Colin Powell delivers the goods on Saddam.
Secretary of State Colin Powell's briefing to the U.N. Security Council was far more powerful than anyone had predicted. Not all his points were equally compelling: Some, as he admitted, were open to interpretation; some were vaguely sourced (if understandably so). But contrary to his own (clearly low-balling) remarks of recent days, Powell did produce the proverbial "smoking gun." And, while his evidence may not have been quite as shattering as Adlai Stevenson's U-2 photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba, it came remarkably close—so much so that, if the Security Council does not now take action against Iraq, it might as well disband.
Powell delivered with his very first shot—a tape of an intercepted phone conversation between a colonel and a brigadier general in Iraq's Republican Guard, from last Nov. 26. The U.N. inspectors were going to visit a suspected weapons site the next day. The colonel tells the general, "We evacuated everything. We don't have anything left."
Assuming the tape is genuine and the translation correct, here is the evidence that everyone has been awaiting. It shows not merely that Iraq is in "material breach" of a U.N. resolution (this has been true for some time but is not necessarily, or by itself, a reason for going to war), but also that a) the Iraqis possess illegal weapons; b) they are deliberately hiding them from the inspectors; and c) they are not likely to give up the weapons on their own. Skeptics could—and, no doubt, will—object that the tape doesn't tell us exactly what was evacuated. But given that the location in question used to be a weapons site, that Iraqi officers went out of their way to remove something from this site just before the inspectors' arrival, the inference should be clear. It is hard to imagine an alternative inference.
In another taped intercept, one Republican Guard commander tells another: "Write this down. … Remove the expression 'nerve agent' wherever it comes up in the wireless instructions." As Powell noted, "This senior officer is concerned that somebody may be listening. Well, somebody was."
Powell also showed several satellite photos of Iraqi "housekeeping" to deceive inspectors. Most compelling was a photo, taken last November, of a chemical weapons bunker flanked by a security tent and a decontamination vehicle—clear signs that the bunker was in active use. Then he showed a photo of the same area a month later, just before inspectors were due to arrive. It was completely razed—even a layer of topsoil had been removed.
After the briefing, the usual skeptics continued to profess skepticism. Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, urged that the council continue to pressure Iraq "through political means." French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said the briefing showed only that the "inspection regime must be strengthened. … Let us double, triple the number of inspectors" and "direct ourselves to the disarmament of Iraq—in peace."
In these diplomats' defense, they were reading boilerplate that had been written before Powell's briefing. Maybe they will come around after conferring with their bosses and possibly getting more sensitive intelligence. (Powell said that he wasn't revealing everything he knew in this open session and suggested that he would provide more in private meetings later.) Certainly Powell made a more persuasive case than anyone else has made that, except possibly by pure chance, the inspectors are not going to find anything, that the Iraqis are working hard to make sure they won't find anything, and that, if the goal here is to disarm Iraq, inspections are pretty much worthless.
There were weak spots in Powell's presentation. He did not make a solid case that Iraq is getting close to building nuclear weapons. He focused far too much on Iraq's purchase of aluminum tubes, which could be used as centrifuges for enriching uranium. Powell did note that there was disagreement on this point, that some (actually, most) intelligence analysts believe Iraq's claim that the tubes are for conventional, short-range artillery rockets. His rebuttal was that the aluminum had been anodized to a much finer degree than even the United States requires for the coating of its rockets. However, Powell neglected to acknowledge that Iraq has lost thousands of rockets over the past decade to rust and that, in the view of many CIA analysts, the intended purpose for the highly anodized tubes was most likely to be preventing that from recurring.
The secretary of state was also less than compelling in his claim—about which there is also a controversy within the intelligence community—of direct links between Saddam's regime and al-Qaida. Much of this material has been hashed over already: the presence of Ansar al-Islam, a group that has connections with al-Qaida, in a section of northeastern Iraq (which Saddam does not control) and the hospitalization in Baghdad of the group's leader, Abu Musar Zarqawi, after a battle injury. Powell did reveal one new fact—that Ansar al-Islam has set up a post in Baghdad and has operated freely there for eight months. This is alarming, if true, and again makes the case much more strongly than any previously released information. No doubt, Security Council members will, quite properly, want to know the source of this finding.
Still, even if the weak points remain weak, the strong ones are strong enough. Unless you believe Iraq's dismissal that the photos and tapes are fabrications, many of Powell's conclusions are nearly irrefutable.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Colin Powell by Ray Stubblebine/Reuters.