War Stories

The Goods on Saddam

The problem with showing our Iraq evidence at the U.N.

Reasons for Powell to keep mum
Reasons for Powell to keep mum

As the world waits for Feb. 5, the date when Secretary of State Colin Powell plans to brief the U.N. Security Council and finally unveil the top-secret intelligence materials that (so we’re promised) prove Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction, two points are worth making.

First, however compelling Powell’s show-and-tell might be, it is extremely unlikely that his case will be as cut-and-dried as Adlai Stevenson’s display of U-2 spy plane photographs in October 1962 (everybody’s favorite parallel), which proved beyond all doubt that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Second, in part for that reason, U.S. intelligence officers, who are putting up fierce internal resistance to declassifying the Iraqi evidence, probably have good reasons for their dissent.

Their big concern is that the United States will blow a lot of highly sensitive intelligence data—the sort of sources and methods that are rarely even discussed, never deliberately revealed—and the cache still won’t be persuasive enough, especially not to the layman, to justify war.

Nobody on the outside knows exactly what sort of data dump Powell is assembling. But one can make some guesses and extrapolate reasons why the spy agencies might be nervous.

Images from spy-satellite photos are the most obvious but least problematic category. Anyone can download such imagery from commercial variants of these satellites. The principles of what the cameras do, and how to evade them, are fairly well-understood. Even here, though, there are some issues. The publicly released versions of these photos have a resolution of about 1 meter (i.e., they can distinguish objects that are 1 meter wide). However, these are “scrubbed” versions. The real, unvarnished photos are believed to have much sharper resolution, around one-tenth of a meter. If some of Powell’s case requires revealing the sharper images, world leaders (not just Saddam) will then know just how good our eyes-in-the-sky are—and how much better they need to hide whatever they don’t want us to see.

More serious are intercepts from telephone conversations, which Bush suggested in his State of the Union message that we possess. Information from them could be revealing enough to prompt Iraq’s leaders to shut down certain phone lines—and possibly kill people whose lines were tapped.

There is a precedent here. In the late 1970s, an anti-detente CIA analyst leaked to the columnist Jack Anderson some transcripts of phone conversations from Leonid Brezhnev’s car, suggesting (or so the analyst thought) that Soviet delegates to the SALT II arms control talks were manipulating the treaty to allow them to keep building certain types of ICBMs that the American negotiators thought would be banned. After Anderson published the leak, the tap on the car disappeared—as did the Soviet mechanic whom the CIA had hired to install it.

It is also possible that our spy agencies have learned some information by tapping into a command-level fiber-optics cable system that the Iraqis had thought was secure—and that, after Wednesday, they would know is not.

I should emphasize: I do not know—nor has anyone suggested—that such a system exists or that we have figured out how to intercept its transmissions. But here, too, there is a telling precedent. In the late Cold War, when Soviet submarines returned to port, they downloaded their databanks into a cable. These databanks told everything about where the sub had gone, what it had done, how its fuel systems worked—everything. In the 1980s, American SEALs navigated minisubs into Soviet harbors and tapped into these cables. Everything they transmitted, we intercepted. An NSA analyst named Ronald Pelton revealed this operation to the Soviets. As a result, the Soviets shut down the cables and switched to microwave transmission. (Pelton was arrested and convicted for his espionage.)

In other words, after Wednesday, it may be hard to get as good intelligence on Iraq as before Wednesday. If Powell’s presentation is strong enough to persuade the Security Council to oust Saddam by force, that might not matter; Saddam will soon be gone. But if the briefing isn’t so convincing, and if the world waits several weeks or months longer for the U.N. inspectors to come up with more evidence on their own, then the disclosures could end up doing serious damage to our monitoring capabilities.

This is no doubt what the intelligence bureaucrats see as the chief risk—that the briefing probably won’t satisfy the most demanding criteria of proof and will make additional proof harder to obtain.           

Proof along the lines of the Cuban photos in ‘62 would be great, but it’s almost certainly the case that we don’t have anything so lightning-bolt clear. For one thing, if we did, Bush by now would have shown it, or, at least, an aide would have leaked the gist of it. For another, Saddam Hussein is far more adept at hiding things than Khrushchev was. (At a 1987 Harvard conference on the 25th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I asked Fyodor Burlatsky, who was Khrushchev’s speechwriter during the crisis, why the Soviet military didn’t camouflage the missiles. He sputtered a bit, then said loudly in a thick Russian accent, “Because it is Russian style! They try to plan all our society, but Russian people usually don’t plan one day in their lives!”)

A more apt parallel for Powell’s briefing is the scene in The Third Man, the great Carol Reed-Graham Greene film about postwar Vienna, where Maj. Calloway (the head of British military police, played by Trevor Howard) shows Holly Martins (the naive American writer, played by Joseph Cotten) the incriminating evidence that his pal, Harry Lime (the black marketeer, played by Orson Welles), has been selling diluted pharmaceuticals. We see a microscope, then finger prints on a vial, threads from a coat, files with Lime’s name all over them, a pile of photographs. Martin is floored by the presentation. But even if Powell’s case about Iraq is equally powerful, it doesn’t necessarily mean the Security Council will be convinced.           

Powell will reportedly show evidence that Iraq has mobile biological-warfare vans. Maybe it does. He’ll probably show pictures of the vans and maybe other documents referring to them. But one can imagine someone asking: How do we know what’s in those vans? And the fact is, unless this briefing is far more definitive than most intelligence briefings, we probably won’t. “Iron-clad” is a rare phrase in such forums (the CIA calls its reports “intelligence estimates”). These are prosecutor’s briefs, based on a mix of facts, circumstance, and theory. Dissenting views are common. To an audience inclined to skepticism—say, the French and the Germans and much of worldwide public opinion, which doesn’t want to believe a compelling case for war, even if the United States has one—skepticism comes easily.

That being the case, it should be no surprise that the intelligence community—which has no stomach for divulging its secrets to begin with—is resisting the idea of opening up in a setting so rife with political passions and global consequences. The paradox is that, the more the spies succeed in withholding the particularly sensitive stuff, the harder it will be for Powell to make the U.S. case.