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Ahmed Chalabi is president of the opposition Iraqi National Congress. (File photo)
Page Two

Colliding Interests
Continued from preceding page

By all accounts, the U.S. government gave unsurpassed support – financial, technical, military and otherwise – to UNSCOM. But there were also conflicts, and the gyroscope episode set the tone for what some people who know both men called a running feud between Ritter and his CIA Near East counterpart. By policy, The Post does not name covert agents.

Ritter told colleagues at UNSCOM and confidants in the U.S. government that the CIA's operations directorate seemed to fear he would get in the way of efforts to foment a coup against Saddam Hussein, which came to a failed crescendo in 1996. The same secret services protected the president and his weapons programs, and Shake the Tree amounted to a competing operation.

A senior official with knowledge of both programs denied this, saying Ritter's analysis had "only a passing plausibility." There was "no perception of conflict in any part of the U.S. government between whatever else the U.S. government was doing and what UNSCOM was doing."

Another source of tension was a misplaced – or withheld – piece of intelligence. It described an underground storage facility at Jabal Mokhul, one of Saddam Hussein's presidential complexes on the west bank of the Tigris River north of Tikrit. In the summer of 1994, the opposition Iraqi National Congress received a defector who had been site engineer at Jabal Mokhul. The defector said Iraq had built an underground hiding place at the junction of two tunnels there, and great quantities of weapons parts and documents in crates had arrived.

Sources at the Iraqi National Congress said the INC's intelligence chief, Ahmed Allawi, passed the tip soon after to the CIA's Near East division.

More than three years later, in November 1997, Ritter paid a call on the INC's president, Ahmed Chalabi, at his home in London's Mayfair district. "I mentioned Jabal Mokhul," Chalabi recalled in an interview. "He lighted up and said, 'What do you know about Jabal Mokhul?' I said, 'Didn't you get our report?' He said, 'What report?' I said, 'The report we gave Washington in '94.'" Ritter's reply, Chalabi said, was angry profanity about the Near East division chief.

American officials said any failure to pass the tip was "strictly an accident," one of "the vagaries of the business." For UNSCOM, it was a missed opportunity. In June 1997, inspectors had tried to inspect the 4th battalion headquarters of the Special Republican Guard at the same complex in Jabal Mokhul. The inspectors knew at the time, from an early exercise of Shake the Tree, that they were being held in place while material was evacuated to an adjacent hiding spot. Had they known of the underground facility, they could have moved there next.

More Than Ice Cream

UNSCOM's pursuit of Iraq's security system led it in some surprising directions. There was the trail, for instance, of the Baghdad ice cream trucks.

"The big thing with concealment was movement," Ekeus recalled. "Ritter excelled at his ability to penetrate organizational structures."

What he found, initially with Israeli help, was that the SSO used two dedicated fleets of vehicles to move weapons contraband. By day it used red-and-white refrigerator trucks painted with markings of the Tip Top ice cream company. At night, it used unmarked green Mercedes tractor-trailers from the fleet of Segada Transportation Co., named for the wife of Saddam Hussein.

The essence of the Iraqi shell game was this: The trucks shuttled from "storage sites," which were changed every 90 days in the early years and every 30 days after 1997, to a network of temporary "hide sites" when U.N. inspectors approached. Physical security for the hiding places fell to the 2nd and 4th Brigades of the Special Republican Guard, while other units performed related functions.

Shake the Tree was premised on the assumption that Iraqi guards would never let inspectors into storage sites until the trucks were gone, if at all. Inspectors wanted to put stress on the concealment system, forcing it to react in ways that could be observed. Those observations, in turn, would feed an accelerating campaign of subsequent inspections. Eventually, one UNSCOM official said, "you might get lucky. We tried to design something that would allow us to catch them on the rebound."

But just as UNSCOM tried to penetrate Iraq, Iraq tried to penetrate UNSCOM. Ritter and his superiors learned, to their disquiet, that the Baghdad government showed signs of having six to ten days notice of most surprise inspections. They responded by compartmentalizing information ever more tightly, inventing classifications like "Code Green" to limit access to information.

Shaking the Tree

    Hussein Kamel
Hussein Kamel Hassan Majeed, son-in-law of the Iraqi leader, defected and was killed in 1996. (Reuters)
As early as 1994, after Ritter and Smidovich made informal proposals on Shake the Tree, the United States offered to provide the needed support in what one official called a "U.S. eyes only" operation. Apart from Ekeus, only security-cleared Americans would know of its existence. Ekeus broke that condition immediately in a U.N. rose garden stroll with two of his closest advisers, Trevan and fellow Briton John Scott. The three men considered the plan, but let it die.

What resurrected the idea was the 1995 defection of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel Hassan Majeed. His debriefings, and the 1.5 million pages of new documents Iraq released in response, shocked Ekeus and UNSCOM with the enormity of what they had missed.

The first experiment with Shake the Tree began in March 1996, with the team designated UNSCOM 143. Thereafter UNSCOM began attaching a second designation to some of its inspections, in a numbered series beginning ASS-1 for the Apparatus of State Security, the organization run by Saddam Hussein's son, Qusay. Asked about the acronym, Ritter replied, "I loved it. Like, 'Kick your ass.'"

