The difficult burden of proof

British Prime Minister Tony Blair Tuesday released a dossier on Iraq's weapons programs.

To convince the world in 1962 that the USSR was threatening the US by building missiles in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy authorized the release of satellite photos that clearly showed missile construction sites.

While that may have tipped the Soviets off to US intelligence capabilities at the time, any trade-off was deemed to be worth it: The photographs dispelled any doubt that the missile threat was real.

Forty years later, another American president is trying to convince skeptics that Iraq presents a new, critical threat with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. In an effort to help bolster Bush's case – and silence critics at home of his pro-American stance – British Prime Minister Tony Blair Tuesday made public a long-awaited dossier on Iraq incorporating intelligence sources, circumstantial evidence and previously known data.

Read before an emergency session of parliament, the report said Iraq's chemical and biological weapons are ready for use on 45 minutes' notice. While stopping short of saying Iraq has nuclear weapons, it said Iraq has tried to acquire uranium from Africa, despite having no nuclear power program. According to the dossier – which Baghdad rejected as "scaremongering, exaggeration and lies" – Iraq has also illegally retained up to 20 missiles with a range of 400 miles that can carry chemical or biological weapons, and has tried to extend the range of other, smaller missiles.

Analysts say that making public such information to dispel doubt at home may also inadvertently help the Iraqi regime prepare for conflict. Revealing what the West knows – or doesn't know – experts say, draws a fine line between convincing an uncertain public to go to war and while ensuring that such revelations do not compromise intelligence sources or potential targets.

"You don't really want to tell Saddam what you know already, because he can use that to his own advantage," says Paul Beaver, an independent military analyst based in London.

So far, little hard evidence about Iraq's illegal programs or its alleged links to terrorism has surfaced. A 20-page document released by the Bush administration less than two weeks ago, as evidence that Iraq was due for regime change, contained, like Blair's dossier, little new data, critics say.

Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, who is overseeing a return of inspectors to Iraq for the first time since late 1998, said there are "many open questions" about Iraq's efforts. "If I had solid evidence that Iraq retained weapons of mass destruction or was constructing such weapons, I would take it to the Security Council," Mr. Blix said earlier this month. "The satellites don't see through roofs. So we are not drawing conclusions from them."

How far the US will go in revealing what it knows is a measure of resolve for an eventual strike, says one official. Andrew Krepinevich, a retired US Army strategic planner, and head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington military affairs think tank, says: "I think you [reveal all your evidence] when you've made the commitment that you are going to forcibly remove [the threat], one way or another. That's the bridge the administration has crossed."

How that evidence is presented will determine its usefulness to Iraq, Mr. Krepinevich says. Revealing the locations and quantities of suspect materials could cause them to be hidden elsewhere; whereas, calculations based on what UN weapons inspectors could not account for up to 1998 – and compelling analysis about how that material could have been built upon in the meantime – would not give away US target plans.

"It is more risky not to present a strong case, and to go in with no coalition," Krepinevich says, "than to present a strong case, and get strong backing for military action – [even if you] then go in and do the job thoroughly by yourself."

Compromising sources is also a danger. "Doubtless, they have a mole in the [Iraqi] system, who is telling them things, but you can't release that because it puts the guy at risk," says Andrew Brookes, an air war specialist at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, which released its own Iraq threat assessment two weeks ago. "So [officials] have to say, 'Trust us, this is the game plot.'"

A smoking gun – like the Cuba photographs – may be out of reach. "If you're looking for a dagger with a piece of paper that says, 'I'm going to kill everyone–signed, Saddam,' you're not going to find that," Mr. Brookes says. "Those people who are in the loop will accept the Prime Minister's word, and those who aren't may never accept it."

Part of that skepticism is based on a recent history of intelligence weaknesses, in which official information was exaggerated or ignored, sometimes resulting in civilian deaths. During the Kosovo campaign in 1999, for example, NATO airstrikes hit more decoys than real Serb tanks; refugee columns were accidentally struck; and the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was hit.

Anthony Cordesman, a military expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, notes in one report that Operation Desert Fox, in which cruise missiles were dropped on Iraq in 1998 barely impacted the regime.Earlier that year, US bombs hit a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, which had been mistakenly characterized as a chemical-weapons facility. In the first Gulf War of 1991, the US military first over-estimated the strength of Iraqi forces, and then the damage inflicted against Iraqi units during the 100-hour ground offensive.

Such cases raise the bar for evidence, as US and UK leaders make the case for a new war. "Unlike the Cuba Missile crisis, you can't provide a photo of it," says Krepinevich. "If you are a skeptic, the last Gulf War demonstrated that you had no clue about how many [WMD] stocks Iraq had."The question is: What kind of evidence are the fence-sitters going to find persuasive?" Krepinevich adds. "There will be the track record to go up against, and, quite frankly, there are probably some people who will never be convinced."

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