The Powell report

Posted: Feb 04, 2003 12:00 AM
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell will deliver what may be the most anxiously awaited briefing to the UN Security Council since Ambassador Adlai Stevenson presented the United States' damning case against the USSR during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The Bush Administration clearly hopes that Mr. Powell's brief will have a similarly bracing effect, shoring up international support for war with Iraq and clearing the decks for action. The conventional wisdom holds that such success will depend on the degree to which the Administration parts the veil on sensitive American intelligence. Will Secretary Powell offer the equivalent of the classified satellite photos Amb. Stevenson wielded to prove the Kremlin was lying when it denied secretly putting nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba? This is not really the right question. Rather, the question should be: Will sharing highly classified information -- perhaps gleaned by as-yet-undetected electronic methods or well- placed human sources -- make a difference to Security Council members who have long viewed Saddam Hussein more as a client than as a menace? Indeed, Saddam has gotten away with defying the United Nations for the past twelve years precisely because France, Russia and China have consistently run interference for him. Even if these long-time friends of Saddam are genuinely open to persuasion -- to say nothing of Germany and Syria, who have recently expressed strenuous objections to any military action against Iraq -- the wisdom of trying to buy their support obviously depends on the cost of doing so. Specifically, what are the risks of compromising not only the intelligence itself, thereby affording the Iraqi regime an opportunity to relocate prohibited weapons and/or cover its tracks, but something even harder to come by: the means that permitted such intelligence to be acquired? It is certainly possible that Saddam's skilled intelligence apparatus (or those of his friends) will be able to "reverse-engineer" the disclosed conclusions so as to ensure that the sources and methods by which they were derived are neutralized. Obviously, the senior American officials preparing the Powell report have such considerations in mind as they weigh what he should reveal and what should be withheld. They are clearly cognizant of one unalterable fact: Every bit of information that tips off Saddam about what we know of his prohibited activities and how we know it will greatly complicate the job of any U.S.-led coalition charged with disarming Iraq the old-fashioned way -- via military means. The effect could be to allow Saddam to use weapons of mass destruction that might otherwise have been destroyed. The loss in lives, both Iraqi and American, could be unnecessarily increased, possibly greatly. It is worrying, therefore, that the Bush team appears to be yielding to the pressure from some allies, legislators and the media to discount such concerns in the interest of providing as persuasive as possible a case concerning evidence of Iraq's unaltered bad faith, continuing deceptive activity and ongoing stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). For example, Monday's Washington Times reported that Secretary Powell will disclose transcripts of conversations between Iraqi officials as they engaged in efforts to obstruct and otherwise frustrate UN weapons inspectors' searches. Of particular concern is the statement attributed to "American officials" who are quoted as saying "the intercepts are so damning that their release outweighs any damage that would be caused to the intelligence sources." Maybe so. But the calculation would surely be different if those who must be persuaded are governed, not by the facts, but by a perceived national interest in continuing to protect Saddam. In that case, a careful cost-benefit analysis might suggest that the associated damage to intelligence sources would be unacceptably high. As it happens, there may be an alternative that would permit the Powell report to be persuasive without irreparably damaging U.S. intelligence capabilities. The United States may have a human "smoking gun" in the person of a recent defector from the senior ranks of Saddam's praetorian guard, Abu Hamdi Mahmoud. According to the Australian paper The Herald Sun, Mahmoud was a member of the "Inner Circle" -- the small number of personal bodyguards allowed intimate proximity to the Iraqi despot -- and, perforce, knowledge of his most secret doings. The Herald Sun reports that this security agent, known as the "Gatekeeper," is now in Israel where he has told debriefers that: Saddam has maintained an underground chemical weapons facility at the southern end of the Jadray Peninsula in Baghdad; an assembly area near Ramadi for SCUD missiles imported from North Korea; and two underground bunkers in Iraq's Western Desert that contain biological weapons; and other WMDs are concealed in a tunnel complex built by Chinese engineers beneath Baghdad's sewer system. It seems unlikely that Saddam could effectively thwart the effect of all the disclosures so well-placed an individual could provide. This sort of information is precisely why Saddam has been so insistent that the UN inspectors not be able to hold real and productive interviews with his scientists and other personnel. And such obstructionism is why, among many other reasons, Secretary Powell on Wednesday must flatly declare Iraq to be in material breach of its obligations. And President Bush should immediately follow with a declaration of his own: Since the United Nations has proven either unwilling or incapable of correcting this situation, the United States and a "coalition of the willing" are going to begin forthwith the liberation of Iraq.