Kay: Blame Iraq on the Germans

David Kay tells Der Spiegel that the German intelligence service BND created the “biggest fiasco” in his career in intelligence. Calling the BND “dishonest, unprofessional and irresponsible”, Kay says the Germans failed to do even the most basic vetting of their Curveball source before the Iraq war, and then lied about him to keep Americans from verifying his authenticity:

SPIEGEL: As head of the Iraq Survey Group, you led the effort to follow up on the claims made by ‘Curveball,’ the asylum seeker from Iraq who told German intelligence that Saddam Hussein was building mobile biological weapons laboratories. Do you remember the first time you began to doubt his story?

Kay: The real shock was that the CIA had never spoken to him directly. To this day, I still don’t understand. How can you hang the most dramatic part of a case for war on an individual no American agent has ever directly debriefed? I realized right away, we needed to follow up in Baghdad on whatever leads we had concerning ‘Curveball.’ …

SPIEGEL: The argument made by the Germans for not providing access to ‘Curveball’ was not totally illogical. He claimed to hate Americans. It would have been a breach of trust if they had turned him over to the CIA.

Kay: We know today, of course, that it was all nonsense. First of all, we have people who speak 100 percent fluent German or Arabic. After the war, armed with the name from the British, we sought out his family. His mother and brother were very cooperative. They told us that he spoke English — the language of instruction at his university was English. They also said he had plans to emigrate to the United States. My men saw his room and there were posters on the wall of American pop stars. …

He was a defector for God’s sake and the BND was convinced that his information was so valuable that they distributed over 100 reports on ‘Curveball’ to their allies. I stand by my criticism of the BND to this day: To not have checked up on the exile Iraqis in Germany who knew him, not to have made all the appropriate efforts to validate the source, is a level of irresponsibility that is awfully hard to imagine in a service like the BND. And then, the fact that they failed to provide direct access to him remains one of the most striking things. It was a blockade that made it impossible for any other service to validate his information. The German service did not live up to their responsibilities or to the level of integrity you would expect from such a service.

Kay sounds furious to this day over the fiasco of Curveball. Not everything the US and its allies had on WMD programs came from this source, but the mobile-labs intelligence came directly from Curveball. The Germans claimed they tried to walk back their assertions just before the war, but Kay deflates that rationalization in this interview. If the BND sent over 100 reports on the intelligence gleaned from Curveball, then they obviously considered him reliable and his intelligence highly important.

The CIA gets some scolding from Kay as well. Indirectly, he attacks George Tenet and the “slam dunk” analysis based on the Curveball data without getting independent verification of his reliability. The CIA might be excused for assuming that a serious intel agency like the BND would have done that for themselves, but since the data had been presented as actionable, Kay believes the CIA should have insisted on more cooperation from the BND.

However, he saves his fury for the German intel agency. The failure got combined with a disinformation strategy aimed at the CIA to keep them away from Curveball. First, the BND — which had enormous experience with defectors during the Soviet era — didn’t assign any of their experienced handlers to Curveball. They allowed him to be run by their technology group, which didn’t have a clue how to verify his standing. That basic error got compounded by the BND’s insistence on telling Americans that Curveball would shut down if ever exposed to an American, an assertion the CIA found was an absolute lie after talking with Curveball’s family after the war. It turns out that Curveball, far from hating Americans, wanted to emigrate to the US.

Kay believes that without the dramatic Curveball data, the Congressional authorization for the war in Iraq may never have passed. It would have forced the Bush administration into a more limited set of options for dealing with Saddam Hussein, such as the kind of limited strikes that the Clinton administration used, which proved completely ineffectual. As Kay noted in his Iraq report, Saddam had prepared to restart his WMD programs as soon as the faltering sanctions completely collapsed anyway, and the Harmony documents show his support for al-Qaeda organizations like the Army of Mohammad in Bahrain and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s terrorist group that produced a large portion of AQ’s leadership.

We would have known none of that without the invasion and the capture of Iraqi Intelligence Services documents. Perhaps the Germans did us and the world a favor after all.