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Raw Data Rarely Produce Certainty

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@igc.org.

Three weeks ago, I arrived home to a message on my answering machine from an official in the Bush administration. Shortly after the Gulf War in 1991, I had photographed an elaborately camouflaged building in Iraq. Now the White House wanted permission to use it in a publication it was putting out on Saddam Hussein’s regime called “Apparatus of Lies.”

On Wednesday, as I watched Secretary of State Colin L. Powell present an unprecedented cache of intelligence material to the United Nations, I thought of that telephone message. Among the pieces of evidence Powell used to buttress his case that Iraq was flouting U.N. resolution was a photograph he said showed a “poison and explosives factory” at Khurmal in northeastern Iraq. I’ve had too much experience with U.S. intelligence to believe that Powell’s photo was fabricated or doctored. Neither was the secretary deliberately misrepresenting evidence. His own integrity is a sufficient safeguard against that.

Nonetheless, I believe Powell’s presentation on the Khurmal camp reflects the possibility that the Bush administration -- and its least hawkish senior official -- may have slipped unknowingly into what was once brilliantly called the “wilderness of mirrors.” How difficult it can be to navigate that wilderness is illustrated by the story of the photograph I took more than a decade ago on the outskirts of Baghdad.

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The picture showed a camouflaged building ripped open in an aerial attack during the Gulf War. Two days after the building was bombed, CNN broadcaster Peter Arnett visited the site and aired an Iraqi claim that it had been a plant for manufacturing infant formula. The U.S. government flatly denied any wrongdoing. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the installation a “production facility for biological weapons ... hidden behind a facade of baby-milk production.”

“It is not an infant formula factory,” Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. “It was a biological weapons facility, of that we are sure -- and we have taken it out.”

Of that we are sure?

“Regrettably, there were a number of people in the West and the Middle East who actually believed [Iraq’s] story,” Defense Intelligence Agency officer John Yurechko told journalists at a Pentagon briefing last fall. Twelve years earlier, his agency had come to the conclusion that the “baby-milk plant” at Abu Ghraib was one of 13 suspected sites involved in Hussein’s biological weapons program. Yurechko used my photograph to illustrate the Iraqi deception.

The plant became a target in part because imagery analysts noted that a chain-link fence atop a concrete wall surrounded the four-acre compound. Guard towers marked out the perimeter and there was a security checkpoint at the entrance. “The unusual security measures at the plant make it highly suspect,” the DIA wrote at the time.

But the DIA and the intelligence community were by no means certain, a fact documented in now-declassified reports written in 1990 and 1991. Interviews with key analysts and other officials confirm the ambiguities reflected in those contemporaneous documents.

The possibility that Abu Ghraib was linked to biological weapons had been raised as early as April 1988, documents show, but hard evidence was lacking. Two months after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center, a unit of the DIA, did not include the plant on its list of suspected sites.

On the other hand, there were reports that the plant had never been used to produce infant formula. And, after poring over debriefings and importation records, the DIA concluded that it contained “dual use” equipment that could be used for biological weapons. This included five 27,000-liter processing tanks, drying equipment and cold-storage facilities -- equipment that could also be used to produce infant formula.

Sifting through other evidence, analysts came to the conclusion that Iraq had obtained industrial fermenters and high-efficiency particulate filters that “could easily be used for [biological weapon research] and production.” This esoteric gear had gone missing inside the country. Was it at Abu Ghraib? Imagery analysts detected an air-handling and filtration system at the plant, and in December 1990 the roof was painted in a mottled camouflage pattern, which further aroused suspicion. “If it was merely a baby formula plant,” the DIA wrote in a report after the 1991 attack, “they could have made it obviously civilian, and [the] DIA’s judgment about the facility might have been different.”

In other words, U.S. analysts classified the facility a possible bioweapons facility based on accumulated fragments of information. The Interagency Working Group, established to look more closely at evidence regarding Iraqi nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, concluded on Dec. 17, 1990, that the plant “may be involved” in biological weapons production.

As the pressures of impending war mounted, the facility was moved onto the target list. When it was hit, Iraqi officials claimed a propaganda victory. And the DIA could offer nothing certain, only strong suspicion. The plant was “apparently never used” to produce infant formula, it concluded. In a Feb. 6, 1991, position paper, the agency said the plant “was correctly identified as a suspect facility.”

Powell did not back down. “There was a body of evidence to suggest we knew what we were doing,” he told USA Today in March 1991. “Some of the so-called baby powder that was around could not have been made there. We saw the packages and read the labels. It was made by a company that was not, to the best of our knowledge, doing business in Iraq.”

Powell may well be right that the baby-milk story was an elaborate Iraqi hoax. On the other hand, anyone who has spent time in Hussein’s Iraq knows that industrial facilities are commonly surrounded by security fences. As for the camouflage, in trips to Iraq after Desert Storm, I saw countless facilities painted like the baby-milk plant: food storage warehouses, oil tanks, flour mills. Facility managers all said the same thing: Orders from Baghdad had said the facilities should be painted, and painted they were.

In the end, of course, Iraq was proven to have an enormous biological weapons program. And U.N. inspectors who visited the baby-milk site after the war found evidence that three engineers from Iraq’s bioweapons program had been assigned to the facility in 1989.The inspectors placed the plant on a monitoring list because the dual-use equipment meant it still could be turned to development and production of biological agents.

What is the lesson to be learned here? What do my photograph of the bombed-out factory and the Bush administration’s desire to republish it now have to do with the secretary of State’s appearance at the U.N. or the question of whether the United States should go to war with Iraq? Simply this: The photograph and the story of the “baby-milk factory” illustrate the tension that almost always exists between intelligence and decision-making. It arises from the difference between interpretation and certainty.

Gathering, collating and assessing information is what the intelligence community does. As Powell’s presentation demonstrated, the information normally comes in bits and pieces from all sorts of sources: an account from an agent, an extracted confession, captured documents, images from spy satellites, snippets of intercepted communications. Intelligence analysts spend their careers studying how best to assemble those fragments, assess their reliability and judge what they mean.

Making decisions to act on such evidence -- sending troops and planes into battle, giving weapons inspectors more time, opting for a cunning diplomatic maneuver -- is what leaders do, from Powell and President Bush on down.

Between intelligence and policy lies a no-man’s land. In a perfect world, intelligence would supply decision-makers with incontrovertible facts. But in the real world, even in the ultrasophisticated, high-tech world of the U.S. intelligence community, that kind of “fact” is scarce. What must be relied on instead is interpretation.

Some members of the intelligence community already express skepticism about the specifics Powell used to make his case, questioning the strength of the information pointing to a “terrorist poison and explosives factory” with links to both Baghdad and Al Qaeda.

Is Powell being duped? Since Sept. 11, it has become more and more apparent that the president and his inner circle possess what they think is incontrovertible evidence linking Al Qaeda and Iraq. They believe this evidence shows active plotting is underway to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction. War, it follows, is necessary to defend the U.S.

What drives this chain of reasoning are raw intelligence data showing a regime determined to deceive. Viewed in the framework of Hussein’s evil record and the well-documented existence of a global terrorist network, the administration’s conclusions are not irrational. Indeed, they may prove to be correct.

We must understand, however, that even the best intelligence agencies in the world have not rescued the Bush administration from the uncertainties of a difficult decision.

The administration is free to add my small photograph to the pile of evidence, but the real lesson of the picture of the “baby-milk factory” is that then -- as now -- intelligence data is just that: data. They cannot tell us which course to take.


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