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    Iraqi weapons site
UNSCOM released this photo showing the destruction of a biological weapons site in February. (Reuters)
Page Three

Rare Victories
Continued from preceding page


For some years UNSCOM's leaders fought a paradox: The only doors Iraq would open were the ones that led inspectors to dead ends. Delays and refusals of entry became routine, and intelligence from defectors and signals intercepts disclosed that Iraq developed a 15-minute standard for evacuating evidence from a site or, if necessary, destroying it.

As Ekeus, the panel's first executive chairman, told a closed-door session of foreign policy experts on June 17, 1997, two weeks before he left his post, the inspectors had to halt when confronted by armed force. "We are nothing in Baghdad," he said. "We are at their complete mercy. They can just stop our work at any time."

Good luck and audacity sometimes gave UNSCOM a break. Diane Seaman, a University of Minnesota microbiologist, decided to go in the back door instead of the front at a Baghdad food laboratory on Sept. 25, 1997. One of two men holding briefcases literally ran into her on his way out. When he fled back inside and the scientist gave chase, the man was so flummoxed that he handed over his bag. Inside were documents on the letterhead of the SSO – the service protecting the innermost secrets of the regime – discussing Iraq's biological weapons program.

Such victories were unusual. More often the Iraqis succeeded, literally or figuratively, in taking the object of inspectors' interest out a back door. From its earliest days, UNSCOM tried to observe the methods of concealment at work.

In the beginning the efforts could be as simple as scaling a ladder. When David Kay, who worked jointly for UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency, showed up for a surprise search at the Al Fallujah army depot on June 28, 1991, the gate guard would not let him in but made what Kay called "a fatal mistake": The guard did not stop three of Kay's men from climbing a 50-meter water tower with cameras in hand.

When the men spotted tank transporters beating a hurried exit from a side gate, one of the observers, Maj. Richard Lally, descended to a car. Driving alongside the convoy until Iraqis fired warning shots, he photographed doughnut-shaped machines that proved to be calutrons – 20-foot electromagnets used to enrich uranium for an atom bomb. Before Iraqi soldiers pulled him over, Lally stuffed the film in his underwear.

As time went on, nerve and fast thinking seldom sufficed to bring such advances. And borrowed technology like the Cabbage Patch radar – as well as FLIRs, or forward-looking infrared sensors, and high-altitude photographs taken by U-2 surveillance planes piloted by Air Force aviators – could only take inspectors only so far.

Iraq's shell game relied on movement and stealth – a network of hiding places, fleets of trucks, and early warning of where inspectors meant to go. Frustration among the inspectors led to dawning recognition of what they were up against, and the appearance of a major break in 1995 shocked the commission with proof of its massive failures.

The shock came with the defection of Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law. Kamel's revelations forced Iraq to "discover" 1.5 million new pages of weapons research documents at a chicken farm owned by Kamel. Still, the disclosures did not lead to the core of what UNSCOM sought. Internal evidence showed that Iraq had removed the most important documents. In ballistic missile files, for example, Iraq turned over component drawings made during development but not the "integration drawings" – the only ones necessary to resume production.

In a grim Baghdad headquarters of Iraq's National Monitoring Directorate, the bureaucracy set up to shadow UNSCOM's inspections, Ritter tried to question Iraqi officials about the missing documents on May 5, 1996. Hossam Amin, a top official, read him a prepared statement. All he knew was that a girlfriend of Hussein Kamel – Kamel was married to Saddam Hussein's daughter, Raghad – had phoned Amin after Kamel's defection to say some boxes of "important things" were stored at the chicken farm. She hung up without giving her name. Iraq, Amin said, had now told everything it knew about the documents and would not answer further questions.

The "girlfriend story," as it came to be known in UNSCOM, was seen as preposterous. A few months later, on Aug. 16, Amin told Ritter to "forget this, as it never happened," according to notes made by another participant in the interview. Amin had been under instruction to terminate the conversation, he admitted, so he made the story up. He then provided a new explanation, more complex but equally implausible.

"It became blindingly obvious that not only were we missing a little bit, we were missing a lot," said Charles Duelfer, UNSCOM's deputy chief. "We decided we had to take an active approach to go after their methods of concealment, and we turned our most creative minds to that task."

The inspectors became more convinced they had to pierce the secret services themselves, instead of discrediting their cover stories one by one. Here Ritter had an important partner – ironically, under the circumstances, a Russian.

Nikita Smidovich was another of Ekeus's early recruits, a chain-smoking Soviet diplomat Ekeus first met when Smidovich helped represent his country at the Geneva talks on the Chemical Weapons Convention. Smidovich contributed impassivity to Ritter's passion, tact and composure to Ritter's hard charge, but instead of clashing "they just totally complemented each other," said David Underwood, a retired Air Force colonel who was chief of the State Department's UNSCOM support office and later director of operations for UNSCOM in Bahrain.

"While Ritter is Mr. Energy and Mr. Drive, Nikita has the patience of the millenia," Underwood said. "Ritter is not a great politician or diplomat. Well, I'll tell you what: Nikita Smidovich is the ultimate diplomat."

The two of them worked hand in hand to win over Ekeus, and Smidovich smoothed feathers ruffled by his younger colleague, as when Ritter summarily fired a French colonel 10 years his senior. In Baghdad, Smidovich often served as chief interlocutor with Iraqi counterparts such as Lt. Gen. Amer Rashid, while Ritter ran the complex operations intended to expose the Iraqi's words as lies.

