TOPICS > Politics

The Case Against Iraq

February 5, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: To assess the evidence Secretary Powell presented today, we turn to three experts with longstanding experience in the issues he raised. Rolf Ekeus was executive chairman of UNSCOM, which ran the chemical and biological inspections in Iraq from 1991 to 1997. He’s now chairman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

David Albright is a former analyst and inspector who monitored Iraq’s nuclear program from 1992 to 1997. He’s now president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.

And Daniel Benjamin was a director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. He recently co-authored “The Age of Sacred Terror,” a book about al-Qaida.

Welcome, gentlemen.

Let’s look first at the whole first half of the Sec. Powell’s case, which really involved the evidence he said of deception on Iraq’s part. Mr. Ekeus, how persuasive did you find that? He buttressed it with satellite photos and phone conversations to show Iraq is really hiding something?

ROLF EKEUS: I think it was quite impressive. First of all, he did not, however, show any weapons or any weapons capabilities but he referred to the material which was not accounted for both in chemical weapons area, precursors missing and the biological weapons area where is there complex media, and support material which is missing and he made the calculation how much can be done about that. That was not so new, but what was new was the — I think quite convincing presentation of how Iraq was not cooperating, what was — it was preparing the reception of the inspectors in a way, which would make it very difficult for inspectors to do their job.

MARGARET WARNER: David Albright, on the deception issue?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: I think some of the radio intercepts were quite compelling. I think Powell demonstrated there was a decision and a policy of Iraqi government to hide things from the inspectors and build I think a very strong case to show that Iraq never intended to comply and unless it has an epiphany is unlikely to comply in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ekeus, what did you make of the satellite photos we saw in Gwen’s piece of a chemical plant. You would see the elements and a few months later sanitized. He showed another one we didn’t show in the piece where the earth was bulldozed over?

ROLF EKEUS: I think that was compelling and very clear. We recognized that policy before but here we got extraordinary evidence of these moments. There can be no misunderstanding we recognize these moments… the number of trucks approaching, the facility and cleaning it up quickly and also when they dealt with chemical weapons, the cleaning equipment, safety equipment accompanying the operations. So I think it’s clear that they were doing cleansing operations, which they should not do without informing the inspectors.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Albright, could you see any benign explanation for some of the phone conversations? I’m thinking about — there’s the one about the modified vehicle that we just ran; there were a couple of others.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: There’s one that is possibly benign. They were discussing if they found chemical war heads and the Iraqis used the term by chance. But on the other hand they were going to Detroit warheads and try to hide them when just two weeks ago they promised to find a commission to seek out the warheads that were missed.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Benjamin the other evidence that Sec. Powell presented in the deception area he said was based on defectors and other unnamed people, but individuals, a former consumer of defector intelligence, how reliable or how persuasive did you find that? What I’m thinking of here is he said we’ve been told that scientists have been told to hide their papers. We’ve been told that teams were sent in to clean out the presidential palaces and so forth.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: You always need to be able to assess the quality of sources you’re getting information from, is certainly some will have an interest in telling countries what they want to hear. At the same time over the last decade so much of the really important information we have gotten about Iraq’s arms programs has come from defectors. So that’s an important source. We need to analyze it closely.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ekeus, let’s turn now to your area of expertise. I wanted to ask about a couple of specifics he mentioned. He showed us one photograph. There were these vehicles. He said this was a chemical site. He said here these are decontamination vehicles. He called that a signature item. Is that true; was it that obvious to your eye that that was a chemical facility?

ROLF EKEUS: Yes, absolutely; I think it very was clear that these were a chemical facility and that is disturbing that they had reason to clean it up before inspectors arrived and the contamination, vehicles obviously are part of the routine. As soon as you move into this area even militarily you need to have that back up for your operations.

MARGARET WARNER: Another thing he talked about was Iraq’s attempts to acquire things like the growth media or the equipment to filter and separate toxins when making biological weapons. Is that persuasive?

