Colin Powell's Briefing to the Security Council: Brief Comments from an Ex-Intelligence Officer

 ITNI:  How do you react to Secretary Powell's presentation?Ermarth:  It was very compelling in its content and very compellingly delivered.

 ITNI:  How do you react to Secretary Powell's presentation?

Ermarth:  It was very compelling in its content and very compellingly delivered. I've read Powell quoted a few days ago saying that the speech would contain no smoking guns.  But the whole presentation is a smoking gun because it presents such a powerful case that Iraq is in deliberate material breach of its obligation and has continued ties to international terrorism.

To me, this means that Saddam Hussein is done for unless he executes immediately and massively a complete change of course, which seems highly improbable.  The question remains whether, in the face of this case, the UN Security Council and our key allies rise to the occasion or not.  There is a substantial element in the international community, especially in Europe, whose top priority is to contain, not Saddam Hussein, but the United States.  They wish the Bush Administration to fail.  They do not care about the evidence or the threat from Iraq.  The question is whether they can be outvoted.  If not, they will be ignored.

ITNI:  Were there any surprises for you?

Ermarth:  Many of the details were, of course, new-for example, the content of the intercepts, the photographs, many of the allusions to defector reports, the graphics on the biological warfare (BW) vans.  These revelations are evidence beyond reasonable doubt.

But the bottom lines were by now pretty familiar by virtue of administration arguments and news that has come out in the past.  Some of my associates express surprise that Iraq's BW production capability placed on mobile platforms is actually and currently producing lethal agents.  But I had assumed that, if Saddam went to the trouble of putting hideable capability on mobile trucks, it could be used for production in that mode.

Powell's detailing of the aluminum tube debate and the fact that Iraq has been acquiring tubing-machined and finished to specifications needed for centrifuges and not rocketry-is a major new contribution to that public story.

ITNI:  Were there any disappointments?

Ermarth:  I am slightly surprised and somewhat disappointed that Powell did not make more of the spotty but credible evidence of Iraqi involvement in terrorist attacks in and on the United States going back to the early 1990s.  This includes the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and other attempted attacks in New York.  There is some evidence that it includes the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.  The Secretary made extensive reference to defector testimony.  But I find it odd and disappointing that he did not mention widely reported defector reporting that terrorists got hijacking training in the celebrated 707 at Salman Pak.  Perhaps recounting of this history would have been too awkward for the man sitting directly behind him, or perhaps Powell himself has not found the strength of this evidence sufficiently compelling to match its explosive implication, i.e., that Iraq did have a hand in 9/11.  I believe it did and that, sooner or later, we shall find that smoking gun.

A second omission was his failure to mention that state support to international terrorism is not a new phenomenon.  During the 1970s and 1980s, we strongly suspected (and, after the end of the Cold War, we got positive proof) that the USSR and its allies supported terrorists in Western Europe and in Turkey. And Saddam himself is, after all, very much a product of Soviet support in that period. This might have been embarrassing to the Secretary's Russian colleague.

Finally, I think Powell could have said that we, especially in the United States, in Europe, and anywhere at a distance from Iraq have the most to fear, not from missiles or unmanned airplanes, but from the combination of bio-weapons, which we know Iraq has, with covert human-agent delivery techniques which are easy and which we know Iraq has and can reach around the globe.  This does not have to involve an accomplice like Al-Qaeda.  In fact, this is probably more easily and reliably done by Saddam's own trusted agents, whose families are under arrest just to make sure they obey.  Whatever its current condition or capabilities, the mere existence of Al-Qaeda in virtual or mythic form provides a false-flag cover if Saddam needs one.  He has had ten years and plenty of incentive to develop and deploy such capabilities.  Perhaps the Secretary didn't go into this because the prospect is uncertain but extremely frightening.  If Saddam has already developed and deployed such covert attack capabilities, we are likely to see them used.  If he has not, he could easily and quickly deploy them in the future.  This is, to my mind, one of the very most important reasons for getting rid of him and his toxic arsenals.

Fritz W. Ermarth is Director of National Security Programs at the Nixon Center.  He is also a senior analyst at Science Applications International Corporation.  He retired from CIA in 1998 after 25 years of service.