Monday, November 19, 2012

The start of Iraq war based on a picture?

An excerpt from 'The Picture Problem' in 'What the dog saw and other adventures' by Malcolm Gladwell.


In February 2002, just before the start of the Iraq war, the Secretary of State Colin Powell went before he United Nations to declare that Iraq was in defiance of international law. He presented transcripts of telephone conversations between senior Iraqi military officials, purportedly discussing attempts to conceal weapons of mass destruction. He told of eyewitness accounts of mobile-biological weapons facilities. And, most persuasive, he presented a series of images - carefully annotated, high-resolution satellite photographs of what he said was the Taji Iraqi chemical-munitions facility.

"Let me say a word about satellite images before I show a couple," Powell began. "The photos that I'm about to show you are sometimes hard for the average person to interpret, hard for me. The painstaking work of photo analysis takes experts with years and years of experience, poring for hours and hours over light tables. But as I show you these images, I will try to capture and explain what they mean, what they indicate, to our imagery specialists." The first photograph was dated November 10, 2002, just three months earlier, and years after the Iraqi was supposed to have rid themselves of all weapons of mass destruction. "Let me give you a closer look," Powell said as he flipped to a closeup of the first photograph. It showed a rectangular building, with a vehicle parked next to it. "Look at the image on the left. On the left is a closeup of one of the four chemical bunkers. The two arrows indicate the presence of sure signs that the bunkers are storing chemical munitions. The arrow at the top says 'Security' points to a facility that is a signature item for this kind of bunker. Inside that facility are special guards and special equipment to monitor for any leakage that might come out of the bunker." Then he moved to the vehicle next to the building. It was, he said, another signature item. "It's a decontamination vehicle in case something gone wrong.. It is moving around those four and it moves as needed to move as people are working in the different bunkers."

Powell's analysis assumed, of course, that you could tell from the picture what kind of truck it was. But pictures of trucks, taken above, are not always clear as we would like; sometimes truck hauling oil tanks look just like trucks hauling Scud launchers, and, while a picture is a good start, if you really want to know what you're looking at, you probably need more than a picture. I looked at the photographs with Patrick Eddington, who for many years was an imagery analyst with the CIA. Eddington examined them closely. "They're trying to say that those are decontamination vehicles," he told me. He had a photo up on his laptop, and he peered closer to get a better look. "But the resolution is sufficient for me to say that I don't think it is - and I don't see any other decontamination vehicles down there that I would recognize." The standard decontamination vehicle was a Soviet-made box-body van, Eddington said. This truck was too long. For a second opinion, Eddington recommended Ray McGovern, a 27 year CIA analyst, who had been one of George H. W. Bush's personal intelligence briefers when he was vice president. "If you're an expert, you can tell one hell of a lot from pictures like this," McGovern said. He's heard another interpretation. "I think," he said, "that it's a fire truck."

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