A year ago in Nieman Reports, Steve Weinberg, the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, wrote an article entitled “The Book as an Investigative Vehicle for News,” about books being written by journalists that are providing in-depth accounts of Iraq War policy and decision-making. Now Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin describes some of the challenges he found as he transformed his investigative reporting into a book about a CIA source code named Curveball.
Turning a lengthy newspaper investigation into a book couldn’t be that difficult. Or so I thought. I soon discovered that I needed to overcome three decades of newspaper writing before I could even begin.
My story focused on a young Iraqi chemical engineer who sought political asylum in Germany in 1999. He brought no documents or other proof, but the smooth-talking defector convinced Germany’s spy service that he had helped design and build secret biological weapons factories on trucks and trains for Saddam Hussein’s regime. A local U.S. intelligence team issued his wonderfully apt code name: Curveball.
Few outsiders then believed that Hussein directly imperiled Western security. But after the 9/11 attacks, CIA officers in Washington re-evaluated the German reports and Curveball’s terrifying account soon reverberated through U.S. intelligence channels. By the fall of 2002, the Bush administration had latched onto Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for war. President Bush directly warned of Iraq’s deadly bio-trucks, among other dangers, in his 2003 State of the Union speech. More memorably, Secretary of State Colin Powell vividly cited Curveball’s “eyewitness” account and displayed drawings of the sinister trucks when he argued the case for war to the U.N. Security Council.
As a reporter on the intelligence beat in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, I had helped “truth squad” White House claims on Iraq, raising doubts when the evidence appeared weak. But Powell’s U.N. presentation convinced me that the CIA possessed indisputable proof. I went to Baghdad after the invasion and spent a month covering the hunt for WMD. Day after day, U.S., British and Australian teams raced across the baking desert to search suspect factories, arsenals, pesticide plants, and other facilities. They came up with zilch. I returned home determined to discover how the CIA had gotten such crucial intelligence so catastrophically wrong.
In March 2004, a year after the invasion, my colleague Greg Miller and I helped find the answer. We broke the news that the prewar intelligence had relied on the unconfirmed account of a dubious defector in Germany. Worse, we wrote, U.S. authorities never interviewed Curveball, never verified his information, and didn’t even know his name before the war. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and other investigations soon confirmed and expanded our information. Finally, in April 2005, John Carroll, then our editor, urged me to focus full-time on the Curveball case. He could sense a bigger story.
During the next six months, I made two trips to Germany, one to England, and numerous visits to the United Nations in New York. I reached out to intelligence sources and former weapons inspectors and other experts around the world. I hooked up with John Goetz, a freelance reporter based in Berlin, to help track down the German side of the saga. Our 8,000-word story led the paper and filled three inside pages on November 20, 2005. We couldn’t find Curveball (who is under the protection of German intelligence), but we traced the astonishing screw-ups, bureaucratic rivalries, cult-like attitudes, and spineless leadership that plagued the case. It was hard to overstate the scope of the disaster. If U.S. intelligence authorities famously failed to connect the dots before 9/11, in Curveball, they made up the dots.
Several publishers and Hollywood studios contacted me after the story ran. Random House quickly offered a contract to write a 100,000-word book, and Focus Features bought the option for a film. The paper granted me a book leave. I was thrilled. I already had reported on Iraq’s WMD for three years. I was obsessed by the topic and had files bulging with notes and reports. A book would let me provide context and perspective, a way to crosscheck competing accounts, something newspapers never could do. With the benefit of hindsight, and more reporting, I could connect the proper dots. I’d never written a book before, but how hard could it be?
Reporting Begins Anew
I soon found out. My story involved a confirmed liar, at least four rival spy services, and officials desperate to hide their culpability for an intelligence fiasco. Even the classified documents were filled with errors. A newspaper story didn’t have to answer every question; a book should at least try. Frantic, I went back to my earlier sources and pleaded for help unraveling the case. I switched on a tape recorder, which I rarely use for news interviews. Transcribing the material later, I was shocked to discover how much I had missed when I only listened for cogent quotes.
Now, the underbrush of detail helped explain the why and how, not just what had happened. I identified new sources in Washington and returned to Europe and the United Nations. I filed a half dozen Freedom of Information Act requests (all were denied) and found new clues in old documents. Three months passed. I kept finding more people to interview, more documents to chase. I recalled that Neil Sheehan spent 16 years writing “A Bright Shining Lie,” arguably the best nonfiction book about the lies in Vietnam. I could see why. Unlike him, my meter was running.
Most Washington reporting is conducted by telephone, press conference, or computer research. Each day, reporters offer insight into meetings they can’t attend or scramble for reports written by others about events far away. Now I reverted to my early days as a police reporter. I knocked on doors, begged invitations to dinner, and otherwise sought face-to-face meetings. Sources needed to know I wanted the truth, not a sound bite. Our newspaper story, I realized, had only sketched a skeleton of a story.
I set up a basement office with a computer but no telephone. I arranged 12 large boxes of notes and documents on the floor behind me. And I froze. What was my lede? Did a book have a lede? I tried writing a detailed outline, with 20 chapters, but tossed it away. It was too formulaic, too flat. I wanted something more organic, more lifelike. I not only had the defining story of one of America’s worst intelligence failures. I had a great yarn to tell. I wanted to provide the voice and the authority it deserved. That meant I needed to relearn my craft.
I built chapters around dialogue and scenes. I described not just what people said and did, but what they thought and why. I let the details emerge as clues to a puzzle, not an assembly of facts. I sketched in the history to explain how attitudes and biases had developed. I ignored outside experts and pundits. My characters were real people, with real motives, emotions, hopes and dreams. I let their story unfold in real time, largely in their own words, building suspense toward a dramatic conclusion.
It was brutal. Over the next nine months, I wrote and rewrote every word, paragraph and page several times. Despite the endless space a book potentially offers, I learned that less often is more. I vastly overwrote some sections, then slashed them back to keep the story moving. I used endnotes to cite every source and moved text there that bogged down the main narrative but still deserved attention. I rewrote sections as new information challenged my earlier reporting. I worked seven days a week, usually 15 or more hours a day. I vowed never to write another book if I survived the ordeal, and my worried family eagerly agreed.
To my surprise, I met my deadline for the manuscript. My leave had expired, and I wearily returned to work the same day at the Los Angeles Times. At nights and on weekends over the next six months, I desperately cut chapters and rewrote others. Like most new authors, I was stunned to discover that the publisher offered less editing on a 300-page book than my newspaper normally provided for a 30-inch story. So I nervously passed drafts to friends and colleagues and incorporated their suggestions into my manuscript. I was frustrated at my failure to find several key documents or officials. But I took solace in Bob Woodward’s description of his work as the “best available version of the truth.” No book about an intelligence operation is ever 100 percent complete, but I felt sure I more than met Woodward’s investigative standard.
“Curveball” arrived in bookstores in October 2007, and more than a dozen newspapers and magazines responded with very favorable reviews. The New York Times Sunday Book Review called it “worthy of Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene.” I was blown away. Translations are under way in Holland, Germany, Japan and other countries. Even better, I was invited to launch the book on “The Colbert Report.” Little impresses my teenage kids, but seeing their dad mocked on late night TV did the trick. I might even write another book.
Bob Drogin, a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, is the author of “Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War,” published by Random House. His Web site is www.curveballbook.com.