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Boston Globe February 06, 2003

Analysts see images boosting US case

By John Donnelly, Globe Staff

WASHINGTON -- Former CIA officials and UN weapons inspectors said that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's presentation yesterday of declassified US intelligence showed that Iraq, at minimum, was in violation of the United Nations resolution that gave it a last chance to disarm.

Powell's case was compelling in its breadth and detail, but wasn't uniformly strong, analysts said.

The best evidence, they said, was satellite images of the decontamination trucks parked outside chemical plants and a razed chemical factory. The weak-est part of the argument was based on human intelligence, such as Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's relationships with Al Qaeda operatives, according to the specialists. In addition, Powell offered no evidence on an issue critical to Americans: A link between Baghdad and the Sept. 11 attacks.

Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Powell's overall presentation ''involved a great deal of technical data that is new, and makes a strong case that UN inspections will not work and that Iraq's threat is more imminent than previously reported.''

Here is a breakdown of Powell's main arguments and specialists' perspectives on their relative merits.

Iraqi deception On a tape of two senior Iraqi officers on Nov. 26, 2002, the day before UN weapons inspections began after a four-year hiatus, a senior Iraqi official asks a second officer whether a ''modified vehicle'' was evacuated from the Al Kindi company, which Powell said is known to have been involved in ''prohibited weapons systems activity.'' The second officer replied: ''We evacuated everything. We don't have anything left.''

In a message intercepted last week -- on Jan. 30 -- a Republican Guard officer tells a field officer to clean the area of ''forbidden ammo'' and then tells the field officer to ''destroy the message because I don't want anyone to see this message.'' An Iraqi officer is heard in another message ordering a subordinate to remove the words ''nerve agents'' from ''wireless instructions.''

Patrick G. Eddington, a CIA analyst from 1988 to 1996, said the signal intelligence was ''very consistent with the things we used to hear, dating back to some of the communication during the Gulf War.'' He and others said it indicated that Iraqi officials were attempting to hide things from inspectors, a violation of the UN resolution.

A US intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was surprised that the administration used intercepted messages because it revealed US capabilities to monitor the Iraqis. The conversations may have been on unsecured radio lines, but they also may have used encryptions that scramble their words to eavesdroppers.

''The case for a coordinated concealment effort was fairly compelling,'' said Jonathan Tucker, who was a UN weapons inspector in 1995. ''The fact they were not to use the words `nerve agents' was particularly interesting.''

Powell also said Hussein's son, Qusai, ordered the removal of prohibited weapons from the Iraqi leader's palaces, according to information from Iraqi defectors. Those defectors also told US officials that members of the ruling Ba'ath Party and scientists have hidden prohibited items in their homes, while other important files ''have been placed in cars that are being driven around the countryside by Iraqi intelligence agents to avoid detection.''

Analysts said material from sources is less reliable than satellite imagery or intercepted conversations. Powell partially backed up one claim, however, noting that UN weapons inspectors recently found 2,000 pages of documents in the home of an Iraqi nuclear scientist.

Iraqi weapons programs Citing numerous unnamed Iraqi sources, Powell said Iraq employed a mobile weapons system, including trains and truck-based biological weapons labs, and convoys of trucks carrying conventional and chemical weapons that were accompanied by decontamination vehicles. He said Iraq had not accounted for 100 to 500 tons of stockpiled chemical weapons -- a figure far higher than previous reports: 16,000 122-millimeter rockets; 4 tons of the nerve agent VX; 25,000 liters of growth material; several dozen Scud-type missiles with 900-kilometer ranges; and chemical sprayers for aircraft and unmanned aircraft.

Powell also showed a satellite image of a new missile test stand, ''larger than anything it has ever had.'' He said the exhaust vent on the large stand was five times larger than one nearby used in the launching of short-range missiles. Iraq is allowed to produce missiles that fly only 150 kilometers; the new test stand, he said, was intended for missiles that have a range of 1,200 kilometers.

Analysts said the secretary of state also made the first reference to Iraq possessing dry, storable biological weapons, which can be 100 times more lethal than Iraq's previously known wet agents. Powell also discussed for the first time live human experiments of deadly chemical agents on 1,600 Iraqi death-row prisoners.

Observers, though, said Powell's strongest pieces of information were two satellite images of decontamination trucks outside what were believed to be chemical munition plants. One was next to the al-Mussayyib facility in May 2002. A followup image of the site in July 2002 shows all the topsoil removed. ''The Iraqis literally removed the crust of the earth from large portions of this site in order to conceal chemical weapons evidence,'' Powell said.

Patrick Garrett, a defense analyst at globalsecurity.org, a Washington-based firm that specializes in satellite imagery, said Powell ''hit a home run'' with the photos.

''You don't have a chemical decontamination truck present at a location unless there are chemical weapons there,'' Garrett said. ''That is as much of a smoking gun as you can get.''

Other analysts noted that the image of the decontamination truck appeared to have been made fuzzy deliberately. ''They have better imagery, but you can't give the best methods away,'' said Jay C. Farrar, a former senior Defense Department official. ''Their imagery allows them to read the license plates on the trucks.''

Links to terror groups Powell cited a ''potentially more sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network,'' partially based on the presence in Iraq of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a collaborator of Osama bin Laden's. Zarqawi traveled to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical treatment. During that time, nearly two dozen extremists established a base in Baghdad, Powell added, and ''they've now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months.''

Citing an unnamed senior Al Qaeda official now being detained by Americans, Powell also said Iraq offered chemical or biological training to two Al Qaeda associates beginning in December 2000.

Eddington, a former CIA analyst, said those reports should be met with skepticism.

''When it comes to human intelligence, we don't know the batting average of this source or a series of sources,'' he said. ''We don't have a box score for these sources. With the imagery and the signals intelligence, it's a lot more cut and dried. Human intelligence is a lot more dicey. It's a world of shadows.''

John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com


Copyright 2003, Globe Newspaper Company