With Vernon Loeb
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, Feb. 5, 2003; Noon ET
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented classified material to the U.N. Security Council today to make the case that Iraq is concealing weapons of mass destruction. Powell provided audio and visual evidence of Iraq's chemical war plants and the efforts made to conceal the making of biological and chemical weapons. How will the U.N. and the American people respond to the findings? Will there be enough evidence to justify war?
Post staff writer Vernon Loeb was online Wednesday, Feb. 5 at Noon ET, to discuss military defense and changes in national security issues.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Vernon Loeb: Greetings all.
washingtonpost.com: How successful was Powell in his speech to the U.N. Security Council? Do you think that the audio and visual evidence provided new information or were most of his points and information that he discussed already known facts?
Vernon Loeb: I thought Powell's speech was very effective. I think he provided significant new detail, and I think the device--perhaps unprecedented--of playing actual communications intercepts was particularly effective, especially the last one in which a colonel instructs a captain to remove all references of nerve agents from wireless instructions.
Ocean City, Md.: I hear a lot of critics of the war say that the war is about oil. These people claim that George Bush's motives are to occupy Iraq and take all of Iraq's oil. Is there any proof of this ridiculous theory or is this just another baseless conspiracy theory fabricated by the liberals who wish to keep Saddam Hussein in power?
Vernon Loeb: I do not believe the Bush administration's probable war against Iraq is about oil. I think it is, as President Bush says, about weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorism. Oil is clearly part of the broader context--the US has huge interests in the Middle East because of its dependence upon oil. And Iraq's oil wealth might be a source of funds to pay for any war in Iraq. But I agree with you that occupation of Iraq's oil fields is not what is motivating the Bush administration.
Washington, D.C.: OK, Secretary Powell made the case against Iraq. What happens now?
Vernon Loeb: My guess is, the U.S. will go for, and possibly get, a second U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military force for disarming Iraq. If the U.S. believes it does not have the votes,it will go for a weaker resolution that simply declares Iraq is in material breach of Resolution 1441, and then commence military operations with a "coalition of the willing"_and 18 European nations have already signed on. I believe there will be a war beginning in March.
Wheaton, Md.: Is the issue with the world community really about evidence? It seems pretty clear that those nations, such as France, will never support the U.S. effort. Why waste any more time trying to convince them?
Vernon Loeb: No, I think presenting evidence is very important, and I think Powell was quite eloquent in bolstering his case using evidence that this is not some academic exercise for the United States, but a very visceral one, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. I think Powell's remarks will have a persuasive effect on many around the world, and while they may not convince the French government, I bet France will not exercise its Security Council veto to nix a second U.N. resolution authorizing war, if it comes to that.
washingtonpost.com: Do you think that Powell's reference to al-Qaeda's current operative provided the connection for Saddam's support in terrorism?
Vernon Loeb: Yes, I do. I thought Powell made the most effective administration argument to date linking Iraq to al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. This is different from linking Iraq to al Qaeda's Sept. 11 attacks, which Powell did not attempt to do.
Washington, D.C.: Has or will the US deploy any new satellites in advance of military operations in Iraq?
Vernon Loeb: I do not believe it is in position to do so. There was a presumed satellite launch by the National Reconnaissance Office scheduled for May from Vandenburg Air Force Base, but it has apparently been canceled. I think in the event of military action, unmanned aerial vehicles and manned reconnaissance aircraft like the U-2 will be the systems of choice for bolstering the nation's spotty satellite coverage.
Clarksville, Tenn.: Given the strong case Powell has made, is the possibility of a military draft remote? I'm thinking about after the major conflict in Iraq is over, occupation, other threats (N. Korea), etc.
Vernon Loeb: I think it is remote. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has flatly ruled out resumption of a draft, the military does not want to restart the draft, and thousands of poorly educated and unmotivated draftees are hardly what the U.S. military needs of the 21st century battlefield. You're right, our current 1.3 million member active duty military is being stretched very thin by the Bush administration's global war-fighting and nation-building appetites. But the answer, if Congress and the Pentagon ultimately agree that an increase in force strength is necessary, is to increase the size of the all-volunteer force.
Richmond, Va.: We hear a good deal from this administration about bringing democracy to Iraq as a way, it's implied, of pressuring the entire region to liberalize and reduce the conditions that seem to be breeding terrorism.
We know, or at least it seems pretty clear, that some prominent elements in Saudi Arabia are providing support and funding for Al Qaeda. It's also impossible for the U.S. to directly intervene against those elements without triggering both Osama's cultural war and a worldwide economic crisis as the Saudi oil supply becomes vulnerable.
This leads to my question (assuming there's anything to my premise) - are we really going after Iraq to disarm it or is that an excuse to get a strategic and secure military position and a handle on the Gulf oil supplies in order to effect changes in other countries like Saudi Arabia?
If so that would seem to answer many questions (Why Iraq and not North Korea? Why Iraq if it's a distraction from the global war on terror? Is it really about oil? Why can't the inspectors be given more time?) neatly that otherwise continue to nag.
