Powell’s Flimsy Evidence


Only two days after Colin Powell made his presentation to the U.N. Security Council, the evidence he provided is unraveling. Through interviews with experts, intelligence sources, and an examination of the physical evidence, reporters are piecing together facts that refute all of his major claims.

Powell’s presentation was full of allegations with few sources given. He did, however, provide some data, including satellite photos, taped phone conversations, film footage, diagrams, and the unattributed testimony of defectors and tortured detainees. None of this evidence holds up to close scrutiny.

First, the satellite photos: blurry images of buildings with trucks parked outside of them. Powell didn’t explain to his audience that all of the sites–every single one of them–have been under constant U.N. monitoring for months, including the munitions bunkers at Taji. Nor did he say that British reporters had visited the Amiriyah Serum and Vaccine Institute in September of last year and described run-down buildings, empty refrigerators, and piles of rubbish–two months prior to the date when Powell’s grainy photo supposedly shows the site being “cleaned up.”

Jonathan Tucker, a former weapons inspector specializing in biological and chemical weapons, told the Washington Post that the photos appeared to be blurred to conceal the full capabilities of U.S. spy satellites. Those of us who are more suspicious of the Bush administration’s policies suspect that the photos were blurred for another reason: to hide details that would poke holes in Powell’s case. For example, the “before” and “after” photos of the al-Musayyib site are not to the same scale, so it’s impossible to tell if Powell’s allegation that the site had been recently bulldozed and graded is really true, nor can we tell if the “forklift” and “bulldozer” are really vehicles, and not just shrubbery or storage tanks.

Even basic logic tells us that something is wrong with these photos. Why does he show us pictures of empty cargo trucks? Surely, with the billions of dollars the U.S. has spent on satellite technology and aerial reconnaissance, the CIA can find a photo or two of cargo trucks filled with dirt or with missiles piled in them. In fact, he ought to be able to tell us the destination for the chemically-tainted dirt, biological munitions, and missiles. Of course, Powell didn’t mention that the U.S. has already provided such a list to the U.N. weapons inspectors, who’ve visited these sites and found nothing so far.

The same is true for the photos of the missile sites and the missile test stand. Again, these are sites that are under constant U.N. monitoring. U.N. inspectors have examined the test stand five times, studied its specifications, and regularly monitor tests at the site. So far, they’ve reported no problems. Powell showed a photo of the short-range missile workshop at al-Musayyib, supposedly depicting “increased activity,” including piles of missiles and cargo trucks. Reporters visited al-Musayyib two days after Powell’s speech. They noted that canisters and missile components were being shipped in and out of the site every day, and that U.N. inspectors had visited the site 10 times since late November. Missile canisters at the site bore U.N. inventory stickers.

The taped conversations that Powell played to the Security Council are of the same quality as the photos. Vague to the point of meaningless, they are devoid of the detailed, mundane statements you’d expect from the day-to-day management of weapons of mass destruction. Where are statements like: “Which canisters are leaking? Tell the technicians to stay away from them” or “Tell the drivers not to drive the mobile labs on Route 27, because there’s a traffic jam today”? If the U.S. has been monitoring Iraqi phone lines and military transmissions for months, as Powell asserts, there’s very little to show for it.

Much of Powell’s evidence is outdated. Most of his data on Iraq’s nuclear program dates to the 1980s, including his assertion that Iraq has attempted to buy uranium from Africa. There is only one source for enriched uranium in Africa: South Africa. The former apartheid government of South Africa–an ally of the Reagen administration–sold enriched uranium to Iraq in 1989; however, the South African government turned over its nuclear program to U.N. monitors in 1993. Currently all of South Africa’s weapons grade material is under the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the same U.N. commission that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear capability in the mid-1990s. The IAEA declared on January 27th that there are no signs that Iraq has restarted its nuclear program.

There are other sources for uranium in Africa. The Congo, Niger, Botswana, and Gabon all mine raw uranium oxide. But that ore must be refined before it can be used in a nuclear weapon. This is where the aluminum tubes come into play. Experts with the IAEA also told the U.N. Security Council on January 27th that the aluminum tubes were completely unsuitable in both size and composition for use in nuclear centrifuges; they are, however, perfectly suited for use in conventional missiles, as Iraq has claimed.

Even analysts within the Bush administration disagree about the aluminum tubes. The CIA thinks they’re meant for nuclear use, while nuclear experts at the Department of Energy scoff at the idea.

