There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Friday, December 7, 2007

Curveball on the bus

Finished "Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War," by Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin. This book details the story of an Iraqi defector who was the sole source of America's claim that Iraq possessed mobile labs capable of creating deadly biological toxins for bombs. These mobile labs were the keystone of Secretary of State Colin Powell's evidence against Saddam that he presented to the United Nations.

As Drogin explains:

Curveball's case occupies a singular place in U.S. history. After 9/11, critics complained that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement failed to connect the dots of evidence that might have prevented the terrorist attacks. But in this case, the CIA and its allies made up the dots. Iraq never built or planned to build any mobile weapon labs. It had no other WMD. The U.S. intelligence apparatus, created to protect the nation, conjured up demons that did not exist. America never before has squandered so much blood, treasure, and credibility on a delusion.

It was interesting to read this account of how the nation's intelligence community had failed to fulfill its mission at the same time that the reversal of the assessment of Iran's nuclear weapons program was in the news.

As Drogin explains:

As the rhetoric rose in intensity (in 2002), the White House pushed Congress to authorize use of force if Saddam did not disarm. Anxious Democrats asked to see the current intelligence estimate on Iraq. There was none. The White House had begun gearing for war without any strategic-level intelligence assessments on Iraq.

The next day, officials from the six agencies that collect foreign intelligence gathered at the National Intelligence Council office, at the other end of the hall from Tenet's suite at Langely. A National Intelligence Estimate represents the best collective judgment of the entire intelligence community. Preparation of an NIE, as it's known, normally requires six to ten months of drafts, debates, and more drafts. The deliberative process is designed to weed out bias and produce unvarnished assessments, regardless of whether they conform to U.S. policy. No other intelligence document is considered more important.

The council cranked out the Iraq NIE in nineteen days flat.

Compare that with this week's news reports concerning the new NIE that says Iran's nuclear weapons program was abandoned in 2003. The Iran NIE was in the works for more than a year. And, more important, when new information arrived, a full reassessment was done. Just the opposite occured prior to the invasion of Iraq. As more an more questions arose about Curveball, the Iraqi defector in Germany, the CIA specialists in biological weapons refused to consider that maybe a mistake had been made. Curveball's story about mobile biological weapons had to be true -- the analysts' reputations were riding on it.

As a Los Angeles Times report in The Bee about the Iran NIE noted, "As U.S. intelligence officials Tuesday sought to explain the remarkable reversal, they pointed to two factors: the emergence of critical new information over the summer, and a determination to avoid repeating the mistakes that preceded the war in Iraq."

One can hope that the difference between the NIE on Iraq and the NIE on Iran means the nation's intelligence community has returned to its proper job as an adviser to the administration and abandoned it's co-conspirator role.

If the Iraq war were not so tragic, the bumbling intelligence effort that started the war would be funny. Prior to the war during the U.N. inspections:

Analysts studying satellite imagery kept reporting Scud missiles hidden on farms. Each time, a U.N. convoy would race to the site. ... But the missile always turned out to be a rotating steel drum for drying corn. Or a poultry shed. "Chickens in Iraq are kept in a long, low half-cylinder coop," Casagrande said later. "We inspected a lot of chicken coops." ... Fed up with wild-chicken chases, Casagrande had a shop print thirty souvenir T-shirts. They showed the U.N. symbol over the words Ballistic Chicken Farm Inspection Team.

During the hunt for WMD after the invasion, an Iraqi tribal sheik approached the Americans and swore that Saddam's aides had buried a cache of biological weapons in farmland he owned. A CIA analyst named Rita took the bait. The CIA team searching for WMD went to the guy's farm with front-end loaders, mobile chemical and biological testing gear and emergency demolition and disposal teams. The crews dug out one enormous hole and then another. After nothing was found in the third hole, the CIA gave up. Drogin reports, "Rita drove back to see the sheikh two weeks later and discovered he had pumped water into the holes and filled his three new ponds with carp for a commercial fish farm."

I'll be on a spy theme for the next several books. I'm now reading Valerie Plame Wilson's book, "Fair Game," which touches on the same pre-Iraq war intelligence fiasco.

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