Vernon Loeb: You make a good point, and I think there clearly is something to your premise. One of the things that makes military action against Iraq attractive to the administration is its believe in how fostering a democratic regime in Iraq could lead to a kind of reverse domino theory and potentially, or perhaps eventually, help democratize the whole regime. Once this happens, or so the theory goes, all of the young, angry Muslim youth will no longer need to hate America for supporting their despotic leaders, and thus no longer find al Qaeda so attractive.
Boston, Mass.: Why can't the inspectors find these ammunition bases like the one in Taji?
Vernon Loeb: Powell seemed to explain that in a number of cases, the weapons depots are sanitized before the inspectors get there. So it's not so much not being able to find the sites, but being able to get there and find them in un-sanitized conditions.
Washington, D.C.: What would the administration do if in event of a war, Saddam launches nuclear, biological, chemical weapons at US troops? Would the administration reply with nuclear, biological, chemical weapons too?
Vernon Loeb: First of all, no one seems to think Iraq has nuclear weapons, so let's take that off the table. If Saddam uses chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops, which we expect him to do, I doubt we would respond with tactical nuclear weapons, though the government clearly reserves that option. The U.S. does not have chemical or biological weapons in its arsenal any more.
New York, N.Y.: It seems that the country that mot benefits from the U.S. attacking Iraq is Israel. To what extent do Israeli interests influence American policy?
Vernon Loeb: I think the policies of Israel and the United States are now very closely in sync.
Silver Spring, Md.: Why should we believe the evidenced provided? And in case of war what role might US special forces play in helping the effort?
Vernon Loeb: I found Powell's case quite persuasive, partly because he made repeated reference to information developed by other countries and by U.N. inspectors. I mean, nothing he said struck me as particularly far-fetched. As a journalist, I try to be skeptical about everything I hear from the U.S. government, but in this case, Powell's case passed the test. As for U.S. Special Forces, they are in Iraq already, and they will play a very important part in any war, attacking important weapons sites and leadership targets, among many others things.
Grand Rapids, Minn.: Points taken (Powell's speech), but I see the Saudis have a viable plan (time.com: The Saudi Initiative), to be accomplished through another U.N. Resolution, that offers amnesty to Iraqi officers if Saddam is deposed, possibly with the help of U.N. forces; and avoids a U.S.-led invasion. The psychology is good, and I believe the plan would work.
Vernon Loeb: Yes, indeed, there are alternatives to an immediate military campaign, absolutely. And in saying I found Powell's case persuasive, I am in no way saying I favor an immediate war, or any war, for that matter. I also happen to find the "not-yet" position voiced by retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni and many others quite persuasive: sure, Saddam is a menace and military action will probably be necessary, but there is no compelling reason to start a war now, and whenever a war commences, the best thing the U.S. could do would be to go to war with as broad an international coalition as possible.
St. Louis, Mo.: Aren't satellite photos and intercepted phone conversations subject to some dispute? Could they be interpreted differently? Could they be altered?
Vernon Loeb: Sure, they are always subject to varying interpretations, and presumably they could be altered, although the risk of doing so, and getting caught, would be enormous. I found the intercepts quite persuasive, particularly the last one, as I mentioned earlier. I also found the before and after images of the sanitized weapons sites very persuasive, as well as the highly resolved picture of the chemical weapons bunker with the monitoring truck next to it. And you can bet the CIA and the NSA put up huge fights about releasing this stuff, and probably would not agree to release their very best stuff.
Fairfax, Va.: Comment on the oil in Iraq. The members of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) have met multiple times in DC and London since last Fall with executives at the major oil companies, and with members of the White House staff.
The prevailing topic: developing a strategy for carving-up the post-war Iraq oil fields. There is this term "ocean of oil" under Iraq that somewhat quantifies what we are dealing with. From what I read, the momentum comes from the attraction of securing a very large supply of oil.
Many of these meetings are covered in the UK press such as the Guardian.
As I see it the need for dependable, uninterrupted access to cheap energy is a vital part of our national security. I just wish it was discussed more openly by the US press.
Vernon Loeb: Good comment. I agree with you. Thanks for that insight.
Palmdale, Calif.: If the people in Iraq decide to fight in the cities are we prepared to take thousands of casualties?
Vernon Loeb: No, I do not think we are prepared to take thousands of casualties, and I do not think there are many senior policy makers or officers in the Pentagon who believe there will be thousands of casualties. I doubt the administration would be going to war if it believed thousands of casualties would be inevitable.
Fairfax, Va.: I am interested in your opinion about the possibility that N. Korea would try to take advantage of the situation after we commence the war against Iraq and attack the South. Do believe there is any chance this disturbing scenario could occur?
Vernon Loeb: Yes, I do, and if I were President Bush, I would be very, very nervous about that. I'm not saying that Kim Jong Il would attack South Korea, necessarily, but he might make some other highly provocative moves, in terms of his nuclear weapons programs, believing that Washington's attention was on something else. He is clearly an incredibly shrewd poker player. In fact, I find the uncertainty of the situation in North Korea to be one of the best arguments for holding off in Iraq for the moment.
