This article is adapted from “Big, if True,” the sixth episode of Slow Burn’s new season.
In late December 2002, most of Washington was winding down for Christmas. Young White House staffers were hard at work writing thank you notes for the gifts that had been sent to the president. But George W. Bush wasn’t ready to sign off for the holiday yet. He called a meeting and he asked the CIA to give him its best version of the case for war with Iraq.
Bill McLaughlin had joined the CIA about six months earlier. He was part of a team from the agency presenting to the president. “The call went out when they started developing the case for anybody who had anything they would like to contribute,” he told me. “I had a U.N. inspection experience. I was to answer any of the president’s questions on U.N. inspections.”
Bush walked into the Oval Office meeting wearing his cowboy boots with the presidential seal on them. And for the next 20 minutes, CIA director George Tenet’s deputy John McLaughlin—no relation to Bill—presented “the case.”
Tenet’s deputy talked about the biological and chemical weapons Iraq had not accounted for since the Gulf War. And he wrapped up by playing radio intercepts, supposedly from Iraqi agents, talking about a weapons site.
“After the presentation, the president fired off a number of questions about it, made a number of comments, solicited our views on things,” Bill McLaughlin recalled. Bush wasn’t asking the CIA to take a closer look at the intelligence. What he wanted was a more convincing pitch.
“He asked perhaps if a Madison Avenue type could look at it to see about the ordering of the arguments, if it could be examined by an attorney to look at the structure of the arguments that were made,” McLaughlin said. “Everyone in that room, including me, strongly believes that Iraq did have WMD. It was not a subject that came up for discussion. The discussion centered around whether we could make the presentation more effective.”
George Tenet, the head of the CIA, was at that meeting. This is where he famously used the phrase “slam dunk,” which got a lot of press. Originally, reporting suggested Tenet called the presence of WMDs in Iraq a “slam dunk.” But according to Bill McLaughlin and Tenet himself, he was actually promising the president that the CIA would tighten up the presentation to make it a slam dunk. He wasn’t talking about the facts. He was talking about the sale.
“As the meeting broke up, the president charged us with improving the quality of the presentation,” McLaughlin said. “Among other things he asked was, can you work in a stronger angle related to terrorism? And I think some of us weren’t all that happy to hear that since we didn’t believe the connection was that strong to begin with.”
After the meeting, Vice President Cheney pulled Bush aside. Cheney told him that people in his office had been working on the terror links. He suggested they could help out with the presentation.
“Once the case was revised, after we got back to CIA, people worked on it again for another month and then it was sent down to the White House for their review. Eventually, while it was at the White House, they had added in a whole additional section on terrorism,” McLaughlin told me.
For months, the Bush administration tried to make the case for war to the public on TV and in press conferences. Now, to make the closing argument, Bush tapped Secretary of State Colin Powell. He wanted Powell to present the United States’ official case for war at the UN in February.
Powell was the obvious choice for a closer. Unlike some of his colleagues, he wasn’t seen as an ideologue. As a military commander he’d been skeptical of overusing military might. And as Black man who’d risen to the top of the Army, he was the kind of American success story both Republicans and Democrats could admire.
Robert Draper, the author of To Start a War, elaborated: “Colin Powell was far and away the most popular person in the Bush administration. And there were a lot of people on Capitol Hill—a lot of Democrats who didn’t believe one thing that Cheney had to say to them, but believed everything that Colin Powell had to say. So Powell would achieve maximum credibility as the deliverer of this case in a way that nobody else would.”
Powell agreed to do it. All along, he’d been telling the president they needed the United Nations backing them. But when Powell looked at the intelligence summary he’d been handed by the White House, he wasn’t impressed. It looked shoddy. And it included things like the discredited al-Qaida–Iraq link.
“Powell essentially threw almost the entire document away, and they started from scratch. And when they started from scratch with only really a few days to go, Powell had actually asked Condi Rice, ‘Can I get an extension on giving this speech? We’re going to need more time.’ Condi said, ‘nope, the president has already booked you, has already said you’re going to be doing this on Feb. 5, 2003, before the UN.’ Then a kind of frantic effort ensued,” Draper said.
“They turned back to the CIA, and George Tenet said, ‘well, look, why don’t you just do this, make the basis of the speech our NIE, our National Intelligence Estimate, because this is, after all, the definitive consensus view of the intelligence community as to Saddam’s weapons program.’ What [Tenet] failed to say to Powell was: ‘… and we did it in 19 days. So it’s a piece of crap.’ ”
Powell and his team spent three days vetting the report alongside CIA analysts. He questioned them, asked to see evidence. For a lot of people watching up close, this seemed like Powell at his best: careful, rigorous, honorable. With Powell in charge, the administration felt confident the speech was going to be a huge success.
Before the presentation, the speech was circulated through the CIA. They wanted to make sure it didn’t expose sources or methods of intelligence gathering. One person who looked it over was Margaret Henoch. She handled Central Europe for the Directorate of Operations—the spy part of the CIA. Henoch was shocked by what she saw.
“I look at it all and I take a big magic marker, and I scratch all the way through it and I write in the margins. You cannot use this. There is no way to verify this,” she told me. “It’s not even sort of leaky. It’s a gigantic sieve with a hole in it.”
The night before the speech, Powell asked Tenet one last time if everything in his speech was solid. Tenet told him there were no doubts. Powell asked Tenet to sit next to him at the UN, to symbolize that the CIA was backing everything he said. The CIA director agreed.
On Feb. 5, 2003, Colin Powell made his presentation to the UN—the Bush administration’s best case for war. He was staking his reputation on it.
“My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence. I will cite some examples, and these are from human sources,” he said that day.
Powell wore a dark suit jacket with an American flag pin on it. His delivery was intense. He talked for well over an hour:
One of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq’s biological weapons is the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological agents. Let me take you inside that intel file and share with you what we know from eyewitness accounts. We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails.
Margaret Henoch was watching the speech with her boss at the CIA. When she heard the line about mobile weapons labs, she knew her warning never made it to Powell.
“We’re just like, what the fuck?” she said. “I called upstairs and said, ‘Did you guys see that you shouldn’t have used that?’ ”
Powell was relying on what the CIA had told him. (He declined to talk to us, by the way.) But there was a lot the CIA hadn’t told him—including the fact that some of their information had come from a sketchy source: a man with the codename Curveball.
Leading up to Powell’s UN speech, the Bush administration had told the American public that the country needed to invade Iraq. That Saddam Hussein was a threat.
Key pieces of intelligence were cited over and over again as evidence to support the case for war. The repetition gave the illusion of credibility—even when that intelligence was unproven.
So who was Curveball? Why was the information he had so valuable? And how did unvetted intelligence make its way into Colin Powell’s case for war?
Henoch described the source this way:
“Curveball was a slug. Curveball was a slime. But Curveball didn’t make anybody believe something that they didn’t want to believe.”