Sunday, March 28, 2004

How Chalabi Snookered Bush-Cheney Big-Time

The Bush administration's prewar claims that Saddam Hussein had built a fleet of trucks and railroad cars to produce anthrax and other deadly germs were based chiefly on information from a now-discredited Iraqi defector code-named "Curveball," according to current and former intelligence officials.

Weapons inspectors hypothesized that such trucks might exist, officials said. They then asked former exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, a bitter enemy of Hussein, to help search for intelligence supporting their theory.

Soon after, a young chemical engineer emerged in a German refugee camp and claimed that he had been hired out of Baghdad University to design and build biological warfare trucks for the Iraqi army.

Based largely on his account, President Bush and his aides repeatedly warned of the shadowy germ trucks, dubbed "Winnebagos of Death" or "Hell on Wheels" in news accounts, and they became a crucial part of the White House case for war — including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's dramatic presentation to the U.N. Security Council just weeks before the war.

Only later, U.S. officials said, did the CIA learn that the defector was the brother of one of Chalabi's top aides, and begin to suspect that he might have been coached to provide false information.

el - Duh, you think?

Kay said in an interview that the defector "was absolutely at the heart of a matter of intense interest to us." But Curveball turned out to be an "out-and-out fabricator," he added.

U.S. and British intelligence officials have acknowledged since major combat ended in Iraq that lies or distortions by Iraqi opposition groups in exile contributed to numerous misjudgments about Iraq's suspected weapons programs.

A former U.S. official who has reviewed the classified file said the BND warned the CIA last spring that it had "various problems with the source."

"We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails," Powell said. He showed what he called "highly detailed and extremely accurate" diagrams of how the trucks were configured, and warned that they could spew enough anthrax or botulinus toxin "in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people."

But Kay, who sought to confirm Curveball's claims in Iraq after the end of major combat, said Powell's account was "disingenuous."

Kay added: "If Powell had said to the Security Council: 'It's one source, we never actually talked to him, and we don't know his name,' as he's describing this, I think people would have laughed us out of court."

Powell assured U.N. diplomats that two other Iraqi sources, who he said were "in a position to know," had corroborated the "eyewitness account." The CIA later said those reports arrived in December 2000 and mid-2002.

Kay said the debriefing files on the pair showed that they never had direct contact with the biowarfare trucks. "None of them claimed to have seen them," he said. "They said they were aware of the mobile program. They had heard there was a mobile program."

CIA files showed that another Iraqi defector, an engineer who had worked with Curveball, specifically denied that they had worked on such facilities, Kay said. Powell did not cite that defector.

The CIA acknowledged last month that a fourth defector whom Powell cited at the U.N., a former major in Iraq's intelligence service, had lied when he said that Baghdad had built mobile research laboratories to test biological agents. The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency twice debriefed that defector in early 2002 and reported his claims. But it then concluded that he did not have firsthand information and probably was coached by Chalabi's exile group.

In May 2002, the agency posted a "fabrication notice" on a classified computer network to warn other U.S. intelligence agencies that the defector had lied. But CIA officials said the notice was overlooked, and his information was cited both in Powell's speech and the CIA's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate to Congress.

During the summer, Kay's investigators visited Curveball's parents and brother in Baghdad, as well as his former work sites. They determined that he was last in his class at the University of Baghdad, not first as he had claimed. They learned he had been fired from his job and jailed for embezzlement before he fled Iraq.

Chalabi, now a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, retains strong support in the White House. He was a guest of First Lady Laura Bush at the president's State of the Union address last January, and his organization still receives several hundred thousand dollars a month from the Pentagon to help collect intelligence in Iraq.

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