Also outdated is Powell’s evidence relating to Iraq’s chemical weapons program. For example, the film footage of a Mirage jet conducting a test spraying was obtained by UNSCOM in the mid-1990s. Jonathan Tucker, whom I cited above, reminded the Washington Post that the quantities of chemical weapons that Powell says Iraq posses are “at the margin of significance from a military standpoint.” And Powell doesn’t highlight distinction between warheads that contain chemicals and empty weapons shells. Pundits and reporters alike toss around the “30,000 chemical munitions” figure as if it were a fact; in truth, U.N. inspectors are searching for 30,000 empty shells.

Other parts of Powell’s presentation fall under the category of stale evidence: allegations of spray tanks mounted on MIG-21 jets (bombed during the Gulf War), chemical experiments on prisoners (done in the 1980s–these were Iranian prisoners of war), and all of his information on unmanned aerial vehicles (Powell’s photo of a single, tiny unmanned aerial vehicle on skateboard wheels is a much-ridiculed UNSCOM picture from the mid-1990s).

Equally ridiculous is the British report on Iraq’s infrastructure and concealment of weapons, which Powell waived authoritatively before the Security Council. The report caused a scandal in Britain when the press found out that British intelligence plagiarized most of the report from two articles posted on the Internet. One article was published in Jane’s Intelligence Review in 1997, and the other source was an article based on a graduate student’s doctoral dissertation, which in turn was based on documents seized during the Gulf War.

And then there’s the diagram of mobile bioweapons labs. Laboratories that can produce the amount of biological agents needed to make bioweapons have to have a constant supply of electricity, sterile water, refrigeration, heat, nutrients, glassware, special air filters, sophisticated equipment, hundreds (if not thousands) of trained personnel, and buildings constructed with rooms that have multiple doors and barriers to maintain adequate bio-containment. Nobody slings around glass slides and petri dishes full of anthrax cultures in the back of a truck. Powell’s diagrams showed no means of bio-containment at all, no way to provide electricity, no air filtration, and an unworkable setup for personnel.

Powell also said these labs used a 24-hour production cycle, beginning work on Thursday night and finishing on Friday night, to take advantage of U.N. inspector’s unwillingness to work on the Muslim holy day. Raymond Zilinskas, microbiologist and former U.N. inspector, told the Washington Post: “You normally would require 36 to 48 hours just to do the fermentation. The short processing time seems suspicious to me.” Zilinskas also pointed out that the diagrams showed no means of disposing of huge quantities of highly toxic waste that are a routine by-product of bioweapons labs. The diagrams struck him as “a bit far-fetched.”

Powell’s source was an Iraqi defector who claimed to have worked on the mobile bioweapons labs. Defectors, however, often exaggerate their stories in order to obtain immunity and citizenship in the U.S. At least one defector whose testimony Powell cited in his presentation, Khidir Hamza, has been debunked as a fraud. Other defectors, including Saddam Hussein’s relatives, are not recent emigrants.

Equally suspect is the testimony of tortured detainees. Many of the captured Al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay suffer from mental illnesses, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (which can bring on hallucinations), and schizophrenia. Human rights groups are concerned that these illnesses are a result of the conditions at Guantanamo; fourteen of the Guantanamo detainees have tried to kill themselves. Al Qaeda prisoners in Pakistan, Syria, and other countries are currently being tortured, and prisoners held in rented U.S. bases in Afghanistan and on Diego Garcia may also be subject to “pressure” that violates international law. Confessions obtained from torture are notoriously unreliable. For example, Abu Zubaida, the “top-ranking” Al Qaeda prisoner in Pakistan cited by Colin Powell, is the source for last year’s multiple false alarms regarding terrorist attacks on banks and other public facilities in the U.S.

Powell’s main sources for the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda are tortured detainees. Intelligence evidence on this topic is practically nonexistent. The New York Times, for example, sent a reporter to interview Kurds in northern Iraq about Ansar al-Islam and Powell’s photo of the poisons training camp. They wrote: “One senior Kurdish official, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who is familiar with the intelligence on Ansar, said he had not heard of the laboratory Mr. Powell displayed…Kurds also questioned whether Mr. Powell was mistaken or had mislabeled the photograph. Khurmal, the village named on the photo, is controlled by Komala Islami Kurdistan, a more moderate Islamic Group.”

The Los Angeles Times reports: “Lawmakers who have attended classified briefings on the camp say that they have been stymied for months in their efforts to get an explanation for why the United States has not launched a military strike on the compound near the village of Khurmal.” They go on to point out “the facility is in an area where the United States already has a considerable presence.”

In fact, the U.S. has a considerable presence in most of Iraq, via the no-fly zones. The question of why the U.S. hasn’t bombed Khurmal could apply to nearly every site Powell describes in his speech. The only answer, of course, is that the U.S. just doesn’t have the solid evidence to prove that those sites contain weapons of mass destruction.

