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Curveball: Reporter Bob Drogin on “Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War”

StoryJanuary 24, 2008
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We speak with Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin about his new book, Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War. It examines how a former Iraqi taxi driver helped build the Bush administration’s case for war by making false claims about Saddam Hussein’s alleged biological and chemical weapons programs. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to talk about the lies that led up to the Iraq war, we’re joined by Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin, who’s author of the new book Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War. The book examines how a former Iraqi taxi driver helped build the Bush administration’s case for war by making false claims about Saddam Hussein’s alleged biological and chemical weapons programs.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bob Drogin.

BOB DROGIN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you back. You make this case, how the CIA leveraged and the Bush administration used this guy Curveball’s false allegations to provide a pretext for war. Explain who he was and how the administration used him.

BOB DROGIN: Sure. Yeah, I think this is sort of the defining case of how we got led down the rabbit hole in Iraq. Curveball is the codename of an Iraqi — Rafiq Alwan is his name — who was a chemical engineer who defected to Germany, fled to Germany in 1999 and told the German intelligence authorities that Saddam — that he had helped mastermind a scheme to build biological weapons for Saddam Hussein. That information was never confirmed. It was never vetted. It was just sort of put out there and handed over to the Americans.

And after 9/11, the CIA literally just pulled it out of a safe, and within three weeks, the classified documents showed that all of the caveats that had existed before that period, where the questions of Saddam’s WMD was viewed as possible, probable, could be, may be, someday, suddenly were viewed in a totally different light. And his information — that is, the information from this one individual — rose higher and higher until the fall of 2002, when President Bush is citing it. It appears in a document known as the National Intelligence Estimate, which is the gold standard of US Intelligence, it forms the strongest part of that. The President cites his information in the State of the Union speech in 2003. Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, makes it the absolute highlight of his speech, when he goes up to the UN Security Council in February before the war. He shows pictures or drawings of trucks.

What they don’t say at that point is that US authorities had never interviewed this man, had never confirmed his information, had never vetted his background, didn’t even know his name before the war. They had ignored warnings from the German intelligence authorities, who repeatedly had sent warnings over saying he was a single source, they couldn’t confirm his information, he was — he had had a nervous breakdown, they didn’t know what to make of him, he might be a fabricator. There had been a bitter fight inside of the CIA between the clandestine service — that is, the operatives who go out and steal secrets but who deal with informants and defectors like this — and the analysts. The analysts were utterly championing — sorry, they were pushing his story.

And three days after Powell went to the United Nations, the UN weapons inspectors went to all of the sites, every single one of the sites that Curveball had told them about, where these weapons supposedly were being produced. And they not only didn’t find the evidence, they proved that it couldn’t be true. They found a variety of things that showed his story was wrong. All of that was ignored, was overruled, was pushed aside. And obviously we went to war on false pretenses.

So I find his story — and those people who tried to bring that truth to power, who tried to stop this train wreck from happening, were not only pushed aside — one guy I write about is — came back and, you know, discovered that his desk, you know, had been boxed up, and this was at CIA, and he was being sent off to the visitors’ center. And then someone else, you know, put at the end of a hallway filled with construction material and no access to classified computers. The CIA was very vindictive.

So I found this case fascinating as I tried to sort of drill down and peel back the layers of what had happened here, this idea of these bureaucracies made up of people who are trained to lie, cheat and steal, that at every possible juncture there was rival — bureaucratic rivalries and really tawdry ambitions get in the way and, frankly, spineless leadership that just absolutely refused to stand up.

What you had, in the end, this man was a con man. He was trying to get a visa to Germany to get political asylum. But the CIA heard what it wanted to hear. It conned itself. It saw what it wanted to see, and it gave the White House totally what it wanted to hear.

AMY GOODMAN: And Cheney’s role in this?

BOB DROGIN: Dick Cheney’s role is not as large. I mean, to me, you know, the idea — there were two things happening, as you know, before the war. There was the WMD question, and then there was the role of — the question of Saddam’s alleged support for terrorism. And on the WMD side, the CIA was not whispering this, you know, to Dick Cheney or something; it was coming in through the front door. George Tenet and the rest of the CIA, you know, was briefing the President, was briefing the Vice President, was briefing senior members of Congress. They were putting out these reports, all of which, you know, proved to be totally wrong.

So, to me, the great — in my view, the greater scandal is not that there were three or four guys over at the Pentagon sort of whispering in the Vice President’s ear and, you know, feeding him false information about one thing or another; it’s that the entire intelligence community got this so devastatingly wrong. When you go back and you look at Colin Powell’s speech — we’re coming up to the fifth anniversary of it next month — and you go back and you read it now, and it’s entirely based on this document that the CIA put out a couple months earlier, this National Intelligence Estimate, it’s wrong on almost every single level. And that’s based on what the CIA gave him. So, you know, I don’t think it — to me, it’s not the issue of a couple of guys, it’s that this system was so utterly corrupt.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to put this question to you and then to Chuck Lewis, and that’s the issue of the media. Many people would have believed President Bush if he had simply said it, but not that many. It took the media repeating this over and over again. And even to this day, the concern about saying the word “lie,” do you think the President lied? I mean, this study says more than 900 times this false allegation was repeated, the quote “false statements.” What do you think, Bob Drogin?

BOB DROGIN: Well, I think, on the issue of Saddam’s alleged ties to 9/11 or the claims that Saddam was tied to 9/11 and al-Qaeda, they clearly ignored warnings from the CIA and others that that evidence was sketchy at best. So there was a deliberate attempt or a political decision made that they were going to make that case. Now, if you want to — you know, however you want to describe that is — whatever. They made that their political decision.

On the WMD side, it’s a lot harder to find, I think, you know, a difference between what they were saying and what the CIA was telling them.

This issue of lying, I have to say, Amy, I’ve never quite understood it. I mean, it’s sort of like asking, to me, whether they, you know, forgot to put their turn signal on before they drove off a bridge. I mean, they took us into the midst of a — you know, a terrible, a horrific, tragic war, and they did it on the basis of ponied-up false intelligence. And sort of where they pushed the evidence here or there is sort of — to me, is sort of secondary. The fact is, they got it absolutely wrong on every single quarter.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Chuck Lewis, finally, we only have about thirty seconds, but if you could respond to that issue, the media’s role in this, amplifying the charges?

CHARLES LEWIS: Well, I mean, you know, the media, particularly in Washington, listens to officialdom, and if all these officials are all saying these things across the board — and we only looked at eight. Just imagine it was twenty-five to fifty on Capitol Hill and throughout the administration. That goes into millions and millions and millions of words in the airwaves, on the web, in newspapers. And so, it was very hard — as I call it, an “impenetrable din” — to break through that.

But the other thing — and the intelligence is really interesting. It was mixed. At every level, there were people saying “Don’t do this.” And at every level, the politicization of the intelligence community, they would put it in as “Bob is saying…” — and these folks were making speeches, the President and the Vice President, before they —-

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

CHARLES LEWIS: —- had a National Intelligence Estimate. So, anyway, this story is going to keep rolling out. It’s incredibly interesting. It’s horrendous, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Chuck Lewis, thanks very much for joining us, founder of Center for Public Integrity. We will link to the study. And Bob Drogin, author of Curveball.

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