Old problems dog new intelligence gathering, panel concludes

Knight Ridder NewspapersMarch 29, 2005 

WASHINGTON — A presidential commission that's investigating U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq has concluded that many of the same weaknesses that plagued American efforts to investigate Saddam Hussein's regime are preventing the United States from collecting accurate intelligence on Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs.

Few if any American spies have penetrated either country, its top leadership or its weapons programs, the commission concluded, and as a result the United States has relied heavily on satellite photos and communications intercepts, and on foreign intelligence services, exiles and defectors.

In North Korea and Iran, as they did in Iraq, officials also have extrapolated from older, confirmed information to make estimates about current nuclear and other weapons programs, said current and former officials who are familiar with drafts of the commission's top-secret report.

A spokesman for the commission, which is co-chaired by appeals court Judge Laurence Silberman and former Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Va., didn't return repeated phone calls seeking comment. However, the report was described to Knight Ridder by a half-dozen current and former officials who've reviewed versions of it or have firsthand knowledge of the events described in it. None of the officials acceded to repeated requests to speak on the record, citing the highly classified nature of the report and the fact that it hasn't been formally delivered to the White House yet.

President Bush will receive the full report Thursday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. He declined to comment on its contents before a declassified version is released.

One official who's intimately familiar with the commission's work described the report as "unusually blunt." It's expected to raise new doubts about the reliability of U.S. intelligence on North Korea and Iran, in addition to those already prompted by the lack of evidence to substantiate many of the Bush administration's charges about Iraq's weapons programs and ties to terrorism.

The panel examined in some detail the claim by an Iraqi defector code-named "Curveball" as part of its effort to identify gaps in the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on foreign nuclear-, chemical- and biological-warfare programs and terrorist groups.

"Curveball" was an Iraqi chemical engineer who turned up in a German refugee camp in 1998, said four former senior administration officials who were directly involved in reviewing intelligence on Iraq. He told his German interrogators he was involved in helping to design mobile biological-warfare facilities. The Germans passed the information to U.S. intelligence officials, along with diagrams the defector provided.

The commission concluded that top officials never were told that German intelligence officials had warned their American counterparts that the defector might not be trustworthy, and that the only U.S. intelligence official who met him, a Defense Intelligence Agency specialist detailed to the CIA, had similar qualms.

Despite these qualms at lower levels, no written warning—or "burn notice," in CIA parlance—about Curveball ever was issued, and administration officials repeatedly used his bogus claim that Iraq had mobile biological-weapons facilities in making their case for pre-emptive war against Iraq.

Curveball's claim was featured in a Feb. 5, 2003, speech by former Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations Security Council, in the key U.S. intelligence assessment of Iraq's illegal arms programs, in a White House background paper released as Bush spoke to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 12, 2002, and in the president's Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address.

Current and former U.S. officials who were directly involved in preparing the administration's case for war or the post-invasion weapons hunt said the Curveball case was mishandled from the start.

U.S. intelligence analysts dismissed or overlooked "red flags" about Curveball's reliability, including unanswered questions about how he'd financed his travel to Germany and the route he took, volumes of worthless trivia he produced and warnings from German officials that they were having problems "handling" him.

"He was a refugee at best," said a former senior intelligence official who was deeply involved in collecting information on Iraq. "Even if there had been no negative current, this is not someone in which we should have placed the confidence level we put in him."

Other new details:

_Former CIA Director George Tenet, his then-deputy, John McLaughlin, and other senior intelligence officials failed to tell Powell and other senior policy-makers that Curveball never had been formally debriefed by U.S. interrogators.

"If Powell had said that all of this was from a source that we were denied the opportunity to talk to, he would have been laughed out (of the U.N. Security Council) into the street," said David Kay, who served as the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq until January 2004.

One former senior administration official said none of the approximately three dozen intelligence and other officials who were present during the preparation of Powell's U.N. speech raised any concerns about the information or the sources for it. The commission questioned Tenet, Powell, McLaughlin and other officials about the case, said the officials familiar with the inquiry.

Another former senior administration official said Tenet personally assured Powell of Curveball's reliability during the preparation session and on two other occasions, including as Powell rehearsed his presentation a day before he delivered it.

"This was the hardest sell George made," the official said.

_There was no senior-level U.S. request to the German government for access to Curveball.

_Neither the Defense Intelligence Agency, which oversaw the case, nor the CIA ran Curveball's information through a "competitive analysis"—in which a team of experts challenges its veracity—or subjected him to routine verification procedures such as polygraph tests.

_U.S. intelligence analysts also disregarded the fact that Curveball's brother was a senior official of the Iraqi National Congress, an Iraqi opposition group that the CIA thought was unreliable and riddled with Iraqi government agents.

It's now been determined that the INC wasn't behind Curveball's defection, as Knight Ridder reported last year. However, the INC did provide U.S. intelligence services with defectors whose claims about Iraq's banned arms programs and links to terrorism were exaggerated or fabricated.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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