Collegeville, Pa.: Though Powell didn't, as he said he wouldn't, present the "smoking gun" he has presented a series of disturbing patterns, of deception, of violation of UN resolutions, of a regime bent on regional, and because of the region, global, hegemony or domination through extortion and fear.
I would speculate that if this is all Powell can show, the remaining intel we have (and perhaps will show to the security council in private) must be much more damning.
The real question that remains is will the
UN finally act and bring a resolution to
this threat to mankind or will we have to
Vernon Loeb: I agree with you, that is indeed the question before us.
Washington, D.C.: Pertaining to the satellite photo he showed of the equipment in place to move rockets, including the grappling hook: If we have pictures of that, how come there were no pictures of actual rockets in the process of being moved?
Vernon Loeb: Two possible explanations: We have them, but we didn't use them; or, we don't have them, because our satellite coverage is not constant. The Iraqis know exactly when our satellites are coming over, and they can move mobile stuff like missiles, but they can't necessarily move fixed stuff like missile launchers.
Washington, D.C.: Heresay, tape recordings, "subordinates of an al Qaeda operative are in Iraq is not evidence that would ever be admissible in a court of law, and certainly be beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, photos of 4 chemical weapons depots would be a smoking gun if given to the inspectors to check out. Why has the Administration withheld this evidence until now?
Vernon Loeb: I don't know exactly what kind of intelligence the U.S. has been sharing with inspectors to date. It has been sharing some. But the tension here is this: The U.S., in the event of war, wants to go in immediately and destroy known WMD sites, so Saddam can't use the WMD against U.S. forces. There's a fear within the intelligence community, and particularly at the Pentagon, that if we give that intelligence to the inspectors and indirectly tip the Iraqis off to our knowledge, they will move the weapons and we thus will not be able to destroy them.
Arlington, Va.: Powell noted that Iraq's 1988 use of chemicals was a most appalling acts. True, enough. But no one in the Reagan/Bush administration raised an eyebrow at the time. Nor did Powell mention that the Reagan/Bush administration made the use possible through the sale of chemical weapons.
And the so-called "nuclear pipes" hasn't IAEA and Dr. Baradei (sp?) dispelled that? Wouldn't they know what they were looking at?
Vernon Loeb: You make a good point about the 1988 attacks, and that's why the U.S. doesn't have much credibility when making a human rights case for justifying war on Iraq. As for the aluminum tubes, I think there's a genuine debate about whether Iraq wanted them to make rockets, or centrifuges for enriching uranium. Powell seemed to present pretty compelling evidence that they were intended for the latter use.
College Park, Md.: If the evidence regarding hidden and mobile material is correct, what happens to it after an invasion? While post-invasion Iraq likely would be less chaotic than Afghanistan, why should we have any confidence that we will be the ones to end up with it?
Vernon Loeb: That's a good question, and I'm sure there will be enormous effort expended in the aftermath of a war looking for these mobile labs and the country's WMD sites, so that the U.S. takes possession of all this stuff, and not somebody else. You raise a very important point that the U.S. government should be thinking about right now, as part of its war planning.
Riverside, Calif.: Will Saddam use chemical and/or biological weapons against U.S. troops and neighboring states?
Vernon Loeb: That's the $64 question. I think he probably will try, if he realizes the end is near and gets particularly desperate. He authorized his commanders to use them in 1991 (thought they did not), and Powell said today that he has just authorized their use again. The military is certainly assuming he will, and training accordingly.
Davidson, N.C.: 1. Re Iraq's attempts to produce NUCLEAR weapons, no convincing evidence of an "imminent" threat was provided by Secretary Powell today. IF we had concluded that Saddam was close to producing nuclear bombs, in recent years: Is it not highly probable that the U.S. (if not Israel) would have destroyed the facilities from the air? Not to act, pre-emptively, would have been, and would be now, a gross failure to protect the national security of the United States--warranting impeachment!
2. As to ties between Baghdad and al Qaeda: IF we knew about Osama's lieutenants and agents in Baghdad--or in NE Iraq--WHY has the U.S. not zapped them from the air with Predator missiles?! The failure to do so casts suspicions on the Bush Administration's war on terrorism.
Vernon Loeb: I think what you're seeing right now is the Bush administration proposing a preemptive war to stop Iraq's nuclear weapons program. And I would not be at all surprised to see the U.S. attack the terrorist facility in northeast Iraq, as one of the opening moves in a war. I, for one, do not underestimate Donald Rumsfeld's appetite for attacking terrorist camps with Predator drones and Hellfire missiles.
Fairfax County, Va.: Powell made a strong case that Iraq has not complied with the UN resolutions, and that Saddam Hussein poses a danger. But did Powell offer compelling evidence to answer the question of why Iraq should be attacked now? Where is the evidence of imminent danger, and to whom?
Vernon Loeb: This is what the argument will be about, and as I said, I personally find the "not-yet" school of thought fairly persuasive. I think the administration basically believes that there's absolutely no reason to postpone the inevitable.
Vernon Loeb: And on that note, I've got to go cover Rumsfeld present his new $399 billion budget proposal up on the Hill. See you next week. Thanks for participating. Your questions, as ever, were thought provoking.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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