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

By Erich Follath, John Goetz, and

Part 6: Only One Winner


What would he say to Rafed today? "I'd like to kill him twice for what he did to the Iraqi people," Freah answers coldly. Freah's report is confirmed by Basil Latif, general manager of CEDC at the time, who lives today as a wealthy businessman in Oman. “Rafed was a nice guy," he says, "but he was not a particularly good engineer and even back then he was a dishonest man who deceived us several times.”

Kay and his team of inspectors heard such stories whenever they asked about Rafed in Baghdad and its surroundings. It was a perfect disaster. Kay first sent warning messages to Washington and then flew to CIA headquarters to deliver the bad news himself. "We were all wrong," was the message he had to deliver.

In Berlin, a parliamentary committee of inquiry is currently looking into the question as to whether German intelligence engaged in inadmissible cooperation with the Americans in the fight against terror. The questions have to do with the US prison at Guantanamo, with torture and with illegal interrogations. It does not, however, concern one of the biggest debacles in the history of the German secret service. The case of “Curveball” has not been re-examined and the political responsibility remains unclear.

'Fundamental Considerations'

Even today, the BND has yet to admit to its own mistakes. The agency, now under the leadership of then-secret service coordinator Ernst Uhrlau, is unwilling to even answer questions about the case -- due to “fundamental considerations," as the service dryly informed SPIEGEL in response to a request.

There is an unspoken rule in the world of intelligence: The more important a case and the greater the possible consequences, the more reliable the source should be. In the case of “Curveball,” the rule was flip-flopped. The statements made by Rafed were considered plausible precisely because they were so difficult to check. Global policy was shaped using the story “Curveball” told. The analysis of his statements was totally bush league.

German intelligence did not, as is common practice, assign one agent to interview "Curveball" and a separate agent to evaluate and analyze what "Curveball" was telling them. The BND placed both duties into the hands of the “Doctor," precisely because the source was so difficult.

Above all, however, the spymasters failed to do what is indispensable in the intelligence business: They did not sufficiently examine “Curveball’s” personal record. Perhaps they could have learned early on that, for a time, Rafed tried to make a go of manufacturing eye shadow. Later he stole 1.5 million dinar-worth of gear from the partially state-owned film and television company Babel TV, where he was responsible for equipment maintenance. A warrant for his arrest had been issued as a result -- the real reason why he bolted from Iraq in 1998.

The BND would not even have had to go to Iraq to learn about Rafed's real character -- he remained true to form in Germany as well. Despite an explicit ban by BND authorities, Rafed worked for a time in a Chinese restaurant, and even behind the counter at a Burger King restaurant. He quickly attracted attention to himself. Several Iraqis described him to SPIEGEL as a "crackpot" and "con man."

Still, the intelligence service believed in its source to the very end. The British secret service had expressed its doubts openly as early as 2001, after an expert from MI6 used a pretext to arrange a meeting with “Curveball." He came to the conclusion that elements of "Curveball's" behavior "strike us as typical of fabricators."

'Dishonest, Unprofessional and Irresponsible'

An American physician from the US Defense Department, who had briefly come into contact with Rafed in the course of an investigation in 2000, sent e-mails for years warning as many as he could within the US intelligence community. “Curveball” had a strong smell of alcohol on his breath, he said, and his BND agent seemed to “have fallen in love” with his informant.

In March 2004, the CIA was finally, over a period of two days, able to question “Curveball” directly. The Americans were horrified, and they quickly became convinced that the Iraqi invented the whole story. In June, Rafed was officially classified in the US as a “fabricator."

David Kay, the American specialist assigned with searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, is harshly critical of German intelligence. He says it is shocking that the BND did not "make all the appropriate efforts to validate the source," and that, by its refusal to let "Curveball" be interrogated by the CIA, German intelligence also prevented others from seeing him for what he was. “That was dishonest, unprofessional and irresponsible,” he says.

Colin Powell’s chief of staff Wilkerson also feels that the Germans "share in the responsibility." He says "they 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 adds: “I can’t exclude the Germans completely here from their share of guilt."

But the BND still takes a different view. “If the US government builds its house on shifting sands, we are not to blame," says a high-ranking German intelligence official. "We simply passed on information, no evaluations." And: "The US bears responsibility for what happened at the Security Council."

In the end it is a story that only has losers.

Today, Colin Powell, Bush’s retired secretary of state, calls his Security Council presentation the worst moment of his career. He left government service long ago and has worked since July 2007 as a partner in a venture capital company. Powell’s chief of staff Wilkerson also speaks of the “lowest point of my professional life.” Today he teaches at George Washington University in Washington D.C.

'I Am Not to Blame'

The “Doctor” left the BND and is now self-employed. David Kay earns his money as a consultant. Hans Blix is working again for the Swedish government. He thinks he has an explanation for the dynamics that fed the disaster. “Intelligence services know that they will be punished if they fail to come up with something,” he says. “They are not punished if they overdo things. Therefore they are inclined to exaggerate.”

In 2004, George Tenet tendered his resignation from the CIA -- only days after “Curveball” was officially branded as a fraud -- and is now in retirement. "We allowed flawed information to be presented to Congress, the President and the whole world," Tenet wrote in his memoirs. "That never should have happened.”

Saddam Hussein was hanged. More than a year before the noose was placed around his neck, an American government report came to the conclusion that Iraq had destroyed all of its biological pathogens directly after the Gulf War in 1991 and ceased development of the disputed program. Saddam’s refusal to admit that he no longer had any more weapons of mass destruction came out of a fear of Iran.

Only one person can feel like a winner: “Curveball.” In September 2007, the German authorities agreed in principle to his naturalization. And “Curveball” remains protected by the BND to this day.

In the US, such fabricators are dishonorably dismissed, they don’t get a single penny and every government agency is warned about them. In Germany things are dealt with differently. In all, “Curveball” is said to have been paid hundreds of thousands of euros. And the BND may now have to cough up once again. The intelligence service is considering giving “Curveball” yet another new identity, as well as one for his second wife from Morocco and for his son, who was born in Erlangen.

Rafed does not want to say anything about the accusations leveled against him while standing on the street in front of his house, saying he is afraid. But a few days later he opens up on the telephone. After eight years in Germany his German is fairly good and he laughs a lot during the conversation.

“I am not to blame," says Rafed. “I never said that Iraq had weapons for mass destruction. Not at all. Not in my entire life.” Rafed says the Americans, “know precisely that it is all untrue.” He will tell his story again, but not in Germany, where he was “treated poorly.” For the kind of information that he supplied, he says, he should be "living like a king.” And then Rafed wants to hear an offer. A new offer for his story. He wants to sell it -- again.

The American commission that was supposed to evaluate the job done by the intelligence community leading up to the war wrote a tellingly incisive sentence in its final report: "Worse than having no human sources is being seduced by a human source who is telling lies."

Translated from the German by Alan Faulcon

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