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December 15, 2007

FDL Book Salon Welcomes Bob Drogin, Author of Curveball

Posted in: FDL Book Salon

curveballjacket.JPGJoin me in welcoming Bob Drogin to FDL’s Book Salon. As a reminder, please take other off-topic conversations to another thread.

My favorite passage from Bob Drogin’s Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War describes UNMOVIC weapons inspectors checking out the warehouse where Curveball claimed Saddam’s mobile bioweapons labs were stored.

In official reports, the visit always merits just a short note in which the refutation of Curveball’s tale seems almost incidental, as in this sentence from a footnote in the Robb-Silberman report.

When United Nations Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) inspectors visited the site on February 9, 2003, they found that the wall was a permanent structure and could find nothing to corroborate Curveball’s reporting.

Whereas Drogin captures the thoroughness of the UNMOVIC inspectors in fascinating detail.

Climbing down [into the warehouse, UNMOVIC microbiologist Rocco Casagrande] opened his backpack and donned his Tyvek, a thin white polyethylene zip-up jumpsuit, and a pair of gloves. Then he got on his hands and knees. Using two cotton swabs moistened in sterile water, he scraped samples of dirt and dust from the tarlike epoxy that filled joints in the cement floor. If the Iraqis produced anthrax or other biological agents here, traces probably seeped or settled deep in the crevices and cracks. The DNA might survive even if the Iraqis had sanitized the site.

Casagrande snapped the tips off the two swabs, put them into a pair of sterile tubes with screw tops, and labeled them. Standing up, he saw Fosbrook, the deputy team leader, point to the nearby wall. He looked over and spotted two large holes for air conditioners. He nodded okay and carefully swabbed cracks around each hole in case an exhaust fan had pulled contaminated dust into the air exchange system. He tubed and labeled those samples as well.

This description goes on at length, describing the Iraqis laughing as the inspectors tapped the walls looking for the doors Curveball had described.

The exit door was more mystifying. The entire northwest corner of the L supposedly worked on a huge pivot of some kind and swung to one side. This was Curveball’s beloved door. Except it wasn’t there. The base of the wall was solid, unbroken concrete. It had no hinge, no swivel, no clamshell door or device.

[snip]

[Kay Mereish, head of the bioweapons inspection team] and Fosbrook ran their hands up and down the surface of the walls inside and out, searching for hidden seams or alterations. They pressed their weight against it, pushing with all their strength to see if it moved. They looked for hidden levers, handles, or switches, anything they could pull or press to open a secret door like in a haunted house movie. The Iraqis in the room watched them quizzically at first. Then they began to laugh.

It’s a picture of weapons inspector as detective, rather than bland bureaucratic footnote. This passage–like so much of Drogin’s book–fleshes out the sketchy details we’ve all heard about Curveball, to provide a colorful picture of just how bad Curveball’s story was.

Drogin also maps the animosities between intelligence agencies and the careerism of individual analysts and shows how both contributed to the failure to debunk Curveball. Drogin describes vulgarity-riddled screaming matches and petty infighting between the WMD analysts championing Curveball’s tale and the clandestine agents who knew to distrust unreliable defectors.

"The Curveball case is really a mess," Margaret began.

She was embroiled in a huge fuss with the geek squad at WINPAC, she explained [to Tyler Drumheller, her boss]. The bioweapons analysts had gotten really made because she was asking too many questions about Curveball. They had staked their credibility on the Iraqi. His mobile weapons labs formed a key part of the National Intelligence Estimate.

"They’re really pissed at us," she added cheerfully.

He reviews the mutual distrust between Germany’s BND and the CIA, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA and UNMOVIC, even the CIA and Britain’s MI6. He describes one after another analyst writing reports that repeat what superiors want to hear. As with the details of the WMD hunt, we’ve heard dry descriptions about the lack of cooperation and careerism. But with his vivid narrative, Drogin communicates these tensions in a way that helps lay people understand how the tensions created the intelligence failures that led up to the Iraq war.

In these two areas, Drogin’s book is a superb contribution toward the history of the Iraq war. More than any other book or report I’ve read on the war, the book provides a human face to the the technical issues at the heart of intelligence debates leading up the war.

That said, understand what this book is not. This book is not a book about why we went to war. Partly, that’s because the book has a much more narrow scope; it describes just one of four major intelligence failures (the aluminum tubes, Niger yellowcake, and the Al Qaeda claims being the others). It doesn’t describe why, even when the CIA got intelligence right (as with Cheney’s goddamn Mohammed-Atta-in-Prague myth), that debunked intelligence still formed a crucial part of the case for war. And though the book notes, on several occasions, final decision-makers declining to heed warnings on Curveball because "this war’s going to happen regardless of what Curveball said or didn’t say," the book doesn’t explore the implications of a war that would go forward with or without the corroborating intelligence. This book treats neither the many documented cases of political figures "sexing up" the intelligence nor, with the exception of David Kay and to a much lesser extent George Tenet, the motivations of those high level figures who could have (and in Kay’s case, did) refute that sexed up intelligence. So while this book paints a compelling picture of how the intelligence community failed, this book does not explain the role of that failure in the larger move to go to war.

For this reason, I think the phrase in the title, "the con man who caused the war," does the book a real disservice. Curveball didn’t cause the Iraq war any more than Rupert Murdoch or Osama bin Laden did. The phrase promises something the book doesn’t deliver (and has sidetracked more than one on-line discussion of the book), while slighting the rich and valuable narrative that the book does offer.

That said, it’s a good read. It offers rich visuals of places like the Perfume Palace, the ISG’s base in Baghdad. It offers extensive portraits of the intelligence professionals involved in the Curveball case. The book takes the colossal intelligence failure behind the Curveball story and turns it into an engaging spy narrative accessible to anyone.


I’ll start questions with one about Jerry–one of the WINPAC analysts who championed the credibility of Curveball, but then recanted after he saw the counter-evidence in Baghdad, and David Kay. Roughly the last third of the book describes the ISG debunking the Curveball tale. As part of that, you describe how both men came to rethink their earlier certitude about the Curveball tale, largely because both saw the evidence disproving the tale first hand. Watching these men rethink their beliefs was a fascinating sub-narrative of the book.

Their trajectory is one that happens all too rarely, it seems, in our intelligence debates (witness the current uproar over the Iran NIE).

What do you think allowed each of these men to dramatically rethink their beliefs? Was it the close working relationship of the analysts and the operatives? Was it simply their physical presence in Baghdad, where they could see the sites Curveball had talked about and meet with Curveball’s mother? Was it some distance from the political pressure to produce a given result?


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