Arms Inspectors 'Shake the Tree'

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 12, 1998

Second of two articles

In the last stage of the contest between U.N. arms inspectors and Iraq, the Iraqi secret services hardly bothered to disguise the nature of the game.

That became clear with the spectacle that met the U.N. Special Commission on March 7. Chief inspector Scott Ritter arrived that day on the first search for clues to Iraq's illegal arsenal since a crisis over access to "sensitive" and "presidential" sites had nearly led to war. He and his team drove to a field headquarters of the feared Special Security Organization, or SSO, a complex forbidden to them in the past.

The building went dark in an unexplained power failure, the kind that often marked the arrival of U.N. inspectors. Ritter and his inspection team moved by flashlight from room to room. In each one they found empty shelves, a bare desk and a man with a mustache. One after one, when asked, the men said they worked as marriage registrars.

"It almost showed a sense of humor," said Chris Cobb-Smith, a former British army major who took part in the inspection. "Each desk had its piece of paper and its sharpened pencil and five empty files, and every office was the same. They'd done a very efficient job of sanitizing, and they'd obviously made it obvious that they were sanitizing. Enraging? Yes, absolutely. They're no fools."

But there was another level of the game that day, and there the advantage was UNSCOM's. Ritter called it "Shake the Tree," an image meant to suggest falling fruit from branches too high to reach.

Ritter shook the tree at a second site, the SSO's transportation directorate, where Iraq did not expect him. There, according to accounts from UNSCOM and the U.S. government, inspectors deliberately triggered Iraq's defenses against a surprise search and used a new synthesis of intelligence techniques to look and listen as the Baghdad government moved contraband from the site.

It was the culmination of more than three years of work -- conceived by Ritter, executed episodically from 1996, and relying at various stages on American, British and Israeli intelligence agencies. "Something very sensitive had been done to Iraq" without the knowledge of even most inspectors, as one senior U.S. official put it.

The inspectors believed Iraq held a technical reference library and some of the critical components to build or rebuild its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, along with the ballistic missiles to carry them. Iraq had usually managed to move this material a step or two ahead of the inspectors. The ability to track Iraq's movements in "real time," the U.N. panel believed, set the stage for an accelerating campaign that would finally overtake the concealment efforts and put the hidden arms and documents in UNSCOM's hands.

That campaign did not take place and now appears unlikely. A struggle for control arose over the new intelligence technique, involving which country would conduct the most sensitive work and which individuals would have access to the results.

More fundamentally, UNSCOM's covert plan provoked diplomatic and military crises that passed the breaking point of its support on the U.N. Security Council. After attempting to back UNSCOM in this losing battle -- even pushing it, in 1996, more aggressively than Executive Chairman Rolf Ekeus wished -- the Clinton administration shifted course. By April of this year, high-ranking U.S. officials said, an interagency review decided that Washington could no longer support the threat of war to compel UNSCOM's access to the inner sanctums of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's secret services.

Iraq halted all new inspections on Aug. 3.

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