Thursday, 20 March 2008

Let's blame the Germans

Rageh Omaar had it about right in the Telegraph magazine at the weekend. Surveying the blasted and benighted hellhole that the country has become in the past five years, he commented that "only the wilfully ignorant believe that Iraq is a better place than it was before the invasion." Some of the former pro-war cheerleaders have changed their tune as the disaster unfolded - David Aaronovitch, for example (though it took him almost five years to do so). Yet the war still, incredibly, has its defenders. And not just George W. Bush, who apparently believes that the world is a safer place as a result. If only because "The terrorists who murder the innocent in the streets of Baghdad want to murder the innocent in the streets of American cities" but are presumably a bit busy at the moment. Or even John McCain, here in Britain today, who promises us all a new hundred years' war.

Slate magazine had the amusing wheeze of asking a cross-section of pro-war enthusiasts from the left-liberal perspective how they came to be so wrong. Most were prepared to produce a mea culpa, or (more often) blame someone else. Christopher Hitchens, by contrast, still thinks the war was a great idea: just a shame about the aftermath. "We were never, if we are honest with ourselves, 'lied into war'", he claims. "The president's speech to the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002, laying out the considered case that it was time to face the Iraqi tyrant ... was easily the best speech of his two-term tenure and by far the most misunderstood." Equally puzzling is this one: "The role of Baathist Iraq in forwarding and aiding the merchants of suicide terror actually proves to be deeper and worse, on the latest professional estimate, than most people had ever believed or than the Bush administration had ever suggested."

Meanwhile, back on planet earth, the blame game continues. Because, of course, it can't be the fault of the US or Britain that they were so wrong about the weapons of mass destruction, can it? They had the finest intelligence services, the best equipment, the most reliable sources. And, as Tony Blair likes to say, it wasn't just he who believed in Iraqi WMD. Everybody and his specially-trained sniffer dog knew the things existed. Although, as chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix wrote in the Guardian today, by March 2003

Unmovic inspectors had carried out some 700 inspections at 500 sites without finding prohibited weapons. The contract that George Bush held up before Congress to show that Iraq was purchasing uranium oxide was proved to be a forgery. The allied powers were on thin ice, but they preferred to replace question marks with exclamation marks.

What a shame Blix couldn't have been quite so forthright at the time.

Embarrassment all round. Thankfully, though, a new culprit has now emerged. According to Spiegel, the Americans want to put the blame where it surely belongs, on the Germans. The belief that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling biological weapons was, it now turns out, all down to dodgy information from Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (and try saying that on a full stomach).

Indeed, when then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his infamous presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 during which he made the case that Iraq presented an immediate threat to global security, his comments about Saddam Hussein's alleged biological weapons program were based largely on information provided by the BND.

The BND told the Americans that Saddam's evil scientists had "mobile weapons laboratories" (remember them?) which were - oh the beauty of it - both incredibly dangerous and hard to detect. Which is why when the Americans got into Iraq they started rounding up ice-cream vans. As Scott Ritter later admitted,

The discovery by U.S. forces in Iraq of two mobile 'biological weapons laboratories' was touted by President Bush as clear evidence that Iraq possessed illegal weapons capabilities. However, it now is clear that these so-called labs were nothing more than hydrogen generation units based upon British technology acquired by Iraq in the 1980s, used to fill weather balloons in support of conventional artillery operations, and have absolutely no application for the production of biological agents.

This invaluable piece of intelligence - one of the reasons close to a million Iraqis are now dead, let it be remembered - came from a single source, codenamed "Curveball". Curveball was a senior Iraqi engineer who had worked closely with Dr Rihab ("Germ") Taha. Or perhaps he was just a Baghdad taxi driver. Whatever. He arrived in Germany as an asylum seeker in 1999 and was "interviewed by BND agents more than 50 times ... and provided them with detailed information about the alleged mobile biological weapons laboratories."

