Joe Conason's Journal

Another theory on why they tried to smoke out Saddam. Plus: The Pentagon might have withheld information from the U.N. inspectors.

Published March 20, 2003 5:25PM (EST)

Double games
Did the "decapitation strike" take out Saddam? For the sake of the Iraqi people -- and leaving aside questions about the wisdom and legality of this war -- I hope so. The sooner Iraq surrenders, the fewer of our troops and Iraq's conscripts and civilians are likely to be killed.

A direct hit seems unlikely, however, based on an eyeball comparison of the videotaped speech aired by the Iraqi authorities last night and previous photos of the dictator. The man reading that speech looked like Saddam, down to facial lines and the bags under his eyes. He could be a perfect double, I suppose -- and the tape could conceivably have been made before the missiles hit.

But the purpose of last night's attempt to whack the dictator could well have been more subtle and complex. Even if the real chances of hitting Saddam were small, the news of the strike may have been designed to force him into the open, electronically. With intelligence units and special forces on the hunt, the best and only way to find him may be to force him to end his radio silence and communicate. Surveillance of the Iraqi information ministry and broadcasting facilities could, in theory, allow a trace to wherever Saddam is holed up.

At the very least, such a strategy would help U.S. intelligence to test whatever they know, or think they know, about his communications, command and control setup. That may also be why the Pentagon and CIA will try to cast doubt on the authenticity of the taped Saddam speech -- to try to draw him out again.

Inspect this
Nobody is paying much attention to Hans Blix except the BBC, which reported his criticism yesterday of the Bush administration's "impatience" with the inspection effort. He strongly suggested that the U.S. had expected no cooperation from Iraq when inspections commenced and that "you would have a clash from the beginning."

Instead, he noted, "We had made a rapid start. We did not have any obstacles from the Iraqi side in going anywhere. They gave us prompt access and we were in a great many places all over Iraq." As for the intentions behind Resolution 1441, Blix added: "I somewhat doubt that when [the Security Council] got the resolution last November they really intended to give under three-and-a-half months for inspections."

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon has prepared an elaborate mission to find and test suspected chemical and biological weapons sites. Military sources told Judith Miller that they have a list of between 300 and 1,400 sites.

Apparently the information to be used by the Pentagon teams wasn't disclosed to Hans Blix. Indeed, he told the BBC that his inspectors had been dispatched on several pointless excursions by American intelligence. Would the Bush administration have withheld useful information and intentionally sent the U.N. inspectors elsewhere? Then when the U.N. teams found nothing, the inspection process could be declared a failure.

"I'm very curious to see if they [the U.S.] find something in Iraq," said Blix drily.

Whipped around
Several readers disputed my interpretation of the discussion that led to passage of Resolution 1441 -- specifically, the statement by U.S. ambassador John Negroponte about the absence of "automaticity" in that document. That odd term refers to an "automatic" resort to war if Iraq were found to be in "material breach" of 1441 and earlier resolutions. That never happened. In fact, when last heard from, Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei both said that they needed a few more months to reach final conclusions about Iraq's compliance.

That debate is moot now, of course. And perhaps Negroponte's statement was vague enough to cover what President Bush is doing tonight -- yet the unanimous passage of 1441 was clearly obtained by convincing Security Council members that a vote on a second resolution would precede war. The Syrians, for example, told fellow Arab League members meeting in Cairo last November they had voted for 1441 based on assurances from Powell that "there is nothing in the resolution to allow it to be used as a pretext to launch a war on Iraq."

Although various White House spokesmen said an additional resolution wouldn't be needed, the president and the secretary of state both affirmed on various occasions that they would seek the approval of the Security Council before striking Iraq. "No matter what the whip count is, we're calling for the vote," as the president quipped at his press conference last week. (Imagine what the "liberal media" -- such as the Washington Post -- would have said if Bill Clinton or Al Gore had flip-flopped on such an important pledge.)

The problem wasn't the administration's refusal to abide by an unfavorable Security Council decision. Obviously, the U.S. government can't necessarily heed every veto exercised by one of the Security Council's permanent members. If the president honestly believed that the nation was in imminent danger, he would have no choice except to act -- as would any head of state in those circumstances. Where the administration went back on prior commitments, both implied and explicit, was in its refusal to bring the matter before the Security Council for a debate on a second resolution.

For an admirably balanced and informed discussion of this issue, see this essay in Jurist by Mary Ellen O'Connell.
[9:35 a.m. PST, March 20, 2003]

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