By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 1999
United States intelligence services infiltrated agents and espionage equipment for three years into United Nations arms control teams in Iraq to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military without the knowledge of the U.N. agency that it used to disguise its work, according to U.S. government employees and documents describing the classified operation.
By all accounts the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, did not authorize or benefit from this channel of U.S. surveillance. This contrasts with previous statements in which the Clinton administration acknowledged use of eavesdropping equipment but said it was done solely in cooperation with UNSCOM to pierce Iraqi concealment of its illegal weapons.
As recently as last week, the administration asserted again that its intelligence work within UNSCOM was invited by the panel's senior leaders and directed at rooting out Iraq's forbidden missiles and its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs.
Deputy State Department spokesman James Foley said in a Feb. 23 briefing that charges of U.S. espionage inside UNSCOM are "unfathomable except as elements which can only serve Saddam Hussein's propaganda machine." Any unrelated intelligence gathered under UNSCOM's umbrella, a high-ranking official told reporters invited to a previous briefing, "was a kind of windfall" resulting from the fact that the Iraqis who worked to thwart UNSCOM were also members of President Saddam Hussein's inner circle.
In fact, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, the United States rigged UNSCOM equipment and office space -- without permission -- to intercept a high volume of ordinary Iraqi military communications. Those communications, carried between microwave towers and linking Iraqi commanders to infantry and armored forces in the field, were of considerable value to U.S. military planners but generally unrelated to UNSCOM's special weapons mandate.
U.S. government officials said they considered the risk of discrediting an international arms control system by infiltrating it for their own eavesdropping. They said the stakes were so high in the conflict with Iraq, and the probability of discovery so low, that they deemed the risks worth running.
Microwave channels are line-of-sight communications, typically transmitting a narrow beam from hilltop to hilltop and difficult to intercept by aircraft or satellites. American intelligence agencies saw an opportunity to tap into those signals when UNSCOM changed the arrangement it used to monitor distant sites in Iraq with video cameras.
Pioneered in May 1993, UNSCOM's "remote monitoring system" grew over the years to encompass more than 300 arms installations and research facilities in Iraq. For the first three years of operation, the video images and logs of electrical power use were recorded onto magnetic tape at the remote sites. Inspectors based in Baghdad periodically drove out to collect the tapes.
In March 1996, with Iraq's consent, UNSCOM began transmitting images from the cameras back to Baghdad using radio signals. The signals were boosted by relays, known as repeater stations, arrayed along the paths from the camera sites to Baghdad. The new system gave UNSCOM's inspectors a view of distant facilities in "near real time," a significant improvement.
But unbeknownst to UNSCOM, the U.S. signals and sensor technicians who installed and maintained the system were intelligence operatives, and the repeater stations they built had a covert capability. Hidden in their structure were antennas capable of intercepting microwave transmissions, and the U.S. agents placed some of them near important nodes of Iraqi military communications.
The principal designer of the new system was a military intelligence operative described by a former supervisor as a brilliant engineer and "a pure, energetic, walking, talking slide rule." The engineer and his team undertook repeated "maintenance" missions in Iraq from September 1995 to June 1996, disclosing so little to UNSCOM of their work that the commission's director of operations, Air Force Col. James Moore, clashed repeatedly with the engineer and eventually was recalled by Washington. At least two other technicians lent by the U.S. government to run the remote camera system for UNSCOM were employees of the Central Intelligence Agency's clandestine service. At the request of the U.S. government, the three names are being withheld.
UNSCOM sought out technical resources from the United States and elsewhere. After years of frustration, the commission gradually built what amounted to the first U.N. intelligence-gathering operation. But its reliance on contributing governments led to deceptions within deceptions that eventually helped destroy the special commission.
For years, two conflicting story lines have battled for world opinion as the Security Council debated the future of Iraqi disarmament. The United States and UNSCOM said their use of increasingly intrusive inspections and sophisticated technology was made necessary by Iraq's resistance to full disclosure of its illegal arms. Iraq maintained that the United States and other unfriendly powers were using UNSCOM's access to the country for espionage.
The new disclosures suggest that both claims were true. They come at a delicate moment for those concerned with arms control in Iraq, because the bulk of the U.S. espionage came under cover of the system of "ongoing monitoring and verification" imposed on Iraq by Security Council Resolution 715. Iraq has forbidden arms inspections since the United States and Britain bombarded it in December, and the Security Council is now trying to devise a new system of monitoring to ensure that Iraq does not resume large-scale development of forbidden weapons.
Use of the remote camera system for espionage coincided with another channel of eavesdropping that was known to UNSCOM's top leaders. That channel, code-named Shake the Tree, used commercial scanners to intercept low-powered VHF radio transmissions used by Iraq to direct its concealment efforts against UNSCOM.
The Washington Post and the Boston Globe disclosed that operation in January, and the U.S. government confirmed the stories the same month.
