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Debate Over Prewar Intelligence on Iraq Heats Up Again

As the conflict in Iraq rages on, so, too, does the controversy over the prewar intelligence on which the Bush Administration built its case for war. The flames of the debate have been reignited by the just-published memoir of former C.I.A. director George Tenet. In this report, VOA correspondent Gary Thomas examines how one key nugget of false intelligence was repeatedly cited by senior U.S. officials in the leadup to the war.

In American baseball, a curveball is a deceptive pitch that veers away in an unexpected direction to fool the batter. Curveball turned out to be a surprisingly apt code name for an Iraqi defector who provided the United States with false information about Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Curveball's allegation that Saddam Hussein had mobile labs manufacturing biological weapons was a key element in the U.S. case for invading Iraq. It made its way into key speeches like President Bush's State of the Union address in January, 2003, and, notably, in Secretary of State Colin Powell's detailed presentation of the case for war before the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003.

There is evidence that senior U.S. intelligence officers knew that Curveball, who was in the hands of German intelligence, was an unreliable source.

Larry Wilkerson was Secretary of State Powell's chief of staff and helped prepare the U.N. presentation. He says, any warning flags about the Iraqi defector's information never made it up the chain of command to the policymakers.

"We heard that there were four independently corroborated sources, that is, the sources never met with one another, and that they all, independent of one another, corroborated the existence of the biological labs," said Wilkerson. "Now we find out that there was one source, he was totally unreliable, the Germans said he was unreliable, and, indeed, the head of Central Intelligence [Agency] operations in the European division, Tyler Drumheller, had said he was unreliable , what am I to believe? What is Powell to believe?"

In a VOA interview, Tyler Drumheller says the German intelligence service, the B.N.D., shared Curveball's information but never allowed U.S. interrogators to personally question him. The identity of Curveball has not been publicly revealed, although it is the source of much speculation, and the reason for his providing phony intelligence is thus not clear.

Drumheller says that over a lunch in Washington in late 2002, his B.N.D. counterpart warned him that there were serious doubts about Curveball's reliability and even his stability, and that his information was suspect.

E-mails about Curveball, which are cited in the 2005 Silberman-Robb Commission report on prewar Iraq intelligence, flew between Washington headquarters and its German station.

Drumheller says he passed those warnings on up the C.I.A. chain of command.

Yet C.I.A. Director George Tenet and his second in command, Deputy Director John McLaughlin, say they were not aware of the doubts about Curveball. So the allegation of mobile biological weapons labs surfaced in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address.

"From three Iraqi defectors we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs," said Mr. Bush. "These are designed to produce germ-warfare agents, and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors."

After he heard the president's address, and with Secretary Powell's U.N. presentation on the horizon, Drumheller tells VOA he met with McLaughlin to tell him that Curveball's information could not be trusted.

"We went in there, just the three of us. And his [McLaughlin's] chief of staff said to him, 'John, Tyler's worried that about the source, the German source, Curveball, the source of all the stuff in the N.I.E. [National Intelligence Estimate], that he might be a fabricator.' I said, 'yes, that is true, he might be a fabricator.' To which John said, he absolutely said, 'oh, I hope not, because that is all we have, that is the only tangible thing we have. Oh, my, I hope not.' That is what he said," continued Drumheller.

Asked about Drumheller's account, McLaughlin told VOA the meeting never took place and says he never heard any alarm bells about Curveball.

"There have been allegations that we were told, that George [Tenet] and I were told in advance that the reporting was not reliable. I do not think that happened," said McLaughlin. "There was debate within the agency, but this did not get up and into my - no one sat down and persuasively told me that this reporting was not reliable."

That denial sparked an angry response from Drumheller.

"Well, he is lying. He is a liar and I have absolutely no respect for him. He is a disgrace to the [intelligence] service," said Drumheller. "And that infuriates me every time I hear it. I used to just blow it off. But I tell you, every time I hear it, it just disgusts me."

Curveball's false charge about Iraqi mobile weapons labs was repeated before the U.N. Security Council because, Larry Wilkerson says, nobody at the C.I.A. or any other intelligence agency raised any warning signals when scrutinizing the draft of Powell's presentation.

"If Tyler Drumheller talked to John for as long as he says he did about Curveball, for example, and about the unreliability of the information that Curveball was presenting, and John never broached any of that with the Secretary, never, nor did George, then that bothers me," said Wilkerson. "That is of some grave concern for me because they never even mentioned the term Curveball. The first time Secretary Powell and I heard the term Curveball was well after his [U.N.] presentation.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing the second phase of its report on the prewar intelligence on Iraq, which is expected to be released soon. With Democrats now in control of Congress, committee staffers say hearings on the issue can be expected, and senators will be probing further into the issue of Curveball.