Lawrence Wilkinson, an aide to Colin Powell at the time, claims that the German information was "not just a chance operation... it was carefully weighed". So that the Germans deserve their "share of the blame" for the fiasco. The former US weapons inspector David Kay goes further, noting that the Germans failed to make "all the appropriate efforts to validate the source". The BND's decision to question Curveball themselves rather than let the CIA do it, moreover, was "dishonest, unprofessional and irresponsible".

Perhaps the Germans were worried about what the CIA might do to him. After all, they don't have a completely clean record in this area.

Or perhaps the Americans are simply engaged in a desperate game of passing-the-buck.

Because, it turns out, the Germans never placed the absolute faith in Curveball's evidence that the CIA did. Indeed, in December 2002 the head of the BND wrote to his American counterpart, George Tenet, that the information, while plausible, "couldn't be confirmed".

This is spyspeak for "here be codswallop". As the then German ambassador to the UN, Gunter Pleuger, put it, "For me it was a perfectly clear warning, and I assumed that the information provided by 'Curveball' would no longer be used by the Americans."

And who can forget the spectacle of the German foreign minister Jocshka Fischer squaring up to Donald Rumsfeld at Munich:

My generation learned you must make a case, and excuse me, I am not convinced. That is my problem. I cannot go to the public and say, 'these are the reasons', because I don't believe in them.

He wasn't alone. Robin Cook stood up in the House of Commons and stated that he had seen no evidence that Saddam Hussein had operational WMD's when he was foreign secretary. Jacques Chirac denied it. Vladimir Putin denied it. Even Condie Rice denied it, when it was convenient to do so (i.e. when her job was to explain how effectively the sanctions were working).

And yet you still get apologists from the war claiming that, no, it wasn't just them. Everyone in the whole wide world believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Even Saddam himself. His henchmen just couldn't bring themselves to admit to him that they had been destroyed years ago.

And what of Curveball himself? It turns out that he's still in Germany (for some reason, he didn't want to go back to the country whose liberation he did so much to achieve), where he has recently been granted citizenship. "I am not to blame," he told Spiegel. "I never said that Iraq had weapons for mass destruction. Not at all, not in my entire life."

But then he would say that, wouldn't he?


valdemar squelch said...

Thanks for that. As well as clearing up a few points, it makes me feel slightly more sane. I keep reading these loons who think Iraqis are somehow 'better off' as a result of the botched invasion. Funnily enough, none of them seem to go to Bagdhad market to ask ordinary Iraqis if they agree...

David from Aalborg, DK said...

For those who can read German have a look at SPIEGEL's interview with David Kay. It is hilarious. Asked whether it would have changed anything had the BND right away understood that Curveball was a fabricator as the US government was committed to going to war at any rate, Kay has the cheek to answer: "Yes, the government maybe. But don't underestimate the fact that they need the consent of Congress. [...] No, I am fairly sure, the vote would have turned out otherwise. I believe it would have been much more difficult to lead this nation to war without his faulty intelligence." (If necessary, you can also blame this translation of the translation on the Germans.)

Somehow, I am not convinced. Judging by how the case where George W. Bush held up a contract before Congress to show that Iraq was purchasing uranium oxide was handled, I am under the impression that we would have just another Blame-Gate.

Just imagine the following situation: Big brother is caught red handed though not with his fingers in the cookie jar. That is precisely the problem. It wasn't there. No big brother has a bloody nose after tripping over the kitchen closet smashing the family heirloom of valuable china and now has to explain himself. Big brother rolls his eyes at yet another of life's many injustices because obviously the whole incident was little brother's fault. Little brother had viciously given big brother the impression that the cookie jar was on top of the kitchen closet. But it was not!

Richard said...

I think it is a tragedy and a riot. Why did these 2 wait FIVE YEARS to decide that this made no sense? You made no mention of the CIA "Doctor" (anonymous) who repeatedly emailed SEVERAL people in the CIA, warning them that he had met Curveball and thought he was a loony.