ROLF EKEUS: Yes, what is persuasive is that we know since UNSCOM’s days Iraq reported large quantities and some of these quantities have not been accounted for. That has been one of the key elements for UNMOVIC to search for it. It was nothing really new compared with what Dr. Blix has said. It was a strong case there and it’s still — why is Iraq not accounting for this. Even if they lost it and missed it and mishandled it they should be able to show how they lost the stuff. That’s very important in the story.

MARGARET WARNER: The whole question is trying to acquire things of course is at the nub of the nuclear case. He has the scientists and the design he is trying to acquire the ability to enrich uranium. First of all, explain the case Sec. Powell was laying out and what was new there?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Each of the cases he mentioned had been discussed before either in the U.S. Reports or the British assessments. It’s a case based on foreign procurement of certain items that would indicate that Iraq was working on a uranium program in particular a gas centrifuge program. He was trying to make a case that these items somehow show Iraq is currently working on the nuclear weapons program. It’s always a hard case to make. It was a problem in the 1980s in assessing Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. And so naturally there was divisions over the significance of the information.

MARGARET WARNER: I know you have been skeptical in the past about the aluminum tubes. There’s been an ongoing controversy. Iraq says they are acquiring them for a rocket program –the U.S. says it’s for gas centrifuges. What did you make of today of what Powell had to say about that?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: I was surprised they were making such a big thing of the aluminum tubes when there is a split on the technical level. I think all the experts agree and I agree with this, too, that the tubes could be used in a gas centrifuge but it’s hard to find the evidence they are specifically designed for gas centrifuge it.

I don’t think Colin Powell added anything today that hadn’t been discussed. I do think this will have to be thrashed out. I think it would be good to have it thrashed out in front of a congressional committee – a closed hearing to to try to get to the bottom of this. Because of nuclear issue is so important — because of the thought of Iraq having nuclear weapons is so intolerable.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ekeus, back to you, another point that the administration has made before with you they presented a diagram of today is the idea that there are mobile biological facilities that Iraq has on either trucks or rail cars. What did you make of that?

ROLF EKEUS: Well, already UNSCOM detected a system of mobility. That was the start of the art in the late 90s in efforts to defeat the inspections. However, to have a production line up on the flatbed of the truck, that sounds still a little difficult to believe, but Sec. Powell referred especially to information about that, so maybe it has been done because I think it’s high risk cooperation. Imagine the tractor truck turns over and you have some fresh anthrax spreading out in the village or somewhere, you will create a major can a catastrophe and not even Iraq is always that reckless. I still need to be a little convinced about that.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Benjamin on the links between Iraq and al-Qaida, explain for us what the secretary was laying out there and what was new.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, a lot of intelligence work relies on inference. The secretary was laying out different elements and asking us to draw the conclusion that all these different elements belong together, that there was some kind of relationship between them. What he pointed to was a man named Zarkawi, an al-Qaida manager of a fairly high level, who had been in Iraq, who had medical attention in Iraq that some operatives seem to have gravitated to him while he was in Iraq.

The relationship between this man Zarkawi and a group in the Kurdish controlled area of Iraq called Answar al-Islam (ph) which is a radical Islamist group and appears to have connections with al-Qaida and then beyond that, the very various operatives who have been rolled up in the last few weeks in Europe who have been involved in what looked like a plot to attack carry out attacks in Europe involving rice and the poison.

MARGARET WARNER: Sec. Powell in terms of the link between this group and this Zarkawi fellow and Iraq, he said that Iraq has a senior agent, I think he called him in this radical group’s higher echelons, was that new?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Time Magazine reported that there was someone on the ruling council of Answar al-Islam who had been in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service. Perhaps this is the same person. It’s not always clear what someone’s current job is. Whether they have been serially employed or are double-hatted at this point. It’s all very confusing but that did seem to be new information.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally he also mentioned there have been a number of meetings over the past decade between senior Iraqi officials and senior al-Qaida officials.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Right. We know there have been meetings at various times between al-Qaida and Iraq. What the secretary did hear was he added what in the intelligence community would be called granularity. He added specifics, on the number of times that there had been such meetings.

MARGARET WARNER: We have to leave it there. Thank you all three very much.