Thursday, April 28, 2005

Curveball 2

Former Former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence John E. McLaughlin weighs in on Curveball, a source on Iraqi WMDs that was later described as suspect. In a statement on the subject on April 1 (hat tip: MIG) McLaughlin said:

With hindsight and the benefit of on-the-ground investigation in Iraq, we now know that the specific material in question - reporting from a source code-named Curveball, who alleged mobile production of BW was underway - cannot be substantiated. ... I was told that the source had produced close to a hundred reports - many highly technical in nature. The processes he described had been assessed by an independent laboratory as workable engineering designs. ... Although we did not have direct access to the source, who was handled by a foreign intelligence service, that service had joined US Intelligence Community officers and representatives of two other foreign intelligence services in a quadrilateral conference in 2001 which had judged the reporting credible. Finally, the foreign service handling the source had granted permission to cite the information publicly, indicating, we thought, that it must have confidence in the reporting.

In other words, he believed there were solid reasons to regard Curveball as credible at the time although Curveball's allegations about biological warfare "cannot be substantiated" in the light of on the ground findings. 

I am at a loss to explain why accounts of this period vary so sharply. But if officers had confident knowledge of the source's unreliability, I am equally at a loss to understand why they passed up so many opportunities in the weeks prior to and after the Powell speech to highlight it and bring it forward.

McLaughlin is clearly raising the possibility that the doubts about Curveball were inflated in hindsight to tar George Tenet and everyone else with the brush of incompetence. He cites a chain of procedural reviews during which no one within the CIA raised questions about Curveball's reliability. 'How could we have known?' However, McLaughlin's own statement relates that in February 2003 doubts about Curveball's reliability began to surface within the CIA. To what extent, it is not known. McLauchlin said:

As doubts grew about Curveball's information, the Agency engaged in strenuous and ultimately successful efforts to gain direct access to Curveball in order to settle the issue. In the course of this, no one came forward to suggest that this was not worth doing. In other words, no one said the case should have been closed earlier because the source was a fabricator - neither Agency officers nor the foreign service involved.

No one brought internal operational traffic on this matter to the attention of myself or the DCI until late 2003 or early 2004 when an e-mail expressing skepticism about Curveball from a detailee who met him came to light in the course of internal reviews commissioned by the Deputy Director for Intelligence. This e-mail was written in February 2003, and anyone wishing earnestly to impress us with doubts about Curveball could have simply laid this on our desks at any time. This did not happen.

It can be reasonably inferred that lower ranking intelligence officers began to have private doubts about the source by at least February 2003 but were not certain enough to stand up and challenge the imprimatur that had been granted by the quadrilateral conference in 2001. The official line was that Curveball was a diamond and lower ranks probably felt they needed more evidence before pronouncing him paste. That would explain why they sought to see Curveball directly -- to check out their suspicions before taking it up the chain.

I am speculating here -- that the more Curveball was used in speeches by the DCI and the Secretary of State to allege specific facts about Iraq's WMD program, the more difficult it became for junior intelligence officers to tell their superiors that they had got the precious German source wrong from the start. Curveball's take became such an article of faith that no one wanted to come forward as a heretic -- that is until the whole thing crashed and burned.

In hindsight, the decision to take down Saddam Hussein was justified by a wide variety of reasons, some of which may have been individually invalid, but were sound taken as a whole. That Saddam was bad is not seriously challenged; the specifics of his badness will be debated by historians into the far future. Even today, after sixty years, the debate of the extent of Hitler's extermination program of Jews is still being debated. But the decision to "sell" OIF on grounds which would appeal to the peace camp ('to eliminate weapons of mass destruction') created the necessity to advance particular reasons -- a charge sheet -- to justify the 'warrant' that would be issued by the Security Council. That meant making specific claims based on intelligence sources thereby transforming those intelligence sources into articles of faith instead of hypotheses to be continually challenged and re-verified. Politics had corrupted the intelligence process, though not in the way most people had expected.