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Sunday, February 09, 2003

 
--- Colin Powell, the Adlai Moment, and the OJ Question ---

We digress from our series Unpacking the Case for Invading Iraq, to unpack Colin Powell's presentation at the Security Council.

Wednesday, Feb.5, 2003 was Powell's "Adlai Stevenson moment" ... an allusion to the time Stevenson rocked the world by unveiling overhead photography of Russian missile sites in Cuba.

US mainstream editorialists pronounce Powell's presentation "convincing". Senator Joe Biden declares "If I had this evidence before ... an unbiased jury, I could get a conviction". Arch-liberal columnist Mary McGrory says "I'm persuaded". "Powell shows litany of regime's deception" blares the teaser for an Aussie newsfeed. Other global reaction was mixed, and Security Council feedback leans to "No sale!". Wonder why?

These "moments" have a way of losing their luster by the time History gets done with them. Reagan's televised moment -- charting "Soviet airbase" construction on Grenada -- was bogus. Bush41's bill of evils against Noriega was juiced with bogus intel. Bogus intel cemented the Gulf War Coalition and stampeded the Senate into approving it. LBJ's Tonkin Gulf "moment" -- bogus. Madeline Albright's "moment" -- displaying the detonator "fingerprint" linking Saddam to a car-bomb intended for Bush41 -- bogus. Stevenson's "moment" was real enough, but the intel gaps behind it nearly pitched us into WW III. Stevenson's other "moment", in the Bay of Pigs affair, held potential for career-ending credibility damage.

Powell's performance was incontestably brilliant. He grabbed our attention, told us what we were going to see, and ninety minutes later most of us left the tent convinced we had seen it. What, if anything, did we really see?

Working from video, press transcripts, and the official State Department version, I've made an effort to identify and dissect every major element of Powell's presentation. Let's see if there's any "there" there. [I may tidy up and add supporting links as I get to them.]

1. Electronic communications intercept ... ElBaradei is coming ... "modified vehicle" ... "evacuated"
Odd. ElBaradei (of IAEA) heads inspection for nuclear weapons -- the last place you'd find a "modified vehicle". Does "vehicle" means vehicle? It could refer to a container or gizmo or who knows what. What ever it is, the general officer in charge ("I'm worried you all have something left") didn't know he had it, and he's not supposed to have it as far as HQ is concerned. "We evacuated everything". In this context, everything clearly does not encompass the "modified vehicle". Curious as to nuance of the Arabic-to-English translation ... the English evacuated conveys a "remove from danger" connotation not carried by removed or emptied or swept.

In any event, this -- like the other two intercepts -- smacks of nothing more than routine pre-inspection brass-polishing ... same chatter you'd pick up eavesdropping on any US corporate branch office or military base on the eve of a VIP tour.

Why compromise signals intelligence by disclosing this? It is not dispositive. If Powell has better, why didn't he share it?

2. Second intercept ... "forbidden ammo" ... "destroy the message"
More brass-polishing and ass-covering, i.e., I hope you cleaned up what I told you to clean up ... and don't leave tracks, because I promised my boss it was already clean. "inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas" doesn't sound like top-secret project discipline.

3. "What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence"
Solid intelligence is something of an oxymoron. Powell vouches for his own forthcoming conclusions, based on his own sources and credibility, and plants the suggestion that you have seen and will see evidence supporting each point. Our evidentiary tour de force soon wanders from solid intel onto shaky ground.

4. "We know" ... weapons were "ordered removed" from palaces ... scientists hiding documents ... files driven around in cars ... hard drives replaced ... not only documents -- weapons ... missiles distributed in Western Iraq ... satellite photos of "banned materials" being moved
Vouching again. If we have solid intel on these points, why not present solid intel instead of those lame intercepts?

5. Active CW bunkers ... decontamination truck ... cleaned out ... "on the 22nd of December" just before inspection
Photo imagery lends an aura of substantiality to Powell's assertion ... but if the bunker was cleaned out 22 Dec., why is the "before" image dated "10 Nov"? Out of 30 similar sightings, why not cite a single more compelling example?

In any case, US would deploy similar decontamination support if it were working around a known high-toxicity legacy site, industrial or military.

6. UK's "fine paper ... which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities."
This paper documented deception activities, all right, and it became notorious only hours later. Heads are going to roll over this, and Blair's may be one of them. Plagiarized (clumsily, typo's and all) from published sources including Jane's and a grad student thesis ... except that the original thesis detailed Saddam's operations in Kuwait in 1991. Not just plagiarized, but plugged with more alarming estimates to punch up the conclusions. Foolish enough and obvious enough to suggest a deliberate effort to embarrass 10 Downing Street. What possible motive ... revenge for Blair's arm-twisting Brit intel for support of the case against Saddam?

