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

By Erich Follath, John Goetz, and Holger Stark

Part 4: Germany Compromises on 'Curveball'

The government officials, though, were united in their fear that a categorical refusal of the US request would be seen as an affront. After all, German-American relations had already been shaken by Schröder's anti-war stance during his 2002 re-election campaign. Furthermore, the chancellor and his foreign minister feared what would happen if it turned out that Saddam really did have weapons of mass destruction. Germany would be a sitting duck for accusations that it had concealed its knowledge for political reasons. Should American soldiers lose their lives as a result, Fischer feared, it would be a diplomatic and public relations disaster.

Thus, Schröder's cabinet opted for a compromise. The government decided to send special armored reconnaissance vehicles capable of detecting chemical and biological agents to Kuwait and to grant the US military flyover rights during the war. They also extended the times during which American soldiers could engage in target practice on bases in Germany -- so that the US troops could be as prepared as possible for the war. One of those present later put the diplomatic balancing act into a nutshell: "We were against the war, but we wanted to be good allies."

As far as "Curveball" was concerned, the government wanted to give Washington permission to use Rafed’s statements but, at the same time insisted on a few qualifications. "We didn’t trust the Americans," said one meeting participant. "But we didn't want to withhold any information."

Carte Blanche

Hanning was charged with transforming the compromise agreement into an official reply to the Americans. And the head of German intelligence carefully considered each and every word that went into his Dec. 20, 2002 letter.

The BND, Hanning wrote, had consulted with the CIA, the Israelis and the British "in order to evaluate the indications made by our source with regard to mobile facilities for the production of warfare agents." According to Hanning, "the information was in essence judged as plausible and convincing, but it couldn't be confirmed." For this reason the BND wanted to approach the UN inspectors once again "in order to enable immediate on-site clarification." If Tenet should nevertheless "be inclined to use the reports and the results of the joint appraisal on mobile biological warfare facilities in Iraq publicly, then I would allow this procedure in the expectation that protection of our source, which makes our work possible, be guaranteed.” Translated from the bureaucratese, the message was: Do whatever you want, but it’s your responsibility.

Even today, that letter remains exhibit "A" for then BND and German government leaders when it comes to discussions about Germany's responsibility for the pre-Iraq intelligence debacle. Gunter Pleuger, for example, Germany's UN Ambassador 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."

Today, though, the BND apparently no longer sees the letter as an adequate exculpation. The secret service now points to a Washington meeting in the autumn of 2002, shortly before Hanning's letter, whereby the then-BND agent in Washington met with Tyler Drumheller, CIA operations leader for Europe, for a lunch meeting in a restaurant called Sea Catch. Drumheller recalls that the BND agent warned that "Curveball" was psychologically unstable and likely a fraud. The BND has now, for the first time, officially confirmed this account.

According to Tenet, the CIA even specifically asked the BND contact what he thought of “Curveball” after the war began. In response, though, the BND agent didn't specifically call "Curveball" a "fabricator," Tenets says. Rather, he spoke of a "single source" whose information couldn't be independently confirmed -- the same watered-down formulation that found its way into the Hanning letter. Former highly-placed BND agents confirm this account.

In any case, the CIA and the White House interpreted Hanning's response as carte blanche. Five weeks after receiving Hanning's letter, the US president announced in his State of the Union address that Saddam possessed "several mobile biological weapons labs" and further that "he has given no evidence that he has destroyed them."

But as confident as President Bush seemed, the US intelligence community was divided into two camps. The majority followed the war drums of the hawks. But there were also critics who warned against going to war. The CIA's Drumheller was one of them, and he mentioned his reservations to John McLaughlin, second in command at the CIA. On the night before Powell's Security Council presentation, he even telephoned with George Tenet himself. "Hey, boss," he recalls saying. "Be careful with that German report. It's supposed to be taken out. There are a lot of problems with that."

Six-Thousand Kilometers Away

Tenet would later deny that Drumheller's warning took this form. He also later claimed that the explosive letter, which he had requested from Hanning, reached the CIA but never landed on his desk. In any case, the Drumheller initiative, if it happened at all, bore no fruit. The allegations leveled by “Curveball” made it into Powell’s Feb. 5, 2003 appearance.

Six-thousand kilometers away, a man was sitting in front of his television watching Powell's presentation and knowing full well what was going on in New York -- "Curveball" himself. He quickly packed his things and tried to disappear. He was horrified, and knew that there was no turning back from what he had set in motion. It took a lot of effort on the part of the BND to calm him down again.

One week after Powell’s presentation, BND head Hanning once again made an appearance before the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, and the gathered parliamentarians wanted to know what to think about the evidence presented by the US Secretary of State. Powell confirmed "his own assessment of the situation up to now," replied Hanning. "We knew about the locations which he specified." Hanning warned against war, and he reminded his audience that there were indications "but no proof." However, the BND assumes that Iraq has both "B and C weapons," both residual quantities and newly produced material, Hanning continued. He did nothing to dissociate himself from Powell. H., who was present once again, didn't either. On the contrary. “Even more worrisome are indications about mobile biological weapons labs," H. remarked, “which at any time could secretly produce reagents for B weapons such as anthrax and botulinus and can quickly be relocated.”

The BND, evidently, still believed in its source.

The UN weapons inspectors in Iraq remained skeptical and the Russian government also expressed doubt immediately following Powell’s appearance. Shortly after 9:00 a.m. on Feb. 8, 2003 -- just three days after Powell's presentation -- a column of white jeeps headed out from the UN Disarmament Commission headquarters in Baghdad's Canal Hotel. The biological weapons experts working for chief inspector Hans Blix had been charged with finding the mobile laboratories mentioned by "Curveball." Blix had already seen them at least once -- on paper. “The BND showed me and my staff impressive sketches and diagrams about Iraqi biological weapons,” said Blix.

The inspectors were on their way to Djerf al Naddaf, the place that Rafed had described to German agents over and over again. Rocco Casagrande, a young American scientist, was also along for the ride.

Casagrande roamed through the abandoned buildings in the small town for hours, collecting minute samples. More than anything, though, he wanted to find the opening in the wall described by "Curveball," through which the trucks entered and left. After three and a half hours of searching, Casagrande decided enough was enough. The story was completely wrong, he recalls thinking.

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