BERLIN — German government officials claim the CIA disregarded their warnings about the unreliability of a key piece of Iraqi weapons intelligence that was featured prominently in last year’s landmark address to the United Nations by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Two German government sources close to the issue said German intelligence had told the CIA prior to Powell’s February 2003 speech that detailed information on so-called mobile germ factories in Iraq was coming from an Iraqi defector with a questionable reputation.
“We gave the Americans all the information — including the possible problems — well in advance of Powell’s speech,” a German intelligence official told the Forward. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
A senior German government official confirmed the chronology, adding that Germany’s intelligence agency, the BND, was “upset” that the CIA had not heeded the German caveats.
A CIA spokesperson declined to comment. However, the spokesperson pointed to a Los Angeles Times story on the mobile germ affair in which German intelligence is said to have provided the warnings only after the Powell speech. That version was endorsed by two former U.S. officials who are privy to the intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs.
German and American officials concurred that the German intelligence service had not provided the CIA with direct access to the source. However, German officials claimed this was standard procedure. Moreover, they said the BND had forwarded American queries to the source.
The latest round of finger-pointing between close allies provides an indication of the extent of controversy over prewar intelligence, which is under investigation by Congress, a presidential commission and the CIA.
In recent months, the CIA has progressively backtracked from prewar assessments that Iraq had mobile germ facilities and from an announcement a year ago that such facilities were actually found in Iraq.
In congressional testimony before the war, CIA Director George Tenet expressed confidence that Iraq was pursuing biological weapons. Tenet was quoted by Bob Woodward in his recent book, “Plan of Attack,” as telling President Bush that the case for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk.”
The CIA released a report about the mobile labs last May, asserting that three suspicious trailers had been found in Iraq. That prompted Bush to claim that weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) had been found.
Since then, however, Tenet has expressed reservations about the final use of the trailers. He told Congress last year that he had called Vice President Cheney to downplay the reports after Cheney cited the trailers in January as “conclusive” evidence of Iraqi WMDs.
Tenet then said in a speech at Georgetown University on February 5, 2004, that there were “some discrepancies in some claims made by human sources” about the mobile plants.
Tenet cited the “discrepancies” after Iraqi engineers told interrogators that the facilities had been used to produce hydrogen for artillery weather balloons. Their claims were gaining currency among intelligence circles, particularly within the CIA-led team of investigators headed by David Kay that were scouring Iraq for WMDs.
According to the account in the L.A. Times, a former Iraqi engineer who defected to Germany started providing German intelligence with information on the mobile labs in 1998. The BND then relayed the intelligence to the CIA.
However, the L.A. Times article disclosed that the defector, codenamed “Curveball,” was in fact the brother of a close aide to the Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, whose credibility has been a matter of controversy. The article quoted Kay, who resigned as a weapons inspector early this year, as saying Curveball was an “out-and-out fabricator” and branding the evidence on the mobile plants as the most damning example of intelligence failures.
Powell has since complained publicly that the CIA fed him misleading information on WMDs in general and the mobile germ factories in particular. The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, told CNN last month that the facilities probably “did not exist” and that such findings would likely be included in a committee report on WMDs to be released in late May.
American intelligence sources confirmed to the Forward that the defector was linked to Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC). The sources suggested that the group may have elected to provide the intelligence through a third country because of its history of tense relations with the CIA.
The INC has been accused of funneling false information through a Pentagon unit, the Office of Special Plans, where the group is said to enjoy strong support from civilian Pentagon officials led by the undersecretary of defense, Douglas Feith.
Entifadh Qanbar, an INC spokesman, emphatically denied that the defector in Germany was linked to the INC. He accused the CIA of shifting blame onto the group in order to shield itself from the WMD fiasco.
He said the INC had produced three defectors with information on WMDs, two of who were deemed credible by the CIA. Although he acknowledged that one of them had provided information about the mobile labs, he stressed that he was not based in Germany and that the intelligence had been corroborated by several other sources.
In his UN speech, Powell said that besides the main source, two other Iraqi sources “in a position to know” corroborated the account. However, Kay told the L.A. Times that interviews with the two corroborating sources showed they had not actually seen the trucks.
The CIA admitted earlier this year that another defector cited by Powell as saying Saddam Hussein had built mobile research laboratories to test biological agents had, in fact, lied.
The sourcing controversy was recently addressed by CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Jami Miscik in a February speech to CIA analysts. Miscik told the audience that CIA analysts mistakenly believed Iraq weapons data had been confirmed by multiple sources, when in fact it had come from a single source. She said Tenet was committed to changing procedures to allow analysts access to sourcing details, removing the traditional agency barrier between operatives and analysts.
A former senior government official involved in Iraq policy said he was “afraid” the mobile biological weapons plants were falling into this category of intelligence falsely based on multiple sources.
The claims could not be verified.