WASHINGTON - Seeing the transcript of a secretly intercepted Iraqi conversation flash across the monitor Wednesday as part of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's presentation to the United Nations came as a shock to those who work in the classified intelligence business.
When the tape of the two men's actual voices crackled from the speakers before the international gathering, a collective gasp could be heard across the intelligence community as hundreds of current and former employees of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade sat transfixed before their television screens.
Never before had the work of the super-secret spy agency, which uses eavesdrops on foreign communications the world over, been laid so bare. The NSA's intercepted conversations provided the riveting high point of Powell's presentation.
"I think that most people expected that something like this was going to have to happen," for Powell to make a convincing presentation, said one former high-ranking employee.
"But I can only assume that everyone else had the same sense of shock when they actually heard it - a sense of that great sucking sound as all the business goes south."
The intelligence community had engaged in heated discussions in the days leading up to Powell's presentation, with NSA arguing against revealing any of its intercepts and others in the Bush administration pressing their desire to provide to the world with irrefutable evidence that Iraq is hiding weapons.
In the end, they settled on three intercepts: one conversation between a colonel and a brigadier general from Iraq's elite military unit intercepted Nov. 26; another between an officer from Iraqi Republican Guard headquarters and an officer in the field Jan. 30; and the last from a few weeks ago between two commanders in Iraq's Second Republican Guard Corps.
NSA officials feared that any revelations would tip off Iraq to its methods of intercepting communications.
For more than a half-century, the NSA has depended on its cloak of anonymity and secrecy to prevent its targets from knowing how it goes about its work or what it is capable of.
In recent years, the agency has made strides to step into the public eye, acknowledging its existence and, in some cases, promoting its work.
But on only a handful of occasions over the course of decades has any intelligence the agency derives from intercepting and decrypting conversations been made public.
And never before have the actual recordings of those conversations been heard on a world stage.
One of the most public revelations of NSA's work was in the aftermath of the Libyan bombing of the West Berlin nightclub Labelle in 1986.
President Ronald Reagan, in an effort to justify retaliatory attacks against Libya, discussed in a speech a portion of the intelligence that the NSA had gathered pointing to Libya's role, describing the date and subject of conversations the agency intercepted between Tripoli and the Libyan embassy in East Berlin.
NSA officials and the director at the time, William E. Odom, were furious.
In an interview yesterday, Odom, who was director until 1988, said he "raised holy hell" against releasing the 1986 material and that after all these years he wishes he had raised still more.
"We lost [important intelligence] as a result of that," Odom said, "and I saw the damage that that did.
"It's a trade-off," he said. "If [President Bush] wants to take that risk, that's his judgment. ... My only responsibility as director was to make sure that they knew what the trade-off was, that this [piece of intelligence] is going to cost you $5 and this one is going to cost you $15."
Odom said, though, that after a year or two, the agency did start to see some of the Libyan intelligence sources come back.
"People forget" the agency is listening, he said.
It is unlikely that the three conversations Powell presented were the best the agency had. More likely, they were the three worst - the three targets the agency could afford to lose and still make a point, said James Bamford, an authority and author of two books on the agency.
Still, Bamford said, the Iraqis "can figure out there's a lot more they're listening to."
"What it will encourage the Iraqis to do," he said, "is invest in encryption, which is pretty cheap today."
For NSA employees waiting to see how bad the damage is, the worst-case scenario is that the information is released, and it doesn't do what U.S. officials hoped it would.
"When I saw that on television I winced a little," said John E. Morrison, a member of agency's Hall of Honor for his lifetime achievements with the agency.
"But I know it was a fair gamble. You hope so, because compromising sources costs a great deal. It can cost people their lives."