George Bush has a problem. The President of the U.S. is utterly convinced that Saddam Hussein is an evil so dangerous and immediate that only war can expunge the threat--barring some miraculous 11th-hour departure or resolution. For months Bush has done his darnedest to make this case and convince the world that the application of American might is the best way to eradicate the menace. But he hasn't persuaded everyone just yet.
That's why lights burned into the night at CIA headquarters last week as a special team of planners shuttled from the State Department and the White House to join agency analysts in poring over piles of satellite photos and phone intercepts, sifting through tapes from defectors and interrogations of detainees. Bush had just pledged in his State of the Union speech that Secretary of State Colin Powell would take fresh, compelling evidence to the U.N. in seven days' time to bolster the case for war. These officials were struggling to choose exactly what to include. The selection had to make for a punchy yet credible show-and-tell for Powell--and all without compromising sources or revealing intelligence that G.I.s might need when the shooting starts. Powell wanted not a speech but a replica of the sharp military-style briefings that helped earn him his Gulf War fame. "He taught at infantry school with slides and presentations," says a senior State official. "He knows how to do this."
He had better. As officials wrestled over what particulars to use, Powell's appearance before the U.N. seemed to be setting up a diplomatic high noon. At stake was not so much whether war would ensue but whether the U.S. would fight it with all the legal, moral, political and popular support U.N. benediction would confer. Bush has said all along that the U.S. would go it alone if need be. It's no secret that some in his Administration were eager to do just that way back last summer. But Powell convinced Bush then of the benefits of operating with U.N. approval.
Now the day is fast approaching when Bush expects the nations that make up the U.N. Security Council to put up or shut up. To win them over, Powell needs to deliver an argument for attacking Iraq that is solid enough to override the reluctance gripping key capitals. And if he gets their backing, Bush is also likely to win something he needs almost as much: greater support at home. Polls show Americans would go to war, but they would feel a lot better about it with the U.N. behind them.
So what's the magic up Powell's sleeve? Sources tell TIME he'll attack on three fronts, presenting evidence of elusive weapons of mass destruction, persistent obstructions of inspections and links to terrorism. The drama is likely to come as much in the delivery--high-tech photos, raw audiotapes--as in the substance. The danger is that even the best intelligence is almost always subject to widely differing interpretations. Maybe they were cleverly lowering expectations, but in the days before Powell's performance, Administration officials were fairly uniform in admitting the presentation would contain only a few clearly incriminating charges. Most of the material would be circumstantial and deductive, the kind of evidence that doesn't quite yield the "Aha!" moment that greeted Adlai Stevenson's display of the famous Cuban-missile photos at the U.N. in 1962.