February 23, 2008

“Book Review: Bob Drogin’s “”Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man who Caused a War”””

Bob Drogin’s book “Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man who Caused a War” (New York: Random House, 2007) tells the true story of the Iraqi dissident Rafid Ahmed A. who requested political asylum in Germany and went on to shake the US intelligence community in its foundation and, maybe, as Drogin suggests, cause a war.
On November 1999 Rafid Ahmed A. approached the federal police on Munich’s international airport to request political asylum in Germany. It turned out that he had a most interesting tale to tell about how he was recruited by the Iraqi government right out of University, where he had studied chemical engineering, to participate in Saddam’s biological weapons program. He claimed to the German intelligence agency (BND) that he had worked on constructing mobile bio-weapon laboratories in a supposed seed-washing facility in Djerf al Nadaf.

Bob Drogin’s book “Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man who Caused a War” (New York: Random House, 2007) tells the true story of the Iraqi dissident Rafid Ahmed A. who requested political asylum in Germany and went on to shake the US intelligence community in its foundation and, maybe, as Drogin suggests, cause a war.
On November 1999 Rafid Ahmed A. approached the federal police on Munich’s international airport to request political asylum in Germany. It turned out that he had a most interesting tale to tell about how he was recruited by the Iraqi government right out of University, where he had studied chemical engineering, to participate in Saddam’s biological weapons program. He claimed to the German intelligence agency (BND) that he had worked on constructing mobile bio-weapon laboratories in a supposed seed-washing facility in Djerf al Nadaf.

At that time the BND considered his story plausible, because he showed surprising knowledge, both of a technical nature and about locations and Iraqi institutions. Also, his description of the facility in Djerf al Nadjaf coincided with a type of secret facility the UN had previously searched for. As a result the Germans informed the US military intelligence agency (DIA).
The US authorities of course were very interested in what Rafid, who had been given the codename “Curveball”, had to say. The BND did not let the Americans actually speak to Curveball in person though, claiming that he despised Americans and refused to meet them. Drogin suggests that, in reality, this was owed to the fact that Rafid had reported on German parts used in constructing these mobile bio-weapon research facilities.
As early as 2000 German officials noted that they were beginning to doubt the reliability of the informant, because none of his claims could be proven and he seemed to be in a fragile psychological state. He further temporarily vanished from the sight of the BND.
The US officials showed very little interest over ensuing years and, from their perspective, the matter had almost been forgotten. That changed on September 11th 2001. America sought revenge and wanted to get rid of Saddam. In justifying such a military excursion the informant “Curveball” became very important. The CIA wanted to present him to the UNSC as a key witness to the Iraqi WMD program. At that point the BND informed the CIA that none of Curveball’s claims could be verified, that indeed no other dissident had made similar claims and hence the source had to be regarded as unreliable.
On February 5th 2003 Colin Powell, than foreign minister, presented Curveball’s case to the UNSC talking about “eye-witnesses” and “proof”. Powell did not know that even within the CIA Curveball was a topic of heated debate. As a possible explanation of this disastrous lack of due suspicion towards something that was clearly “information” and not “intelligence” Drogin suggests the Vice President’s office. Blinded by ideological zeal, it was putting heavy pressure on the intelligence community to produce any kind of usable evidence as fast as possible.
The rest is history of course. The US invaded Iraq and showed Curveball’s claims for what they were: lies and delusions. No WMD capabilities were discovered, let alone mobile bio-weapon facilities.
This is a well researched and well written book, which tells a fascinating story of deception, power politics and gross misjudgment. Whether or not Drogin manages to convince his readers that Rafid’s claims caused the war, rather than provide evidence to justify an already decided course of action is left to the individual. I personally believe the latter.

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