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  U.N. Inspectors or Spies? Iraq Data Can Take Many Paths

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 1998; Page A01

As U.S. military planners list targets in Iraq that may be attacked soon, they will draw partly on the results of seven years of U.N. inspections that detail the function of hundreds of sensitive Iraqi industrial plants and weapons-related facilities.

Does that mean the inspectors are really spies for Washington's military forces, as Baghdad routinely claims?

After all, a 1995 revelation by the United Nations that crates of sophisticated missile equipment were being shipped from Russia to Iraq provided an intelligence bonanza for the CIA. So did the U.N.'s discovery in 1991 that Iraq had stashed away secret components of an advanced nuclear weapons program, and the U.N.'s revelation in 1995 that Iraq had produced a sizable arsenal of deadly germ weapons.

Iraq has cited the prominent roles of Americans in the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq in arguing that the inspectors are snooping into matters unrelated to UNSCOM's mandate. It also claims Washington has used its influence to skew the focus and conclusions of the inspections, trampling Iraqi sovereignty in an effort to gain military advantage and prepare for strikes like the one now threatened.

Both U.S. and U.N. officials deny the claims, however, and Iraq has not convinced any independent experts that the commission erred in saying that Iraq is still hiding data, equipment or weapons of mass destruction it was ordered to surrender in 1991. In fact, no military strike would be looming if Iraq gave the U.N. inspectors unfettered access, as ordered by the U.N. Security Council.

A more accurate statement, according to U.S. and U.N. officials, would be that U.N. inspectors do indeed act as spies inside Iraq, insofar as they are attempting to learn things that Iraq prefers to keep hidden. Moreover, many countries -- the United States not the least -- are eager to learn everything the commission knows and use various means to find out about it, from debriefing its experts to observing them from afar.

One reason for the intense international focus is that the commission remains the key to unlocking the vast supply of Iraqi oil that eventually will be sold on the world market, affecting prices around the globe. Only when the commission certifies that Iraq has eliminated all its threatening weapons and surrendered the relevant records will the Security Council consider withdrawing the sanctions barring large Iraqi oil sales.

Sensitive information about Iraq does flow in and out of the commission's offices on the 30th and 31st floors of the United Nations tower in New York, U.N. officials say, but only because the organization lacks the ability to mount a sophisticated inspection effort in Iraq without routinely getting unpublicized assistance from individual nations. This assistance is considered critical to assessing the importance or credibility of what the inspectors uncover.

But commission officials argue that they collect intelligence in Iraq only on a narrow list of authorized topics and that they do so only on behalf of the Security Council, not any individual government.

"We brief governments . . . [and] we give people things to look at," said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for UNSCOM. "But this is so they can help us with our work, and it's not just with Americans, but with all sorts of others." He said the staff of the commission cringes at the notion of spying because that connotes "something bad," but he affirms that its aim is to collect whatever data it can on banned Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The dispute arises largely because in the rush -- after the 1991 Persian Gulf War forced Iraqi troops from Kuwait -- to ensure that Iraq could no longer threaten its neighbors, the Security Council vested its Special Commission on Iraq with powers greater than any previous U.N. organization.

Commission representatives were authorized to go anywhere in Iraq, ferret out any hidden illicit military capabilities, demand the destruction of any worrisome military equipment and answer only to the Security Council. But UNSCOM had no staff of its own and little money. Rolf Ekeus, the commission's first chairman, decided he had no choice but to forge a staff from experts sent to the commission by willing governments, whose salaries would be paid by these governments -- a practice that lies at the heart of Iraq's recent complaints.

Only a small fraction of the estimated 60 professionals at the commission in New York and 100 professionals in Baghdad or Bahrain are actually on U.N. salaries. Instead, most are paid by the countries that either supported or participated in the military coalition that fought Iraq in the Gulf War; these are the countries that have been the most devoted to the task of undermining the Iraqi military threat.

When the experts begin work at the United Nations, each must sign a statement promising not to "seek or accept instruction" from any government or outside authority, and not to "communicate at any time to any other person [or] government" what they learn on the job, unless it has already been made public or is authorized by the United Nations. In exchange, they gain the immunities and protections traditionally granted to employees of the international organization.

Members of the peer review panels organized periodically by the commission to verify the accuracy of its conclusions do not sign a similar nondisclosure agreement.

All this aside, it is no secret that some of these experts report their findings not only to the commission but to their own governments as well. The Russian government, for example, has complained loudly that the inspections are biased against Iraq, but it has also seeded at least one team of inspectors with representatives of its foreign intelligence service. Other governments presumably have done the same.

"When these inspectors return home, I guess they have a good story to tell," said Ekeus. Charles Duelfer, an American diplomat who is the commission's deputy chairman, noted that "this isn't the movie 'Men in Black.' We can't pull out a little flash and do a memory erase" on these experts. But Buchanan said, "Do we think it is a big problem? No."

In addition, the commission often hands over equipment it seizes or discloses information selectively to governments it concludes can help it keep track of illicit Iraqi weapons capabilities -- a group that again includes many nations supportive of the allied effort to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, such as the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, France and others.

To analyze the many dozens of gyroscopes and accelerometers that Iraq secretly imported from Russia for its missile program in 1995, for example, the commission relied on a detailed technical assessment prepared by the United States. The parts were diverted from some of Russia's most advanced, long-range ballistic missiles, and no other country knew as much about those missiles, commission officials said.

The CIA, in turn, reaped huge benefits by being able to scrutinize the devices after receiving them from the Jordanian government, which had seized them at the U.N.'s request before they could reach Iraq. The United Nations made its request to Jordan after another Middle Eastern nation tipped it off to the shipment.

Similarly, the commission turned last year to the U.S. Army to inspect the remnants of rocket motors and missile bodies dug up from a burial site in the Iraqi desert, partly because of U.S. expertise and partly because Washington was willing to pay for the work. After Iraq held up the shipment to protest the U.S. role, the U.N. agreed to send a portion of the rocket parts to Russia and France as well. But it had to pay Russia roughly $40,000 for its work.

Microscopic samples taken from facilities suspected of being involved in the production of chemical or germ weapons have been analyzed at laboratories in Sweden, Switzerland, the United States and other countries, which doubtless keep a copy of the results for themselves, U.N. officials said.

Similarly, the United Nations has relied on a U-2 aircraft, piloted by an American, to conduct vital reconnaissance over Iraq, but the film must be sent to Washington to be developed; doubtless, copies of the negatives are kept by the National Reconnaissance Office.

At the same time, U.S. military planners have many more and higher-quality assets to rely on in planning a military attack, besides commission reports or whatever information the CIA gleans from private exchanges with the United Nations. U.S. satellites take better photos than the U-2, for example, and can do so every day, while the U-2 flies over Iraq just a few times a month.

"It would be a sad commentary on the $28 billion the U.S. spends annually on intelligence if it has to rely on" the commission to plan its attack, an American official said.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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