US intelligence on Iraq chaotic and incompetent, says
Julian Borger in Washington
Friday April 1, 2005
A presidential commission investigating the
intelligence debacle that preceded the Iraq invasion
reported yesterday that the damage done to US
credibility would "take years to undo".
American intelligence was described by the report as
being in chaos, often paralysed by the rivalry of 15
different spy agencies and affected by unchallenged
assumptions about Baghdad's supposed weapons of mass
The incompetence described in the report occasionally
descends into farce, particularly over an Iraqi
defector codenamed Curveball, whose fabricated tales
about mobile biological laboratories and their
influence on US decision-makers were reminiscent of
Graham Greene's accidental spy in Our Man in Havana.
Despite warnings that he was "crazy", "a waste of
time", and that he had not even been in Iraq at the
time of an event he supposedly saw, his claims became
the subject of almost 100 Defence Intelligence Agency
reports and a focus of the National Intelligence
Estimate in October 2002.
Most critically, Curveball's description of mobile
laboratories provided one of the highlights of Colin
Powell's address to the UN security council on
February 5 2003, in which the then US secretary of
state laid out the justification for the invasion.
Curveball's story has already been told in part, but
yesterday's account is the most comprehensive. He was
an Iraqi chemical engineer who was first debriefed in
2000 by a foreign liaison service - not named in
yesterday's report but elsewhere reported as being
Before the war, the Germans refused to let US
interrogators question Curveball directly, saying that
he "would refuse to speak to Americans"; they just
passed on his claims, according to the Commission on
the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States
Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Warning signs emerged in May 2000 when a military
intelligence officer was allowed to visit Curveball.
He reported: "I do have a concern with the validity of
the information, based on Curveball having a terrible
hangover the morning of [the meeting]."
The warning fell on deaf ears, but by autumn 2002 the
CIA was growing increasingly nervous, knowing it had
not met an important source. So a meeting was arranged
between the local CIA division chief and German
intelligence officers. When the division chief asked
whether US agents could question the defector, "the
foreign intelligence service responded with words to
the effect of 'You don't want to see him because he's
crazy' - furthermore, the [German] representative said
that he worried that Curveball was 'a fabricator'."
The division chief passed on this alarming news to his
superiors, but George Tenet, then CIA chief, and his
deputy, John McLaughlin, both denied having been told
On the eve of Mr Powell's UN speech, Mr Tenet and
senior intelligence officers were cloistered with the
secretary of state in New York, going over the
administration's claims. At midnight Mr Tenet called
the division chief at home, but the two men have
different recollections of the conversation.
"Although he did not remember his exact words, the
division chief says that he told Mr Tenet something to
the effect of 'You know that the [foreign service]
reporting has problems'. According to the division
chief, Mr Tenet replied with words to the effect of
'Yeah, yeah' and that he was 'exhausted'," the report
It continues: "The division chief said that when he
listened to the speech... he was surprised the
information from Curveball had been included."
Questioned by the commission, however, Mr Tenet denied
that the subject of Curveball had ever been raised.
Curveball is reportedly related to a senior member of
the Iraqi national congress (INC), then an exile
group. However, the commission found that the INC had
not brought him forward.
The report is another nail in the coffin of Mr Tenet's
reputation and clears the White House and Pentagon of
trying to shape intelligence to justify war. It
concludes: "The commission found no evidence of
political pressure to influence the intelligence
community's prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons
It warns only of the dangers of intelligence leaders
becoming too close to the president and risking the
loss of objectivity. In other words, the commission
found that Mr Tenet had been too eager to please.