans Dieter H.

H., a small, stout man with wavy, gray hair, enjoyed great respect among experts for his cool and incisive analysis. "Iraq has purportedly manufactured seven mobile B-weapons systems," H. told the committee. He had brought along an overhead slide, a simple drawing of the alleged mobile laboratories -- a preliminary taste of what Powell would later present to the Security Council. This information, H. said, is based on a "secret source," but one whose claims have not been verified.

With that, the foreign affairs committee was made aware of the testimony from "Curveball." But while H. was, on the one hand, unambiguous, he was also cautious. “We know nothing about production in these facilities," he added. The expert also reported on Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program and on Scud missiles that would be operational within two to three years. The report ended with a memorable sentence: "We are in a position to prove all of this."

Volker Rühe, the chairman of the committee from the conservative Christian Democrats, then remarked on the “enormous discrepancy between the public statements made by the government and the knowledge it had in its possession.” An astonished Guido Westerwelle, head of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) commented that "the actual threat looks different" from what had been publicly stated. Both Hanning and H. were themselves clearly convinced of the danger. In a highly publicized move, the German government had procured €60 million worth of smallpox vaccine as early as the autumn of 2001 -- one of the responses to the testimony provided by "Curveball."

No Television Appearance for 'Curveball'

To this day, the German government maintains secrecy with regard to what was discussed in room 2.800. There are not even official minutes from the meeting. But on the basis of tape recordings, the BND later reconstructed what Hanning and H. said in order to be able to deflect any possible criticism.

Not long after the Berlin meeting, Tenet came to his German colleagues with a request that was as unusual as it was delicate. The CIA head politely asked Hanning whether he thought there was any possibility that "Curveball" could appear on American television for Bush’s annual State of the Union address. Barring that, the US wanted to finally have an opportunity to question "Curveball" itself. In addition, Tenet wanted German permission to make public use of BND information -- a quasi admission that the US thought the information was accurate.

Tenet's role had transformed into that of a public prosecutor in search of witnesses willing to go public -- far from the traditional task of a secret service professional obsessed with protecting his sources. He even gave the Germans a deadline: He needed an answer within 48 hours, he said.

The BND was alarmed. It was immediately clear to Hanning that the issue had become highly political -- and that it was up to the chancellor to make a decision on what to do.

The plenary hall in the Bundestag was largely empty during a Friday session just before Christmas 2002, with many parliamentarians having already headed home for the holidays. And it was about to become emptier. In the middle of the session, Chancellor Schröder suddenly summoned Defense Minister Struck, chancellery chief of staff Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to his office. Ernst Uhrlau, secret service coordinator, was already there. Of the so-called "security cabinet," only Interior Minister Otto Schily couldn't make it.

The meeting that morning in Schröder's office lasted for an hour and the government's general position on the impending war in Iraq was discussed. The main topic, though, was "Curveball" and how Berlin should respond to the US request. Rafed’s core allegations against Saddam’s regime were once again recapitulated, but so too were his story's weaknesses. Of particular concern, the decisive criteria for reliable intelligence was far from being fulfilled: Instead of three independent sources, they only had one. A television appearance? Under no circumstances. Questioning by the CIA? Best avoided.

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