US used UN to spy on Iraq, aides say
Focus on Hussein seen
By Colum Lynch, Globe Correspondent, 01/06/1999
UNITED NATIONS - US intelligence agencies, working under the cover of the United Nations, carried out an ambitious spying operation designed to penetrate Iraq's intelligence apparatus and track the movement of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, according to US and UN sources.
The operation, which is believed to be ongoing, allowed US intelligence agents to listen in on secret communications between elite military units responsible for Hussein's security, the sources said. It remains unclear if the plan was designed to topple the regime.
The Clinton administration yesterday declined publicly to address the charges. ''I can't comment on intelligence matters,'' said the US national security adviser, David Leavy. ''The relevant UN resolutions mandate all member states to cooperate with UNSCOM in its mission to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program and the United States fulfilled its obligations.''
But US officials privately acknowledged that they were engaged in the operation.
Sources said US infiltration of Iraq's internal security infrastructure is far more extensive than has been made public. And it has been largely facilitated, although sometimes unwittingly, by the UN Special Commission, created by the Security Council in 1991 to make sure Iraq got rid of its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, the sources said.
The top-secret operation began in February 1996, they said. The electronic surveillance team, which is operated by international UN inspectors and run out of UNSCOM headquarters in Baghdad, was part of a special UN inspection unit that tracked Iraq's ''concealment mechanism'' - an intelligence scheme that enabled Iraq to anticipate UNSCOM's every move and hide evidence of its weapons programs on a moment's notice. UN officials suspect Iraq received information on UNSCOM personnel movements from Iraqi officials assigned to the United Nations.
Frustrated by Iraq's ability to evade UN weapons probes, the United States supplied UNSCOM with eavesdropping equipment, including commercial scanners and U2 spy photographs to monitor the activities of the elite intelligence apparatus responsible for hiding Iraq's prohibited weapons and securing Hussein's safety, according to sources.
The surveillance equipment, among other things, allowed UN inspectors, sitting in their Baghdad headquarters, to listen in on radio, cell phone, and walkie-talkie communications by members of the Iraqi security network, the sources said. British and Israeli intelligence analysts helped the UN inspectors interpret the information. The United States also played a major role in interpreting the data.
''We knew a hell of a lot of information about presidential security,'' Scott Ritter, former team leader of the UN program to counter Iraq's concealment mechanism, said in a recent interview. But he said if his team found any information related to Hussein's personal safety, ''we would dump it.''
Rolf Ekeus, former executive chairman of UNSCOM, who declined to discuss the operational elements of the surveillance system, said the program was run and controlled by the United Nations inspectors, not the United States.
''Was it run by the US?'' said Ritter. ''Hell, no.''
But Ritter said that changed in March 1998, when the United States pressured British and Israeli intelligence to stop supporting the UN eavesdropping operation, and took it over itself.
With the approval of the new chief UN weapons inspector, Richard Butler of Australia, the United States took control in April, according to Ritter. By July, the system had been largely automated, allowing the United States to listen in on Iraqi communications from a remote location after the UN inspectors left the country before the US-British bombing campaign.
Ritter said the United States had yet to provide the UN operation with a single briefing on the information by the time he resigned in August.
''The US decided this system is too sensitive to be run by UNSCOM. They bullied their way in and took it over,'' Ritter said. ''Now any data collected by this activity is not being assessed by UNSCOM. Now, the US gained 100 percent access and is not feeding any of it back.''
A US official warned that the public disclosure of the report would compromise US intelligence activities in Iraq, and he asked the Globe to withhold certain operational details.
Butler denied that he had allowed the United States to take charge of a United Nations intelligence gathering operation. He said UNSCOM is permitted by Security Council resolutions to accept assistance from all member countries. But he denied he used that information to help the United States.
''Those charges are utterly without foundation. That is completely false,'' Butler said. ''That I handed over such a function to the Americans to operate within our organization is completely false.''
Ekeus said that he had agreed to accept the support of US intelligence agencies in the hope it would help him get to the bottom of Iraq's prohibited weapons.
And he said the system helped UNSCOM counter Iraq's efforts to hide its weapons of mass destruction.
Ekeus, now Sweden's ambassador to the United States, said Iraq had developed a system of moving key defense assets during the Gulf War. It had shielded its missile launchers by creating decoy missiles and putting their real ones on trucks and driving them around the country.
The strategy was later employed to outfox the UN inspectors, he said.
In 1991, an American inspector, David Kay, was led on a chase through Baghdad by an Iraqi truck seeking to hide nuclear weapons material.
The defection of Brigadier General Hassan Kamal in 1995 produced greater details on the extent of the Iraqi concealment, Ekeus said.
''We learned heaps more about Iraqi techniques for hiding'' their weapons, Ekeus said. ''Our task was clear; to find prohibited weapons. We started to design a system to catch'' them in the act.
He said UN inspectors, selected from around the world, were ordered to sign a contract pledging never to reveal data they found to their governments or to the public.
It remains unclear whether the United States used the intelligence it gathered from the operation to select its targeting during Operation Desert Fox, the four-day bombing campaign that ended Dec. 19. But key figures and organizations under scrutiny by the United Nations - the Special Security Organization, the Republican Guard Headquarters, and the Iraqi Intelligence headqarters - were blown up during the operation. So was the home of Abid Hamid Makhmoud, the head of the concealment mechanism and Hussein's personal safety operation.
''He is one of only three people who know where Saddam spends the night,'' Ritter said.
''If there is an ongoing covert operation to overthrow Saddam Hussein, it seems to me that Desert Fox has undermined it,'' said Bill Arkin, a Washington-based specialist on the Iraqi military. ''The bombing and evacuation of UNSCOM has heightened security and makes a coup or uprising more difficult to pull off.''
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 01/06/1999.
(c) Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.