Weapons and Power


In the early summer of 1994, Smidovich and Ritter received their first strong indications of who was behind Iraq's systematic plan to thwart the commission's work. It came from Israel's Military Intelligence organization, which is known by its Hebrew acronym, Aman.

Trevan, Ekeus's British political adviser, had made a chance contact with Israel at a January conference that year in Delphi, Greece. After a public argument with David Ivri, a senior Israeli defense official, a mutual acquaintance pulled Trevan aside and introduced him to a broad man in civilian clothes, wearing a beard and skullcap. The man was Yakov Amidror, at the time the only strictly Orthodox Jew in Israel's general officer corps, and, as it happened, the deputy director of Aman.

Amidror flew to New York in April for a meeting with Ekeus. By June, and again in August, his analysts began passing to Smidovich and Ritter early descriptions of an Iraqi secret agency that the inspectors had known nothing about.

From the Arabic, it was called the Apparatus of Special Security. Saddam Hussein's younger son, Qusay, directed it. Reporting to the umbrella group were the inner core of the president's protective agencies: the Special Security Organization, the Special Presidential Guard Unit and the Special Republican Guard. Saddam Hussein had long relied on this apparatus to maintain power. Now, the inspectors began to discover, he relied on it to help him preserve the special weapons he valued over all other national priorities.

As Ekeus would put it much later, in a June 1997 talk at Washington's Carnegie Endowment, the weapons gave Saddam Hussein "this sweet, wonderful, fantastic power, and that is why Iraq won't give them up."

"These guys are great systems analysts and they have thoroughly studied the way we operate, and they can build a reactive model to that," Duelfer said. "We're outnumbered. There's a lot of Iraqis and there are not many of us. They've got thousands of motivated people, and it turns out they are not motivated to help us but to fool us."

Extraordinary challenges called for an extraordinary response. Ritter and Smidovich came to Ekeus in September 1994 with a proposal to travel to Tel Aviv and learn about Qusay Hussein's apparatus in further detail. They did so in October and December, bringing UNSCOM scientist Norbert Reinecke along. The Israelis responded warily, receiving the unusual trio – a young Marine, a German and a one-time Soviet diplomat – in a facility north of Herzliya instead of the inner sanctum of the defense establishment, the Kirya.

Before the inspectors left, however, they had secured a meeting with Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, the military intelligence chief. When Ritter came back, Ekeus put him in charge of an UNSCOM team that would think about Iraqi secret services as its central mission.

The new team, given the deliberately bland name of Capable Sites/Concealment Investigation, attracted political attack from its early days. Few nations on the Security Council looked with equanimity at probes into such sensitive territory – as if, they sometimes argued, someone delved in the inner workings of the U.S. Secret Service and FBI. UNSCOM, with its American and British diplomatic backers, argued that it had no choice.

By this year, with Russia and China pressing attacks, France used its swing vote in the Security Council to force UNSCOM to scale back the team and accept a French intelligence officer, Patrick Haimzadeh, as one of its members.

"This meant," Ritter said, "that we had to compartmentalize inside the team. We basically had to live a cover story in front of the Frenchman so he wouldn't know the full extent of what we were doing." In the files available to Haimzadeh, Ritter and his trusted lieutenants placed "fake mission requests." The real details of their plans were "handwritten on plain white paper and kept in a special folder that we would carry with ourselves." There was no special code name used for this information, he said; "we just called it 'NO FRENCH.' "

The phenomenon was hardly new, nor confined to France. Another senior inspector described it as UNSCOM's "ongoing problem of being eaten away from within." At one point UNSCOM received a specific warning that Russian eavesdroppers were listening to UNSCOM's telephone calls and passing some of the information gleaned to Iraq.

Another time, Duelfer arranged to meet Ahmed Chalaby, an Iraqi resistance leader, to receive information. Chalaby, who heads the Iraqi National Congress, said Duelfer described his own office as insecure and insisted on meeting across First Avenue, in a corner of the U.N. Plaza Hotel lobby. "One of my men notices these two Russians lurking behind a pillar, trying to listen," Chalaby said. Duelfer, Chalaby added, "recognized them and immediately bolted."

As far back as 1992, Roger Hill, an Australian inspector, had caught a French military attache helping himself to the commission's files and bringing them to the copy machine. He and Ritter complained to Jeff St. John, the Canadian chief of the Information Assessment Unit, UNSCOM's euphemism for an intelligence section. St. John replied they could not afford a diplomatic incident. "That's when both Roger and I made the decision," Ritter said, "that anything we considered sensitive was not going in the file."

On the laptop computer he kept at home, Ritter maintained data he believed too sensitive to leave at the office, such as a complete log of his foreign contacts and notes describing evolution of the plan he called Shake the Tree. His deepest secrets lived inside a battered canvas briefcase, the olive drab model from Lands' End, that came as a 35th birthday present from his parents in 1996.

"The really sensitive information was carried in my green bag, twenty four hours a day, with me," Ritter said. "I carried it around everywhere I went. I took it home at night, put it under the bed, woke up in the morning and carried it back with me into work."

The habit, if not the contents, persisted. Last month, when Ritter testified in Congress, a careful observer would have noted the bag on all three occasions, never once beyond the witness's reach.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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