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Bob Drogin covers national security and intelligence for the Los Angeles Times. He previously served as a foreign correspondent for the Times in Asia and Africa, and as a national correspondent based in New York. He has won or shared multiple journalism awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and the George Polk Award. He has been interviewed on Nightline, CNN, the BBC, PBS, NPR, and many other media outlets. He lives with his wife and two children outside Washington, D.C.
The Curveball saga is a watershed in the history of the American Intelligence Community. Despite multiple blinking warning signs about the credibility of this "source," the IC wound up using the "intelligence" provided by him with the end result of the IC looking very, very foolish.
Drogin's book is a pretty good recounting of that sad little saga. He sheds particularly interesting light on how the Germans handled Curveball and the poisonous relations between the CIA and the Bundesnachrichtungdienst (German Federal Intelligence Service).
Beyond that, Drogin's book does not tell much more than what the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the WMD Commission reports (issued in 2004 and 2005 respectively) do. Both of those reports are available on the Internet and are written with remarkable clarity.
In my opinion, the book suffers from the fact that Drogin has only talked with some of the players in this particular fiasco ...namely David Kay and Tyler Drumheller. Both of them are out of government and have some axes to grind. In contrast, some of the people who they locked horns with are still in government and would find themselves in deep trouble if they went on record with Drogin.
I also think that Drogin's book suffers from a remarkable flaw given the fact that it is such a devastating critique of the IC's inept use of sources. He doesn't document his own research very well in the book. For example, there is a twelve-page section of the book that doesn't have a single endnote (he uses endnotes instead of footnotes or chapter notes). There are many other parts of the book where I found myself wondering where Drogin got a particular piece of information or interpretation and found the endnotes singularly unhelpful.Read more ›
Bob Drogin's "Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War" is an examination of the refugee from Iraq, code named "Curveball," who contended that he had been involved in WMD biological warfare research and development. It is also another story of serious mistakes by American intelligence in the run up to the Iraq invasion after 9/11.
In 1999, the Iraqi refugee ended up linking up with German intelligence. As the agents worked with the man who became code named "Curveball," they were convinced that he must be telling the truth about knowledge of biological weapons developed by Iraq. He was an engineer and, he claimed, had been involved in the development of systems to deliver biological agents in warfare. The details convinced the Germans; they communicated with American and British intelligence, but tended to jealously guard their source and not let other intelligence services get near him. However, over time, the German intelligence team began to wonder more and more about his veracity.
After 9/11 and as the Bush Administration looked more closely at the possibility of regime change in Iraq, Curveball's story became an integral part of the case being developed against Saddam Hussein and justifying invasion. The threat of WMD was a key part of the justification for war. And Curveball's reports were accorded great weight in the United States.
The book is written well. Its dependence on sources, some anonymous, who may have axes to grind is obviously something that readers must keep in mind. However, this is yet another in a series of books that clearly suggests that the Administration actively sought out information to support its already made decision to invade Iraq.Read more ›
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For all kinds of reasons--penetrating research, narrative flow, nifty phrases, occasional gentle wisecracks, helpful appendices-- 'Curveball" is a remarkable achievement. Equally appealing is the tone: Drogin leaves the reader to ponder the many complexities rather than arguing his own views. Even the footnotes are fascinating. The book also cleared up a disturbing concern of mine going back to CIA chief George Tenet's February 2004 Georgetown speech, a chunk of which I happened to catch on CSpan. He came across as a policy advocate, not the detached collector and evaluator of intelligence that's needed in the job. "Curveball" provides a context that helps explains this dangerous man. Of course, the book does a lot more than that, describing, much like a business school case review. how the "intelligence community" leadership can abandon common sense in favor of catering to the White House or competing with other agencies. One wonders if the same thing is going on today with respect to Iran.
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Curveball doesn't presume to tell the complete story of how the US came to invade Iraq--but it does the best job of it of the books I've read. It shows how the intelligence supporting the decision to go to war was a house of cards built on an extremely shaky foundation and how the process of intelligence analysis and assessment was distorted by the desire of the intelligence community to tell the nation's leaders what they wanted to hear.
The book is extraordinarily well written and engaging, but doesn't sacrifice its integrity by oversimplifying what happened. The easier path in a book about a colossal failure is to make it a simple, viscerally satisfying, story of actors who are stupid or evil. No question that Curveball tells the story of a colossal failure and that those responsible did stupid things and, in some cases, acted without the best of motives. What distinguishes this book is that it shows how real people who should have known better came to deceive themselves, the country and much of the world into believing that there was solid information that Saddam Hussein's Iraq possessed biological and other weapons of mass destruction. There's culpability here from top to bottom--with heroes mixed in who tried to make things right but were willfully ignored, suppressed and dismissed. That isn't to say this lets the President and Vice-President off the hook. They played their roles in the intelligence failure and the President has the ultimate responsibility for the decision to go to war--and no one can know whether better intelligence on WMD would have given him pause. But this is not a simple story of "the President lied" or "the CIA was incompetent"--and for that it's a book that squares well with how things like this really come to happen.