What Bush Really Knew About WMDs

A former top CIA official reveals new details about the run-up to the war in Iraq.

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A former top CIA official reveals new details about the run-up to the war in Iraq.

In the mid-1990s, Western intelligence services picked up a fragment of information coming out of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq discussing the development of mobile biological weapons production facilities. There were no details or corroborating information. While the report caused a stir in the analytical community, there was no policy effect. The U.S. analysts who saw this report could not have known that the concept of mobile facilities, which had been raised as a cost saving measure, had been dropped by the Iraqis. Several years later, in a tragic twist of history, this tidbit was dredged up, setting the stage for a series of intelligence fabrications used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

As the 1990s wore on, the Western allies continued to worry about secret weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in Iraq. Hussein fed this fear, for his own purposes, possibly to keep his enemies Iran and Israel off balance, or simply for eccentric reasons we will never understand. U.N. weapons inspectors continued to pursue the issue, despite the abuse heaped on them because they could not confirm what many considered to be a foregone conclusion. Sadly, as it turns out, these UN inspectors were collecting truly accurate intelligence that was being discounted and dismissed.

At our first management meeting after the 2001 inauguration, it became clear that the Bush administration had a serious interest in Iraq.

In the fall of 1999, a young Iraqi chemical engineer turned up in Europe seeking asylum in an allied country. He became known by the cryptonym, Curveball, and the story he told would lead to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and change the world, although none of the story was true.

Curveball was the troubled son of a middle class Iraqi family, who had worked at the Iraqi pesticide facility at Djerf al-Nadaf that had been a biological weapons facility before the first Gulf war. He knew enough of the jargon of the industry and enough about the pipes, valves and other physical aspects of the plant to allow him to convince a willing audience that the plant was still a covert weapons facility. Curveball tried desperately to ingratiate himself to the officials of the country where he wanted to stay, describing various facets of what appeared to be a mobile WMD capability. He was very clever and never specifically said what was on the trailers he described. He only said that he had been told that the containers held highly toxic material in containers marked “A” through “E.” In this way, he maintained his story without getting pinned down on details.

The European service passed on his reporting to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which subsequently produced over 100 intelligence reports. At this point, no American had met Curveball and CIA Directorate of Operations (DO) had not been asked to validate the reporting. Instead, U.S. and allied Western intelligence analysts applied the reporting to their existing theories on Iraq. This was particularly true in the U.S., where a small group of CIA analysts supported by the DIA seized upon Curveball’s reporting as the heart of their previously unconfirmed judgments regarding the WMD threat from Iraq.

The arrival of the Bush administration in January 2001 brought a new focus on Iraq with it. At that time I was Chief of Europe at the CIA, and at our first management meeting after the inauguration it became clear that the new administration had a serious interest in Iraq. The convergence of high level interest and analytical commitment set the stage for the disasters to come.

This interest in Iraq was theoretical until the events of September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks, administration officials systemically sought to link Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda, while stepping up the effort to identify a strategic threat from Iraq. The Curveball reporting fell into this category. Over time, as reports from other sources were debunked, the analysts who believed in Curveball defended their case against those who pointed out the inconsistencies in his story. In the end, Curveball was the only source they wanted to believe left to support the threat of a clandestine WMD program.

As the debate over war with Iraq picked up in Congress and at the U.N. in the summer of 2002, the Senate requested that the CIA produce a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) to summarize all of the intelligence on this matter. The NIE was prepared in August by the Curveball analysts and drew on their assertions for the most important conclusions. This was the heart of the argument used by the administration, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, to convince Congress to authorize an attack on Iraq.

In late September 2002, after the NIE had been drafted, the administration, through CIA management, turned to the DO to validate Curveball’s reporting. They wanted us to ask the allies to allow our officers to speak directly with Curveball and review his reporting. This fell to me, as the Chief of Europe; it was the first time I had heard of Curveball. I spoke with our European colleagues and they turned down the request, but in doing so warned that the Curveball was merely a single source and that they had no information to confirm his account. One of them even warned that he suspected Curveball was a fabricator who had created his story out of whole cloth.

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I passed this information to senior management and had one of my best officers pull together the entire Curveball file. She found that although she could not judge the technical reporting, the handling and details of the case raised serious questions about his credibility. This discovery started a bureaucratic struggle that raged right up to the invasion in March 2003 and beyond. Despite the nature of the technical data in Curveball’s reporting, there were so many operational inconsistencies that the information should not be used until these questions were cleared up.

The intelligence process was turned on its head; policy makers were looking for reporting to confirm their preconceptions. On several occasions, I thought I had made this point, only to learn that the momentum for the invasion and the need for tangible reporting to support the attack had prevailed. Finally, in the week before Colin Powell’s speech to the UN Security Council, I warned CIA Director George Tenet and his Deputy John McLaughlin that the Curveball reporting was fabricated and should not be used in the speech. My warnings were ignored.

Even after the speech we continued to try to validate the case. Finally, in March 2004 the Europeans relented and we sent one of our very best field officers to debrief Curveball. Within two days, he called back and warned that it was clear Curveball had fabricated the reporting. A number of senior officials in the Agency and throughout the government remained in denial until subsequent investigations revealed that when he was supposed to have seen the WMD trailers and even witnessed a fatal accident, Curveball had been fired by the Iraqi government and was outside of Iraq.

The final sad act to this affair was that in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion many senior officials involved suffered amnesia about warnings and even the existence of Curveball. He was, however, all too real and his lies provided those looking for a justification for an attack on Iraq with “hard” evidence.

Ironically, in the fall of 2002, as the Curveball debate raged in the intelligence community, one of our offices collected reporting from a senior Iraqi official stating that their WMD program was a Potemkin village. They believed they could build a nuclear weapon in eighteen months to two years, if they could obtain fissile material, which they did not have. The biological weapons program was described as being at a “chemistry set” level due to the work of the U.N. inspectors. Finally, the new source said that the chemical weapons program consisted of gas shells leftover from the first Gulf War. In sum, Saddam would have built advanced weapons if he could, but he was a long way from presenting a real threat, and there was plenty of time to deal with this in a manner that would have avoided the tragedy that occurred after the U.S. invasion.

In late September 2002, the officer who collected the report from this other Iraqi source was told by senior Agency officials that upon hearing this reporting President Bush had discounted it saying that it was contradicted by reporting from our best and most sensitive source, Curveball. The administration got and believed the intelligence it wanted.

Tyler Drumheller served for three decades as a field case officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, rising in the late 1990s to head what was then the CIA's largest field office. After spending most of his career in the foreign field, Drumheller returned to Washington in 2001, where he served as Chief of Europe until his retirement in 2005. He is the author of On the Brink and is currently working on a second book dealing with the CIA in the age of modern terror.