It was only a fake, a prop thrown into his speech for the benefit of the cameras. But Colin Powell's small vial of simulated anthrax was still too hot to handle for his aides as they flew to New York. In a jittery nation fearful of war abroad and terrorist attacks at home, nobody wanted to carry the dried silicon powder onboard a commercial flight from the nation's capital. So it was left to Powell's spokesman, Richard Boucher, to carry the vial (complete with an official chemical analysis of its contents) on the secretary of State's plane, which took off from Andrews Air Force Base, to avoid triggering a terrorist alert at Reagan national airport. More than any murky satellite photo, Powell's prop--designed to show the world how much terror Saddam Hussein could unleash with a fraction of his secret weapons stockpile--would become the enduring image of the historic session at the United Nations. On the eve of war, and the eve of possible terrorist attacks, it looked like the sum of all fears.
As Powell cranked up the pressure to go to war, America's threat barometer was moving in the same direction. At the end of the week, the administration raised its official threat level to Code Orange--the second highest security alert--based on fresh warnings of Qaeda attacks on American targets. Intelligence sources say the planned attacks appear to be timed to take place between the end of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, in mid-February, and the start of war in Iraq. "Our reporting strongly suggests that Al Qaeda has completed preparations for multiple attacks with spectaculars set for the United States and probably Saudi Arabia, and is delaying them until just before or just after a war begins with Iraq," says a classified FBI bulletin obtained by NEWSWEEK. "In that situation, Al Qaeda attacks will be described as an effort to defend Iraqi Muslims against the attack of the U.S.-led Crusaders." NEWSWEEK has learned that one of the administration's most immediate concerns is the possibility of multiple attacks on American Jewish groups and businesses. Late last week FBI field offices across the country began contacting Jewish leaders and rabbis and urging them to enhance security. Other threats include reports of an attack using chemical, biological or radiological materials. "We had much more information on chem-bio stuff," says one senior law-enforcement official. "That really unnerved me."
For the Bush administration, those imminent terrorist threats only underscore the pressing need to go on the offensive against Baghdad. Saddam's terrorist ties were at the heart of Powell's pitch to the Security Council last week. Yet intelligence officials acknowledge that the Qaeda story remains the most tenuous piece of the Iraqi puzzle. And for many American allies, the prospect of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq is seen as a dangerous provocation that could set off a new wave of terrorist attacks in Europe and the Arab world. "I'm not sure that the way you make people more moderate in the region is by bombing Baghdad," says Chris Patten, the European Union's commissioner for external affairs.
Battle-tested by countless military briefings, Powell was the embodiment of overwhelming force. In contrast to President George W. Bush's vague if forceful sermons on good and evil, Powell fired a 76-minute salvo of detailed evidence with photos, tapes, sources and place names. The most popular--and most respected--member of Bush's cabinet was gambling that American intelligence could shame and shock the United Nations into signing up for military action. In normal times, diplomats try to avert conflict. But here was the spectacle of America's most senior diplomat arm-twisting a reluctant world to go to battle. His public diplomacy transfixed a television audience across the planet; administration officials estimated a worldwide viewership of more than 1 billion. So just how convincing was Powell's case for war? And will Powell--and the United Nations--survive with their reputations intact?
At the United Nations, Powell found himself pitted against a worldwide antiwar movement led by France. Inside the Security Council, he engaged in a series of sharp exchanges with his French counterpart, Dominique de Villepin. The retired general spent the morning excoriating the inspections process in Iraq, while the career French diplomat (and published poet) shuffled impatiently in his chair. At a closed-door lunch, France kept pushing the Council for more time and more inspectors. Finally, the normally easygoing Powell snapped. He charged that Paris, not Washington, was undermining the United Nations. "This Council has to stand by what it says," he insisted. "Resolution 1441 has been violated."
The early reviews of Powell's performance were mixed. In the U.S. audience he changed so many minds that half of all Americans are now ready to go to war immediately, compared with only a third last month, according to the new NEWSWEEK Poll. And yet overseas, Powell seemed to have little impact, as many prominent world leaders showed scant enthusiasm for the war. No matter how steadfastly Britain, Spain and Italy stood behind Bush and Powell, Washington found no support in Paris, Berlin, Moscow or Beijing. Several senior State Department officials believe (or fervently hope) that they already have a majority inside the Security Council for a second resolution against Iraq. But once again this week, the Bush administration is mounting another diplomatic offensive on the world's capitals.
On at least one point, Powell's evidence seemed overwhelming: the Iraqi game of deception and cover-up that frustrates the work of inspectors. Intercepted conversations between Iraqi officers were particularly damning. The day before the inspectors arrived in November, a colonel and brigadier talk about evacuating a "modified vehicle." In January, two Republican Guard officers clear out "forbidden ammo." Papers, missiles and computer hard drives have apparently gone missing, dispersed around the country. "One wonders how 200, 300 or 500 inspectors are going to disarm Iraq," said one senior State Department official, dismissing the French proposal to double or treble the number of inspectors in Iraq. At the White House the next day, Bush effectively abandoned U.S. support for the inspectors, saying: "The game is over."
Some U.N. sources criticized Powell for failing to acknowledge the past successes of inspectors in Iraq. Powell claimed that Iraq had kept "up to a few dozen" Scud-type missiles, but U.N. inspectors accounted for 817 of the 819 Scuds after the last gulf war. Powell also detailed "vast amounts of chemical weaponry" from the gulf-war years, while the U.N. inspectors said they verified the destruction of virtually all of Iraq's stocks.
