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.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
‘Make sure there is nothing there’
Intercepted conversations between Iraqi military officers, played by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at the United Nations:
A few weeks ago
Between two commanders in Iraq’s 2nd Republican Guard Corps.
Col.: Captain Ibrahim?
Capt.: I am with you, sir.
Col.: The expression.
Capt.: The expression. I got it.
Col.: Nerve agents.
Capt.: Nerve agents.
Col.: Wherever it comes up.
Capt.: Got it. Wherever it comes up.
Col.: In the wireless instructions.
Capt.: In the instructions.
Col.: Correction. No. In the wireless instructions.
Capt.: Wireless. I got it.
Col.: OK, buddy.
Capt.: [Consider it] done, sir.
Jan. 30, 2003
Between Republican Guard headquarters and a field officer.
HQ: There is a directive of the [Republican] Guard Chief of Staff at the conference today ....
HQ: They are inspecting the ammunition you have.
HQ: ... for the possibility there are forbidden ammo.
HQ: For the possibility there is by chance, forbidden ammo.
HQ: And we sent you a message yesterday to clean out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure there is nothing there.
HQ: After you have carried out what is contained in the message
HQ: Because I don’t want anyone to see this message.
Field: OK, OK.
- Associated Press
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Security Council responses to the U.S. presentation
Reaction to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s speech from the other permanent member states of the U.N. Security Council and from Iraq:
Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin
“The United Nations must be at the center of the action -- to guarantee the unity of Iraq, to guarantee the stability of the region, to protect civilians and preserve the unity of the international community.
“For now, the inspections regime favored by Resolution 1441 must be strengthened, since it has not been completely explored. The use of force can only be a final recourse. Why go to war if there still exists some unused space in Resolution 1441?
“Given the choice between military intervention and an inspections regime that is inadequate because of a failure to cooperate on Iraq’s part, we must choose the decisive reinforcement of the means of inspection. Let us double, let us triple the number of inspectors. But Iraq must cooperate actively.”
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
“These briefings have confirmed our worst fears: that Iraq has no intention of relinquishing its weapons of mass destruction, no intention of following the path of peaceful disarmament .
“Instead of open admissions and transparency, we have a charade where a veneer of superficial cooperation masks willful concealment, the extent of which has been devastatingly revealed this morning.
“It defies imagination that all of this could be going on without the knowledge of Saddam Hussein. The United Kingdom does not want war. What we want is for the United Nations system to be upheld. But the logic of Resolution 1441 is inescapable. Time is now very short.”
Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov
“The information provided today by the U.S. secretary of State once again convincingly shows that the activities of the international inspectors in Iraq must be continued. They alone can provide an answer to the question: To what extent is Iraq complying with the demands of the Security Council?
“Recently, when it comes to the Iraqi settlement, we often hear that time is running out. Of course, Resolution 1441 is geared to speedily achieving practical results, but concrete time frames are absent from it. The inspectors alone can recommend to the Security Council how much time they need to carry out the tasks entrusted to them.
“The main point is that our efforts continue to be geared to doing everything possible to facilitate the inspection process, which has proven its effectiveness and makes it possible to implement the decisions of the Security Council through peaceful means.”
Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan
“The inspections have been going on for more than two months now. The two agencies have been working very hard and their work deserves our recognition. It is their view that they are not in a position to draw conclusions, and they suggested continuing the inspections. We should respect the views of the two agencies and support the continuation of their work.
“We urge Iraq to adopt a more proactive approach, make further explanations and clarification as soon as possible, and cooperate with the inspection process.
“It is the universal desire of the international community to see a political settlement within the U.N. framework and avoid any war. As long as there is even the slightest hope for political settlement, we should exert our utmost effort to achieve it.”
U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Douri
“The pronouncements in Mr. Powell’s statement on weapons of mass destruction are utterly unrelated to the truth. There are incorrect allegations, unnamed sources, unknown sources.
“Programs for weapons of mass destruction are not like an aspirin pill, easily hidden. They require huge production facilities. Such things cannot be concealed. Inspectors have crisscrossed all of Iraq and have found none of that.
“As regards sound recordings, suffice it to say that scientific and technical progress has reached such a level that would allow the fabrication of such allegations. The clear goal behind this meeting, behind the presentation of the secretary of State of the United States, is to sell the idea of war and aggression against my country, Iraq, without any legal, moral or political justification.”