American intelligence agencies elected to pursue a second method of eavesdropping because "we were very concerned about protecting our independence of access" to Iraqi military communications, said a knowledgeable U.S. official. "We did not want to rely on a multinational body that might or might not continue to operate as it was operating."
For that reason, the U.S. government decided not to inform Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish diplomat who was UNSCOM's executive chairman, or his Australian successor, Richard Butler, about the second eavesdropping operation. According to sources in Washington, the CIA notified Charles Duelfer, the American deputy to both men, to help ensure that UNSCOM's headquarters staff did not interfere with the operation. Duelfer did not return telephone calls made over several days for this story.
The remote camera surveillance system has not operated since UNSCOM evacuated all personnel from Iraq in December, immediately before the U.S.-British military strikes. Knowledgeable government employees said the eavesdropping system concealed in it was abandoned before that.
Ekeus, who is now Sweden's ambassador to Washington, said in an interview that he did not believe the United States could have built covert antennas into the video relay system because Iraqi technicians should have discovered them.
"I think it can't be true," he said. "This was stuff that was totally in the hands of Iraq. It was standing out in the rain, so to say. It's really very difficult to believe that anything serious could happen that way. [Iraqi counterintelligence agents] were dismantling these stations all the time, and they would have understood if there was anything that didn't fit" the ostensible task of bringing video signals to Baghdad.
If the United States did use UNSCOM cover for espionage, Ekeus added, "We have always stood against that."
Ekeus cited one of the first controversial inspections, in 1991, when U.S. team leaders reported directly to Washington on what they were finding. "I reacted very strongly against that, and we stopped it," he said.
Until late last week, the U.S. government appeared to deny categorically that it placed covert agents on UNSCOM teams without UNSCOM's knowledge and consent. In a Jan. 7 briefing for six invited newspaper and television reporters, a high-ranking U.S. official said: "We didn't put people on U.N. teams to be agents of the United States. Everyone we put on UNSCOM worked for UNSCOM. There they were part of UNSCOM, not reporting separately. But afterwards, of course," they were debriefed.
In interviews for this story, spokesmen for the CIA, Pentagon, White House and State Department declined to repeat any categorical denials.
"In general our efforts with UNSCOM were focused on how to help UNSCOM, through a number of different means, uncover and track down the mechanisms and the materials associated with weapons of mass destruction," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said in a prepared statement. "We worked very hard at that. We contributed great resources, personnel and effort. I cannot comment on the specific intelligence question that you raise."
Asked whether use of a multinational arms control panel for U.S. espionage would undermine efforts to halt proliferation elsewhere, Rubin said he could not confirm or deny there had been any such espionage. He added: "The Iraq case was a unique case in history" because other arms control arrangements are voluntary. "UNSCOM never has been seen as a precedent, nor need be seen as a precedent, for other nonproliferation efforts around the world."
UNSCOM's present leader, Butler, declined to be interviewed for this story after being told of the subject. "Richard Butler has no knowledge of these matters and won't comment on allegations the veracity of which is not clear," said his spokesman, Ewen Buchanan.
Privately, according to close associates, Butler expressed distress when he first learned of the allegations, saying any such espionage under UNSCOM cover would discredit other efforts to verify compliance with international weapons pacts. The Australian diplomat wrote his postgraduate dissertation on nuclear nonproliferation and has spent most of his career in arms control.
"If all this stuff turns out to be true, then Rolf Ekeus and I have been played for suckers, haven't we?" he was quoted as saying in one such conversation. "I've spent a lifetime of helping build and defend the nonproliferation regimes. Piggybacking in this manner [by U.S. intelligence] can only serve the interests of those who reject meaningful efforts at arms control."
One U.S. official with direct knowledge said the camera-relay intercepts were "normal military communications, not related to UNSCOM" except insofar as they formed "part of the whole mosaic, and any one piece can help unlock others." One UNSCOM inspector said the U.N. panel had no use for sort of signals overheard on this channel, noting, "We don't have an interest in the troop rotation policy of [Iraq's] V Corps."
A final irony is that the American spies, in turn, were spied upon. Some of UNSCOM's technical staff detected mysterious burst transmissions from the ground that coincided with the overflight of American U-2 spy planes, but were unable to identify their source.
According to knowledgeable sources, an Iranian agent in Baghdad also took note of the encrypted transmissions and sent a message back to Tehran speculating that Americans were running a signals intelligence operation out of the United Nations' Baghdad headquarters.
The British government, in turn, intercepted the Iranian transmission. In May 1997 Britain's General Communications Headquarters asked its American counterpart, the National Security Agency, for an explanation. The Fort Meade-based agency, according to sources, did not provide one.
"We don't tell the British everything, even if they are our closest intelligence ally," said one U.S. official. "They don't tell us everything they're doing either."