If Powell was convincing about the pattern of Iraqi deception, his assertions about Saddam's terrorist links seemed less watertight. "Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi," Powell asserted, "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants." Although Baghdad has long supported Palestinian terrorism, claims of an alliance between Iraq and Al Qaeda have been disputed by some CIA officials ever since the administration's hawks first floated the idea in the days and weeks after 9-11.
It was no coincidence that CIA Director George Tenet was sitting directly behind Powell as he made his pitch to the United Nations. For months, some in the CIA had been dismissive of the Bush team's assertions about a Baghdad-bin Laden link. Aware of the tensions, Powell wanted Tenet and his people engaged in writing and staging the speech, to signal that Washington was finally presenting a united front. (For Bush, the director's highly visible support was one of the high points of the presentation.) Tenet and his staff had spent several days helping to redraft Powell's speech in a conference room at the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters. Much of the speechwriting at the CIA, including a pizza-fueled session that went late into the night on Saturday, concerned which intelligence to declassify for public consumption. For his part, Powell was keen to triple-rivet the accuracy of his claims and to translate the CIA's intel-speak into normal English. On the morning of his U.N. showdown, Powell traveled in his limo from the Waldorf-Astoria to Tenet's hotel to ensure they were photographed walking into the U.N. building together. And yet the agency's support was more tentative than the visuals suggested. While nobody questions the underlying data, like all intelligence assessments, the conclusions are in the eye of the beholder.
U.S. officials now say that what enabled the CIA, Pentagon and State Department to agree on Powell's alarming brief was the accumulation, since early last summer, of intelligence on the travels and activities of Zarqawi, a Palestinian born in Jordan. Zarqawi used to run his own terrorist-training camp in Afghanistan, close to the city of Herat. When the Taliban regime fell, he, like other Qaeda operatives, fled to neighboring Iran. But Zarqawi apparently sustained a serious leg wound while fighting American troops after 9-11. Last May, U.S. intelligence began to receive information that Zarqawi had checked into a Baghdad hospital to have his leg amputated and a prosthesis fitted. While in Baghdad, he apparently was joined by a dozen or more Qaeda "affiliates," as Powell described them in his speech. U.S. officials say the Jordanian government twice asked the Iraqis to extradite Zarqawi, but Baghdad did not respond; he later disappeared. Several of his associates are still in Baghdad, officials say. According to German police documents obtained by NEWSWEEK, Zarqawi's goal is to kill the Jordanian king and replace his regime with an Islamist state. It was Zarqawi who paid and armed the killer of Laurence Foley, a State Department official in Amman, Jordan, in October.
More ugly details were provided by a captured Qaeda operative, according to Powell. The detainee described a web of Zarqawi associates across Europe and in such places as Chechnya and the wild-west Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia. Very recent intelligence tied Zarqawi to alleged plots by Qaeda suspects in Britain, France, Italy and Spain. One suspect arrested in Italy told interrogators the group had purchased toxins from Iraq "that would make Americans die like flies," according to a U.S. intelligence official.
However, some officials question whether this new intelligence means that Saddam is actively collaborating with Zarqawi's outfit. U.S. officials familiar with the evidence said just hours after Powell's speech that the nature of Zarqawi's relationship with Saddam's regime--and its role in his medical treatment--was "unknown." Rather than controlling Zarqawi's group, Saddam Hussein's police state could be just tolerating its limited presence in Iraq. Moreover, German police documents obtained by NEWSWEEK suggest that Zarqawi and his group have extremely close ties to--and regularly operate from--Iran, rather than Iraq. (American sources counter that some crucial intelligence on the Iraqi connection to Al Qaeda was so sensitive that it was tightly held inside the U.S. government, and even within the intelligence community.) Powell's credibility was not helped by his high praise for a recent British paper on Iraqi deception. Tony Blair's spokesman admitted at the end of last week that sections of the report were copied from magazines and academic journals.
For Powell, and the administration, the lingering doubts matter little. Saddam's terrorist ties are not what brought U.N. arms inspectors to Iraq. Instead, Powell is focusing on Iraq's refusal to disarm, in line with last year's U.N. resolution. So the Bush administration has mapped out a strategy to maintain maximum pressure on the Security Council. The president will play host at the Oval Office to international leaders who support military action, such as Australia's Prime Minister John Howard, and Bush and Powell will continue to press for more international support before the U.N. inspectors return with another report on Friday.
Bush does not need another resolution to go to war in Iraq, and the Security Council's members know it. At the same time, White House officials have no desire to tackle the expensive job of rebuilding Iraq without full international backing. So the bargaining and feuding continue. European officials--including the Brits--are deeply skeptical about the administration's optimistic predictions that toppling Saddam could spark a democratic wave across the Arab world. Administration officials brush aside those Euro-fears, attributing them to nerves on the eve of a military action. A far more troubling question, still unresolved even within the administration, is what will come next in Iraq. Winning the war may be easy. Winning the peace is likely to be far tougher.
Graphic: (map/text) Lethal Ingredients: Chemical Weapons: Powell's Case:
Graphic: (map/text) Centrifugal Force: Nuclear Weapons: Powell's Case:
· POWELL'S CASE: Iraq has repeatedly tried to import sophisticated parts that could be used in a gas centrifuge to produce enriched uranium. In particular, it has sought "high-specification aluminum tubes from 11 different countries."
·THE BOTTOM LINE: "There is controversy about what these tubes are for," Powell admitted. Iraq says they're for missiles. U.N. experts say the tubes are "consistent" with Iraq's story and "not directly suitable" for a centrifuge. The debate misses the point, said Powell. "Iraq had no business buying [the tubes] for any purpose; they are banned."
Graphic: (text) Delivery Units: Powell's Case:
Graphic: (map/text) The Bin Laden Connection: Tendrils of Terrorism: Powell's Case: