Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Story Of CURVEBALL And Iraq’s Mobile Biological Weapons Labs

The English newspaper the Guardian interviewed the infamous Iraqi Defector CURVEBALL in mid-February 2011. The story was repeated across the globe as the source, whose real name is Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, said that he lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the mobile biological weapons (BW) labs that became a major part of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq. In fact, officials in German and U.S. intelligence had major questions about the veracity of Janabi for years and the mobile labs story, but their doubts never made it to the White House.

CURVEBALL aka Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi (Guardian)
Janabi came from a Sunni family in Dora, Baghdad. He went to the Technical University of Baghdad where he finished with a D average, and received a degree. Afterward he worked at several jobs including as an engineer at a government run chemical plant, and at a farming warehouse in Djerf al Nadaf. Janabi’s work as a chemical engineer in Iraq was what originally attracted the interest of German intelligence, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), and he would later say that Djerf al Nadaf was the location of a secret WMD facility. In 1998 he fled Iraq after trying to steal money from a film company he was employed at. He arrived in Germany in 1999, and asked for asylum in January 2000. Janabi claimed that he received that status in March 2000. The next month a German official came to talk to him about his work in Iraq’s chemical industry. By his own admission, that was when he decided to lie about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program in order to convince the West to overthrow the Baathist dictator.

According to Janabi, the Germans interviewed him nearly twice a week for 1½ years. In 2000 he told the BND that he supervised construction work on the mobile labs at the Djerf al Nadaf warehouse. Janabi claimed that there were seven such labs that were built beginning in 1997, and that they began producing biological weapons (BW) that year. In 1998 he told his interrogators that he witnessed a biological accident where several people were killed. In fact, he had been fired from the warehouse in 1995 for trying to steal money. There were several other holes in his story that the Germans discovered at that time. Another was that he claimed that his former boss, Dr. Basil Latif, had a son who was running a WMD smuggling network out of England. British intelligence investigated the story and found that Latif’s son was only 16 years old. Latif was also tracked down by the BND at the end of 2000 in Dubai, and he said that Janabi was lying. That led the Germans to change their opinion about CURVEBALL. The BND went back and re-interviewed Janabi in light of their talk with Latif, and Janabi told them that if his former boss said there were no mobile labs, than they must not exist. German intelligence didn’t talk to Janabi again until May 2002 where they asked him about locations and personalities involved with Iraq’s WMD programs. Janabi would later say that he lied again to his interviewers about his knowledge of Baghdad’s operations. The Germans would have one more session with Janabi in January 2003 about the mobile labs. The BND passed along their reservations about CURVBEALL to the country’s political leadership, but at the same time kept him on their payroll, provided him with a house, car, monthly stipend, gave his wife and children political asylum, and continued to use him as a source on Iraq.

In February 2001, U.S. and German intelligence met about CURVEBALL. At the time, the BND believed that Janabi had worked for a company that installed piping and other materials on Iraq’s mobile labs. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer would later write in his autobiography published in 2011, that Berlin sent a letter to the CIA telling them that there were problems with Janabi’s story, but that it would share his information about Iraq’s WMD programs anyway. The Americans would end up writing 112 intelligence reports based upon CURVEBALL alone.

The U.S. had three other sources about Iraq’s mobile labs. The second was a civil engineer, Ahmed Shemri, who worked for the Iraqi Free Officers Movement, an opposition group. He came forward in 2001, claiming that he worked at the Muthanna State Enterprise factory, which was a former WMD plant, and said that Iraq had mobile labs. A third source was Mohammad Harith Assaf, who claimed that he was a major in the Mukhabarat, Iraqi intelligence, and who left Iraq in 2001. Assaf was originally found by Mohammad al-Zubeidi, an Iraqi exile that collected stories from Iraqi refugees and exiles. Zuebidi passed Assaf along to the Iraqi National Congress (INC). The INC got Assaf interviewed by several media sources, as well as introduced to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) by former CIA Chief James Woolsey. Zubeidi would later say that when he first talked with Assaf he never mentioned mobile labs, but only did so after he met with the INC. In February 2002, Assaf was interviewed on CBS’ 60 Minutes television show, the next month he was anonymously quoted in the Times of London, and then in May of that year he was also used in an article in Vanity Fair. In his interviews Assaf claimed that he was in charge of hiding WMD. He told reporters, that in 1996 Dr. Rehab Taha, also known as “Dr. Germ,” came up with the idea for the labs. He said that Iraq then went out and bought eight trucks from France to convert into labs, which was done in Hillah, Babil. They were then disguised as commercial vehicles. When he went to the DIA, he talked about secret labs, but not mobile ones. His debriefer said that he seemed to have some accurate information, but that he also appeared to have been coached. He did pass a polygraph test, and was ranked as reliable, until early 2002. The fourth source was Adnan Saeed al-Haideri, another defector connected to the INC. He didn’t talk about labs when he first started talking to the press, and only added that to his story in mid-2002. Like CURVEBALL, none of these defectors’ stories proved to be true, and U.S. intelligence questioned some of them even before the 2003 invasion.

