A Futile Game of Hide and Seek

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 1998

First of two articles

NEW YORK--Scott Ritter had some experience with erased magnetic disks, and he knew what kinds of traces deleted files leave for skillful operatives to exploit. He had no intention of letting such clues survive on his laptop computer, and he devoted some thought to the best way of demolishing its hard drive.

He planned to remove the drive and smash the storage platters beyond repair. But that would amount, he decided, to unlawful destruction of government property. Like so much equipment in use by United Nations arms inspectors, the Dell machine belonged to the U.S. Defense Department. Ritter settled for erasing it with a large industrial magnet.

It was nearly 9 p.m. on Aug. 25. The following morning, Ritter planned to resign his post with the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, where he had helped lead the hunt for Iraq's forbidden weapons since 1991. Alone in the commission's nerve center on the 30th floor of the United Nations tower, crouching over files beneath a pin-studded street map of Baghdad, he made a final sweep for the most sensitive secrets of a job no person had held before: United Nations intelligence operative.

Ritter meant to take some of those secrets with him. He had kept U.N. superiors apprised, as best anyone knew, of everything he did. Still, much of his work was improvised and his most sensitive relationships built on personal trust. He did not feel free to share all his leads or sources with any one government, including his own, and certainly not with every member of the world body on whose behalf they had been collected.

The 37-year-old reserve Marine had cause to worry about the security of any records he left behind. The FBI had warned of Iraqi agents on the U.N. janitorial staff, and the panel's leaders routinely left the building for their most confidential talks. Some of Ritter's ostensible colleagues reported covertly to home capitals that were ambivalent at best about his work. In his heart of hearts, as he cleared his desk, Ritter did not believe the intricate system he had devised amid all this could long survive without him.

Into Iraq

No international arms control agency had ever tried to disarm a country against its will, but that is what the U.N. Security Council created UNSCOM to do under the terms that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Other such bodies, like the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, worked on the basis of treaties and consent.

From the start, the inspectors -- a tightknit group of chemists and rocket scientists, computer sleuths and biologists, trade experts and soldiers borrowed from contributing states -- were hated and harassed by the Iraqi government. But they made progress. They examined and verified Iraqi disclosures, on paper and in field expeditions that took them through bombed-out chemical bunkers in 120-degree desert heat. They demolished forbidden weapons with dynamite, or by cutting them to pieces with acetylene torches, or by burying them in pits of hardened concrete. They rid Iraq of far more unconventional weapons, as Western officials often recounted, than the allies had managed to destroy by ground or air in the war itself.

But UNSCOM soon discovered that Iraq ran shell games within shell games to hide the most deadly and sensitive weapons it was obliged to surrender. By 1994, the panel's active leads dried up with enormous gaps still remaining in its investigation. If the commission was to complete the work of the war, ridding a regional hegemonist of a biological and chemical arsenal and a nuclear program on the brink of success, its leaders concluded they would have to pierce what Ritter dubbed "the concealment mechanism" of the Baghdad regime.

With a few close colleagues in 1994 and 1995, Ritter led Rolf Ekeus, the commission's first executive chairman, to the unwelcome conclusion that he had no choice but to confront and defeat Iraq's secret services. Ekeus told CIA Director John M. Deutch in writing, while requesting assistance in September 1996, that "the best hope for the commission" to uncover stocks of illegal arms was a "concerted program . . . targeted against the Iraqi safeguarding mechanism."

Ekeus's decision meant UNSCOM was to play at a game of spy versus spy -- inspector versus spy, in legal terms -- that is normally the province of governments.

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