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Archive for Sunday, August 10, 2003

Powell’s case for war

A look back at U.S.’s ‘smoking guns’ six months later

August 10, 2003

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On a Baghdad evening last February, in a stiflingly warm conference room high above the city's streets, Iraqi bureaucrats, European envoys and foreign reporters crowded before television screens to hear the reading of an indictment.

"There are many smoking guns," Colin Powell would say afterward.

In a hushed U.N. Security Council chamber in New York, the U.S. secretary of state unleashed an 80-minute avalanche of allegations: The Iraqis were hiding chemical and biological weapons, were secretly working to make more banned arms, were reviving their nuclear bomb project. He spoke of "the gravity of the threat that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose to the world."

It was the most comprehensive presentation of the U.S. case for war. Powell marshaled what were described as intercepted Iraqi conversations, reconnaissance photos of Iraqi sites, accounts of defectors, and other intelligence sources. Since 1998, he told fellow foreign ministers, "we have amassed much intelligence indicating that Iraq is continuing to make these weapons."

In the United States, Powell's "thick intelligence file" was galvanizing, swinging opinion toward war.

But in Baghdad, when the satellite broadcast ended, presidential science adviser Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi appeared before the audience and dismissed the U.S. case as "stunts" aimed at swaying the uninformed.

Six months after Powell's Feb. 5 appearance, the file does look thin. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told U.S. senators last month the Bush administration had no "dramatic new evidence" before ordering the Iraq invasion. "We acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light through the prism of our experience on Sept. 11," he said.

The U.S. military, since overrunning the country, has found no weapons of mass destruction, and President Bush's credibility has come under attack because his State of the Union address cited a British report that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. That allegation, which Powell left out of his own speech, has been challenged by U.S. intelligence officials.

How does Powell's pivotal indictment look from the vantage point of today? Powell has said several times since February that he stands by it, the State Department said Wednesday. Here is an Associated Press review of major elements, based on both what was known in February and what has been learned since:

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he said
could contain anthrax as he presents evidence of Iraq's alleged
weapons programs to the United Nations Security Council in this
Feb. 5 file photo.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presents evidence of Iraq's alleged weapons programs to the United Nations Security Council in this Feb. 5 file photo.

Satellite photos

Powell presented satellite photos of industrial buildings, bunkers and trucks, and suggested they showed Iraqis surreptitiously moving prohibited missiles and chemical and biological weapons to hide them. At two sites, he said trucks were "decontamination vehicles" associated with chemical weapons.

But these and other sites had undergone 500 inspections in recent months. Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix, a day earlier, had said his well-equipped experts found no contraband and no sign that items had been moved. Nothing has been reported found since.

Addressing the Security Council a week after Powell, Blix used one photo scenario as an example and said it could be showing routine as easily as illicit activity. Norwegian inspector Jorn Siljeholm told AP on March 19 that "decontamination vehicles" U.N. teams were led to invariably turned out to be water or fire trucks.

Audiotapes

Powell played three audiotapes of men speaking in Arabic of a mysterious "modified vehicle," "forbidden ammo," and "the expression 'nerve agents"' -- tapes said to be intercepts of Iraqi army officers discussing concealment.

Two of the brief, anonymous tapes, otherwise not authenticated, provided little context for judging their meaning. It couldn't be known whether the mystery vehicle, however "modified," was even banned. A listener could only speculate over the cryptic mention of nerve agents. The third tape, meanwhile, seemed natural, an order to inspect scrap areas for "forbidden ammo." The Iraqis had just told U.N. inspectors they would search ammunition dumps for stray, empty chemical warheads left over from years earlier. They later turned four over to inspectors.

One of the slides that Secretary of State Colin Powell displayed
during his presentation to the U.N. Security Council is seen in
this file photo from the State Department.

One of the slides that Secretary of State Colin Powell displayed during his presentation to the U.N. Security Council is seen in this file photo from the State Department.

Powell's rendition of that third conversation made it more incriminating, by saying an officer ordered that the area be "cleared out." The voice on the tape didn't say that, but only that the area be "inspected," according to the official U.S. translation.

