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

By Erich Follath, John Goetz, and

Part 5: The Fruitless Hunt for WMDs in Iraq


The bombardment of Iraq began on March 19, 2003 at 5:36 a.m. local time, and the government quarter in Baghdad was soon engulfed in flames. Just weeks later, the regime disintegrated and, at Firdos Square in Baghdad, a statue of Saddam was pulled from its pedestal in front of gathered television reporters. On May 1, a triumphant US President Bush, decked out in a pilot's jacket and sunglasses, appeared on the deck of an aircraft carrier with the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner hanging behind him. Not long later, US Special Forces began looking for weapons of mass destruction.

The 1,400-strong group responsible for that search -- which later came to be known as the Iraq Survey Group -- took its marching orders from the CIA. And its mission was clear. They were to seek out, defuse and the present Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the world with the greatest publicity possible. The Bush administration didn't just want to win the war -- it wanted to prove that the invasion had been justified. The experts, though, found nothing.

If there was one man who wanted to believe "Curveball" at this time, then it was David Kay. The Texan was a contentious figure -- not known for shying away from conflict -- and had been in Iraq at the beginning of the 1990s as a UN weapons inspector. He fervently believed that Saddam had retained his weapons of mass destruction, convinced that the dictator would never have surrendered this horrific trump card.

A Jubilant President

When the search for Saddam's alleged weapons got underway, Kay was working as an expert for the American TV network NBC and he was allowed by the military to see one of two suspicious trucks which, the Americans hoped, might have played a role in the production of biological weapons. Kay stepped in front of the camera and said that, other than producing weapons, "there is nothing else you would do" with the mobile units. For a moment it appeared as though the White House had won the propaganda battle.

Bush was jubilant. “You remember when Colin Powell stood up in front of the world," he asked in a television interview, before boasting: "Iraq has got … mobile labs to build biological weapons…. We've so far discovered two." Powell was likewise relieved, and claimed that the trucks had been found. The Germans also saw the apparent evidence as vindication of their efforts and of their source. The BND showed "Curveball" photos of the trucks. He claimed to recognize elements of the contraption.

Kay’s TV appearance made such an impression at the White House that the former weapons inspector was soon asked to become the head of the Iraq Survey Group and he was charged with seeking out Saddam's remaining arsenal. The Texan agreed, and was granted extraordinary powers. He was given a salary equivalent to that of a four-star general, was allowed to hand out coveted Green Cards to Iraqi informants, and was granted a secret budget of $10 million to pay off those willing to snitch.

Before Kay got going, he studied all of the relevant documents, including those from Germany. When he saw that the entire biological weapons claim was based on just one source, he gave it top priority. Two of his staff members were tasked with finding Rafed’s family.

His family lived in a white single family home in Baghdad, and Rafed’s mother and older brother were at home when the Americans came calling. It was the first time that the life story “Curveball” had presented to his German handlers was looked into.

Lies and Half-Truths

Rafed had said that he was first in his class. His mother, though, told Kay’s inspectors a slightly different story. She said that her son had been a good pupil, but that he had run into some difficulties. Indeed, she reported, he had barely managed to finish school with a “D” average -- just 60 out of 100 possible points. Rafed’s best subject, in which he received 76 points, had remarkably little to do with his subsequent major of engineering: "Culture and the History of Iraq."

And so the story continued. No matter what the inspectors asked about, they stumbled across a mixture of lies and half-truths told by Rafed. He hated America, Rafed had told a German intelligence agent. But posters of American pop groups hung in his room, which his mother had left undisturbed. Indeed, she explained, Rafed had wanted to emigrate to the US.

One of the central premises in the story Rafed told German intelligence officials was that he had worked in Saddam's weapons program until 1998 -- the only way he could have learned about the alleged deadly accident which supposedly took place that year. Kay recalled that on this point, Rafed's mother was almost embarrassed. To her knowledge, she said, her son Rafed had worked for the CEDC only until 1995. Even worse, his relatives told Kay that Rafed was no longer even in Iraq in 1998.

With the help of the family, Kay’s men -- including a CIA operative of many years named “Jerry," who had constantly defended “Curveball’s” reliability -- now began a frantic search for old friends and superiors, for men such as Basil Latif and Hilal Freah.

Freah, 42, is a tall, heavyset man with a gray beard and penetrating eyes. It is a mild day at the beginning of December 2007 and Freah is sitting in the cigar lounge of Regency Palace Hotel in the Jordanian capital Amman. He wants nothing to eat and he orders nothing to drink. Five years after the start of the war, Hilal Freah only wants to talk. He knew the man who became "Curveball" better than almost anyone else. “Rafed, of all people," he groans. "Everyone who knows him knows that he is a born fraud.”

The Incident with the Lambs

Freah was his immediate superior at CEDC, Saddam’s research center in Baghdad. But more than that, he was also something of a foster parent to Rafed. He knew Rafed's family well -- that his older brother once served with Saddam’s Republican Guard and that the younger one ran a corner shop in Baghdad. One sister was an employee at the national railway administration, and the other studied psychology. Rafed even went to Freah's wedding -- and a few weeks later Freah attended Rafed's as well, when he married another young CEDC employee in a lavish celebration in a Baghdad officers club.

Although his English was mediocre, and his knowledge of chemistry and biology average at best, Rafed made a modest career for himself. As a result of his “communications skills” he was employed twice by Freah as an on-site project manager: first at an oil refinery, where Rafed supervised the building of 11 cooling towers. And then in Djerf al-Nadaf, a project focusing on the development of seeds -- which later became ground zero for the mobile biological weapons labs in Rafed's narrations.

For the Djerf project, he was even chauffeured the 40 kilometers from Baghdad, past date plantations and over the Tigris River. Once at work Rafed sat in an office container, bent over sketches and drawings. But, remembers Freah, "he always came late."

That, though, wasn’t the half of it. The first real trouble started when Freah noticed that Rafed was cheating with the invoices of a local company in Djerf. He tried to do the same with other equipment necessary for the project. And then there was the incident with the lambs.

It was the grand opening of the seed factory, and Basil Latif, the head of CEDC and even Hussein Kamil, Saddam’s son-in-law, were there to cut the red ribbon. To celebrate the occasion Rafed purchased three lambs from a neighboring farmer, allegedly for 30,000 dinar apiece. By chance, a colleague spoke with the farmer not long later and complained about the high price. But, the farmer protested, he had received just 20,000 dinar per sheep. Rafed had apparently pocketed the difference. “That is why I fired him in 1995," Hilal Freah explains.

Freah, though, decided to give Rafed a second chance in private industry. With a friend of Rafed’s they founded a cosmetics company named “Ranh.” Rafed was supposed to procure shampoo bottles -- and he cheated again with the same trick. This time Freah broke off all contact. In Iraq he had been a member of the Baath Party and Rafed’s behavior severely incriminated him. Even worse, after the Iraq invasion, teams of CIA agents appeared in front of Freah's apartment and dragged him off in handcuffs for interrogation.

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