An alcoholic cousin of an aide to Ahmed Chalabi has emerged as the key source in the US rationale for going to war in Iraq.
According to a US presidential commission looking into pre-war intelligence failures, the basis for pivotal intelligence on Iraq's alleged biological weapons programmes and fleet of mobile labs was a spy described as 'crazy' by his intelligence handlers and a 'congenital liar' by his friends.
The defector, given the code-name Curveball by the CIA, has emerged as the central figure in the corruption of US intelligence estimates on Iraq. Despite considerable doubts over Curveball's credibility, his claims were included in the administration's case for war without caveat.
According to the report, the failure of US spy agencies to scrutinise his claims are the 'primary reason' that they 'fundamentally misjudged the status of Iraq's [biological weapons] programs'. The catalogue of failures and the gullibility of US intelligence make for darkly comic reading, even by the standards of failure detailed in previous investigations. Of all the disproven pre-war weapons claims, from aluminium centrifuge tubes to yellow cake uranium from Niger, none points to greater levels of incompetence than those found within the misadventures of Curveball.
The Americans never had direct access to Curveball - he was controlled by the German intelligence services who passed his reports on to the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon's spy agency.
Between January 2000 and September 2001, Curveball offered 100 reports, among them the claims of mobile biological weapons labs that were central in the US evidence of an illicit weapons programme, but subsequently turned out to be trucks equipped with machinery to make helium for weather balloons.
The commission concluded that Curveball's information was worse than none at all. 'Worse than having no human sources,' it said, 'is being seduced by a human source who is telling lies.'
Although the defector has never been formally identified, it appears he was an Iraqi chemical engineer who defected after UN inspectors left the country in 1998.
In the aftermath of the US-led invasion, Iraqis whom Curveball claimed were co-workers in Saddam's alleged biological weapons programme did not know who he was. He claimed he'd witnessed a deadly biological weapons accident when he was not even in Iraq when it was meant to have happened. After September 2001, his claims were given greater credibility despite the fact that he was not in Iraq at the time he claimed to have taken part in illicit weapons work. His information was central to an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iraq 'has' biological weapons, and was widely used by President Bush and Dick Cheney to make their case for war.
It now appears there were problems with Curveball from the start, but the intelligence community was willing to believe him 'because the tales he told were consistent with what they already believed.'
In May 2000 doubts about his credibility surfaced when he was examined for signs that he had been exposed to biological agents. While the results were inconclusive, a US official was surprised to find Curveball had a hangover and said he 'might be an alcoholic.' By early 2001, the Germans were having doubts of their own, telling the CIA their spy was 'out of control'.
But warnings were dismissed. Intelligence analysts who voiced concern were 'forced to leave' the unit mainly responsible for analysing his claims, the commission found. At every turn analysts were blocked by spy chiefs and their warning never passed on to policy-makers.
The commission's report is unlikely to renew confidence in America's intelligence network as it attempts to uncover evidence of WMDs in Iran and elsewhere. The report concludes that US intelligence agencies remain poorly coordinated, have resisted reform and produce 'irrelevant' work.
· Dozens of insurgents attacked Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad yesterday, detonating two suicide car bombs and firing rocket-propelled grenades at US forces before the assault was repelled. At least 20 US soldiers and 12 detainees were wounded in the fighting, which lasted around an hour.
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