Interpretations differ on Powell's U.N. data
Analysts can't agree if evidence is convincing
Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer
Friday, February 7, 2003
Tom Clancy-style surveillance techniques helped U.S. intelligence and military agencies obtain the evidence for Iraqi weapons violations unveiled Wednesday by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
But evidence is one thing, while the interpretation of evidence is quite another, independent intelligence and weapons experts cautioned Thursday.
The experts agreed that Powell's evidence upholds the Bush administration's contention that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his troops have been violating arms control agreements.
"Those who are not convinced by this evidence will not be convinced by any evidence," said former Iraq weapons inspector Jay C. Davis, a Bay Area resident who in the 1990s ran the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
But the experts can't agree on what evidence -- in particular, photographic and radio-surveillance evidence -- is the most compelling, or that is even convincing.
One top expert questioned Powell's wisdom in releasing taped conversations between Iraqi military officers.
The taped evidence isn't damning enough to justify the revelation that America could intercept such radio conversations, said veteran intelligence analyst Angelo Codevilla, formerly of Stanford's Hoover Institution. And that revelation ensures the Iraqis won't radio-communicate by that means in the future, he said.
Long shrouded in secrecy, U.S. intelligence techniques have attained near- mythical proportions in recent years. Satellites can take high-resolution photos of ground activity with extremely high precision that allows the identification of individual buildings, vehicles and perhaps even individuals.
Also, cell-phone conversations can be monitored by satellites or radio receivers on small mini-aircraft, a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The recorded conversations, or "intercepts," are fed to intelligence organizations such as the National Security Agency. There, translators and supercomputers scan them for key words such as "nuclear" and "Osama."
In interviews Wednesday and Thursday, most experts were reluctant to discuss technical aspects of U.S. intelligence capabilities. They preferred to concentrate on two broader questions: the difficulty of finding intelligence data whose meaning is unambiguous, and the challenge of turning intelligence data into sound U.S. diplomatic and military policy.
"Every piece of intelligence is subject to interpretation," cautioned Mary DeRosa, an intelligence expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There's almost always some ambiguity in it. It's the rare kind of intelligence that absolutely proves a point."
Pointing that up, the analysts' opinion of Powell's intelligence data and their answer to a reporter's question, "Does the data justify the invasion of Iraq?" did not always jibe.
DeRosa, former legal adviser to President Bill Clinton's National Security Council, said of Powell's presentation: "I thought he made an extremely persuasive case that the Iraqis are thwarting inspections. He made a good case that they had (hidden) prohibited weapons and materials. I thought (his) case about a meaningful tie (between Iraq and) al Qaeda was less persuasive."
All in all, then, is military action justified? "That's something I'm still struggling with, myself," DeRosa said.
Particularly at issue is the interpretation of the Iraqi officers' recorded conversations. "Those radio and telephone intercepts were pretty authentic, from my experience," said Professor Edward Laurance, a West Point graduate who taught at Monterey's Naval Postgraduate School for 20 years. He is now teaching in the graduate school of international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
However, Laurance thinks that for the time being, military action would be premature. For now, he said, it's best to keep Hussein surrounded and to keep weapons inspectors running around Iraq. Laurance admitted that protracted military containment is expensive, "but not nearly as expensive as an all-out war would be."
By contrast, Codevilla was disappointed by the intercepted conversations: "I'm afraid they are anything but conclusive."
He was "frankly surprised" that Powell would sacrifice that secret source of intelligence information by revealing its existence, considering that the recorded conversations (in Codevilla's view) aren't smoking-gun evidence of Iraqi crimes.
Codevilla, author of numerous books of intelligence work, suggested the officers were probably conversing over low-power military "radiophones," unaware that they were being recorded -- possibly by radio sensors aboard small, unpiloted drone aircraft or satellites, or by other means. Now that Powell has blown their cover, the Iraqi military will most likely switch to use of land-based telephone lines, which are harder to intercept.
SPECULATION ON 'EARS'
"My own guess is that there are drones all over the place (in Iraq), with 'ears,' " Codevilla said.
At the same time, Codevilla believes that for other reasons, the United States would be more than justified in attacking Iraq -- multilaterally if possible, but unilaterally if necessary. He believes Powell's release of intelligence data is important not so much because of the contents as because it shows U.S. determination to go to war. And that, he said, will hasten the world's willingness to join in a multilateral attack, because no one wants to support the wrong side in a war that the United States is likely to win.
"This is not cynicism, this is how international affairs work," Codevilla stressed.
Powell's evidence constituted "a powerful and well-argued brief," said Davis, the former weapons inspector. "The secretary has made a strong case that Iraq remains in defiance of Resolution 1441 and all previous U.N. Security Council resolutions with respect to their weapons of mass destruction. "
Furthermore, Davis concludes based on the Powell report, "the Iraqis are not only hiding the research capabilities for their biological and chemical weapons programs, they are hiding significant production facilities in their mobile form and clearly hiding significant quantities of weaponized systems, i. e., those ready for war and in militarily useful quantities. This is a result (of intelligence work) that I did not expect."
In addition, the intelligence data indicate that "the Iraqis persist at present to recreate their nuclear program," Davis said.
Even more ominously, the intelligence evidence of Iraq's ability to hide its weapons activities suggests that the United Nations inspections agency "or its field operations have been penetrated by Iraqi intelligence, or the intelligence services of those sympathetic to Iraq," Davis said. "This was a worry from the start and is now confirmed."
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