Annan Suspicious of UNSCOM Role
By Barton Gellman
The accounts made available to Annan, some of which draw on classified U.S. information passed to him through intermediaries, describe an operation in which the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, took steps to assist the United States in listening to some of the most sensitive communications of the Baghdad regime. While acknowledging that the eavesdropping aimed in part to help the inspectors hunt down forbidden weapons, or the means to conceal them, the secretary general's confidants said Annan is convinced that Washington used the operation to penetrate the security apparatus protecting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"The secretary general has become aware of the fact that UNSCOM directly facilitated the creation of an intelligence collection system for the United States in violation of its mandate," said one Annan adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity and echoed sentiments expressed by two others. "The United Nations cannot be party to an operation to overthrow one of its member states. In the most fundamental way, that is what's wrong with the UNSCOM operation."
The revelations about UNSCOM coincide with discussions at the United Nations about the world body's future role in Iraq after last month's airstrikes by the United States and Britain. Annan, who lamented the attacks and has been a critic of UNSCOM's more intrusive tactics, has been trying to broker a new consensus on Iraqi disarmament, mandated by the Security Council after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
UNSCOM withdrew all personnel before the Dec. 16-19 attack, and Annan is said to believe it will have to take on new limits and new leadership if it is to return. There were signs in Washington yesterday that the Clinton administration, UNSCOM's most consistent supporter on the Security Council, is softening its opposition to that view.
By widening the circle in which he makes known his concerns about UNSCOM's past, Annan is trying, some advisers acknowledged, to place pressure on executive chairman Richard Butler to resign in favor of a successor who might win the consent of Iraq and its defenders on the Security Council. His expressions of concern could also be aimed at protecting him against any future charges that he condoned eavesdropping conducted at least nominally under his authority.
"The secretary general does not exercise direct oversight of UNSCOM, which is a subsidiary organ of the Security Council," Assistant Secretary General John Ruggie said in a statement to The Washington Post last night after conferring with Annan about inquiries for this article. "Consequently he has no knowledge of any of these alleged activities. If the allegations were to be true, they would pose a serious challenge for the United Nations with regards to our disarmament work in Iraq and multilateral arms control efforts generally."
Speaking on condition of anonymity, confidants of Annan said he has accumulated a considerable body of circumstantial evidence on the eavesdropping. On the weekend after last month's bombing stopped, he called Butler to his Sutton Place residence and asked the Australian diplomat if the reports were true. Butler, according to two accounts, denied them.
In a phone interview last night, Butler said, "A number of member states have assisted UNSCOM in various aspects of its work, and one of those is the United States, but as far as I am concerned I have always been assiduous in insisting that any assistance given to us be strictly related to our disarmament mandate. I have never approved of any assistance to any member state which would serve their unilateral purposes."
The latest controversy illustrates the perils inherent in UNSCOM's attempt to create the first United Nations intelligence operation. Mutually escalating efforts by Iraq to obstruct UNSCOM and by UNSCOM to pierce the obstruction entangled the arms inspectors in the separate and sometimes competing agendas of contributing governments. The use of increasingly sophisticated intelligence techniques embroiled UNSCOM in struggles for control over which countries would conduct the most sensitive work and how the information would be used.
"We've already established that Saddam's personal security apparatus and the apparatus that conceals weapons of mass destruction are one and the same," said one Clinton administration official, adding that it is therefore impossible to distinguish them for purposes of intelligence gathering.
The Post reported on Oct. 12 that an UNSCOM operation code-named Shake the Tree involved synchronizing arms inspections with a new synthesis of intelligence techniques allowing Washington to look and listen as Iraq moved contraband. At the request of the U.S. government, The Post agreed to withhold from that report operational details on national security grounds.
What is new is the open discussion of evidence that UNSCOM not only benefited from U.S. intelligence but also participated directly in gathering data as part of what its first chairman, Rolf Ekeus, called "special collection missions." In a September 1996 meeting with then-Director of Central Intelligence John M. Deutch, eight months after the eavesdropping work began, Ekeus delivered a memo complaining that U.S. intelligence agencies had declined to share the full fruits of their joint work with UNSCOM.
"Since January of this year the commission has undertaken three special collection missions," Ekeus wrote then, in a memo quoted more briefly in The Post last October. "To date the commission has been denied access to the data collected by these missions."
The CIA, State Department and White House declined requests yesterday for formal comment.
Some members of the U.N. Secretariat have urged Annan to press his concerns directly with the Clinton administration, but the secretary general has resisted. "He is a risk-taker, but he is not self-destructive," said one adviser. Rather than risk a frontal dispute with the U.N.'s most important member, another adviser to Annan said the secretary general "would like to see the news media report this, and let the chips fall where they may."
In recent weeks, at least two senior members of Annan's inner circle -- Ruggie and strategic planning director Andrew Mack -- have probed the allegations informally with senior officials of UNSCOM and the Clinton administration. According to U.N. accounts, Butler and Assistant Secretary of State Martin S. Indyk told the men separately that they had no knowledge of eavesdropping under cover of UNSCOM inspections.
In an interview on condition of anonymity, a high-ranking policymaker on Iraq defended UNSCOM's work and U.S. intelligence support for the disarmament panel, but also distanced the Clinton administration from its previous insistence that only UNSCOM could judge Iraq's compliance with eight-year-old Security Council demands.
"Going after UNSCOM is shooting the messenger," the official said. "The fundamental problem here is not UNSCOM, and to fall into the trap of saying that UNSCOM may or may not have done something appropriate or inappropriate is to divert attention from compliance by Saddam Hussein."
As for the future of Iraqi disarmament, backed by a U.N. oil embargo and other sanctions, the official said "that is something we're going to have to deal with in the Security Council.
"One has to have some kind of an entity that verifies compliance, and our judgment is it has to be an entity that has integrity," the official said. "Our view is that UNSCOM has been such an entity, but those are the rudiments of any regime. We have to see over the next several weeks whether we can put together a broader consensus."
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