The first U.S. intelligence reports about Iraq’s mobile labs appeared in 2000. In December of that year, a National Intelligence Estimate said that the U.S. had come across new information that Iraq was working on its BW program, and secret production facilities such as mobile labs. That same month, the National Security Council asked for a report on Saddam’s WMD. It said that it couldn’t confirm that Iraq was working on its BW, but there was a single source, which was CURVEBALL, that claimed Iraq had set up secret capabilities, meaning mobile labs, and started large scale production. In the second half of 2001, the CIA issued a paper saying Iraq was working on its WMD and likely had mobile labs based upon CURVEBALL and Ahmed Shemri.

2002 was when the mobile labs story went public. On September 12, the State Department released “A Decade of Decision and Defiance, Fact Sheet” to the press, claiming that Iraq had mobile labs. (1) A few days later, the British put out its “Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government,” that also included the labs claim, even though analyst David Kelly, the head of the Defense Science and Technology Lab argued that the language should’ve been changed from Iraq had mobile labs, to Iraq thought about them. (2) The English dossier said that labs were the idea of Dr. Rehab Taha, that U.N. inspectors had found evidence that Iraq was working on them, and defectors had come forward with accounts that they had been built.

The labs claim was also included in the major U.S. intelligence report on Iraq before the invasion, the October 2002 “Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs” National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). The NIE represented a dramatic shift in opinion amongst the American intelligence agencies. They went from suspicions that Iraq had an active WMD program to statements that one was up and running, and larger than before the 1991 Gulf War. One key piece of evidence to support that argument was CURVEBALL and the mobile labs. The NIE said that Janabi was a credible source, and almost the entire section on the facilities was based upon him. The paper said that Iraq had gotten the idea for the labs in 1996 based upon CURVEBALL and two notes on military stationary. It went on to include Assaf’s story that Iraq built labs to elude U.N. inspectors, but it noted that he said secret facilities, not mobile ones. The NIE also stated that Iraq had 7 mobile facilities that were built in 1997 and began producing BW that year. The U.S. had satellite images of the Djerf al Nadaf warehouse where Janabi worked, which it took as confirmation of CURVEBALL’s story, even though the photos revealed nothing about labs or WMD activity. The NIE finished with the rather incredible statement that the labs could produce the same amount of BW Iraq made before the Gulf War in a matter of months. That meant 7 trucks could make as much as several large industrial facilities could.

When U.N. weapons inspections restarted in Iraq at the end of 2002, Washington used the mobile labs to attack the process. On December 12, 2002 the State Department released “Fact Sheet, Office of the Spokesman” that said Baghdad’s declaration to the Security Council did not include the labs. That same day, Secretary of State Colin Powell made the same statement to the press. On January 23, 2003 Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, saying that Iraq was hiding its WMD program through its mobile labs. On January 28 in President Bush’s State of the Union and on February 5 in Secretary Powell’s speech to the Security Council the labs story was repeated. Powell for example, anonymously quoted CURVEBALL as a major source when he said, “We have first-hand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels. … The source was an eyewitness – an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of these facilities. He was present during biological agent production runs. He was also at the site when an accident occurred in 1998. Twelve technicians died.” The Secretary also presented slides with mock-ups of mobile labs not only on trailers, but on railcars as well. Finally, in February CIA Chief George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the labs would be impossible for the inspectors to find, and there was another State Department paper stating that there were multiple sources on the labs.

Slides of the mobile labs presented at Powell's Feb. 03 U.N. presentation (Global Security)
The same time that the mobile labs story was becoming public, U.S. intelligence was running into problems with its sources. In April 2002, the CIA wrote a report on Mohammad Harith Assaf. It said they had stopped dealing with him after four meetings because they thought he was a fabricator. In May, the DIA officially flagged him as one. In July there was another intelligence report that questioned Assaf’s veracity. The DIA and CIA however, did not pass on their doubts to others. Other intelligence agencies continued to use his information as a result, and he was included in the October 2002 NIE, Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union, and Powell’s February U.N. speech.