The story is still unfolding ... start with this CASI discussion and this from Channel 4.

7. "housecleaning at close to 30 sites" ... "don't know precisely what Iraq was moving" ... "We must ask ourselves, why would Iraq suddenly move equipment"
Proof by suspicion. We don't know, so we must assume the worst.

8. U-2 flights, safe conduct denied
Iraq claims it can't guarantee safety of U-2 surveillance flights so long as US air patrols penetrate Iraqi airspace. Iraq asserts the right to shoot at these patrols (though it never hits anything), and the international community seems to agree. The 1991 cease-fire created "no fly" zones, but did not grant US enforcement powers. From US/UK perspective, we're enforcing an agreement the only way possible. From Iraq's perspective, they're exercising a legitimate right to territorial defense. It would be helpful if US sought, and UN approved, a resolution formally legitimizing US patrols and requiring Iraqi air defense to stand down. US doesn't want to seek formal approval, as any such request would imply we've been operating for 12 years without that authority.

9. Witness intimidation ... espionage accusations against UNMOVIC are "a veiled threat" that cooperative Iraqi's will be treated as traitors ... "human sources" reveal more explicit death threats ... "these are not assertions. These are facts"
But in point of fact these statements (though very likely true) are literally no more and no less than assertions -- in this case, assertions of hearsay.

10. Small vial is held up to the light ... ominous tones ... "less than a teaspoon ... shut down the United States Senate"
The anthrax moment ... high drama, but contrary to fact. "Mr. DASCHLE ... At about 10:15 this morning, a member of my staff opened an envelope ... the substance was anthrax ... this Senate and this institution will not stop. We will not cease our business. We will continue to work. ..." And so they did. (Congressional Record, 2001-10-15, Page S10673.)

Why gild the lily with a HOWLER so easily checked in preparation, and so easily exposed as fabrication? Why not gild the lily? Nobody called him on it.

At this point in the presentation, Powell has laid down a hypnotic groove and is plowing it deeper with each pass ... lulling us into a pattern of acceptance by rhythmically alternating assertions with evidentiary exhibits. Assertion, exhibit, assertion, exhibit, assertion, exhibit ... only the least susceptible subjects notice the exhibits are growing thinner and fuzzier, while assertions are growing bigger and heavier. Weak-minded subjects -- journalists and the like -- will go away convinced they have seen an exhibit to support every assertion.

Powell's "8,500 liters", by the way, pertains to liters of anthrax slurry ... not the equivalent of refined, dried, particulated spores simulated in Powell's vial. And hundreds of people did NOT receive emergency medical treatment ... they received -- or at least they were offered -- prophylactic doses of antibiotics.

11. Mobile BW production facilities
Powell makes up in detail what he lacks in documentation. Interior schematics, artists conceptions based on "firsthand descriptions" ... 7 units, 2 or 3 trucks each ... an accident killed 12.

Former UNSCOM exec Rolf Ekeus is skeptical: "... UNSCOM detected a system of mobility [but] a production line up on the flatbed of the truck, that sounds still a little difficult to believe ... not even Iraq is always that reckless. I still need to be a little convinced about that."

UNMOVIC exec Hans Blix has already complained about acting on US tips and "busting" mobile food safety inspection labs.

12. Iraq "weaponized" anthrax, botulinum, aflatoxin, ricin ... investigated a laundry list of others ... "has the wherewithal to develop smallpox"
Anthrax and botox are legitimate threats. Aflatoxin is a laughing stock in BW circles.

Ricin heretofore was relegated to the footnotes on Iraqi BW research ... well down the laundry list of other BW agents investigated. It is powerful -- a single molecule can kill a cell -- but BW community consensus does not rank it as well-suited to mass-casualty attacks. Iraq has NOT weaponized ricin ... it test-fired a single artillery shell loaded with ricin solution in 1988, with unsatisfactory results.

Suddenly, ricin is the latest Fear Factor Flavor of the Month ... all the rage in Europe! Powell headlines "ricin" to seed the mental association of Saddam with recent news events.

Smallpox is potentially disastrous ... not so much for the US as for the other 95% of Earth's population. There's no way to tell how fast it would spread in today's more mobile population, where the "speed bumps" of residual immunity (by vaccination or survived infection) are increasingly sparse. [We knew of Iraq's suspected "wherewithal" for many months, but only surfaced it publicly a few days before the November 2002 election.]

13. F-1 Test video of Mirage F-1 sprayer-modified drop tank
To many viewers, this was the emotional clincher. Powell recites the lethal effect of a pinch of this or a pinch of that, then wows us with the image of 2,000 pounds sprayed over vast territories. In context, most of the audience probably remembers it as US intel revealing Iraqi BW advances ... but that's not what they saw and heard.

