The decision to allow Secretary of State Colin Powell to use the intercepts in his widely-anticipated speech to the U.N. on Wednesday was described by U.S. intelligence officials to Newsweek as extraordinary. NSA intercepts are considered the most jealously guarded of all U.S. intelligence secrets, Newsweek explains, and government officials are normally "loath to even refer to their existence for fear of tipping off targets and drying up invaluable sources of information," the magazine says.
In an interview with CBS News, Radio, Newsweek senior editor Michael Hirsh says, " They have conversations recorded between the Iraqis, talking about hiding material, boasting about deceiving the inspectors, and Bush administration officials consider this to be perhaps their most powerful case at this point."
Hirsh goes on to say, " What these conversations show is that the Iraqis are defying UN resolution 1441, which the Bush administration says is enough of a case for war. What they don't show, though, is exactly what they're hiding, and that takes us back to the problem of proving that Saddam (Hussein) has some kind of weapons of mass destruction."
The intercepts are so damning and dramatic, Newsweek reports, that officials say their release outweighs the potential harm-especially given the increased likelihood that the United States will shortly be launching an invasion of Iraq anyway.
"Hold onto your hat. We've got it," one U.S. intelligence official familiar with the evidence gathered by the NSA is quoted by Newsweek as saying.
Meanwhile, President Bush says he would welcome a second U.N. resolution on Iraq but only if it led to the prompt disarming of Iraq. The stance exposes a potentially significant difference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Showing little patience for Saddam or for allies trying to slow his pace toward war, Mr. Bush told reporters Friday: "Any attempt to drag this process out for months will be resisted by the United States."
Although the leaders are largely in agreement on most Iraq issues, the news conference after their two-hour White House meeting Friday revealed disagreements over diplomatic tactics and the extent of Saddam's threat.
Mr. Bush, for example, accused Iraq of being linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and said those ties "portend a danger for America and for Great Britain, anybody who loves freedom." Blair did not make the link between Iraq and al Qaeda, though he said terrorist networks in general are tied to the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.
The Associated Press reports that the movements of a suspected senior al-Qaeda operative through Iraq are a key component of the Bush administration's suggestions that Saddam and the terror network may have some links.
The AP quotes U.S. officials as saying Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who is considered one of the top al-Qaeda lieutenants still at large, passed through Baghdad last summer for medical treatment.
He also has been tied recently to Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamic extremist group in northern Iraq, said the officials, speaking this week on condition of anonymity. He may be in northern Iraq - in a region outside Saddam's control - but officials said they aren't certain of his whereabouts.
But officials cautioned that while Zarqawi's web of associations are suspicious, they aren't conclusive that al-Qaeda and Iraq are working together.
Zarqawi may be a part of the case Powell makes to the U.N. on Wednesday, the officials say, but how much emphasis it will receive is not clear.
On the idea of a second resolution, Mr. Bush said during Friday's news conference, "It'd be welcome if it is yet another signal that we're intent upon disarming Saddam Hussein." He was notably less positive about the idea than Blair, who said it is important that the United Nations "comes together again" and passes a resolution.
Administration officials said Blair is pushing much harder than Mr. Bush for a resolution, and the president would like to accommodate his closest ally against Iraq. But the president said that last fall's U.N. resolution "gives us the authority to move without any second resolution."
"This issue will come to a head in a matter of weeks, not months," he declared.
Blair and Mr. Bush both have been buffeted by critics at home and abroad about their push toward war. With Britain's backing, the United States has threatened to use force to disarm Iraq if it does not give up chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs as required by the U.N. Security Council resolution passed in the fall.
"The judgment has to be at the present time that Saddam Hussein is not cooperating with the inspectors and is in breach with resolutions, and that's why time is running out," Blair said.
Blair has earmarked 35,000 troops for the Persian Gulf, by far the largest commitment outside the U.S. force.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and three other top Democrats sent a letter to Mr. Bush requesting that Powell brief the Senate before he speaks to the U.N. next week.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, meanwhile, denounced what he called "foreign and domestic apologists," particularly France and Germany, for favoring more patience over military action. Allowing more time for inspections means more time for Saddam to arm terrorists, he said.
In the skies over Iraq, American bombers have been hitting hard, getting a head start toward disabling Saddam Hussein's defenses in the south, while other U.S. forces are on the ground in the north preparing for war.
U.S. and British warplanes bombed three dozen sites in January, most associated with air defense communications in the southeast. That's the route invading U.S. ground troops probably would take if war should come. The Pentagon also has acknowledged it has inserted a small number of troops into the north, although it refuses to describe their mission.
Meanwhile, pilots have nearly doubled the supplies of leaflets dropped over the south to undermine the rule of Iraqi President Saddam, to 3 million this month.
"We're kind of getting a head start," Lexington Institute military analyst Loren Thompson said, speaking of the increasing airstrikes. "We're taking advantage of the situation to reduce Iraqi defenses so we can use the full weight of our air power when the war does come."
The situation he speaks of is the dominance the allies have over a large portion of Iraq's skies. For more than a decade, the U.S.-British coalition has enforced flight-interdiction zones over the north and south in the name of keeping Iraqi forces from harassing Kurdish and Shiite Muslim populations in those regions.
Patrols over the zones have benefited the coalition by facilitating the gathering of intelligence, getting practice in dealing with Iraqi forces and becoming familiar with the territory.