THE CURVEBALL SAGA
How U.S. Fell Under the Spell of 'Curveball'
The Iraqi informant's German handlers say they had told U.S. officials
that his information was 'not proven,' and were shocked when President
Bush and Colin L. Powell used it in key prewar speeches.
By Bob Drogin and John Goetz
Special to The Times
November 20, 2005
BERLIN - The German intelligence officials responsible for one of the
most important informants on Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of mass
destruction say that the Bush administration and the CIA repeatedly
exaggerated his claims during the run-up to the war in Iraq.
Five senior officials from Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, or
BND, said in interviews with The Times that they warned U.S.
intelligence authorities that the source, an Iraqi defector code-named
Curveball, never claimed to produce germ weapons and never saw anyone
else do so.
According to the Germans, President Bush mischaracterized Curveball's
information when he warned before the war that Iraq had at least seven
mobile factories brewing biological poisons. Then-Secretary of State
Colin L. Powell also misstated Curveball's accounts in his prewar
presentation to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, the Germans said.
Curveball's German handlers for the last six years said his information
was often vague, mostly secondhand and impossible to confirm.
"This was not substantial evidence," said a senior German intelligence
official. "We made clear we could not verify the things he said."
The German authorities, speaking about the case for the first time,
also said that their informant suffered from emotional and mental
problems. "He is not a stable, psychologically stable guy," said a BND
official who supervised the case. "He is not a completely normal
person," agreed a BND analyst.
Curveball was the chief source of inaccurate prewar U.S. accusations
that Baghdad had biological weapons, a commission appointed by Bush
reported this year. The commission did not interview Curveball, who
still insists his story was true, or the German officials who handled
The German account emerges as the White House is lashing out at
domestic critics, particularly Senate Democrats, over allegations the
administration manipulated intelligence to go to war. Last week, Vice
President Dick Cheney called such claims reprehensible and pernicious.
In Congress, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is resuming
its long-stalled investigation of the administration's use of prewar
intelligence. Committee members said last week that the Curveball case
would be a key part of their review. House Democrats are calling for a
An investigation by The Times based on interviews since May with about
30 current and former intelligence officials in the U.S., Germany,
England, Iraq and the United Nations, as well as other experts, shows
that U.S. bungling in the Curveball case was worse than official
reports have disclosed.
The White House, for example, ignored evidence gathered by United
Nations weapons inspectors shortly before the war that disproved
Curveball's account. Bush and his aides issued increasingly dire
warnings about Iraq's biological weapons before the war even though
intelligence from Curveball had not changed in two years.
At the Central Intelligence Agency, officials embraced Curveball's
account even though they could not confirm it or interview him until a
year after the invasion. They ignored multiple warnings about his
reliability before the war, punished in-house critics who provided
proof that he had lied and refused to admit error until May 2004, 14
months after the invasion.
After the CIA vouched for Curveball's accounts, Bush declared in his
2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq had "mobile biological weapons
labs" designed to produce "germ warfare agents." Bush cited the mobile
germ factories in at least four prewar speeches and statements, and
other world leaders repeated the charge.
Powell also highlighted Curveball's "eyewitness" account when he warned
the United Nations Security Council on the eve of war that Iraq's
mobile labs could brew enough weapons-grade microbes "in a single month
to kill thousands upon thousands of people."
The senior BND officer who supervised Curveball's case said he was
aghast when he watched Powell misstate Curveball's claims as a
justification for war.
"We were shocked," the official said. "Mein Gott! We had always told
them it was not proven.... It was not hard intelligence."
In a telephone interview, Powell said that George J. Tenet, then the
director of central intelligence, and his top deputies personally
assured him before his U.N. speech that U.S. intelligence on the mobile
labs was "solid." Since then, Powell said, the case "has totally blown
up in our faces."
Many officials interviewed for this report, including the German
intelligence officers, spoke on the condition they not be identified
because they were bound by secrecy agreements, were not authorized to
speak to the news media or because the case involved classified sources
Curveball lives under an assumed name in southern Germany. The BND has
given him a furnished apartment, language lessons and a stipend
generous enough that he does not need to work. His wife has emigrated
from Iraq, and they have an infant daughter.
The BND has relocated him twice because of concerns that his life was
in danger. They still watch him closely. "He is difficult to integrate"
into local society, said a BND operations officer. "We are still busy
Curveball could not be interviewed for this report. BND officials
threatened last summer to strip him of his salary, housing and
protection if he agreed to meet with The Times.
