- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

The sources of intelligence the Bush administration plans to release in coming days to bolster its case for military action against Iraq haven't been disclosed publicly, and probably never will be. But word has been circulating among coalition defense forces that the National Security Agency may be ready at last to cough up a couple of its obsessively guarded secrets.
In his State of the Union message last Tuesday night, Mr. Bush accused Iraq of deliberately deceiving United Nations weapons inspectors, but chose to let Secretary of State Colin Powell present the particulars in a U.N. speech next week. Some of the material Mr. Powell plans to release reportedly includes hard evidence that thousands of top Iraqi military and civilian officials had personally ordered the camouflaging and concealment of banned weapon systems.
It is unlikely any of this evidence could have come from human intelligence in Baghdad. The penalty for anyone in Iraq divulging anything is torture and death. Saddam Hussein began this week by ordering his subjects to report traitors promptly and Mr. Bush said the Iraqi dictator had threatened to kill not only scientists but also their families if they cooperated with weapons inspectors.
He didn't say how he knew this, but he like other presidents has one very big ear. The NSA, about which much is rumored but little is known, is the international eavesdropping arm of the government, specializing in electronic intercepts. Its computers reportedly can instantly sort out key words and phrases from millions of intercepted foreign conversations abroad and between foreigners on U.S. soil and their host governments.
How it does this and against whom is a matter of dispute and great mystery. Disclosing any information, government spooks always have maintained, is tantamount to giving an enemy a flow chart of its own leaks. But in the case of Iraq, the administration reportedly has concluded it will be necessary to make a harder case of Iraq's cheating than it has been able to so far.
International support for the war may ride not on Mr. Bush's rhetoric, but on how well he marshals evidence. Unity on the home front may be just as tricky. Mr. Bush appeared to have done well rallying the nation Tuesday night, as he did a year ago in his famous "axis of evil" call to arms. Nothing less than "the hopes of all mankind" are at stake, he said. And, in a chilling image, he warned that a vial, a canister or a crate of the germ and chemical weapons Saddam Hussein has possessed and never accounted for could be transferred to al Qaeda and cause "a day of horror like this country has never known." If the administration can prove the Iraqis lied and are still assembling a dangerous and prohibited mass destruction force, Mr. Bush's political armor on this issue could be as tough as a crusader's. So NSA has been ordered to let in a ray of sunshine on its boodle of snoops.
One problem that may hold the administration back from a full intelligence disclosure is the damage it could cause to relations with friendly governments. Foreign embassies in Washington long have operated under the well-grounded suspicion that NSA can snatch their electronic communications out of the air.
During the Cold War, governments worked through these problems. It may be tougher now. Dozens of countries are represented at a "coalition village" of trailers and double-wides on a parking lot at Tampa's MacDill AFB. They are part of the Central Command's "Operation Enduring Freedom" that was assembled in the fight against al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan and which will now face a tough test of mutual trust in the looming American-led war to disarm Iraq. Each has its own secure communications links to home capitals. An NSA eavesdropping row is the last thing this alliance needs.
According to one well-placed source, the State Department is sending a squadron of diplomats to the village and 25 new trailers have been ordered for them alone. That could be a sign, perhaps, that the military-to-military relationship at the heart of this alliance is fraying just as the war in Afghanistan begins to heat up again on the border with Pakistan.
It could also be a sign that Mr. Powell an ex-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is beginning to assert some firmer control on war policies as he prepares to give the world the facts to back up his boss' tough rhetoric.

John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.

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