The experiment failed at first. The United States collected and processed a great deal of information about Iraq's reactions to the inspectors, but it reported back to UNSCOM that it picked up nothing that helped. Again in June, and still again in July, the results were roughly the same.

Two crises of confidence ensued between Ekeus and Washington.

The first came over a compromise Ekeus agreed to make in the July inspection. Because of UNSCOM's new interest in its security services, Iraq had invented a new designation, and new restrictions, on what it called "sensitive sites." UNSCOM's position was that it could go anywhere it liked, but Ekeus agreed to special procedures. When Ritter tried to test them in July, he was turned away.

An atmosphere of military menace built in Washington, which had previously punished Iraqi defiance with cruise missile attacks. Ekeus later told confidants he was convinced the United States was looking for a showdown. The Clinton administration was busy lining up Security Council support for a resolution finding Iraq in "material breach" of its obligations, a legal justification for use of force to secure compliance.

Ekeus believed an American attack would be fatal to UNSCOM's long-term diplomatic support. Washington's strategy, he told aides, was deeply wrong. Against the advice of the administration – and of Ritter, who was stewing in Baghdad – Ekeus cut a deal by telephone with Iraqi Lt. Gen. Amir Mohammad Rasheed: Ritter would give Rashid advance notice of the site he wished to visit, and Rashid would escort him there.

In August, then-deputy national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and others conveyed their disappointment to senior UNSCOM officials. Madeleine K. Albright, then U.N. ambassador, also protested. The administration was angry with Ekeus, and it wanted to know whether he planned to press ahead with the effort to probe Iraq's sensitive sites. After internal consultations, UNSCOM's answer was yes.

But there was another problem to resolve. Ekeus and his senior deputies were not convinced they were learning all they should from Shake the Tree. They were synchronizing their inspections with American collection efforts, and they expected to obtain detailed results.

In September 1996, Ekeus met with CIA Director John M. Deutch and complained to him in writing that "to date the Commission has been denied access to the data collected" in the operation. American officials were reluctant to discuss this dispute, but they said the commission's top leaders eventually were persuaded that they were getting all the relevant "nuggets" that fell in Shake the Tree.

During the same meeting with Deutch, Ekeus emphasized the difficulty of cracking Iraq's concealment efforts and asked for new forms of technical help: the Predator surveillance drone and better sensors for the U-2 – which the United States had publicly loaned the U.N. for overflights of Iraq – including the high-resolution camera, infrared lense for night operations, synthetic aperture radar to track truck movement, and electro-optical imaging for real-time transmission of pictures. UNSCOM got some, but not all, of what he asked for, the exceptions being explained by scarcity.

With Ekeus's blessing, Ritter meanwhile went to London and Tel Aviv in an effort to secure more independence for UNSCOM on Shake the Tree. In effect, he displaced the United States as sole sponsor, and three sources said the commission got much more access to information as a result.

A Revealing Exchange

Iraqi U.N. envoy Nizar Hamdoon denied a plot against UNSCOM's chief. (AP file photo)
In June 1997, during an inspection in Baghdad, Ritter received a summons to the oil ministry. For nearly an hour, he held a stunningly frank verbal sparring match with Lt. Gen. Rasheed, the oil minister and, UNSCOM believed, a central figure in Iraq's weapons concealment.

"We are very concerned about exposing our security organizations to experts from outside of Iraq," Rashid said. When Ritter justified the intrusion by alleging a coverup, Rashid accused Ritter of "McCarthyism" and said, "I could say that I know your links to intelligence."

Ritter, according to notes taken by another participant, shot back: "I deal with governments for information. I deal with the people who handle this kind of sensitive information, not a bunch of tea-drinkers." Iraq had lied repeatedly about its weapons programs, Ritter said: "As such, we have no choice but to use the tools which we have available. . . . You brought this on yourselves."

Rashid demanded to know what Ritter thought he was hiding. Ritter replied in detail: VX nerve toxins in salt form for long-term storage; a mobile biological weapons production facility, including fermenters and a drying and grinding apparatus; dried anthrax; five to seven operational ballistic missiles and up to 25 in disassembled form; and possibly a nuclear weapon "minus the core of HEU," or highly enriched uranium that would make it a bomb.

"I'm sorry, I have to run," Rashid replied, finally. "I would love to stay and talk to you for hours about your flawed concepts. However, I thank you for explaining the pretext for your inspection."

UNSCOM knew it was playing a very dangerous game. In February 1996, Ekeus received what he regarded as a credible intelligence tip that Iraq planned to kill him with slow-acting poison. The Swedish diplomat's family was frightened, and Ekeus confronted Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, with the report. Hamdoon replied that the notion was absurd, as Ekeus's murder would delay the lifting of economic sanctions. Ekeus found the answer somehow flattering, comparing the price on his head to a year's oil revenue.

Adding to the commission's anxiety was knowledge that should Iraq decide to take inspectors hostage or kill them there was no rescue force immediately at hand. For nearly two years after a September 1991 parking lot incident, in which inspector David Kay and his team were held at gunpoint for four days, the Army's Delta Force had deployed to Kuwait during UNSCOM inspections. When Shake the Tree began in 1996, it did so one last time, even staging an inspector rescue exercise first in Utah. But the U.S. military halted that support, and inspectors knew they were exposed.

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