The Los Angeles Times has taken a lot of heat in the liberal blogosphere lately, particularly its editorial section, which fired longtime columnist Robert Scheer and replaced his weekly column with that of Jonah Goldberg (because they wanted to get rid of all the rabid partisans... right?). But their news reporting has been consistently solid for years, particularly the international section. And Sunday's very long story
about "Curveball" and how the US government used his inane and incoherent ramblings and based war policy upon them is an important tale indeed.
The German intelligence officials responsible for one of the most important informants on Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of mass destruction say that the Bush administration and the CIA repeatedly exaggerated his claims during the run-up to the war in Iraq.
Five senior officials from Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, or BND, said in interviews with The Times that they warned U.S. intelligence authorities that the source, an Iraqi defector code-named Curveball, never claimed to produce germ weapons and never saw anyone else do so.
According to the Germans, President Bush mischaracterized Curveball's information when he warned before the war that Iraq had at least seven mobile factories brewing biological poisons. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also misstated Curveball's accounts in his prewar presentation to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, the Germans said.
Curveball's German handlers for the last six years said his information was often vague, mostly secondhand and impossible to confirm.
"This was not substantial evidence," said a senior German intelligence official. "We made clear we could not verify the things he said."
The German authorities, speaking about the case for the first time, also said that their informant suffered from emotional and mental problems. "He is not a stable, psychologically stable guy," said a BND official who supervised the case. "He is not a completely normal person," agreed a BND analyst.
A lot of this Curveball stuff has been out there for a while. The Times adds far more information and insight than anybody else has. It's extremely long, but I urge you to read the entire article. Curveball was the source on mobile weapons labs, biological programs and germ warfare. All of it was false, fabricated by a crazy person who just wanted to get out of the country. We never talked to him, just took the German intelligence reports, which they labeled as dubious, and re-purposed them into all kinds of prewar speeches. We still haven't talked to him. None of the commissions charged with examining prewar intelligence failures have EVER spoken with Curveball or the German intelligence agents who received all of his information. The LA Times has done more background work in this one article than the entire US government oversight apparatus has in two years.
Of course, those commissions (the Silberman-Robb commission, the Senate Intelligence Report) really didn't want to get to the bottom of anything. Neither report was allowed to look at the exaggeration of intelligence by the White House. That was Phase II, the phase that never happened until Democrats shut down the Senate in an attempt to kickstart the investigation.
I don't want to fall all over the LA Times for telling this story. The Washington Post
allowed Bob Graham to write a scathing editorial yesterday, also concerning prewar intelligence and the dishonesty therein. Graham puts to rest the notion that Democrats in Congress "saw the same intelligence" as the White House:
In February 2002, after a briefing on the status of the war in Afghanistan, the commanding officer, Gen. Tommy Franks, told me the war was being compromised as specialized personnel and equipment were being shifted from Afghanistan to prepare for the war in Iraq -- a war more than a year away. Even at this early date, the White House was signaling that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was of such urgency that it had priority over the crushing of al Qaeda.
At a meeting of the Senate intelligence committee on Sept. 5, 2002, CIA Director George Tenet was asked what the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) provided as the rationale for a preemptive war in Iraq. An NIE is the product of the entire intelligence community, and its most comprehensive assessment. I was stunned when Tenet said that no NIE had been requested by the White House and none had been prepared. Invoking our rarely used senatorial authority, I directed the completion of an NIE.
Tenet objected, saying that his people were too committed to other assignments to analyze Saddam Hussein's capabilities and will to use chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons. We insisted, and three weeks later the community produced a classified NIE.
There were troubling aspects to this 90-page document. While slanted toward the conclusion that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction stored or produced at 550 sites, it contained vigorous dissents on key parts of the information, especially by the departments of State and Energy. Particular skepticism was raised about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to Hussein's will to use whatever weapons he might have, the estimate indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.
Under questioning, Tenet added that the information in the NIE had not been independently verified by an operative responsible to the United States. In fact, no such person was inside Iraq. Most of the alleged intelligence came from Iraqi exiles or third countries, all of which had an interest in the United States' removing Hussein, by force if necessary.
The American people needed to know these reservations, and I requested that an unclassified, public version of the NIE be prepared. On Oct. 4, Tenet presented a 25-page document titled "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs." It represented an unqualified case that Hussein possessed them, avoided a discussion of whether he had the will to use them and omitted the dissenting opinions contained in the classified version. Its conclusions, such as "If Baghdad acquired sufficient weapons-grade fissile material from abroad, it could make a nuclear weapon within a year," underscored the White House's claim that exactly such material was being provided from Africa to Iraq.
So other papers are on this case. In addition, I agree with Josh Marshall's
This is one of those media questions for which there is no real way to provide a concrete answer. But it is at least worth asking: How many of the stories coming out now under the very broad heading of botched or manipulated intelligence could have been reported and written at more or less any time over the last two years? I suspect the answer is, the great majority of them.
They're getting written now because the president's poor poll numbers make him a readier target.
That is a shocking thing, when the disclosure of truth is predicated on poll numbers. Facts should never depend on political expediency. But such is journalism in the 21st century. The LA Times has actually been out in front, bucking this trend for some time. For that they deserve our thanks.