Curveball: The WMD were all in my head

The Guardian has broke a story that is a surprise to none: The WMD hype that brought the US public to a “kill Saddam” frenzy aand stifled political debate in Congress, leading up to the Iraq war, was all based on lies, fabrications, and  an political culture where the conclusions precede the evidence.

Colin Powell insists before UN he has "eye-witness" proof of Saddam's chemical weapons program, a key motivation for the war

The main source for the most dramatic of the claims about WMD, climaxing with General Powell’s dramatic presentation to the UN, was a man code-named “Curveball.” He was the one Powell was speaking about when he claimed, at that meeting, to be presenting evidence backed up by “an eyewitness, an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of these facilities. He actually was present during biological agent production runs. He was also at the site when an accident occurred in 1998. Twelve technicians died from exposure to biological agents.”

Today, this “eye-witness” has come forward to clear his name, and perhaps his conscience. Curveball is actually Janabi, who admits having made everything up while seeking political asylum for him and his (then pregant) wife in Germany (where life was a whole lot nicer than in an Iraq wracked by the 1990s’ UN sanctions, notorious for starving to death at least half a million children).(1)

Curveball, source of the WMD intelligence, today admits he was lying

He seems to have thought these lies were going to by him an asylum status, and had no idea that German intelligence would pass on the interviews to the CIA, which would then make them the centerpiece of their claims about Iraq’s chemical weapons capacity. When he saw Colin Powell on TV presenting his lies to the public, he realized he was in way over his head. So did German intelligence, which took him away to a safe-house and put him under lock-down for several months, presumably so he wouldn’t get cross-interviewed now that his fabrications had become high-stakes “fact.” If word got out that Colin Powell’s testimony was based on thin claims made by a political refugee trying to get his pregnant wife into the country, head were going to roll.

Tyler Drumheller was the head of the CIA’s European operations at the time, and he had serious doubts at the time about whether the source for the WMD info, codename “Curveball,” was not just making things up. The CIA Europe director pressured the administration to take Curveball’s claims with a big grain of salt. He recalls a conversation in The Guardian:

“The week before the speech, I talked to the Deputy McLaughlin, and someone says to him, ‘Tyler’s worried that Curveball might be a fabricator.’ And McLaughlin said, ‘Oh, I hope not, because this is really all we have.’ And I said, and I’ve got to be honest with you, I said: ‘You’ve got to be kidding? This is all we have!’ “

Unfortunately, Curveball’s testimony really was all they were using to substantiate claims that Saddam was in hot pursuit of WMD. The narrative was hammered into our heads. The Guardian reports Colin Powell’s claims at the UN. Making the case for war, Powell would insist that he had access to

“first-hand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails”. These mobile laboratories, said Powell, were “easily moved and are designed to evade detection by inspectors. In a matter of months, they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf war.” The source for this claim, said Powell, was Curveball… The effect at the UN was dramatic. Here was a detailed first-hand account from an insider of the sinister and deceptive inner workings of Saddam’s regime. It was tangible evidence; far more compelling than the other two elements of Powell’s case for war, which seemed scant in detail and unlikely to persuade the invasion’s naysayers.

On this scanty evidence, the US administration would drag the American public into a war that would create 2 million Iraqi refugees; kill several hundred thousand Iraqi civilians, and kill over 4,000 US soldiers. The US wounded are well over 10,000; the Iraqi wounded have gone uncounted, but can be presumed to be in the millions. (2) The psychological damage to a generation of Iraqis and American soldiers (and their families) is inestimable, and irreparable.

Notes and references:

1. On the numbers killed during the UN sanctions, see, for example, Geoff Simons, The Scourging of Iraq, 1998. The Michigan Congressman David Bonior called it at the time “infanticide masquerading as policy” (here).  Half a million children killed by these sanctions is only the conservative estimate, however. Real figures have been estimated to be around two million, the majority of them children and infants. Secretary of State at the time Madeleine Albright would go on to say, in response to this figures, that “we think the price is worth it.” (video here)

2. For an official tabulation of researched and documented Iraqi civilian deaths, see Iraqi Body Count. Note that these are only the fully documented cases; actual casualties are certainly much higher. American soldiers killed in Iraq are well documented, for example here and here. The wikipedia entry for Casualties of the Iraq War does a decent survey of several sources as well.

See here the Guardian interview of Curveball/Janabi:

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