"We told him, 'If you talk to anyone on the outside... you are out and
you get no more help from us,' " the BND supervisor said.
CIA officials now concede that the Iraqi fused fact, research he
gleaned on the Internet and what his former co-workers called "water
cooler gossip" into a nightmarish fantasy that played on U.S. fears
after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Curveball's motive, CIA officials said, was not to start a war. He
simply was seeking a German visa.
The Curveball chronicle began in November 1999, when the dark-haired
Iraqi in his late 20s flew into Munich's Franz Josef Strauss Airport
with a tourist visa.
The Baghdad-born chemical engineer promptly applied for political
asylum in Arabic and halting English. He told German immigration
officials he had embezzled Iraqi government money and faced prison or
worse if sent home.
The Germans sent him to Zirndorf, a refugee center near Nuremberg once
used for Soviet defectors, where he joined a long line of Iraqi exiles
seeking German visas.
Abruptly, his story changed.
He once led a team, he told BND officers, that equipped trucks to brew
deadly bio-agents. He named six sites where Iraq might be hiding
biological warfare vehicles. Three already were operating. A farm
program to boost crop yields was cover for Iraq's new biological
weapons production program, he said.
Germany provided Europe's most generous benefits to Iraqi refugees, and
several hundred arrived each month. But few had useful credible
intelligence on Baghdad's suspected weapons programs. Intelligence
agents became accustomed to exaggerated claims.
"The Iraqis were adept at feeding us what we wanted to hear," said a
former official of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency who
helped debrief about 50 Iraqi emigres in Germany before the war. "Most
of it was garbage.''
But for this defector, the Germans assigned two case officers as well
as a team of chemists, biologists and other experts. They debriefed him
from January 2000 to September 2001.
Since the Iraqi had arrived in Munich, U.S. liaison with German
intelligence was assigned to the local DIA team. Their clandestine
operating base was an elegant 19th century mansion known as Munich
House. There he was assigned his codename: Curveball.
The base cryptonym "ball" was used to signify weapons, two former U.S.
intelligence officials said. An earlier informant in Germany, for
example, was called Matchball.
In DIA files, Iraqi sources were listed as "red" if U.S. intelligence
could interview them. Curveball was a "blue" source, meaning the
Germans would not permit U.S. access to him.
Curveball said he hated Americans, the Germans explained.
As a result, the DIA - like the BND - never tried to check
Curveball's background or verify his accounts before sending reports to
other U.S. intelligence agencies. Despite that failure, CIA analysts
accepted the incoming reports as credible and quickly passed them to
The reports had problems, however. The Germans usually interviewed
Curveball in Arabic, using a translator, although the Iraqi sometimes
"But a case officer wants to speak directly to his source," said the
senior BND officer. "Curveball began to learn German, and thus there
was a big mix [of languages] that went on. This explains some of the
It got worse, like a children's game of "telephone," in which
information gets increasingly distorted. The BND sent German summaries
of their English and Arabic interview reports to Munich House and to
British intelligence. The DIA team translated the German back to
English and prepared its own summaries. Those went to DIA's directorate
for human intelligence, at a high-rise office in Clarendon, Va.
Clarendon passed 95 DIA reports to the Weapons Intelligence,
Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Center, known as WINPAC, at CIA
headquarters in nearby Langley. Experts there called other specialists,
including an independent laboratory, to help evaluate the data. Spy
satellites were directed to focus on Curveball's sites. CIA artists
prepared detailed drawings from Curveball's crude sketches.
The system led to confusion, not clarity.
"Analysts were studying drawings made by artists working from
descriptions by a guy we couldn't talk to," explained a former senior
CIA official who helped supervise the case and the postwar
investigation. "It was hard to figure out."
"Our fear is that as it was analyzed and translated and reanalyzed and
retranslated, and comments got added, it could have gotten sexed up by
accident," agreed a former CIA operations official.
The British Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, blamed the BND
for omitting what a Parliamentary inquiry called "significant detail"
in the reports they sent to London. At issue were Curveball's trucks.
In an e-mail to The Times, Robin Butler, head of the British inquiry
into prewar intelligence, said "incomplete reporting" by the BND misled
the British to assume the trucks could produce weapons-grade bio-agents
such as anthrax spores. But Curveball only spoke of producing a liquid
slurry unsuitable for bombs or warheads.
