The Proof Is in the Padding
The country has been put on
high alert, and I too have heightened my alertness—for
balderdash masquerading as bald facts. I’d urge everyone to
adopt the same attitude. We can start by going back for a more
careful look at Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Security
Council address on February 5, which pundits and
politicians—and, according to a new poll, a majority of the
American public—are calling a powerful argument for an assault
Among other things, Powell praised a British
intelligence report on Iraq that was later revealed to be
based on plagiarized material from magazine articles and
someone’s old doctoral thesis. Even more telling was the
section of Powell’s presentation that came closest to
revealing the long-sought “smoking gun.” A summary of
newspaper reports, published in the influential online
magazine Slate, put it this way:
[Powell] released audio tapes of Iraqis playing
hide-’n-seek: In one conversation recorded a few weeks ago,
an officer tells a subordinate, “Remove ‘nerve agents’
wherever it comes up in the wireless instructions.”
Double-checking, the underling repeats the instructions. His
boss’s response: “Stop talking about it. They are listening
to us. Don’t give any evidence that we have these horrible
agents.”Note the quotation marks. Like
most Americans who read the brief summaries in the following
day’s papers, I was amazed that an Iraqi officer had warned
someone to “stop talking about it … they are listening,” since
that in itself would be an admission of guilt to those very
listeners. And, even more so, that he would say, “Don’t give
any evidence that we have these horrible agents.” He sounds
disgusted—and practically begging for an invasion to save the
world and his own skin.
I was about ready to suit up
for battle myself, when I paused to double-check the
transcripts of Powell’s talk for the exact language of the
audio tapes. And that’s when double-check led to double-take.
Because no Iraqi officer talked about “horrible agents.” Those
were Colin Powell’s words. The secretary of state had simply
taken the liberty to paraphrase what he believed the officers
were implying in their conversation. He was putting words in
their mouths. But the Slate summary, mailed to influential
people all over the country, mixed up what the Iraqis had
actually been heard saying with Powell’s tendentious
See—or listen—for yourself. A conversation
in Arabic was played for the Security Council. The transcript,
as translated by the State Department, goes as follows:
COLONEL: Captain Ibrahim? Then Powell begins
CAPTAIN: I am with
COLONEL: The expression.
CAPTAIN: The expression.
COLONEL: Nerve agents.
CAPTAIN: Nerve agents.
COLONEL: Wherever it comes up.
CAPTAIN: Wherever it
COLONEL: In the wireless instructions.
CAPTAIN: In the instructions.
Let’s review a few selected items of this
conversation. Two officers talking to each other on the
radio want to make sure that nothing is misunderstood. … Why
does he repeat it that way? Why is he so forceful, making
sure this is understood, and why did he focus on wireless
instructions? Because the senior officer is concerned that
somebody might be listening. Well, somebody was. Nerve
agents. Stop talking about it. They are listening to us.
Don’t give any evidence that we have these horrible agents.
Naturally, the Iraqis denied Powell’s assertions.
The intercepted telephone conversations were “simply not true
and not genuine,” said an Iraqi general. “Any third-rate
intelligence outfit could produce such a
After years of duplicity, Iraqi officials
don’t have any credibility. The problem is, the arguments put
forth by any party with a predetermined agenda must be viewed
with skepticism. Powell’s totally fictional line about
“horrible agents” may reflect the gist of the Iraqi’s actual
words. Or there may be another explanation.
that, in a translation of a conversation from a scratchy
recording, some person whose identity we cannot know, referred
to “nerve agents.” Assuming the tape is clear enough, and the
translation correct, all we have is someone telling someone to
remove a reference to nerve agents. And what kind of
reference? We have no idea. Anything is possible. It could be
an old reference, in an old manual, to nerve agents Iraq used
to have. It could be instructions on what to do if confronted
with nerve agents launched by enemy troops. It could be
anything at all.
It’s not that Saddam isn’t horrible,
or that he doesn’t have some dangerous weapons. He probably
does. It’s that the United States, despite all its high-tech
intelligence-gathering, does not really know very much about
Saddam’s capabilities and intentions. Instead of admitting
that, which would undermine its case for a pre-emptive strike
on oil-rich Iraq, the Bush administration is willing to twist
the truth and pretend to know what it doesn’t
History provides a chilling precedent. In 1964,
President Lyndon Johnson strong-armed Congress into giving him
a blank check for conducting the Vietnam War in the so-called
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This resolution was based on a
supposedly unprovoked attack on U.S. ships by North Vietnamese
naval forces—an attack which almost certainly did not take
place as Johnson described, and may not have happened at
Nearly 40 years later, heightened alertness looks
like a wise idea.
Russ Baker is doing his own
"monitoring" of events from his current perch in the Balkans.