CURVEBALL was also being questioned. In December 2002, the CIA’s central group chief said Janabi shouldn’t be used because there was no support for his claims. That same month, CIA Director Tenet asked the Germans if CURVEBALL could be interviewed by the Agency via TV link or have a CIA analyst talk to him in person. The head of the BND said no, and warned Janabi’s story was unconfirmed, but that the U.S. could use him anyway. A CIA analyst also brought up the fact that the translations of CURVEBALL’s interrogations led to misunderstandings about what he was saying, that the only American to meet him in person, a Pentagon officer in May 2000, thought Janabi was an alcoholic. The analyst sent an e-mail questioning CURVEBALL’s reliability when he read a copy of Powell’s February 2003 U.N. speech warning that he may not be reliable, that the Germans were having problems with him, questioned whether he was who he claimed to be, and suggested that he be investigated more before the government used him publicly. An evaluation of him by the DIA said there were inconsistencies in his story. The CIA case officer in charge of CURVEBALL’s file, rejected all of those doubts, and retorted that there was plenty of corroborative evidence to support his story.

Beginning in February 2003, the U.N. inspectors also provided first hand accounts of the mobile labs. On February 4, inspectors looked at two alleged labs and found nothing. On February 8, the U.N. went to Djerf al-Nadaf and found that it did not match CURVEBALL’s description of it. Twenty days later, they returned and took samples for BW and found nothing. On March 7, the inspectors released a report to the Security Council saying that they had not discovered any evidence of the labs.

Trailer found near Mosul that was initially believed to be a mobile weapons labs (Global Security)
After the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Americans thought they had found incontrovertible evidence of the labs when several trailers were discovered in the country. In May, the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence believed they had found the mobile labs in the form of three trailers discovered by the Kurdish peshmerga outside of Mosul in Ninewa province. The Iraqis said that they were used for weather balloons, but the U.S. rejected that. The article claimed that pictures of the trailers had been shown to CURVEBALL who confirmed that they were the labs. Three teams of weapons experts went through the trailers with the first believing they were labs, while the third disagreeing. The differences in opinion didn’t stop the CIA and DIA from publishing a paper on May 28 saying that the trailers were labs. President Bush added his official approval on May 29 when he told Polish TV that the U.S. had found Iraq’s WMD programs when it found the trailers. In June, the White House went on to release a White Paper on the trailers, and Secretary Powell said that the labs confirmed the eyewitness accounts he had used in his U.N. address. All the way into September, Vice President Dick Cheney was repeating the story.

While the administration was making their claims, the story was unraveling at the same time. In the beginning of June 2003 U.S. and British intelligence analysts said that the trailers were probably not labs. They warned that people were so intent on finding evidence against Iraq that they were rushing to conclusions. The experts said that the trailers lacked the necessary equipment, and that even if they were part of a BW program, they could only produce a small amount of agents that would need to be further processed somewhere else. The British went on to say that the Iraqis were probably correct, that the trailers were for weather balloons. The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research wanted the trailers to be investigated more. There were also skeptics within the DIA, while the CIA was the most adamant supporters of the labs claim. By October, the Iraq Survey Group was on the ground in Iraq looking for WMD, and its first chief, David Kay, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that month that the trailers were not suited for labs, to coincide with the release of the group’s interim report that said the same thing. In December, the Senate Intelligence Committee asked for a report on CURVEBALL, and was eventually told that he was not a BW expert, that he designed production facilities, and never claimed that he worked on WMD.

Going into 2004, the White House was sticking to its story, but was finding that harder and harder to do. On January 22 for instance, Vice President Cheney said that the trailers were proof that Iraq was working on WMD. A few days later, David Kay again testified to the senate, stating that the majority opinion was that the trailers were not labs, but that there were still divisions over the matter. An internal CIA investigation of its pre-war intelligence revealed that the DIA had put a fabricator notice out on Mohammad Harith Assaf. In March, CIA Director Tenet testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had spoken to Vice President Cheney and let him know that the trailers were not “conclusive evidence” of Iraq’s WMD program as he had claimed to the press earlier. Tenet went on to say that there were continuing disputes about what the labs were for. That month, the CIA was also finally able to interview CURVEBALL in Germany. They showed him pictures of the Djerf al Nadaf warehouse and compared them to his earlier account, and pointed out the differences between the two. Janabi said that the pictures had been doctored, and then refused to talk to them anymore. March was also the month that 60 Minutes revealed that Harith Assaf, who they interviewed back in February 2002, had been flagged as an unreliable source by U.S. intelligence. By April, there were more cracks within the administration when Secretary Powell told the media that he had been given questionable intelligence about the labs