The chilling dramatic effect would be attenuated if Powell emphasized that this is Iraqi footage, not US surveillance ... that it dates to 1990 or 1991, not 2002 ... that Iraq provided it to UNSCOM in the mid-90s ... that US has conducted similar open-air tests with similar material (harmless lookalike B. subtilis in lieu of B. anthracis) ... that tests (theirs, ours, and others') found the wet aerosol spray method rather ineffective ... and that Iraq has a snowball's chance of getting an attack jet across anybody's borders.

A number of detachable tanks remain unaccounted for ... could one of these be the "modified vehicle" mentioned above?

14. Chemical weapons ... missing inventories ... precursors for 500 tons ... four tons VX ... dual-use infrastructure
Reciting items of well-known concern and widely debated status. Saddam may or may not retain them, and might or might not be able to document them if he wanted to. Nothing new here.

15. Unusual activity at a CW transshipment point in May 2002 ... satellite image corroborated by a human source ... topsoil removed and sites graded.
US works around toxic nightmares in huge legacy stores and dumping grounds of discontinued war material, and takes similar precautions. Even Seattle's beautiful but quirky Gasworks Park, a fossil fuel processing site many decades ago, got a wall-to-wall soil transplant recently.

16. Procurement of CW precursors that "can also be used for legitimate purposes ... why did we have to learn about them [the hard way]?"
Proof by suspicion.

17. A third intercept: "nerve agents" ... "wireless instructions"
Caught 'em red-handed! Or did we? Anyone who has maintained tech manuals or S.O.P.'s might read this passage differently. A directive to strike the phrase "nerve agents" throughout a set of documents -- without scrapping the documents, and thus apparently without compromising their continuity -- does not indicate Iraq has nerve agents, any more than it indicates Iraq does not have nerve agents. It simply does not signify.

What are "the wireless instructions"? a stilted translation from the Arabic? weapons training manuals? first aid hot line protocols? an inventory reorder fax blank? an IVR script? ("For Anthrax, Press 1 ... for Botulism, Press 2 ...")

If this is our best intercept mentioning "nerve agents" ... sorry, I'm not impressed.

18. 122-mm warheads "could be the tip of a submerged iceberg"
Or the tip of a moldering scrap heap. Proof by suspicion.

19. "he recently has authorized his field commanders to use [chemical weapons]. He wouldn't be passing out the orders if he didn't have the weapons or the intent to use them."
Intercepts to that effect would be more compelling "smoking guns" ... though Saddam certainly might issue such orders -- and allow them to be intercepted -- even if he had no such weapons. A routine disinformation tactic, and Powell knows this, as any warrior would.

20. Human experimentation with CW ... prisoners strapped to beds
Horrific, probably true, and brought to our attention by Israeli intel back in the 1980s, when Saddam was "our bastard" in the Iran-Iraq War.

21. Recital of Saddam's past lies re nuke developments ... Saddam has scientists ... has design ... needs fissile material
Of course he needs fissile material. That was the stumbling block in 1990, that's the stumbling block today. Any evidence of progress? Oh, yes ...

22. Tubes, tubes, tubes! ... higher tolerance ... anodized ... 11 countries ... magnet production plant ... balancing machines ... "can be used in a centrifuge program" ... "debate this issue, but there is no doubt in my mind"
Clintonesque scope-parsing: "all the experts who have analyzed the tubes in our possession agree". An unspecified population of unnamed experts -- delimited by a qualifying clause entirely under Powell's control -- all agree with Powell. But as Powell admits, "there is controversy". A "Who's Who" of prominent anti-proliferation figures begs to differ. IAEA's ElBaradei. Wisconsin Project's Gary Milhollin. David Albright of ISIS. If you want tubes for centrifuges, you would not want them anodized (the experts say) ... and if the tubes had to be re-bored to centrifuge specs, that would defeat any supposed advantage of anodizing, wouldn't it?

23. Imported rocket engines ... "acquired as late as December" ... "engine test stand ... exhaust vent ... five times longer ... clearly intended for long-range missiles"
Aha, the "smoking test stand"! Powell's long-distance photo evidence conveys an impression of surreptitious development. A pack of journalists then toured the site -- well known to UNMOVIC -- up close and personal. They saw what UNMOVIC saw ... a vertical test stand with a short exhaust track, and a horizontal test stand with a long exhaust track.

24. "He is not developing the missile for self-defense."
Proof by suspicion. We are entitled to our suspicions, but how do we know he is developing the missile, and how do we know his intent? (IRBM's are usually held for deterrent counterstrikes. You can use them to break things, but you can't break enough things to put your side on offense.)

