U.S. intelligence intercepts on Iraq’s efforts to hide banned weapons from the United Nations were the highlight yesterday of new information made public to bolster the Bush administration’s case for military action to disarm Saddam Hussein.
In an extraordinary public display of intelligence data, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented to the U.N. Security Council highly classified communications intercepts, along with satellite photos of weapons facilities and information from defectors of Saddam’s regime.
Mr. Powell also disclosed new intelligence details showing Iraq’s support for al Qaeda terrorists, including a key figure who was involved in the recent murder of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan.
The intelligence made public is based on “sources, solid sources,” Mr. Powell said during a meeting before a session of the U.N. Security Council in New York. CIA Director George J. Tenet sat behind Mr. Powell during the 83-minute briefing.
The information shows Iraq is in “further material breach” of U.N. Resolution 1441, which was unanimously passed by the Security Council in November. The resolution calls on Baghdad to disarm or face military action.
One key communications intercept revealed by Mr. Powell involved a conversation between an Iraqi colonel and a “Capt. Ibrahim” within the 2nd Corps of the Iraqi Republican Guard. The intercept showed how the officers discussed removing “the expression … ‘nerve agent’ … whenever it comes up … in wireless communications.”
Mr. Powell said the conversation showed “the senior officer is concerned that somebody might be listening.”
“Well, somebody was,” he said, noting that U.S. intelligence estimates Iraq has stockpiled between 100 tons and 500 tons of chemical weapons.
Mr. Powell also presented detailed intelligence showing an Iraqi government connection to international terrorists, including the al Qaeda network and Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants,” said Mr. Powell.
Al-Zarqawi ran a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan until the Taliban regime was ousted in November 2001. He recently “helped establish another poison and explosive training center camp … located in northeastern Iraq,” Mr. Powell said, providing the world body with a satellite photo of the camp.
“The network is teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons,” he said.
Al-Zarqawi also was treated in Baghdad for wounds suffered in Afghanistan, and while he was in Iraq, some two dozen al Qaeda operatives set up a base of operations in that country starting in May, said Mr. Powell.
“These al Qaeda affiliates, based in Baghdad, now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they’ve now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months,” said Mr. Powell.
He also revealed that al Qaeda associates have been in regular contact with al-Zarqawi and had described Iraq as a “good place” for terrorist groups to maneuver.
Mr. Powell revealed that the murder in Jordan last year of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley was carried out by al Qaeda terrorists using funds and weapons provided by al-Zarqawi.
The electronic intercepts were the most dramatic evidence of Iraqi efforts to evade and deceive U.N. weapons inspectors.
One audiotape, gathered by the U.S. National Security Agency, recorded two Iraqi officers discussing the upcoming visit of Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“We have modified this vehicle,” one Iraqi official says in the intercepted message. “What do we say if one of [the inspectors] sees it?”
The Iraqis then discuss the activities of the Al-Kindi Co., an Iraqi firm that Mr. Powell said is involved in Iraq’s banned weapons programs.
The two Iraqis then have the following recorded exchange: “I’ll come to see you in the morning. I’m worried you all have something left,” one official says.
“We evacuated everything. We don’t have anything left,” the other official states.
The exchange recorded on Nov. 26 one day prior to weapons inspectors entering Iraq was used by Mr. Powell to show that Saddam is not cooperating with the latest round of U.N. inspections.
A second intercept on Jan. 30 overhears an Iraqi Republican Guard officer at his headquarters discussing with a field officer the visit of inspectors to search a site for banned weapons.
“Yes,” the headquarters officer says. “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. Remember the first message evacuate it.”
The use of electronic intercepts is rare and the disclosure was opposed by some officials in the CIA and NSA, U.S. officials said. The disclosure could jeopardize further gathering of such intercepts if the Iraqis take steps to prevent their communications from being overheard, such as using communications equipment with scramblers.
Mr. Powell told the Security Council during yesterday’s presentation that the intercepts reveal Iraq’s “policy of evasion and deception that goes back 12 years, a policy set at the highest levels of the Iraqi regime.”
Saddam’s chemical arsenal could fill at least 16,000 rockets that could cause mass casualties in an area five times the size of Manhattan, said Mr. Powell.
“And we have sources who tell us that he recently has authorized his field commanders to use them,” Mr. Powell said. “He wouldn’t be passing out the orders if he didn’t have the weapons or the intent to use them.”
Mr. Powell also revealed that Iraq has set up 18 truck-mounted “biological-agent factories” that can be used to make anthrax and ricin weapons. The trucks are designed to be hard to find, Mr. Powell said.
Additionally, the Iraqis have worked on dozens of biological weapons including poisons that cause gangrene, plague, typhus, tetanus, cholera, camel pox, hemorrhagic fever and smallpox.
“Just imagine trying to find 18 trucks among the thousands and thousands of trucks that travel the roads of Iraq every single day,” said Mr. Powell.
Mr. Powell also documented Saddam’s arsenal of chemical weapons. He said the Iraqis were shown to have produced tons of the deadly nerve agent VX, and a satellite photo from May showed weapons activity at a chemical-arms factory known as Al-Musayyib. The chemical weapons at the plant were confirmed by a human agent, said Mr. Powell.
On nuclear arms, Mr. Powell stated that an Iraqi defector revealed in 1995 that Saddam initiated a crash program to build a nuclear bomb. The focus toward building nuclear weapons has been to make or acquire enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb.
A key element of Baghdad’s nuclear weapons drive has been to buy special aluminum tubes used in centrifuges that can enrich uranium, Mr. Powell said, showing photographs of the tubes.
Most experts believe the tubes will be used for making nuclear weapons, but some believe they are for missiles, he said.
Mr. Powell also said that information existed that showed that steps were taken by Saddam’s officials to remove banned weapons from the dictator’s presidential palaces, as well as hiding them in private homes. He also said that files on weapons programs were placed into cars that were driven around the country by Iraqi agents to avoid being discovered by inspectors.
Also, a satellite photograph of Taji, a suburb north of Baghdad, showed 15 chemical-weapons bunkers, including four sites that are “active,” Mr. Powell said.
He also suggested that Iraqi intelligence had learned in advance that U.N. weapons inspectors were planning to visit the Taji site and may have succeeded in planting agents inside the weapons-inspections teams.
Mr. Powell said U.S. intelligence discovered that the Iraqis began hiding missile components and biological weapons goods shortly before U.N. weapons inspectors were to search the facilities.
Mr. Powell also revealed the links between Iraq and the al Qaeda network. He said that members of al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence have met at least eight times since the 1990s. One captured al Qaeda member disclosed that Saddam became more interested in cooperating with al Qaeda after the group bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000.
“Ambition and hatred are enough to bring Iraq and al Qaeda together, enough so al Qaeda could learn how to build more sophisticated bombs and learn how to forge documents; and enough so that al Qaeda could turn to Iraq for help in acquiring expertise on weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Powell said.
Mr. Powell disclosed testimony from a captured senior al Qaeda leader who said bin Laden turned to Iraq for support in acquiring chemical and biological weapons. Baghdad provided poison gas training to al Qaeda operatives between 1997 and 2000, the secretary of state said.