'Spying' by UNSCOM Denied
By Thomas W. Lippman and John M. Goshko
In carefully worded statements, they denied that the United States and the inspection organization known as the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, have worked together to penetrate President Saddam Hussein's security units in Iraq and eavesdrop on sensitive conversations as part of an effort to overthrow him. But they said that in looking for information on prohibited weapons, the inspectors sought to penetrate Iraqi government security units -- sometimes with U.S. intelligence help -- because those units also control and conceal the weapons.
Iraq has long accused UNSCOM of being a tool of U.S. intelligence and of trying to gather information unrelated to its assigned task of searching for prohibited weapons. Reports in yesterday's Washington Post and Boston Globe said UNSCOM did just that, in cooperation with Washington. Secretary General Kofi Annan was described as possessing "convincing evidence" this occurred and concerned it could undermine the credibility of the United Nations.
Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, read a statement yesterday reminding U.N. reporters that UNSCOM is a subsidiary body of the Security Council, that the secretary general has "no operational oversight" for its activities and "therefore has little detailed information about [UNSCOM's] day-to-day operations." Asked whether Annan is satisfied that the United States did not conspire with some UNSCOM staff members to collect intelligence about Iraq for its own purposes, Eckhard replied: "He has no evidence of any kind that UNSCOM assisted U.S. intelligence."
Eckhard said, however, that inquiries by journalists made Annan aware several weeks ago of the allegations about UNSCOM.
UNSCOM director Richard Butler, an Australian diplomat, issued an unequivocal denial of any UNSCOM participation in intelligence efforts aimed at undermining Saddam Hussein, rather than at finding prohibited weapons. He said the Post and Globe reports were "without foundation in their salient section."
"We have never conducted spying for anybody," Butler said in a New York news conference. "Have we facilitated spying? Are we spies? Absolutely not."
Administration spokesmen in Washington sought to reinforce his denial. "It is my understanding that at no time did the U.S. work with anyone at UNSCOM to collect information for the purpose of undermining the Iraqi regime," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said.
That formulation did not exclude reports that, while the purpose of the intelligence operation was to find banned weapons as directed by the U.N. Security Council, the methods used involved penetration of Saddam Hussein's security apparatus and produced information useful to the United States for its own purposes as well.
"Let's remember that these weapons of mass destruction are protected by the same people that protect the president of Iraq," former weapons inspector Scott Ritter said on NBC's "Today" show. "Saddam Hussein's bodyguards hide the weapons. They also protect Saddam Hussein," said Ritter, who quit last year and accused the Clinton administration of undermining UNSCOM's mission.
In a long day of accusations, denials and equivocations about the published reports, several sources said Butler, in his categorical denial, was seeking to protect himself against what appeared to be an effort by Annan and his senior advisers to undermine the chief weapons inspector.
According to Rubin, Annan telephoned Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright yesterday to declare his support for Butler and to deny reports that he felt the reported spying operation had undermined U.N. credibility. "He indicated he did not agree with the characterization of his state of mind as reported in various newspapers," Rubin said.
However, Rubin also said the sources of the news articles were "those on the 38th floor of the U.N. who are focused on these allegedly sexy issues of who did what with whom and who learned what when they were in Iraq." Annan's office is on the 38th floor.
A source with access to Annan's staff said the Clinton administration and Annan were fudging because they are not in a position to say openly what is really happening. This source and others said Annan and his team want to get rid of Butler, who is anathema not just to Iraq but also to Russia and China, two permanent members of the Security Council with veto power, because they believe U.N. sanctions on Iraq can never be lifted as long as Butler is in charge of the weapons inspections.
House intelligence committee Chairman Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) said yesterday that he is "concerned that what we are seeing here is a ramping up of the effort to gut UNSCOM and replace it with a less effective inspection mechanism." Goss said that the leaks appeared to come from countries, "and even some in the U.N. leadership," who want to appease Iraq and reopen commercial ties with Baghdad.
Tying UNSCOM to U.S. intelligence aimed at ousting Saddam Hussein would undermine Butler's usefulness, the sources said, but Annan cannot do so openly because he does not want a breach with the Clinton administration -- which engineered his accession to the secretary general's post.
The allegations about UNSCOM came as the Security Council is attempting to overcome deep divisions among its members and define a future U.N. role in Iraq after last month's airstrikes by the United States and Britain. The principal division has pitted the hard-line approach of Washington and London against the council's three other permanent members -- Russia, France and China -- and their advocacy of a more flexible and conciliatory approach to dealing with Iraq.
Annan, while agreeing that Iraq is defying the council through its resistance to disarmament efforts, also is known to sympathize with the argument that Baghdad's cooperation can best be obtained through a policy of flexibility and accommodation. In particular, he disagrees strongly with UNSCOM's emphasis before the bombings on intrusive, confrontational inspections for prohibited weapons.
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company