Along the Tracks

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Powell lays it out

The address was exactly the tour de force everyone expected. Leaks over the past few days made real “surprises” few in kind; rather the sheer volume and specificity was the cold splash of water here.

Hide and seek. Taped conversation after taped conversation left absolutely no doubt Saddam has illegal weapons, because his people are going to so much trouble to hide them. As Powell said in his opening, these are inspectors, not detectives, and Iraq’s deceptions are precisely what the Security Council sought to end with Res. 1441. Proof of their continuation is, in itself, a material breach. P.S. - I’ll bet the “Iraqi legislature” is busy passing a ban on cell phones even as I write.

On the road again. Shuffling around banned materials can be tough, with loading and unloading and loading again. One solution has been for Saddam’s agents to load up a vehicle, then hit the road and just keep driving, on and on and on, so the weapons are never “stored” at a site. For the sake of civilians, I hope these guys are good drivers.

Smile, boys! The satellite photos were excellent - about as close to “missiles on trucks” as you can get when searching for chemical and biological weapons. The pix showed what Powell called “signature items” betraying what a bunker contains. First, there was a small service building which has detection equipment, looking for any chemical leaks. Then there is a truck parked along side, which is a decontamination vehicle, in case of an accident. Bunkers without chemicals inside don’t have these two “signature items” because they don’t need them. And if you’ve gotten rid of all your gas-filled weapons, you shouldn’t need detection facilities and decontamination vehicles at all. Case closed. Powell also tied this to the “hide and seek” effort, showing how one bunker was under an intense detox operation right up until December 22, when they packed up everything and moved out. That day, the U.N. inspectors showed up. Which leads to ...

Spies among us. As Powell said, the clear and “worrisome” implication is the Iraqis knew well ahead of time (days, at least) that the inspectors would visit that bunker, and apparently even the date the visit was scheduled. That is an affront to the inspection teams and the Security Council, more of an emotional point to make in an effort to win allies. Nice job, General!

Honesty and imagination. Powell’s points about Iraqi efforts to move equipment at 30 or so sites well known to the U.N. were understated for effect. We know they suddenly brought in trucks, just before inspections were to resume. We know the trucks were loaded. We know the trucks then took off with cargo, and activity at the sites returned to normal. We don’t know what was put on those trucks. So I ask you, Security Council skeptics: What do you think Saddam’s minions were loading up and hauling off before inspectors arrived? Use your imagination.

Land of the dissappeared. The threatening, replacing and hiding of scientists - proven in part by foreign intelligence, again for effect - showed another clear material breach but also was meant to demonstrate Iraq’s disrespect of the inspectors. More ally building.

On the road again, pt. 2. Powell said intelligence indicates Iraq’s mobile biological agent production systems are capable, in just a few months, of making as much biowarfare material as Iraq claimed to have in total back in the mid-’90s. In other words, even if Iraq really did destroy its previous arsenal - and it’s provided no proof it did - the country’s production capability today, through mobile systems, could reconstitute (or perhaps, has already reconstituted) that arsenal in under a year. This point was aimed at scoffers who say “a few mobile labs” aren’t really a threat to international security. Powell said we know of 18 trucks which combine into seven weapons factories. Eighteen trucks have the capability of producing the huge amounts of biological weapons we know Iraq had in the 1990s, all in a matter of months.

Pen ink today, mustard gas tomorrow. Powell gave a brief outline of how Iraq has reconstituted its chemical production capabilities with inspections in mind. Dual-use facilities run a legitimate product one day, then switch over to illegal chemicals the next. These systems, designed to be inspected, avoid suspicion and hard proof by producing items which help “cover” their more devious chemical agents. I think this point helps explain the discovery of thiodiglycol. Yes, the chemical - albeit banned from Iraq by the U.N. - can be used for legitimate purposes. Therefore, its discovery at a facility is not technically a “smoking gun” if that term is limited to actual chemical weapons. But after the inspectors leave, the production team just shuts off the mixers putting thiodiglycol in with ink, and sends the chemical into another mixer that starts the hydrolytic reaction which results in mustard gas. That mixer is carefully sealed and hidden, to avoid detectability. That’s why the Bush administration says precursors and dual-use chemicals are so important.

Digging in the dirt. When a chemical production or transfer facility has a contamination problem, the inspectors are sure to find it with all that super-dooper equipment they’re using, right? Not if Iraq disassembles all the buildings then literally digs up and hauls away the surrounding earth, replacing it with “clean dirt.” That’s what one of the photos showed, along with corroberating evidence from an Iraqi source.

Guilty plea. If the other evidence wasn’t enough, how about the Iraqis’ own words? The intercept from just a few weeks ago between Iraqi Republican Guard officers talking about “nerve agents,” with one scolding the other to not mention “these horrible agents” by name, in case anyone is listening, was nothing short of a confession, if accidental.

Too-good tubes. I’m personally glad Powell slapped down this criticism of the administration’s case. The Iraqis and their apologists keep claiming all these aluminum tubes - which Iraq isn’t allowed to acquire in the first place - are just to replace old, corroded rocket-launcher tubes. From the first time I recall hearing about the tubes (last September, I think), it was pointed out that they were suspicious because they were built to very specific metal strengths and precisions. Yet this is constantly ignored by a complacent media and excuse-making war opponents. Powell brought the attention back:

“I am no expert on centrifuge tubes, but just as an old Army trooper, I can tell you a couple of things: First, it strikes me as quite odd that these tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets.

“Maybe Iraqis just manufacture their conventional weapons to a higher standard than we do, but I don't think so. Second, we actually have examined tubes from several different batches that were seized clandestinely before they reached Baghdad. What we notice in these different batches is a progression to higher and higher levels of specification, including, in the latest batch, an anodized coating on extremely smooth inner and outer surfaces. Why would they continue refining the specifications, go to all that trouble for something that, if it was a rocket, would soon be blown into shrapnel when it went off?”

Powell added evidence of Iraqi attempts to acquire other uranium enrichment centrifuge equipment, to demonstrate why America and her allies believe the tubes are for nuclear weapons production. It’s like finding all the parts to a gun in a suspected murderer’s car, and the suspect claiming he just uses the barrel to smoke dope.

Add it all up, and you’ve got Iraqi contempt for Res. 1441, for the inspectors and for the Security Council. As they say, the money graf:

“The issue before us is not how much time we are willing to give the inspectors to be frustrated by Iraqi obstruction. But how much longer are we willing to put up with Iraq's noncompliance before we, as a council, we, as the United Nations, say: ‘Enough. Enough.’”

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