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

By Erich Follath, John Goetz, and Holger Stark

Five years ago, the US government presented what it said was proof that Iraq harbored biological weapons. The information came from a source developed by German intelligence -- and it turned out to be disastrously wrong. But to this day, Germany denies any responsibility.

If you're looking to hide out from the rest of the world, the grayish white residential block in this southern German city would be a good place to be. Six families live here, most of them with children, and the building blends inconspicuously into the dull suburban skyline. A green toy tractor is parked out front, the bicycles have baby trailers, one of them complete with an American flag fluttering in the breeze. On a mailbox hanging outside the building's entrance, the name Rafed has been scrawled in pale green handwriting -- difficult to read, but decipherable from up close.

There are many the world over who would love a chance to chat with the man whose mail lands in this post box. The US Congress is desperately interested in him, and the White House once even expressed an interest in trotting him out on primetime television. A book has been written about him and Hollywood is currently working on a motion picture documenting his life.

The man's codename is "Curveball." And in an earlier life, he played a crucial role in the geo-politics at the beginning of this decade: He was the man who provided vital "evidence" that ultimately contributed to the invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies. But that role has since turned into his greatest problem: Everything he claimed to know about Iraq's weapons program, all the proof he presented, was fabricated. His lifeline, though, has yet to be cut: Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), remains loyal to their source. They keep him under cover and protect him from uncomfortable questions -- here in southern Germany.

Blown Cover

At first, there are no signs of life from "Curveball's" ground-floor dwelling in the drab apartment building. The doorbell has a bad contact, the neighbors said; you have to hold the button down for a long time. Children’s shoes and men’s sandals are arrayed in front of the door; a German forest landscape hangs on the wall. And then, after a long wait, the door swings open. A stocky man with a full shock of black hair and a stubbly beard stands in the doorway. He is wearing an orange T-shirt and pajama bottoms. Still groggy from sleep, he blinks out at his unexpected visitor. “Rafed?” -- “Yeah, that’s me," he says. It is the moment when Rafed knows his cover has been blown.

In baseball, a curveball is pure deception. It spins quickly, and changes direction, making it very difficult for the batter to make contact. A curveball lures the batter to swing at a ball that is no longer there.

Rafed's deceptions unleashed their full power on Feb. 5, 2003 at the United Nations building in New York City. It was the day that US Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the UN Security Council in an effort to convince the world that an invasion of Iraq was an absolute necessity.

It was 10:30 a.m. local time, when Powell launched into his lecture, and it immediately became clear that he was playing to an audience larger than the UN representatives gathered before him. He was speaking to the world. “Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources," he said. "These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” As Powell moved through his 76-minute-long presentation, a horror scenario unfolded. Baghdad, he said, was still in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, including atomic, chemical and biological devices. That pursuit, Powell made clear, was in violation of UN sanctions.

The climax of the lecture came when he told his audience about the mobile biological weapons laboratories -- mini factories mounted on the back of trucks churning out some of the most dangerous diseases known to mankind. That was the "most dramatic" part of the presentation Powell says today.

But there was drama right from the beginning. Early on, the Secretary of State held up a small vial containing white powder -- meant to represent anthrax spores. Saddam Hussein, he said, “could have produced 25,000 liters” of the stuff. Saddam Hussein spins a “web of lies" Powell said and spoke of “one last chance” which Iraq had chosen not to take advantage of. The country harbors a "deadly network of terrorism," he said, and as a result, the world "must not shrink from whatever is ahead."

The response to the speech, broadcast as it was to the entire world, was overwhelming. On the following day, the US Secretary of State could be seen with the anthrax vial on the front page of newspapers from Sydney to Sao Paolo, from Paris to Beijing. “We love him,” rejoiced the Jerusalem Post, hardly a Powell-friendly paper until then. Everyone was suddenly talking about biological weapons -- about the “trailers of death” and “hell on wheels.”

Above all, however, Powell was able to convince many of his fellow Americans who had harbored doubts about the need to go to war in the Middle East. Following Powell's appearance, surveys revealed that half of all US citizens supported a war on Iraq. And the Secretary of State himself was delighted with his performance. He had small plaques made for everyone who had helped prepare the speech. But those he convinced that winter day in 2003 would come to regret it. As the world came to discover, nothing of what he said was truthful. There were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction at the time Powell made his presentation. There were no mobile biological weapons laboratories. And there were no connections between Iraq and the terrorist organization al-Qaida.

An 'Invaluable Asset'

The reactions around the UN Security Council table on that day just over five years ago were primarily characterized by diplomatic reserve -- including that of the man who chaired the fateful session: Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister at the time. The German delegation had set up a secure line from New York directly to the BND intelligence offices in Berlin, where the agents followed Powell's speech on a big screen.

Like Powell, who made certain that then-CIA Director George Tenet was visible behind him on the world's TV screens, Fischer had also brought along an important intelligence official. But Hans Dieter H., the BND's proliferation expert, was not seated near the foreign minister. Rather, he was positioned diagonally behind Tenet and Powell. The seating was little more than chance; the UN had to set up several additional rows of chairs to accommodate the large audience. The result, though, was that Germany's intelligence representative was seated together with those who supported the war.

As is now clear, the seating was auspicious. The German secret service actually had more to do with providing justification for the US invasion of Iraq than it would now like to admit. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder -- like his colleagues in Paris and Moscow -- was a vehement opponent of the war. But of all people, his own agents provided Washington with the key bit of “evidence” which helped fuel the war hysteria: the story about the mobile biological weapons laboratories. It was information that helped justify a war that has cost more than 500,000 lives and plunged the Middle East into chaos. And this information came from just one man: “Curveball.”

He was, as Tenet said then, an "invaluable asset." Today, it is clear that "Curveball" is an imposter, a fabulist, a man who, in the US, is referred to as the "con man who caused the war." "Curveball," writes spy-thriller author Frederick Forsyth, is responsible for the "biggest fiasco in the history of secret intelligence."

Germany's BND is the agency responsible for this man. And the most important question surrounding "Curveball" still hasn't been answered to this day. Why does German intelligence remain loyal to its source?

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