At the CIA, bio-warfare experts viewed the defector's reports as
sophisticated and technically feasible. They also matched the analysts'
After the 1991 Gulf War, U.N. inspectors struggled to unravel Baghdad's
secret biological weapons program. They speculated that the regime
produced germs in mobile factories to evade detection.
American U-2 spy planes looked for suspicious vehicles, and U.N. teams
raided parking lots.
In 1994, acting on tips from Israeli intelligence, U.N. inspectors even
stopped red-and-white trucks in Baghdad marked: "Tip Top Ice Cream."
Inside they found ice cream.
"We thought they could easily transport other materials around," said
Rolf Ekeus, who headed the U.N. inspectors from 1991 to 1997.
Finally, in mid-1995, Iraq officials admitted that before the Gulf War
they had secretly produced 30,000 liters of anthrax, botulinum toxin,
aflatoxin and other lethal bio-agents. They had deployed hundreds of
germ-filled munitions and researched other deadly diseases for military
use. They denied they ever had mobile production facilities.
Curveball's story to the Germans in 2000 and 2001 neatly dovetailed
with that history and continuing CIA suspicions.
The Iraqi defector said he was recruited out of engineering school at
Baghdad University in 1994 by Iraq's Military Industrial Commission,
headed by Saddam Hussein's son-in-law Hussein Kamil. He said he went to
work the following year for "Dr. Germ," British-trained microbiologist
Rihab Rashid Taha, to build bio-warfare vehicles. Kamil and Taha had
headed the pre-1991 bio-weapons program.
Curveball said he was assigned to the Chemical Engineering and Design
Center, behind the Rashid Hotel in central Baghdad.
That also fit a pattern, as the center provided a cover story for
Iraq's first bio-warfare program .
Curveball said he had helped assemble one truck-mounted germ factory in
1997 at Djerf al Nadaf, a tumble-down cluster of warehouses in a gritty
industrial area 10 miles southeast of Baghdad. He helped the Germans
build a scale model of the facility, showing how vehicles were hidden
in a two-story building - and how they entered and exited on either
He designed laboratory equipment for the trucks, he said, providing
dimensions, temperature ranges and other details. He sketched diagrams
of how the system operated, and identified more than a dozen
But the story had holes .
"His information to us was very vague," said the senior German
intelligence official. "He could not say if these things functioned, if
Curveball also said he could not identify what microbes the trucks were
designed to produce.
"He didn't know ... whether it was anthrax or not," said the BND
supervisor. "He had nothing to do with actual production of [a
biological] agent. He was in the equipment testing phase. And the
David Kay, who read the Curveball file when he headed the CIA's search
for hidden weapons in 2003, said Curveball's accounts were maddeningly
"He was not in charge of trucks or production," Kay said. "He had
nothing to do with actual production of biological agent. He never saw
them actually produce [an] agent."
But the CIA and the White House overlooked the holes in the story.
In a February 2003 radio address and statement, Bush warned that
"first-hand witnesses have informed us that Iraq has at least seven
mobile factories" for germ warfare. With these, Bush said, "Iraq could
produce within just months hundreds of pounds of biological poisons."
Curveball had told the Germans that Taha's team planned to build mobile
factories at six sites across Iraq, from Numaniyah in the south to
Tikrit in the north. But he visited only Djerf al Nadaf, he said. His
information about the other sites, he told the Germans, was
Curveball's reports were highly valued in Washington because the CIA
had no Iraqi spies with access to weapons programs at the time.
One detail particularly impressed the CIA: Curveball's report of a 1998
germ weapons accident at Djerf al Nadaf. Powell cited the incident in
his prewar U.N. speech. An "eyewitness" was "at the site" when an
accident occurred, and 12 technicians "died from exposure to biological
agents," Powell said.
Lawrence B. Wilkerson, then Powell's chief of staff, said senior CIA
officials told Powell the "principal source had not only worked in
mobile labs but had seen an accident and had been injured in the
accident.... This gave more credibility to it."
But German intelligence officials said the CIA was wrong. Curveball
only "heard rumors of an accident," the BND supervisor said. "He gave a
The incident led to the first questions inside the CIA about
Curveball's credibility. In May 2000, the Germans allowed a doctor from
the CIA's counter-proliferation branch to meet Curveball and draw a
blood sample. Antibodies in the blood could indicate if he had been
exposed to anthrax or other unusual pathogens in the accident.