25. Modified MIG-21's, L-29's, and smaller UAV's ... 500 km test flight ... could attack the US
The smaller UAV is an artist's conception. "Iraq is now concentrating" on smaller UAV's ... the MIG-21 program was probably a disaster. UAV's could attack the US how? (From boats, we learn in off-line discussion.) Fair enough, but Iraq could attack Chicago from some ramshackle farmhouse in Wisconsin, using nothing but locally obtained materials. It doesn't matter what does or doesn't exist within Iraq's borders, and it would be foolish to imagine Saddam is the only bad actor perusing this script.

26. "Iraq and terrorism go back decades" ... 1990s nonaggression pact with al Qaeda ... Saddam applauds bombings
Preparing to weave a nebulous nexus between Saddam and al Qaeda. Iraq ... terror ... Iraq ... terror ... Iraq ... terror ... but Iraq's terror history is minimal (by neighborhood standards anyway).

27. Afghan labs were inadequate ... "Where did they go ...? They went to Iraq" ... Abu Atiya developed European poison network ... 116 arrests ... Abu Atiya knew al-Zarqawi ... al-Zarqawi went to Baghdad ... developed a network ... Zarqawi has a camp in NE Iraq
Where did they go? They went to several dozen countries, including all of Iraq's neighbors.

Conveniently, Mr. Z camps out in NE Iraq. Conveniently, Powell omits mention of Qatar, where Mr. Z received safe haven and lavish funding. Shouldn't we land an expeditionary force in Qatar and ... oh, wait ... nevermind. Powell omits mention of Mr. Z's other travels in the region.

Conveniently, Mr. Z is an expert in "ricin and other poisons". Ricin gets star billing these days. Blame a fickle public ... that poor "dog in the box" from the captured Qaeda nerve agent video needed a better agent.

There's a small problem here, a missing link, but conveniently ...

28. "Baghdad has an agent in ... Ansar al-Islam, that controls this corner of Iraq" ... "this agent offered al Qaeda safe haven"
So here's Mr. X, an agent from Baghdad with leadership influence in a region outside Saddam's control. Inconveniently, our Kurdish friends in NE Iraq are perplexed ... their understanding of local physical geography, political geography, factional alignment and leadership structure is at apparent variance with Mr. Powell's.

Parse that text again. Is Mr. X an agent of Saddam? Or is Mr. X an agent of anti-Saddam cadre operating in Baghdad. Mr. X offered safe haven? Or Ansar al Islam offered safe haven? Did Mr. X have authority to extend this offer, and could he make good on it?

30. "Some believe ... these contacts do not amount to much."
We've come to the climax -- or the punch line, if you prefer -- the first novel assertion in Powell's catalogue. Ricin plots in Europe are linked to Atiya, a colleague of Zarqawi, under protection of Mr. X, who may be Saddam's agent. If you read carefully, Powell disclaims any sure knowledge of Saddam's direct control or material support of Qaeda terrorist activity.

Still, the allegations are serious, and we should weigh them seriously. Have we heard similar allegations before? Yes. Have they panned out? No, quite the opposite. Have their advocates retreated gracefully from definitively discredited claims? No, anything but. As with the "Prague meeting", they hung on til the last wisp of evidence blew way. After recanting under oath, they let their shills reflate the original reports, making them "common knowledge".

Though it wears many hats and goes by many names, one obvious name for Bad Intelligence is "stupiddity". Press your intelligence resources hard enough, and they'll deliver the results you demand. One problem with this -- when you get the results you want, you can't possibly tell if they're genuine. At that point in the game, though, you probably don't care ... you're locked in on a favorite number, and you probably bet it big.

Powell and the gang are the boys who not only cried "Wolf!" ... they stood pointing to an empty box, insisting it had a wolf in it. If we "age discount" these newly-minted assertions -- if we assume they'll decay over time, along trajectories similar to previous Saddam/Qaeda "clinchers" -- we can't give them much weight at all.

31. "we confront a regime that harbors ambitions for regional domination, hides weapons of mass destruction, and provides haven and active support for terrorists"
Ambitions of domination? Proof by suspicion. Once true, but Saddam's potential for mischief is fading.

Hiding WMD? Proof by suspicion. Probably true, but no new evidence here.

Haven for terrorists? Proof by suspicion.


Instead of "solid intelligence", we're up to here in intelligence quicksand ... while Powell's hypnotic performance has us thinking we can walk on water. His task was to prove what everybody concedes: Saddam practices deceit, Saddam covets weapons of vast destruction, Saddam cheats as much as he can get away with.

We believed it before, we believe it now, only now we believe we've seen the proof, when we've actually seen ... nothing. We are left with many questions, including the classic OJ Question: Why frame a guilty suspect?