By the middle of 2004 and into 2005, the labs story was officially put to rest. In July, the Senate Intelligence Committee released “Report On the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments On Iraq,” which said that the October 2002 NIE overstated intelligence on the labs, and didn’t cover the uncertainties over the sources. It went on to state that the CIA withheld important information about CURVEBALL’s reliability, and that he, and reports about him, were mishandled. It noted, that the intelligence community readily accepted the mobile labs, because that was what they wanted to believe about Iraq’s WMD program. The lead CIA analyst on the matter for example, was convinced that the labs existed. In September, the Iraq Survey Group’s final report came out that said it didn’t believe the trailers were labs. Finally, in March 2005 the Robb-Silberman commission findings were publicized. It said that U.S. intelligence was too reliant upon a single source, CURVEBALL, for its reports on mobile labs, that the DIA didn’t vet Janabi, that the intelligence agencies didn’t tell civilians about the problems with CURVEBALL, and repeated the Senate’s findings that the CIA accepted the labs claim because it fit their pre-existing assumptions about Iraq’s weapons program. With no weapons discovered in Iraq, these reports were left to explain what went wrong. They overwhelmingly found that the intelligence agencies were at fault for accepting questionable sources, because they thought the worse of Iraq after U.N. inspectors left in 1998.

CURVEBALL would return to the headlines off and on in the following years. In November 2007, he was interviewed on 60 Minutes. They revealed his name for the first time publicly as Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, and went through the problems with his story before the U.S. invasion. In June 2008, the Los Angeles Times also talked with Janabi. They found him working low paying services jobs, and complaining that the U.S. was blaming him for not finding WMD in Iraq. He told the paper that he should be “treated like a king” for what he did, that everything he said was true, while claiming that he never said Iraq had WMD.

In September 2009, Janabi returned to Iraq for the March 2010 parliamentary elections. He called a member of the Reconciliation Commission saying that he wanted to form a political party to support Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He got $20,000 from the government to do so, and created the Development and Reform Party, which ran candidates in Baghdad and Najaf. It received 1,311 votes in the election. Janabi then scammed $10,000 from the Reconciliation Commission official he had talked to, claiming that he could get his daughter into a German college without the red tape if he received some money, and then left Iraq.

In February 2011, Janabi would make a splash again in his interview with the Guardian. He claimed everything he said about the mobile labs and Iraq’s WMD program was a lie. He claimed that he was a patriot who wanted to get rid of Saddam. He blamed the BND for making him out as fall guy, and stated that his story had nothing to do with his asylum request to Berlin. Janabi got his whole family German citizenship in 2008 with the help of German intelligence, but had since then been cut off from their support, and a local official claimed he was forbidden from leaving the country. The day after the article was published CIA Director Tenet issued a statement saying that he found out that CURVEBALL was a liar too late to have an affect upon the invasion. He quoted a passage from his autobiography that said he didn’t know that the BND had problems with Janabi until 2005. His account was contradicted by the release of former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s autobiography. He claimed that Germany wrote a letter to the CIA about its doubts about CURVEBALL before 2003. The two stories may not have been contradictory as a letter from Germany may not have been passed up the chain of command to Tenet, jus as earlier questions about Janabi did not get past the various departments within the CIA.

In the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, and the discovery that Saddam had no large and active WMD program, Washington’s agencies and personalities have participated in a blame game that lasts until this very day about who was responsible for the intelligence failure. The White House quickly singled out the intelligence agencies, and mainly CIA Director Tenet. The Agency’s current and former officials fought back, claiming that the administration cherry picked intelligence to support their drive to war. The latter version of events has largely won over popular opinion, and has even been included in several movies. While the White House did want everything it could find about Iraq’s weapons program, and presented worse case scenarios in its statements, when it came to WMD, the CIA, and other agencies were all too willing to provide evidence such as the mobile labs story. After the U.N. inspectors left in 1998, the American agencies came to believe that Saddam had restarted all of his programs. By the time the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate came out, the majority opinion was that Baghdad’s programs were up and running, and larger than its previous one. Most analysts would believe almost anything they heard about Iraq as a result, and would discount contradictory evidence. They would present these findings to Washington officials without the caveats and problems because the administration was not interested in all the details. That was shown with CURVEBALL and the three other Iraqi defectors, as there were holes in their stories, but that was never transmitted to higher ups. When it came to the mobile labs and most other accounts of WMD then, the Bush administration didn’t have to lie because the intelligence was so bad about Iraq in the first place, that it had descended into assumptions rather than verifiable facts.


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2. Kemper, Bob, “Experts review, poke holes in case for war,” Chicago Tribune, 8/10/03


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's clear now, from many sources, that the premise for the Iraq war was manufactured. But the question is, why? I remember so many at the time shouting about stealing oil etc. I think it was just taking of an opportunity to further Americas influence in the region. There is no other word for it except Imperialism.