The medical tests were inconclusive, but the meeting was memorable.
The BND, insisting Curveball spoke no English and would not meet
Americans, introduced the doctor as a German. The CIA physician
remained silent, because he was not fluent in German. He was surprised,
he later told others, that Curveball spoke "excellent English" to
others in the room.
Moreover, Curveball was "very emotional, very excitable," the doctor
told one colleague. And although it was early morning, Curveball
smelled of liquor and looked "very sick" from a stiff hangover.
German intelligence officials said Curveball didn't have a drinking
problem. But they had other concerns.
Like many defectors, Curveball at first seemed eager to please. He
thanked his new friends and laughed at their jokes. He was charming and
clearly intelligent, providing complex engineering details.
But as the questions intensified, Curveball grew moody and irritable.
His memory began to fail. He confused places and dates. He fretted
about his personal safety, about his parents and wife in Baghdad, and
about his future in Germany.
"He was between two worlds, sometimes cooperative, sometimes
aggressive," said the BND supervisor. "He was not an easy-going guy."
Curveball largely ceased cooperating in 2001 after he was granted
asylum, officials said. He would refuse to meet for days, and then
weeks, at a time. He also increasingly asked for money.
"He knew he was important," said the BND analyst. "He was not an
Defectors are often problem sources. Viewed as traitors back home, many
embellish their stories to gain favor with spy services. In the shadow
world of intelligence, Curveball's inability or reluctance to provide
many details actually helped convince analysts he was telling the
Had Curveball claimed expertise with biological weapons or direct
access to other secret programs, said the BND analyst, "It would be
easier to assume he was lying."
A former British official involved with the case said Curveball's
behavior should be seen through another lens. He is convinced that
Curveball was under intense stress, terrified both that his visa scam
would be exposed, and that his lies would be used to start a war.
"He must have been scared out of his mind," he said.
But concerns about Curveball's reliability were growing. In early 2001,
the CIA's Berlin station chief sent a message to headquarters noting
that a BND official had complained that the Iraqi was "out of control,"
and couldn't be located, Senate investigators found.
MI6 cabled the CIA that British intelligence "is not convinced that
Curveball is a wholly reliable source" and that "elements of [his]
behavior strike us as typical of ... fabricators,'' the presidential
British intelligence also warned that spy satellite images taken in
1997 when Curveball claimed to be working at Djerf al Nadaf conflicted
with his descriptions. The photos showed a wall around most of the main
warehouse, clearly blocking trucks from getting in or out.
U.S. and German officials feared that Ahmad Chalabi had coached
Curveball after the defector said his brother had worked as a bodyguard
for the controversial Iraqi exile leader. But they found no evidence.
Curveball "had very little contact with his [bodyguard] brother," the
BND supervisor said. "They are not close.''
More problematic were the three sources the CIA said had corroborated
Curveball's story. Two had ties to Chalabi. All three turned out to be
The most important, a former major in the Iraqi intelligence service,
was deemed a liar by the CIA and DIA. In May 2002, a fabricator warning
was posted in U.S. intelligence databases.
Powell said he was never warned, during three days of intense briefings
at CIA headquarters before his U.N. speech, that he was using material
that both the DIA and CIA had determined was false. "As you can
imagine, I was not pleased," Powell said. "What really made me not
pleased was they had put out a burn notice on this guy, and people who
were even present at my briefings knew it."
But BND officials said their U.S. colleagues repeatedly assured them
Curveball's story had been corroborated.
"They kept on telling us there were three or four sources," said the
senior German intelligence official. "They said it many times."
Behind the scenes, the CIA stepped up pressure to interview Curveball.
The BND finally accepted a compromise in the fall of 2002. They let CIA
analysts send questions, but they could not interview the Iraqi.
The frustration was intense at the CIA. But it wasn't surprising.
Relations long have been rocky between the CIA and BND, officials in
both spy services acknowledged. The friction dates to the Cold War,
when the BND complained it was treated as a second-class agency.
Spy services jealously guard their sources, and the BND was not
obligated to share access to Curveball. "We would never let them see
one of ours," said the former CIA operations officer.
Despite the lack of access or any new reports from Curveball, U.S.
intelligence sharply upgraded its assessments of Iraq's biological
weapons before the war. The shift is reflected in declassified portions
of National Intelligence Estimates, which are produced as the
authoritative judgment of the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies.
