WASHINGTON — A bitter feud erupted Friday over claims by a presidential commission that top CIA officials apparently ignored warnings in late 2002 and early 2003 that an informant code-named "Curveball" — the chief source of prewar U.S. intelligence about Iraqi germ weapons — was unreliable.
Former CIA Director George J. Tenet and his chief deputy, John E. McLaughlin, furiously denied that they had been told not to trust Curveball, an Iraqi refugee in Germany who ultimately was proved a fraud.
But the CIA's former operations chief and one of his top lieutenants insisted in interviews that debates had raged inside the CIA about Curveball's credibility, even as then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell vouched for the defector's claims in a crucial address to the United Nations Security Council on the eve of war.
"The fact is there was yelling and screaming about this guy," said James L. Pavitt, deputy director of operations and head of the clandestine service until he retired last summer.
"My people were saying: 'We think he's a stinker,' " Pavitt said. But CIA bioweapons analysts, he said, "were saying: 'We still think he's worthwhile.' " Pavitt said he didn't convey his own doubts to Tenet because he didn't know until after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq that Curveball was "of such import" in prewar CIA assessments provided to the president, Congress and the public.
"Later, I remember the guffaws by myself and others when we said, 'How could they have put this much emphasis on this guy?
He wasn't worth [anything] in our minds," Pavitt said.
Tyler Drumheller, former chief of the CIA European Division, said he and other senior officials in his office — the unit that oversees spying in Europe — had issued repeated warnings about Curveball's accounts.
"Everyone in the chain of command knew exactly what was happening," said Drumheller, who retired in November after 25 years at the CIA. He said he never met personally with Tenet, but "did talk to McLaughlin and everybody else."
Drumheller scoffed at claims by Tenet and McLauglin that they were unaware of concerns about Curveball's credibility. He said he was disappointed that the two former CIA leaders would resort to a "bureaucratic defense" that they never got a formal memo expressing doubts about the defector.
"They can say whatever they want," Drumheller said. "They know what the truth is
. I did not lie." Drumheller said the CIA had "lots of documentation" to show suspicions about Curveball were disseminated widely within the agency. He said they included warnings to McLaughlin's office and to the Weapons Intelligence Non Proliferation and Arms Control Center, known as WINPAC, the group responsible for many of the flawed prewar assessments on Iraq.
"Believe me, there are literally inches and inches of documentation" including "dozens and dozens of e-mails and memos and things like that detailing meetings" where officials sharply questioned Curveball's credibility, Drumheller said.
The CIA's internal battles over Curveball were revealed Thursday in a scathing report by a presidential commission examining U.S. intelligence on Iraq and other key targets.
Drumheller and Pavitt, who each briefed the commission, added significant details in interviews Friday with the Los Angeles Times.
The CIA's assessment that Iraq had secret arsenals of deadly bioweapons, the report said, "was based largely on reporting from a single human source," Curveball, even though his reporting "came into question in late 2002." The failure to communicate serious concerns about him to Powell and other policy makers "represents a serious failure of management and leadership," the commission concluded.
The case began when Curveball, a chemical engineer from Baghdad, first showed up in a German refugee camp in 1998. By early 2000, he was working with Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, known as the BND, in exchange for an immigration card.
The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, which handled Iraqi refugees in Germany, furnished the engineer with the Curveball code-name. He soon began providing technical drawings and detailed information indicating that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein secretly had built lethal germ factories on trains and trucks.
But the DIA never sought to check his background or information. Instead, the commission found, the DIA saw itself as a conduit for German intelligence, and funneled nearly 100 Curveball reports to the CIA between January 2000 and September 2001.
Except for a brief meeting between Curveball and a DIA medical technician in May 2000, German authorities refused to let U.S. intelligence officials interview their source until March 2004, a year after the war began.
But warnings mounted from the start.
After the meeting in May 2000, the DIA medical technician questioned the validity of Curveball's information. Another warning came in April 2002, when a foreign spy service told the CIA it had "doubts about Curveball's reliability," the commission reported.
With skepticism rising about Curveball, Drumheller said he arranged a lunch meeting with a German counterpart at Pavitt's behest in late September or early October 2002 to ask for an American meeting with Curveball.
By then, Drumheller said, German intelligence officials were increasingly wary of Curveball. But he said they didn't want to acknowledge their doubts in public and risk embarrassment.
Drumheller said the German intelligence officer used the lunch to convey a stark warning: "Don't even ask to see him because he's a fabricator and he's crazy."
Drumheller said he passed that warning up to Pavitt's office. He said he also informed another senior official in the European division and sent a notice to WINPAC, where the chief bioweapons analyst was considered the Curveball expert.
In a separate interview, Pavitt said he didn't recall when he learned of the German warning. "A meeting took place without question," he said. "And I remember being told what he said. My recollection is I was told much, much later." He said commission investigators were unable to find a reference to it in his CIA calendar.
Pavitt rejected the notion that Drumheller should have issued a CIA-wide "burn notice" on Curveball's reports after the lunch, saying it would be inappropriate to unleash a sweeping condemnation after a single meeting with a foreign officer from an agency unwilling to stand behind its statements.
A week before Christmas 2002, McLaughlin's executive assistant held two meetings to discuss Curveball. One of Pavitt's aides told the group about Drumheller's meeting, and expressed other doubts. She also "made clear" that Pavitt's division "did not believe that Curveball's information should be relied upon."
The Curveball expert from WINPAC angrily argued back and apparently prevailed, the commission found. An official summary of the meeting later "played down" any doubts and said Curveball had been judged credible "after an exhaustive review."
Several weeks later, Drumheller discovered that his warning had been ignored when his executive officer brought him an advance copy of Powell's Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the U.N.
Drumheller said he then arranged a meeting in McLaughlin's office and described what the German operative had told him over lunch several months earlier. After listening for 10 minutes, Drumheller said, McLaughlin responded by saying, "Oh my! I hope that's not true."
McLaughlin, who retired in January after 32 years at the CIA, said he did not recall the meeting and denied that Drumheller told him Curveball might be a fabricator.
"I have absolutely no recall of such a discussion. None," McLaughlin said in a statement Friday. "Such a meeting does not appear on my calendar, nor was this view transmitted to me in writing." He said he was "at a loss" to explain the conflicting accounts.
But another red flag appeared. On Jan. 27, 2003, the CIA's Berlin station warned in a message to headquarters that Curveball's information "cannot be verified."
Drumheller, meanwhile, said he never heard from McLaughlin or anyone else to confirm that Curveball's material had been deleted from Powell's speech. So when Tenet called him at home on another matter the night before Powell was to speak in New York, Drumheller said he raised the Curveball case.
"I gave him the phone number for the guy he wanted," Drumheller recalled. "Then it struck me, 'I better say something.' I said, 'You know, boss, there's problems with that case.' He says, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm exhausted. Don't worry about it.' "
In a seven-page statement, Tenet sharply challenged much of that account.
Tenet called it "stunning and deeply disturbing" that the German warning in 2002 to Drumheller, "if true, was never brought forward to me by anyone." He said he first heard doubts about Curveball after the war, and only learned of the German warning from the presidential commission last month.
A series of formal warnings should have been "immediately and formally disseminated" after the lunch to alert intelligence and policy officials about the concern, Tenet said.
"No such reports were disseminated, nor do I recall the issue being brought to my attention," he said.
Tenet also disputed Drumheller's account of their phone conversation the night before Powell's speech. Tenet said he has "absolutely no recollection" of the CIA official warning him about Curveball.
"It is simply wrong for anyone to intimate that I was at any point in time put on notice that Curveball was probably a fabricator," he said.
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