Nor does the U.S. have evidence of a link between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the supposed mastermind of Al Qaeda’s poison terror cell, and Iraq. The Toronto Globe and Mail calls al-Zarqawi “A little-known Palestinian who isn’t even on the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ most-wanted list.” They also quote British and Israeli intelligence sources who were not persuaded by Powell’s evidence. The New York Times quotes FBI and CIA sources that are alarmed at the Bush administration’s distortion of the evidence to establish a link that doesn’t exist.

Even al-Zarqawi’s link to the British poison terror cell is questionable. British sources refused to confirm the link, saying only that they are still investigating.

Ironically, al-Zarqawi did have a powerful sponsor who provided him with a safe house when he was traveling to and from Afghanistan and who gave him more than $1 million to finance his network in Europe. But it wasn’t Saddam Hussein, or even a rich Iraqi citizen. It was a member of Qatar’s royal family, a man named Abdul Karim al-Thani. George Tenet, head of the CIA, is reportedly furious that numerous members of Qatar’s royal family have sponsored terrorists. But the Bush administration needs Qatar’s military bases to launch an attack on Iraq.

An examination of Powell’s flimsy evidence explains why his presentation failed to change the minds of French, German, and Chinese delegates and, indeed, most of the other Security Council members. They were right in describing it as old, thin, and unpersuasive.



Sources for this article:

“Powell’s Address, Presenting ‘Deeply Troubling’ Evidence on Iraq,” transcript of his speech, New York Times website, www.nytimes.com , 2/6/03.

Photos, Diagrams, and transcripts of taped conversations presented by Colin Powell to the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Department of State website, www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/pix/events/secretary/2003/c8390.htm .

“Iraq takes journalists on tour to expose Blair ‘lies’,” Kim Sengupta, The Independent, 9/25/02.

“Suspect plants open their doors; Iraqis arrange tour of factories named in report,” Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian, 9/25/02.

“Case Aided by Satellite Images And Intercepted Conversations,” Joby Warrick, Washington Post, 2/6/03, A28, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A32125-2003Feb5.html .

“Iraq Shows Off Missile Sites to Rebut U.S. Charges,” Nadim Ladki, Reuters, 2/7/03.

“Iraq: Sites Powell Noted Are Monitored,” Charles J. Hanley, Associated Press, 2/7/03.

“S Africa denies Iraq nuclear link,” Alistair Leithead, BBC news online, 9/26/02.

“African gangs offer route to uranium,” James Astill and Rory Carroll, The Guardian, 9/25/02.

“US recycles human test claims,” Audrey Gillan, The Guardian, 2/6/03, www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,889812,00.html .

“UK war dossier a sham, say experts,” Michael White and Brian Whitaker, The Guardian, 2/7/03, www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,890929,00.html .

“Despite Defectors’ Accounts, Evidence Remains Anecdotal,” Joby Warrick, Washington Post, 2/6/03, A28, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A31744-2003Feb5.html .

“All too human failings of ‘human intelligence,’” Jeevan Vasagar, The Guardian, 2/6/03, www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,889813,00.html .

“Suicide attempts by detainees at Cuba base on the rise,” Paisley Dodds, AP reprinted in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2/7/03, A16.

“Kurds Puzzled by Report of Terror Camp,” C.J. Chivers, NY Times, 2/5/03, www.nytimes.com/2003/02/06/international/middleeast/06ANSA.html .

“Ongoing Iraqi Camp Questioned,” Greg Miller, Los Angeles Times, 2/7/03, www.latimes.com .

“Terrorism experts doubt bin Laden, Baghdad link,” Timothy Appleby, Toronto Globe and Mail, 2/6/03, A11, www.globeandmail.com .

“Bin Laden-Iraq link suddenly emerges,” Mark MacKinnon and Alan Freeman, Toronto Globe and Mail, 2/6/03, A11.

“Intelligence Break Led U.S. to Tie Envoy Killing to Iraqi Qaeda Cell,” Patrick E. Tyler, NY Times, 2/6/03, www.nytimes.com/2003/02/06/international/middleeast/06QAED.html .

“Alleged Al Qaeda Ties Questioned,” Walter Pincus, Washington Post, 2/7/03, A21, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A38235-2003Feb6.html .

“Split at C.I.A. and F.B.I. on Iraqi Ties to Al Qaeda,” James Risen and David Johnston, NY Times, 2/1/03, www.nytimes.com/2003/02/02/international/middleeast/02INTE.html .

“U.S. Probes al-Qaida Figure’s Iraq Moves,” John J. Lumpkin, Associated Press, 2/1/03.

“Former Top Iraqi Scientist Says Iraq Has No Nukes,” Jeffrey Hodgson, Reuters, 2/3/03. Interview with Iraqi former Iraqi nuclear expert now teaching in Canada.

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