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The Los Angeles Times February 06, 2003

U.S. Takes a Risk in Showing Spy Methods

Powell's presentation went further than some expected. Concerns are expressed about compromising sources

By Greg Miller, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The United States lifted the cloak on a cloak-and-dagger world Wednesday, providing a rare glimpse of the array of intelligence resources it aims at its adversaries.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council included photos taken by top-secret satellites, recordings of Iraqi conversations, descriptions of suspicious shipments intercepted by the United States or its allies, and secrets stolen by spies still active in Iraq.

Intelligence officials are generally loathe even to acknowledge the existence of such capabilities, let alone to allow evidence of their effectiveness to be trotted out for a worldwide audience.

The decision to release detailed intelligence such as recordings of conversations between military officers, pictures of suspected chemical weapons sites and orders authorizing Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons came only after prolonged debate over how much could be disclosed without endangering sources or undermining methods.

Powell spent part of the weekend at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., working out details of his presentation. CIA Director George J. Tenet sat behind Powell at the Security Council on Wednesday.

"There's never been a case when [the United States intelligence community] has disclosed so much at one time," said Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence analyst at the National Security Archives, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

Intelligence officials said the CIA and other spy agencies will be watching closely to see how Iraq responds, and whether any of its intelligence channels suddenly dry up. Powell's presentation was calibrated to keep that from happening, and some pieces of evidence the United States says it has - including photos of suspected mobile weapons labs - were noticeably missing, perhaps for that reason.

Several lawmakers said Powell's presentation represented only a fraction of the evidence shown to those with higher security clearances. "We have a whole iceberg of information that he could have used," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

Still, the presentation went further than many experts anticipated, offering new insight into how the United States goes about stealing secrets, and what it looks for in the intelligence it collects.

In satellite images of purported weapons labs, for instance, Powell pointed to ancillary buildings and circling decontamination vehicles that analysts consider "signatures" of illegal weapons work, a tip the Iraqis are certain to note.

Intelligence experts and members of Congress said the White House's willingness to make such disclosures reflects the urgency it attaches to swaying reluctant allies and a wary public.

It may also indicate that the Bush administration, perhaps weeks away from launching a war with Iraq, doesn't expect that whatever intelligence methods were compromised would be needed much longer. "You don't give away that kind of information unless you're ready to act on it," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who until last month was a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Throughout his speech, Powell pointed to the sources and dates of pieces of intelligence, some collected as recently as a week ago. The White House has been criticized for months for appearing to overstate its case against Iraq. But early in his remarks Powell said, "Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources."

Powell said much of what the United States knows of Iraq's mobile weapons labs comes from four individuals, including a chemical engineer who defected in 2000. He described the defector as "an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of these facilities," and who is now in hiding in another country, "with the certain knowledge that Saddam Hussein will kill him if he finds him."

Powell also cited human sources for recent intelligence on efforts to silence Iraqi scientists, an order authorizing field commanders to use chemical weapons, and orders from one of Hussein's sons, Qusai, to remove prohibited weapons from palaces.

The satellite images Powell presented appeared to be of relatively low resolution, perhaps an indication that the White House didn't want to expose the true extent of U.S. capabilities.

John Pike, an analyst at Globalsecurity.org, said that declassified images are typically of far lower resolution than the classified versions they are derived from.

The fact that the images were shown at all was seen by many as remarkable. In contrast, the White House has not shown satellite images taken of North Korea in recent weeks that are said to show renewed activity at the country's nuclear compound.

In some cases, the Iraq images depicted facilities that already have been altered to shield their activities from satellites. One showed a rocket test stand last April. Later, Powell said, Iraq had built a roof over the stand.

The decision to play back intercepted phone conversations might have been the most intriguing. Reminding Iraqi military officials that their conversations are recorded is particularly risky, given that the U.S. ability to eavesdrop could be critical in war.

The recordings released Wednesday seemed selected in part because the channels were about to dry up.

In one of the intercepts, a senior official is overheard warning a subordinate not to use the phrase "nerve agent" in future calls because they were being monitored.

U.S. intelligence agencies could have used a number of eavesdropping methods to intercept the phone calls, experts said.

A secure land line could have been tapped by spies within Iraq. But conversations from such a tap probably would have been revealed publicly only if it had since been discovered and shut down by Iraqi authorities, experts said.

Because one of the calls was made only a week ago, that seems unlikely. Instead, the conversations probably took place on cellular phones, or were land-line calls relayed via a microwave transmission tower.

Such signals can be intercepted from pilotless aircraft within about 300 miles of Baghdad, according to analyst Pike. Experts said that the most likely intercept technology was a satellite that hovers over a fixed point on Earth - in this case, presumably Baghdad.

The United States has previously provided glimpses into some of its intelligence capabilities at rare moments in history.

In 1962, Adlai Stevenson showed the U.N. aerial photos of Soviet missiles arriving in Cuba. In 1983, the United States played for U.N. delegates intercepted communications of a Soviet fighter pilot who shot down a South Korean airliner.

But the array presented Wednesday astonished longtime intelligence observers.

"I had never actually heard an intercepted telephone conversation of that kind before," said Thomas Powers, an author who has covered the U.S. intelligence community since the 1970s.

"This marks a dramatic transition from the closed-mouth approach of the past," Powers said. "This was very unvarnished and completely lacking in coyness."

Times staff writers Charles Piller and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.


Copyright 2003, Los Angeles Times