WASHINGTON — The Iraqi National Congress, a U.S.-funded group of former Iraqi exiles, supplied the four defectors whose claims that Saddam Hussein had mobile biological warfare facilities now are being questioned by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
One of the defectors was code-named Curveball, senior U.S. officials said, and Curveball was the brother of a top lieutenant to Ahmed Chalabi, the group's leader and now a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. U.S. intelligence officials never directly questioned Curveball before the war, they said.
A second defector was determined to be a fabricator, but his claims still found their way into the Bush administration's case for war, according to U.S. officials.
"The other two (defectors) were not as significant," said a senior U.S. official, who like all of those who spoke requested anonymity because the matter remains classified. "Their information appeared corroborative of the overall thing."
Powell's questioning of the defectors' claims puts added pressure on a bipartisan commission named by President Bush in February to examine the quality and use of pre-war intelligence that Saddam had secret stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was developing nuclear weapons in violation of a U.N. ban.
U.S.-led occupation troops and arms inspectors who have been scouring the country have to date found no biologic weapons stockpiles or evidence that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program. Two truck trailers matching the description of the alleged biowarfare vehicles were turned over to U.S. troops, but their purpose remains in dispute.
Powell charged in a Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the U.N. Security Council that Iraq had mobile biological warfare production and research facilities. At the time, he was seeking a U.N. resolution backing a U.S.-led invasion.
He dramatized his contention by displaying a drawing of a mobile production facility that he said was based on an eyewitness account.
Returning from a visit to Germany and Belgium, Powell on Friday acknowledged that the information that underpinned the charge, which he called "the most dramatic" part of his U.N. presentation, is now in doubt.
"It appears not to be the case, that it (the defectors' information) was that solid," he said aboard his aircraft. "The commission that is going to be starting its work soon, I hope will look into these matters to see whether or not the intelligence agency had a basis for the confidence that they placed in the intelligence at that time."
"If the sources fell apart, then we need to find out how we've gotten ourselves in that position," he said. "I've had discussions with the CIA about it."
Senior U.S. officials said it was not the CIA but the Defense Intelligence Agency, the top U.S. military intelligence organization, which was responsible for analyzing and corroborating the defectors' information.
The DIA received the defectors' claims through its Information Collection Program, a multi-million dollar effort to gather intelligence inside Iraq run by the Iraqi National Congress and funded by U.S. taxpayers.
Most of the material supplied by the INC-provided defectors has been determined by U.S. intelligence officials to have been marginal at best, and some of it exaggerated or bogus.
Chalabi has defended the effort, saying his group did its best to verify the reliability of defectors before passing them on to U.S. intelligence officials.
Curveball stood out as the best placed of the four INC-supplied defectors whose tales formed the basis for the allegation that Iraq had mobile biological weapons facilities.
Claiming to be a chemical engineer, he said that he'd helped design and build such facilities disguised as trucks and railway cars, said the senior U.S. official.
Curveball told his story to German intelligence, which relayed it to the DIA. U.S. military intelligence officers never questioned the defector directly before the war, said the senior U.S. official.
"Curveball was the main pillar of the report," he said.
The defector was eventually determined to be a brother of a top aide to Chalabi, who lobbied for years in Washington for a U.S.-led ouster of Saddam and forged close ties to pro-invasion hawks in the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney's office.
The defector declared to have been a fabricator was a former Iraqi military officer. He and the two others were debriefed by the DIA, said the senior U.S. official.
A DIA spokesman did not return a telephone call for comment.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.