U.S. Says It Collected Iraq Intelligence Via UNSCOM
By Thomas W. Lippman and Barton Gellman
In 1996 and 1997, the Iraqi communications were captured by off-the-shelf commercial equipment carried by inspectors from the organization known as UNSCOM, then hand-delivered to analysis centers in Britain, Israel and the United States for interpretation, officials said.
But early last year, when UNSCOM decided it was too dangerous for its inspectors to carry the equipment, the United States took control of the operation and replaced the store-bought scanners and digital tape recorders with more sophisticated automated monitors. The intercepted Iraqi communications were sent by satellite relay in a nearby country to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, where they were decoded and translated into English, the officials said.
Information relevant to the work of the U.N. weapons inspection force, which was searching for Iraq's prohibited weapons or the means to conceal them, was shared with UNSCOM's chairman and his deputy, officials said. Other information, including material that might be helpful to the United States in destabilizing Saddam Hussein, was retained by Washington. The U.S. officials said intelligence kept by Washington has proven to be of scant value in its campaign against the Iraqi government.
U.S. officials confirmed the monitoring operation in an effort to rebut allegations that the United States had inappropriately used UNSCOM as a tool to penetrate Saddam Hussein's security and promote his downfall. Until yesterday, U.S. officials had denied using intelligence gathered in connection with UNSCOM for U.S. purposes. Elements of the operation were reported this week in The Washington Post and the Boston Globe. The Wall Street Journal added further details in a story published yesterday.
The Post assembled over several months an account of the intelligence operation from U.N. and U.S. officials, but agreed last fall not to publish details about sources and methods used to gather the information after U.S. officials said the disclosure would damage national security. This week, U.S. officials have themselves disclosed many of the same details.
U.S. officials have said the purpose of the radio intercepts was to help UNSCOM do the job assigned to it by the U.N. Security Council. To the extent the operation provided additional information was a bonus that did not deviate from UNSCOM's mandate, the officials said.
UNSCOM has had no staff or operations in Iraq since the U.S. and British missile strikes last month, but there are indications that the monitoring has continued. White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said after the airstrikes that "with or without UNSCOM, we have formidable intelligence capabilities" in Iraq.
"We try to monitor as best we can the internal situation in Iraq," Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, said at a Washington news conference yesterday.
As recounted to The Post by U.S. and U.N. officials, the UNSCOM effort to get inside Saddam Hussein's security apparatus began early in this decade, after UNSCOM concluded that Iraq did not intend to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring it to destroy its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
While officials said that intelligence agents from several countries, including the United States, were assigned to work on UNSCOM inspection teams, U.S. officials insisted that no Americans report to Washington outside UNSCOM channels.
Instead, U.S. officials and others said, it became apparent over time that Iraq was bent on concealing its banned weapons, and that the security forces assigned to that task were the same as those assigned to Saddam Hussein's security. Penetration of one was tantamount to penetration of the other, officials said, especially because they used the same encrypted radio frequencies.
Rolf Ekeus, then UNSCOM's chairman and now Sweden's ambassador to the United States, said he briefed members of the Security Council in early 1997 on this discovery and on the possibility that tracking weapons could also end up gathering information that might be helpful in tracking Saddam Hussein.
The idea of taking scanners into Iraq originated with Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marine officer who was working as an UNSCOM inspector in 1995. On a trip to Israel, Ritter proposed that Israeli intelligence provide inspectors with commercial all-frequency scanners and recording devices that they could carry with them.
Ekeus approved these so-called "special collection missions" in 1996. Inspectors were soon able to map the frequencies used by the Iraqi special security apparatus and intercept communications by the National Monitoring Directorate, the Special Security Organization, the Special Republican Guard and the Office of the Presidential Secretary.
These communications included warnings to weapons facilities that UNSCOM inspectors were on their way and instructions to hide contraband material. But that information did not help the inspectors at the time, officials said, because it had to be relayed to Israel and Britain -- or, at a later date, to the NSA -- to be decoded and translated.
The inspectors never had access to Iraqi communications in "real time," officials said, but the information was useful in understanding Iraqi concealment techniques.
In March 1998, for reasons that are in dispute, the United States took over the operation and arranged for the installation of the more sophisticated, stationary equipment. The equipment was automated and could have been moved as UNSCOM inspectors left the country.
Ritter has accused the United States of putting pressure on Britain and Israel to pull out in an effort to gain full control of the intelligence produced. U.S. officials said Ekeus and his successor, Richard Butler, were concerned that inspectors' lives would be endangered if the Iraqis discovered the portable equipment they were carrying.
Once the NSA arranged to have the so-called "black boxes" installed, that danger was eliminated, officials said. The black boxes automatically tracked Iraqi frequencies that NSA was interested in, skipping others, and relayed the communications to a satellite uplink in a nearby country.
So complete was this penetration that some UNSCOM officials believed that NSA deliberately slowed down the process of decoding and redistributing the material, for fear of showing how good the system was. But while Israel's decryption operation, called Unit 8200, had provided complete transcripts, the NSA returned "tear line" transcripts with only partial versions.
The Iraqis may have suspected that their communications were being monitored, and used Arabic code words to describe individuals and equipment, officials said.
A decision by the United States at the time it took over the monitoring operation sowed the seeds of later trouble. Washington specified that only Butler and his deputy, Charles Duelfer, be given access to the intercepted material.
Ritter was cut out because of questions arising from his marriage to a Russian and because of Washington's fears that a Justice Department investigation into allegations that Ritter had improperly given classified information to Israel would provide anti-UNSCOM propaganda fodder for Saddam Hussein.
In August, shortly after Iraq expelled the arms inspectors, Ritter resigned and made the explosive accusation that the United States had undercut UNSCOM by cutting off the flow of crucial intelligence data. U.S. officials say they did not cut off UNSCOM, only Ritter personally.
Butler has categorically denied that UNSCOM was used for spying on behalf of the United States.
U.S. officials said Washington relayed to UNSCOM all information from the intercepts that was relevant to its work. But because Washington now has sole control of the data flow, UNSCOM has no way of knowing if that is true. At one point, UNSCOM officials were so suspicious that Washington was withholding data that U.S. officials arranged a visit to Fort Meade to let them inspect the raw material.
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