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The Smoking Audiotape

In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch takes a look at Colin Powell's big speech before the U.N. Security Council.

KISS was the order of the day for Colin Powell. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told reporters last week that the goal of Powell's speech at the U.N. would be to fulfill the Navy acronym for Keep It Short Sailor – go with your strong points.

Not that the presentation, which was broadcast live by all the major TV networks, was short; it lasted 76 minutes. But Powell, who is a master at inserting socko sound bites into long policy speeches, led with an easy-to-follow audio intercept documenting that Iraqi soldiers from the elite Republican Guard were trying to hide a "modified vehicle" from U.N. inspectors.

"We didn't destroy it. We didn't line it up for inspection. We didn't turn it in to the inspectors. We evacuated it," went Powell's dramatic reading of their conversation.

Reminiscent of Adlai Stevenson's famous presentation on Cuban missiles to the same body in 1962, Powell also showed before-and-after satellite photos of bunkers at a chemical munitions facility, which he said were cleaned up just before the U.N. inspectors arrived on December 22.

There were a number of audiences Powell was trying to reach. The obvious targets were the members of the U.N. Security Council. But the American public and the international community were also on his mind. A Gallup Poll released Tuesday found that 87 percent of the American people said Powell's presentation would be very or somewhat important in convincing them of the Bush administration's evidence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Powell made a convincing case Wednesday that the evidence exists.

Internationally, however, there's great skepticism about American policy and the key veto-holding, permanent members of the Security Council – China, France and Russia – said they want the work of the inspectors to continue.

Speaking from the U.S. seat at the Security Council with CIA Director George Tenet covering his back, Powell was on the top of his game. He had persuaded the U.S. last fall to hold off on unilateral action and go to the U.N. for backing before using military force. An analysis in the Washington Post by Glenn Kessler and Peter Slevin reveals, however that in recent weeks as various U.S. allies seemed to waver, Powell's tone has become more hawkish.

It was up to the multilateral, moderate Powell, not the unilateralist hawks Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, to make the case for several reasons. Going the U.N. route was his baby, and polls have shown that he is the one of the most-trusted figures in the country. The Gallup poll also found that by 63 percent to 24 percent the American people say they trust Powell more than President Bush on Iraqi policy. Powell, at least until now, even gets support from Democrats and doves on these kinds of questions.

The initial response from Democratic leaders is that he made the case that there's evidence. Delaware Sen. Joe Biden said, "If I had this evidence before a jury that was an unbiased jury, I could get a conviction." However, among the more liberal Democrats and the other countries of the Security Council, Powell's success has moved the debate to a new argument: whether the best way to deal with it is containment or preventive war.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., put forward the liberal line: "The case for disarming Saddam Hussein is strong and well known, and Secretary Powell reiterated that case today. We all share the goal of eliminating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and in other countries around the world. The question is whether war now is the only way to rid Iraq of these deadly weapons. I do not believe it is. Before going to war, we must exhaust all alternatives, such as the continuation of inspections, diplomacy and the leverage provided by the threat of military action."

Last fall, CIA Director George Tenet wrote a letter warning Congress that attacking Saddam could cause him to share his weapons of mass destruction with terrorists. And Colin Powell has been best known for his doctrine of establishing exit strategies and clear national interests before engaging militarily. Both Tenet and Powell may still have one more case to make before military action is taken.

The headway Powell and Tenet made today in building the case for evidence and a material breach of the U.N. resolution will force the ultimate choice about what to do about it. Shibley Telhemi, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at the University of Maryland, told CBS News, "If he had to convince the U.N. that there is nothing more that could be done and that now is the time to go to war, he has done that." But, he added, "I wonder the extent to which this will make people more nervous about the war. That is a real issue."

Douglas Kiker and Anthony Salvanto of the CBS News Election and Survey Unit contributed to this analysis.

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