Slow Burn: The Road to the Iraq War

Season 5: Episode 6

Big, if True

Why the U.S. relied on faulty intelligence from a man code-named Curveball.


Episode Notes

On Feb. 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make the Bush administration’s closing argument for war with Iraq. Powell didn’t know it at the time, but one major piece of intelligence he cited came from a shady source—a man code-named Curveball.

How did Curveball’s bad information make it into Powell’s speech? And why did no one listen when a woman from the CIA tried to warn everyone?

Season 5 of Slow Burn is produced by Noreen Malone, Jayson De Leon, and Sophie Summergrad. Mixing by Merritt Jacob.

The last two episodes of this season are available only to Slate Plus subscribers. You can sign up by going to It’s only $15 for your first three months.

Sources for This Episode


Draper, Robert. To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq, Penguin Press, 2020.

Drogin, Bob. Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War, Random House, 2007.

Isikoff, Michael and David Corn, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Crown, 2006.

Tenet, George with Bill Harlow. At the Center of the Storm: The CIA During America’s Time of Crisis, Harper Collins, 2007.

Woodward, Bob. Plan of Attack: The Definitive Account of the Decision to Invade Iraq, Simon & Schuster, 2004. 


Barstow, David, William J. Broad, and Jeff Gerth. “The Aluminum Tube Story—A special report; How White House Embraced Suspect Iraq Arms Intelligence,” New York Times, Oct. 3, 2004.

Chulov, Martin and Helen Pidd. “Defector Admits to WMD Lies That Triggered Iraq War,” Guardian, Feb. 15, 2011.

Colin L. Powell and Richard L. Armitage Oral History,” UVA Miller Center, March 28, 2017.

Disarming Saddam—A Chronology of Iraq and UN Weapons Inspections From 2002-2003,” Arms Control Association.

Drogin, Bob and John Goetz. “How U.S. Fell Under the Spell of ‘Curveball’,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 20, 2005.

Goetz, John and Bob Drogin. “ ‘Curveball’ lies low and denies it all,” Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2008.

Milbank, Dana. “Bush Remarks Confirm Shift in Justification for War,” Washington Post, June 1, 2003.

Risen, James. “Iraqi Says He Made Up Tale of Biological Weapons Before War,” New York Times, Feb. 15, 2011.

Weisman, Steven R. “Powell Calls His U.N. Speech a Lasting Blot on His Record,” New York Times, Sept. 9, 2005.


Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, Report to the President of the United States (“The WMD Commission Report”), March 31, 2005.

Slate Plus Member Content Bonus Episode

The “Little Guys” Who Didn’t See Enough Evidence for War

What went on inside government agencies as the Bush administration strived to make the case for war.


About the Show

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq without provocation. Most Americans supported the war—as did most politicians and intellectuals, both liberal and conservative. Today, it’s universally considered a disaster.

Hosted by award-winning reporter Noreen Malone, the fifth season of Slow Burn explores the people and ideas that propelled the country into the Iraq war, and the institutions that failed to stop it. How did the Iraq catastrophe happen? And what was it like to watch America make one of its most consequential mistakes?

All episodes


  • Noreen Malone is the host of Slow Burn Season 5. Formerly, she was the editorial director of New York magazine and a host of Slate’s The Waves. Her magazine reporting has earned a George Polk Award.