Armed with newly declassified audio intercepts and aerial photos, US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented evidence Wednesday that Iraq has evaded UN weapons inspectors.
The US intelligence community generally gave Powell high marks for making a compelling case without greatly compromising US sources and intelligence gathering methods. However, audio intercepts, rarely released by US intelligence, was a bold move in that balancing act.
"It's pretty amazing to be listening to intercepts of phone conversations that are probably [on] land-line [phones]," said George Friedman, chairman and chief intelligence officer of Stratfor.com, a private intelligence company. "It surprised me the level of detail that [Powell] was prepared to provide," he said.
By playing the intercepted conversation, US intelligence will certainly lose access to that Iraqi communication line - if they have not already. The Iraqi military officers will likely be recognized, and their lines scanned for taps, says Friedman.
But the audio provided Powell with a "gotcha" moment. In one conversation, a man identified by Powell as a high-level Iraqi officer gives an order to a subordinate to not refer to "nerve agents" in wireless communications.
"[The Iraqis] are not going to talk about nerve agents if they don't exist," said Peter Brooks, a former CIA intelligence officer now with the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Iraq doesn't have to hide bullets and tanks. They are allowed to have an army. But, they're not allowed to have [weapons of mass destruction programs]."
Powell released a "great deal" of new technical data, says Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. According to Cordesman, some of the new information included:
• Evidence that Iraq has tested a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a 500 kilometer range. UAVs can be used to dispense chemical and biological agents.
• A photo that shows grading and removal of top soil at the Al Musayyib chemical production site, revealing a new Iraqi capability to evade inspection techniques.
• Photos that included decontamination vehicles, indicating a mobile, dispersible chemical weapons program.
• A photo of a new Iraqi rocket motor test stand, offering new evidence that Iraq is trying to develop longer-range missiles.
In matters of intelligence, however, there is always room for interpretation. Not everyone was convinced in 1962, Mr. Cordesman noted, when Adlai Stevenson produced dramatic photos before the UN during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For the moment, there appears to be broad consensus that Powell - flanked at the UN by the director and deputy director of the CIA - was on solid ground.
However, it is the importance of the information that may be up for debate.
"The real question is, is the evidence enough to convince people that it's a clear and present danger?" asks Lawrence Korb, director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. And what would show clear and present danger? "If you actually show that [Hussein] had given or tried to give Al Qaeda a weapon for an attack, for example," he said.
While Powell restated the suspected connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda, he did not offer much that was new to substantiate a widely disputed claim.
"He didn't really move it much beyond what is already known, which is that the Iraqis and Al Qaeda maintain a fairly casual relationship," said Stratfor.com's Friedman.
The US may indeed have more alarming evidence. Powell had to strike a balance between revealing enough intelligence to spur diplomatic action while not revealing US assets. Further, with a war on the horizon, possible targets, such as weapons locations might be kept secret.
Intelligence experts say Powell did not reveal too much. The audio evidence was probably the most sensitive. That the US has aerial reconnaissance capabilities is not news to anyone. The images projected on the screen at the UN were not the highest resolution available to the US, according to Friedman.
"I thought the decision to release [the intelligence] was clearly the right thing to do," said James Lewis, a CSIS encryption expert and longtime advocate of furthering government disclosure. "In fact, it ought to prompt a rethinking of intelligence disclosure policy."