Doubts on Source for Key Piece of Data Were Suppressed, Report Says

By DAVID BARSTOW

New York Times

April 1, 2005

WASHINGTON, March 31 - In the fall of 2002, a senior C.I.A. official was dispatched on a secret mission to bolster one of the United States' most alarming claims about Saddam Hussein.

The claim - that Mr. Hussein was building a hidden network of mobile labs in Iraq capable of producing a witch's brew of biological weapons - was based almost entirely on the account of a single Iraqi defector, codenamed Curveball, who had been cooperating with German intelligence officials.

But according to the report issued Thursday by the presidential commission on intelligence, agency officials had never actually met the defector, the subject of some 100 American intelligence reports. So, with the Bush administration pressing for an invasion of Iraq, the senior C.I.A. official asked the German government for direct access. The Americans wanted to evaluate his information and credibility for themselves.

"You don't want to see him because he's crazy," the agency official recalled being told, according to the commission report. Curveball, the official was told, had had a nervous breakdown.

There were also reports of a drinking problem and unexplained disappearances. What was more, the official was told, there were serious reservations about the reliability of Curveball's information and about whether he was a "fabricator."

In the months after that critical meeting, several senior C.I.A. officials waged a quiet campaign at the highest levels of the agency to stop the United States from continuing to rely upon Curveball's claims. According to the commission report, these officials took their concerns to several top agency managers, including John McLaughlin, then the deputy director, and even George J. Tenet, then the director.

But their efforts were futile. Their repeated warnings, the commission concluded, were never passed on to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who made Curveball's claims regarding mobile labs a crucial part of his presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003.

The tense struggle over Curveball is perhaps the commission's most significant new information about the United States' prewar intelligence failures, already richly chronicled in previous inquiries by the Senate and the 9/11 Commission.

As pieced together by the commission, the story of Curveball shows how a frightening claim embraced by the White House rested "almost exclusively" on a single, shaky pillar of evidence. It also reveals how a "culture of enforced consensus" inside the C.I.A. acted to suppress and resist any doubts raised.

Analysts who voiced concern about Curveball were "forced to leave" the unit most responsible for analyzing his claims, the commission found. One analyst, after arguing that Curveball might indeed be a fabricator, recalled being "read the riot act" by a supervisor.

Instead, Curveball's largely unverified claims became the primary basis for the administration's assertion - which American investigators after the war discovered to be groundless - that Mr. Hussein was aggressively acquiring biological weapons.

Mr. Tenet, who was awarded a Medal of Freedom last year by President Bush after resigning from the agency, told the commission that he never received any warning that Curveball might not be reliable. "Mr. Tenet noted," the report said, "that it is inconceivable that he would have failed to raise with Secretary Powell any concerns about information in the speech about which Mr. Tenet had been made aware."

Nevertheless, the commission concluded, the failure of senior C.I.A. managers to warn Mr. Powell about potential problems with Curveball "represents a serious failure of management and leadership."

The agency had heard concerns about Curveball's reliability as early as May 2000, the commission found. But in meetings with Mr. McLaughlin's executive assistant in December 2002, senior agency officials spelled out the mounting reservations. Other agency analysts, though, argued that Curveball's accounts were consistent with others and seemed solid. All participants agreed that the meetings were "fairly heated."

Mr. McLaughlin told the commission that he recalled his executive assistant "making a passing reference" about "some issues with Curveball," the report said. But he did not recall being briefed on any specific doubts.

In January, two months before the American invasion, a C.I.A. group chief received a draft of the speech Mr. Powell was preparing to deliver to the Security Council. This official told the commission that she "couldn't believe" the speech relied on Curveball's claims.

Her supervisor, a division chief, told the commission that he immediately called Mr. McLaughlin's executive assistant seeking a meeting to protest Curveball's inclusion in the speech. The division chief said he met with Mr. McLaughlin that same afternoon and explained why Curveball could be a fabricator. The division chief recalled that Mr. McLaughlin responded something like, "Oh my! I hope that's not true."

Mr. McLaughlin told the commission that he did not recall ever discussing Curveball with the division chief, nor was he aware of any other objections to the section of Mr. Powell's speech on Curveball.

On Feb. 4, 2002, the night before Mr. Powell's speech, Mr. Tenet called the division chief at home. Mr. Tenet was in New York City with Mr. Powell, continuing to polish and review the speech for possible inaccuracies. The division chief told the commission that he seized on the phone call to tell Mr. Tenet that the Curveball intelligence reporting "has problems."

The division chief recalled that Mr. Tenet replied, "Yeah, yeah," and then spoke of how exhausted he was.

Mr. Tenet told the commission that he had received no such warning from the division chief.