SHELL GAMES: The Hunt for Iraq's Forbidden Weapons
Arms Inspectors 'Shake the Tree'
By Barton Gellman
That became clear with the spectacle that met the U.N. Special Commission on March 7. Chief inspector Scott Ritter arrived that day on the first search for clues to Iraq's illegal arsenal since a crisis over access to "sensitive" and "presidential" sites had nearly led to war. He and his team drove to a field headquarters of the feared Special Security Organization, or SSO, a complex forbidden to them in the past.
The building went dark in an unexplained power failure, the kind that often marked the arrival of U.N. inspectors. Ritter and his inspection team moved by flashlight from room to room. In each one they found empty shelves, a bare desk and a man with a mustache. One after one, when asked, the men said they worked as marriage registrars.
"It almost showed a sense of humor," said Chris Cobb-Smith, a former British army major who took part in the inspection. "Each desk had its piece of paper and its sharpened pencil and five empty files, and every office was the same. They'd done a very efficient job of sanitizing, and they'd obviously made it obvious that they were sanitizing. Enraging? Yes, absolutely. They're no fools."
But there was another level of the game that day, and there the advantage was UNSCOM's. Ritter called it "Shake the Tree," an image meant to suggest falling fruit from branches too high to reach.
Ritter shook the tree at a second site, the SSO's transportation directorate, where Iraq did not expect him. There, according to accounts from UNSCOM and the U.S. government, inspectors deliberately triggered Iraq's defenses against a surprise search and used a new synthesis of intelligence techniques to look and listen as the Baghdad government moved contraband from the site.
It was the culmination of more than three years of work conceived by Ritter, executed episodically from 1996, and relying at various stages on American, British and Israeli intelligence agencies. "Something very sensitive had been done to Iraq" without the knowledge of even most inspectors, as one senior U.S. official put it.
The inspectors believed Iraq held a technical reference library and some of the critical components to build or rebuild its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, along with the ballistic missiles to carry them. Iraq had usually managed to move this material a step or two ahead of the inspectors. The ability to track Iraq's movements in "real time," the U.N. panel believed, set the stage for an accelerating campaign that would finally overtake the concealment efforts and put the hidden arms and documents in UNSCOM's hands.
That campaign did not take place and now appears unlikely. A struggle for control arose over the new intelligence technique, involving which country would conduct the most sensitive work and which individuals would have access to the results.
More fundamentally, UNSCOM's covert plan provoked diplomatic and military crises that passed the breaking point of its support on the U.N. Security Council. After attempting to back UNSCOM in this losing battle even pushing it, in 1996, more aggressively than Executive Chairman Rolf Ekeus wished the Clinton administration shifted course. By April of this year, high-ranking U.S. officials said, an interagency review decided that Washington could no longer support the threat of war to compel UNSCOM's access to the inner sanctums of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's secret services.
Iraq halted all new inspections on Aug. 3.
In interviews, Ritter would not discuss the mechanics of the operation he created. The Washington Post agreed to U.S. government requests to withhold publication of operational details on national security grounds. But the broader story of Shake the Tree explains not only Ritter's angry resignation on Aug. 26 but the unraveling of what UNSCOM's leadership regarded as their best hope to complete Iraq's disarmament.
Weaving a Network
By late 1994, as the U.N. inspectors learned the extent of the Iraqi apparatus deployed to thwart their work, each of UNSCOM's subject teams chemical, biological, missile, import-export was working overtime to devise new methods of catching deception. One team, formed around Ritter, gave exclusive attention to what he called "the concealment mechanism."
UNSCOM had long relied on intelligence provided by sympathetic governments and even dissidents who sought the overthrow of the Baghdad regime. It had an international mandate to find Iraqi weapons under the terms that ended the Persian Gulf War, and it regarded assistance from any quarter as welcome.
"One of Rolf's great strengths and one of his brilliant insights was that from the very first American intelligence brief he realized UNSCOM could not afford to be totally dependent on one source or in those days two sources, the U.S. and the U.K. because it could be vulnerable to being manipulated on the basis of intelligence handed to it," said Tim Trevan, who was Ekeus's political adviser until late 1995.
Ekeus, who now serves as Sweden's ambassador to Washington, said in an interview that UNSCOM preserved its independence in part by combining information from many countries, not all of which spoke to one another or were willing to have their contributions known. In doing so, UNSCOM took on a role in consuming and acquiring intelligence that was unprecedented for an international organization.
"In the end we became the top guy on the block, knowing about Iraq's weapons, because we could investigate personnel, we could do physical inspection and control the results," he said.
But the story was not quite as simple as that, because mutually escalating efforts by Iraq to obstruct UNSCOM and by UNSCOM to pierce the obstruction led to growing demands by the U.N. panel on the most sensitive capabilities of its contributing governments. The means UNSCOM embraced to perform its mission entangled it in the agendas sometimes overlapping, sometimes not, and often opaque of others.
In August 1995, UNSCOM learned from Israel's Military Intelligence organization, Aman, that Iraq was expecting delivery of Russian-made precision gyroscopes and accelerometers. Salvaged from decommissioned submarine missiles, the components were among the few essentials for ballistic missile guidance that Iraq could not manufacture itself.
The tip was of some importance, if true, because it represented the first demonstrated Iraqi effort to acquire forbidden weapons during the period of U.N. disarmament inspections. The Central Intelligence Agency's Nonproliferation Center, according to U.S. officials, passed a similar tip to the commission.
Ritter and Nikita Smidovich, a Russian diplomat who led UNSCOM's ballistic missile team, worked with Israel to track the whereabouts of a Palestinian middleman and his shipment of gyroscopes through Jordan.
In November, Ritter flew to Amman and met with Ali Shukri, private secretary to King Hussein. He set up a secure telephone link, and Ekeus asked the king's confidant to find and seize the gyroscopes on UNSCOM's behalf. Jordan did so the same night. In New York, the U.N. panel's weapon scientists prepared for a treasure trove.
Accounts diverge on some of what happened next, but U.S. and UNSCOM officials agree that the CIA's Near East division chief dispatched a team to Amman to take the gyroscopes. Ritter later accused the agents of giving Jordan the impression they worked for UNSCOM. Ekeus, in an interview, said only that he never received the gyroscopes as expected. He professed to have no idea why.
U.S. government officials described the CIA and UNSCOM efforts on the gyroscopes as parallel and essentially complementary. One knowledgeable official said Washington feared Iraq would steal the shipment back. "We wanted to get those gyroscopes out of Jordan as quickly as possible, and as I remember at that time we were in a better position to get them out than the UNSCOM people were," he said. A second official said the results of the U.S. government's "exploitation" or analysis were conveyed to the disarmament panel.
That begged the question of who did the exploiting and for what purposes. American analysts certainly shared an interest in disarming Iraq, but they may have had other interests as well, such as enhancing their knowledge of Russian missile guidance or black market military sales. Ritter always and his supervisors usually took the position that UNSCOM should control the analysis of information acquired on its behalf.
"Ritter feuded with virtually everyone in the intelligence community," Trevan said, "because he's so passionate about things. He doesn't always know when to give up. If he's managed well, he's entirely a positive."
Over corn muffin and seven Diet Cokes, Ritter put it differently in a long interview last month at a coffee shop near Rockefeller Center.
"If somebody puts a roadblock in my way, I'll try to talk my way around the roadblock, but if I can't move the roadblock I'm going to run right through it," he said. "Now if that's a bull in a china shop, tough luck. It's about getting the job done. It's about mission accomplishment. I won't apologize for it."
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