Who Needs Inspectors?

Powell’s evidence on Iraq’s U.N. violations remains indisputable.

Last week, Chatterbox wrote about the Preuves Indiscutables school of thought concerning Colin Powell’s Feb. 5 speech to the U. N. Security Council. The PIs believe that Powell’s evidence failed to provide, in the words of French President Jacques Chirac, “preuves indiscutables” (“indisputable proof”) that Iraq is in violation of U.N. Resolution 1441, which demands “full and immediate compliance” with U.N Resolution 687. The latter U.N resolution, passed in 1991, requires Iraq to rid itself of all chemical and biological weapons “and all related subsystems and components and all research, development, support and manufacturing facilities.” Resolution 1441 further states that if Iraq does not comply, it will face “serious consequences” (“la guerre“).

At the end of the earlier column, Chatterbox invited the PIs to make their case against Powell’s speech. Don’t just say it’s disputable, Chatterbox urged. Dispute it. (Chatterbox exempts from this discussion Powell’s case for a link between Iraq and al-Qaida, which remains unpersuasive.) A few days later, Alexander Cockburn did so. Although Cockburn, who’s a bit of a wild man, is surely regarded with unease by many fellow PIs—even the Nation, which runs his column, seems wary of him—he has bravely come forward while his fellow PIs have held back. For doing so, Chatterbox salutes him.

Cockburn writes that Powell’s claims “were at best speculative, and at worst outright distortions,” and then goes on to debunk them:

There was the supposed transporter of biotoxins that turned out to be a truck from the Baghdad health department; the sinisterly enlarged test ramp for long distance missiles that was nothing of the sort; the suspect facility that had recently been cleared by the UN inspection teams; the strange eavesdropped conversations that could as well have been Iraqi officers discussing how to hide stills for making bootleg whiskey.

As to the first, Chatterbox is unable to find any news account or U.N. document that mentions a truck identified by Powell that turned out to belong to the Baghdad health department. Powell’s speech mentions a lot of trucks, and Chatterbox doesn’t know which one Cockburn is referring to. For simplicity’s sake, Chatterbox will assume Cockburn has this one cold and yield the point: One of Powell’s trucks is misidentified.

Cockburn’s “sinisterly enlarged test ramp” refers to a satellite photo of what Powell, in his speech, calls an “engine test stand.” Powell notes that it’s unusually long, and has a “large exhaust vent.” To Powell, that indicates the test stand “is clearly intended for long-range missiles that can fly 1,200 kilometers,” a range that the U.N. has explicitly forbidden. In his Feb. 14 briefing to the Security Council, inspections chief Hans Blix said that the test stand was capable of testing long-range missiles, but that “so far, the test stand has not been associated with a proscribed activity.” The fact that it hasn’t been used to test long-range missiles thus far doesn’t mean it won’t be. The test stand’s existence clearly violates the two U.N. resolutions.

Cockburn’s “suspect facility that had recently been cleared by the UN inspection teams” refers to several satellite photos of a munitions facility at Taji. Powell says that the place was storing chemical weapons, citing as evidence the presence of a truck standing by for emergency decontamination. When the U.N. inspectors arrived a few weeks after the photo was taken, a second satellite photo showed that the truck was gone. This, Powell says, suggests the Iraqis were tipped off in advance to what was supposed to be a surprise visit. But Blix didn’t buy it. “The reported movement of munitions,” Blix said at his Feb. 14 briefing, “could just as easily have been a routine activity.” Blix didn’t address the presence in the “before” picture (and absence in the “after” picture) of some tents that Powell also identified as indicating the storage of chemical weapons. But let’s give this one to Blix: The Taji facility is clean.

Cockburn’s “strange eavesdropped conversations” are Powell’s most damning evidence, and they aren’t nearly as ambiguous as Cockburn makes them out to be. Here’s one:

Republican Guard Colonel: Remove.
Republican Guard Captain
: Remove.
Colonel: The expression.
: The expression.
Colonel: “Nerve agents.”
Captain: “Nerve agents.” Colonel: Wherever it comes up.
Captain: Wherever it comes up. Colonel: In the wireless instructions.
Captain: In the instructions.

In another wiretapped conversation, a Republican guard officer tells an officer in the field to follow instructions (in a “message” he orders the field officer to “destroy” “because I don’t want anyone to see” it) concerning “forbidden ammo.” In yet another wiretapped conversation, a colonel informs a general that the International Atomic Energy Agency is coming for a visit and asks what to do if they see a “modified vehicle.” This seems to upset the general, who says, “I’m worried you all have something left.” The colonel replies, “We evacuated everything.”

Ca, ce n’est pas discutable. Whether Iraq’s violation of U.N. resolutions constitutes justification for war is a separate issue about which reasonable people can differ. But Chatterbox doesn’t see how the PIs can argue that we need further inspections to determine whether Iraq possesses forbidden weaponry. There are probably diplomatic reasons for the inspectors to continue their work, but there aren’t any functional ones.