Man Without Qualities

Monday, January 27, 2003


Among much other sage advice provided by Peggy Noonan to the President on this State of the Union Eve:

It would be helpful here if the president would speak of things he has not revealed before. This would include some hard intelligence that has not been divulged to the public. He needs more than "bleeding Belgium" rhetoric: "Saddam gassed his own people." He needs uncommon unknown data.

Ms. Noonan could not be more correct as far as constructing a persuasive case against Iraq.

But one should keep in mind the rather daunting limitations to which the President is subject in releasing uncommon unknown data. There is the usual restriction imposed by the simple fact that releasing uncommon unknown data can easily and inadvertently release the identity of the people who provided or helped the United States to obtain that data. That limitation is particularly important here, since detailed, classified information - the subterranean location of an anthrax deposit, for example - cannot be explained by airily asserting some unspeakably clever CIA analyst deduced it from a satellite photograph. No. Much uncommon unknown data must be provided by well placed Iraq insiders: traitors. And once the Iraqis know that information is out, they will often have a very short list of suspects.

But there is an additional limitation here, a limitation with which the United States should not have to contend, but does: Hans Blix.

Simply put, with respect to most revelations of uncommon unknown data it is quite clear that Hans Blix will do whatever he can to give the Iraqi's cover. For example, [w]hile the Bush administration appears close to declaring that weapons inspections in Iraq have ended in failure, United Nations inspectors say their work is just getting started. Mr. Blix's nuclear inspection counterpart Mohamed El Baradei said his teams needed an additional "few months."

If the inspectors are just getting started, then anything the President reveals tomorrow is just something that the inspectors would have found if, in the words of Messrs. Blix and El Baradei's chief enabler, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, they had only been "given the time to do their work and all of us, the council and the assembly, must realize that time will be necessary, a reasonable amount of time, I'm not saying forever, but they do need time to get their work done and I suspect the council will allow that to be done."

In other words, today's statements of Messrs. Blix, El Baradei and Annan seem intended to prepare for their inevitable argument that any uncommon unknown data the President releases in tomorrow's State of the Union address is just more evidence that the inspectors need more time to do their work ... time will be necessary, a reasonable amount of time.

And now there's this: U.N. weapons inspection chief Hans Blix on Monday issued a toughly worded assessment of Iraq's performance over the past two months, saying Baghdad had not genuinely accepted the U.N. resolution demanding that it disarm. He said Baghdad was cooperating on access but needs to do more on substance.

At this point it should be possible for the President simply to release uncommon unknown data that Iraq has not revealed to the U.N. inspectors certain sites at which prohibited weapons programs have been recently conducted. But, as the above reports indicate, Messrs. Blix and Annan are doing everything they can to make a case that while Iraqi failure to actively provide the locations of violations may cost Iraq an "A" on its report card, and Iraq really should try harder to genuinely accepted the U.N. resolution demanding that it disarm, none of that amounts to a material breach that justifies war. After all, Baghdad was cooperating on access. In other words, if the inspectors say they want to visit a particular, general location, the Iraqi's eventually let them in. The Iraqis just won't tell the inspectors where to look.

And when the inspectors do find something, such as the under reported chemical weapons missiles, Mr. Blix is at pains to explain that it is no big deal.

With that attitude, what happens if the President reveals something specific, such as there is a box of anthrax in a lab located at the intersection of Maple and Main in downtown Baghdad? Well, the Iraqis immediately move the box, Messrs. Blix and Annan move to give them cover by suggesting that, for example, there is no reliable way to tell if the anthrax remnants found in the recently looted lab were old, left-overs from a prior program, the fruits of an unauthorized project or, yes, some preliminary work the Iraqis should not have been doing - but certainly not grounds for a war. Maybe there's some delay in obtaining access - but Messrs. Blix and Annan would explain that the delay was caused by the inspectors having to get the address from United States intelligence and the fact that the particular Iraqis who gave them access didn't know where that address was (there are two "Maple Streets" in Baghdad, you see). But the inspectors eventually got in - and in a reasonable time, just not immediately. Not "A+" compliance, mind you - Iraq really must try to do better to accept the UN resolution - but a "B" or "C" is not cause for war! After all, there's no proof here! The inspectors might also take careful note that a particular Iraqi biologist they wanted to talk to about the site instead died in a car wreck (or one of the sons of that biologist). But Messrs. Blix and Annan would also note that there is no reliable way to tell if he was murdered.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Yes, Ms. Noonan is right. And, yes, there are types of uncommon unknown data which might avoid all of the above limitations.

But not many.

UPDATE: United States intelligence services make the limitations express.

FURTHER UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal list some of the things which Messrs. Blix, El Baradei and Annan do not so far care to call "material breaches," and will probably argue are not "material breaches."

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