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Bush aides debate release of secret data

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WASHINGTON — President Bush's top national security aides, trying to put forth a convincing case that Iraq must be disarmed by force, if needed, are hotly debating how much classified information to make public.

The potential intelligence material ranges from satellite photographs of suspected Iraqi weapons sites and truck convoys, to telephone intercepts and interviews with defectors and detainees.

The pressure to declassify the material comes as officials search for a way to help Secretary of State Colin L. Powell make a credible argument next Wednesday at the United Nations. They need to prove not only that Iraq is blocking real inspections but also that it has active links to al-Qaida — and without compromising the sources of the intelligence.

All day Wednesday officials from the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and intelligence agencies sifted through evidence that may be declassified in coming days. It includes satellite photographs suggesting that Iraq is trying to "sanitize" sites before inspectors arrive, to evidence suggesting that "scientists" interviewed by the United Nations were actually Iraqi intelligence agents. That evidence — along with telephone intercepts of discussions among Iraqi officials, and the accounts of defectors and detainees — may constitute the most powerful part of Powell's case.

According to senior administration officials, Powell has said that he wants to be armed with a brief containing a few select, vivid items of solid evidence, not a mosaic of bits and pieces of murky material that could be discounted by dubious allies and critics of the Bush administration.

He plans, officials say, to catalog discrepancies between Iraq's recent weapons declaration and previous findings of biological and chemical weapons and agents during past inspections, and to offer more details of links between Iraq and al-Qaida.

A crucial part of his case, officials say, will center on continuing obstructions, including the fact that Iraq has so far made it impossible for U.N. inspectors to fly U-2 surveillance aircraft over the country. One senior White House official Wednesday called Iraq's refusal to allow the flights "the biggest material breach of all, so far."

But some officials here and many abroad say that new, convincing evidence is hard to come by.