By Michael Isikoff and Michael Hirsh
Jan. 31 – The Bush administration is preparing to release supersensitive electronic intercepts obtained by the National Security Agency that officials say prove that Iraq has repeatedly lied to United Nations inspectors, plotted among themselves about how to conceal weapons material and even appeared to boast afterward at their success in doing so, NEWSWEEK has learned.
THE DECISION TO allow Secretary of State Colin Powell to use the electronic intercepts in his speech next Wednesday to the U.N. was described by U.S. intelligence officials as extraordinary. Electronic intercepts by the NSA are considered the most jealously guarded of all U.S. intelligence secrets and government officials are normally loath to even refer to their existence for fear of tipping off targets and drying up invaluable sources of information.
But in this case, officials said, the intercepts are so damning and dramatic that officials say their release outweighs the potential harm-especially given the increased likelihood that the United States will shortly be launching an invasion of Iraq anyway.
“Hold onto your hat. We’ve got it,” said one U.S. intelligence official familiar with the evidence gathered by the NSA.
For the past two months, ever since the U.N. inspectors re-entered Iraq and began searching for weapons of mass destruction, the NSA has been closely monitoring the conversations of Iraqi officials. The NSA intercepts establish conclusively that the Iraqis have been “hiding stuff” from the inspectors, the U.S. intelligence official said.
“They’re saying things like, ‘Move that,’ ‘Don’t be reporting that’ and ‘Ha! Can you believe they missed that’,” the official said. “It’s that kind of stuff.”
Other officials cautioned, however, against viewing the intercepts as the long-sought “smoking gun” in the search for Iraq’s purported stockpile of banned weapons. There may still be some ambiguity about what the Iraqis are referring to in some of the conversations. Some of the material being concealed may be precursors to building weapons, or even documents and computer disks as opposed to actual chemical or biological weapons themselves. The transcripts “show that there’s been a pattern of deception,” said another official, who had been briefed on the evidence. “But does that make the case that you have to go to war?”
One official who had reviewed a transcript of the conversations disputed suggestions that the Iraqis were “joking” about deceiving the inspectors, describing them as “straightforward” discussions that nonetheless clearly showed concealment by the Iraqis in their dealings with the inspectors. A White House aide said the electronic intercepts were only one part of a much broader picture that would include satellite photos and other evidence showing Iraqi noncompliance. “There won’t be a smoking gun, but when people hear it all you’ll see a burning forest,” said one senior administration official.
Powell’s speech will contain “a lot of different pieces of information that add up to painting a compelling picture,” an administration official said. Another official said the administration had evidence that Iraq had set up “deception teams” that were orchestrating the concealment of weapons from the inspectors.
Officials at the CIA, the State Department, the National Security Council and Vice President Cheney’s office were said to be “working shoulder to shoulder reviewing raw data” to determine precisely how much information can be declassified for use in Powell’s report to the U.N. scheduled for next week.
While precise details have yet to be worked out, officials described the decision to use the intercepts at all as stunning-especially in an administration that has prided itself on its commitment to secrecy in national-security matters. One official said next week’s speech by Powell will amount to the most significant release of this kind of sensitive information since President Ronald Reagan revealed NSA intercepts that linked Muammar Kaddafi to the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in West Berlin.
One argument for releasing the intercepts, officials said, is that the normal reasons against doing so-tipping off the Iraqis to phone lines or cell phones that were being monitored-may not matter if the U.S. military is about to invade anyway. Another argument is that full disclosure, or at least substantial disclosure of the intercepts, will persuade an increasingly skeptical public in the United States and other Western nations about the nature of the case against the Iraqis.
“I’m all for it,” said Rep. Jane Harman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “It’s very important to have popular and multinational support for this effort.” Harmon said the administration’s body of evidence, which has been shared with the intelligence committees, is strong enough that it will accomplish that purpose. If so, Harmon said, she was still hopeful that Iraq would be forced into compliance and war could be averted.
The White House has been regularly receiving the NSA transcripts ever since the inspectors returned to Iraq late last year. The damning nature of some of the transcripts, officials said, explain President Bush’s occasional outbursts of anger at the Iraqis, as well as the willingness by Powell-who had previously cautioned against war-to lay out a damning picture of Iraqi noncompliance in next week’s speech. One official who had dinner with Powell recently said the secretary remarked how “we have a stronger case than many people realize.”