U-2s, scientists

Powell said Iraq was violating a U.N. resolution by rejecting U-2 reconnaissance flights and barring private interviews with scientists. He suggested only fear of the Saddam Hussein regime kept scientists from exposing secret weapons programs.

On Feb. 17, U-2 flights began. By early March, 12 scientists had submitted to private interviews. In postwar interviews, with Saddam no longer in power, no Iraqi scientist is known to have confirmed any revived weapons program.

Anthrax

Powell noted Iraq had declared it produced 8,500 liters of the biological agent anthrax before 1991, but U.N. inspectors estimated it could have made up to 25,000 liters. None has been "verifiably accounted for," he said.

No anthrax has been reported found. The Defense Intelligence Agency, in a confidential report last September, recently disclosed, said that although it believed Iraq had biological weapons, it didn't know their nature, amounts or condition. Three weeks before the invasion, an Iraqi report of scientific soil sampling supported the regime's contention that it had destroyed its anthrax stocks at a known site, the U.N. inspection agency said May 30. Iraq also presented a list of witnesses to verify amounts, the agency said. It was too late for inspectors to interview them; the war soon began.

A U.S. Army blackhawk helicopter patrols over a market place in the
city of Tikrit, Iraq,. U.S. snipers killed two Iraqi men Friday and
wounded two others who were allegedly selling weapons in a market
in the center of Tikrit. U.S. forces positioned snipers around the
market after hearing that weapons and ammunition was sold at the
market place.

A U.S. Army blackhawk helicopter patrols over a market place in the city of Tikrit, Iraq,. U.S. snipers killed two Iraqi men Friday and wounded two others who were allegedly selling weapons in a market in the center of Tikrit. U.S. forces positioned snipers around the market after hearing that weapons and ammunition was sold at the market place.

Bioweapons trailers

Powell said defectors told of "biological weapons factories" on trucks and in train cars. He displayed artists' conceptions of such vehicles.

After the invasion, U.S. authorities said they found two such truck trailers in Iraq, and the CIA said it concluded they were part of a bioweapons production line. But no trace of biological agents was found on them, Iraqis said the equipment made hydrogen for weather balloons, and State Department intelligence balked at the CIA's conclusion. The British defense minister, Geoffrey Hoon, has said the vehicles weren't a "smoking gun."

The trailers have not been submitted to U.N. inspection for verification. No "bioweapons railcars" have been reported found.

'Four tons' of VX

Powell said Iraq produced four tons of the nerve agent VX. "A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes. Four tons," he said.

Powell didn't note that most of that four tons was destroyed in the 1990s under U.N. supervision. Before the invasion, the Iraqis made a "considerable effort" to prove they had destroyed the rest, doing chemical analysis of the ground where inspectors confirmed VX had been dumped, the U.N. inspection agency reported May 30.

Experts at Britain's International Institute of Strategic Studies said any pre-1991 VX most likely would have degraded anyway. No VX has been reported found since the invasion.

'Embedded' capability

"We know that Iraq has embedded key portions of its illicit chemical weapons infrastructure within its legitimate civilian industry," Powell said.

No "chemical weapons infrastructure" has been reported found. The newly disclosed DIA report of last September said there was "no reliable information" on "where Iraq has -- or will -- establish its chemical warfare agent-production facilities."

Chemical warheads

Powell said 122-mm chemical warheads found by U.N. inspectors in January might be the "tip of an iceberg."

The warheads were empty, a fact Powell didn't note. Blix said on June 16 the dozen stray rocket warheads, never uncrated, were apparently "debris from the past," the 1980s. No others have been reported found since the invasion.

Revived nuclear program

"We have no indication that Saddam Hussein has ever abandoned his nuclear weapons program," Powell said.

Chief U.N. nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei told the council two weeks before the U.S. invasion, "We have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq." On July 24, Foreign Minister Ana Palacio of Spain, a U.S. ally on Iraq, said there were "no evidences, no proof" of a nuclear bomb program before the war. No such evidence has been reported found since the invasion.

"There are many smoking guns," the secretary of state said in a CBS interview later that Wednesday in February. "Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option."

The U.S. bombing began 43 days later, and on April 12 al-Saadi, the science adviser, handed himself over to the U.S. troops who seized Baghdad. His wife has not seen him since.

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