In May 1999, before Curveball defected, a national intelligence
estimate on worldwide biological warfare programs said Iraq was
"probably continuing work to develop and produce BW [bio-warfare]
agents," and could restart production in six months.
In December 2000, after a year of Curveball's reports, another national
intelligence estimate cautiously noted that "new intelligence" had
caused U.S. intelligence "to adjust our assessment upward" and
"suggests Baghdad has expanded'' its bio-weapons program.
But the caveats disappeared after the Sept. 11 attacks and the
still-unsolved mailing of anthrax-laced letters to several U.S. states.
Iraq "continues to produce at least ... three BW agents" and its mobile
germ factories provide "capabilities surpassing the pre-Gulf War era,"
the CIA weapons center warned in October 2001. The CIA followed up with
a public White Paper and briefings for the White House and three Senate
The CIA hadn't seen new intelligence on Iraq's germ weapons. Instead,
analysts had estimated what they believed would be the maximum output
from seven mobile labs - only one of which Curveball said he had seen
- operating nonstop or six months. But even Curveball's description
of a single lab was a fiction.
Similar misjudgments filled the most important prewar intelligence
document, the National Intelligence Estimate issued in October 2002. It
was sent to Congress days before lawmakers voted to authorize use of
military force if Hussein refused to give up his illicit arsenal.
For the first time, the new estimate warned with "high confidence" that
Iraq "has now established large-scale, redundant and concealed BW agent
It said "all key aspects" of Iraq's offensive BW program "are active
and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were
before the Gulf War."
The assessment was based "largely on information from a single source
- Curveball," the presidential commission concluded. It was one of
"the most important and alarming" judgments in the document, the panel
added. And it was utterly wrong.
A handful of bio-analysts in the weapons center, part of the CIA's
intelligence directorate, controlled the Curveball reports and remained
confident in their veracity. But across the CIA bureaucracy, the
clandestine service officers who usually handle defectors and other
human sources were increasingly skeptical.
Tyler Drumheller, then the head of CIA spying in Europe, called the BND
station chief at the German embassy in Washington in September 2002
seeking access to Curveball.
Drumheller and the station chief met for lunch at the German's favorite
seafood restaurant in upscale Georgetown. The German officer warned
that Curveball had suffered a mental breakdown and was "crazy," the
now-retired CIA veteran recalled.
"He said, first off, 'They won't let you see him,' " Drumheller said. "
'Second, there are a lot of problems. Principally, we think he's
probably a fabricator.' "
The BND station chief, contacted by The Times during the summer, said
he could not "discuss any of this." He has since been reassigned back
to Germany. His BND supervisors declined to discuss the lunch meeting.
Drumheller, a veteran of 26 years in the CIA clandestine service, said
he and several aides repeatedly raised alarms after the lunch in tense
exchanges with CIA analysts working on the Curveball case.
"The fact is, there was a lot of yelling and screaming about this guy,"
said James Pavitt, then chief of clandestine services, who retired from
the CIA in August 2004. "My people were saying, 'We think he's a
The analysts refused to back down. In one meeting, the chief analyst
fiercely defended Curveball's account, saying she had confirmed on the
Internet many of the details he cited. "Exactly, it's on the Internet!"
the operations group chief for Germany, now a CIA station chief in
Europe, exploded in response. "That's where he got it too," according
to a participant at the meeting.
Other warnings poured in. The CIA Berlin station chief wrote that the
BND had "not been able to verify" Curveball's claims. The CIA doctor
who met Curveball wrote to his supervisor shortly before Powell's
speech questioning "the validity" of the Iraqi's information.
"Keep in mind that this war is going to happen regardless of what Curve
Ball said or didn't say and the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly
interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about," his
supervisor wrote back, Senate investigators found. The supervisor later
told them he was only voicing his opinion that war appeared inevitable.
Tenet has denied receiving warnings that Curveball might be a
fabricator. He declined to be interviewed for this report.
Powell said that at the time he prepared for his U.N. speech in early
2003, no one warned him of the debate inside the CIA over Curveball's
credibility. "I was being as careful as I possibly could," he said.
Working from a CIA conference room adjoining CIA Director Tenet's
seventh-floor office suite, Powell and his aides repeatedly challenged
the credibility of CIA evidence - including the mobile germ
"We pressed as hard as we could, and the CIA stood by it adamantly,"
Powell recalled. "This is one we really pressed on, really spent a lot
time on.... We knew how important it was."