WASHINGTON -- In March, in a last-ditch attempt to uncover Saddam Hussein's covert weapons and intelligence networks, the United States used the U.N. inspection team to send a U.S. spy into Baghdad to install a highly sophisticated electronic eavesdropping system.
The spy entered Iraq in the guise of a U.N. weapons inspector and left the eavesdropping device behind.
For 10 months, the device let the United States and a select elite within the U.N. inspection team monitor the cell phones, walkie-talkies and other communications instruments used by the military and intelligence officers who protect Saddam and conceal Iraq's weapons.
This operation, described yesterday by U.S. officials, is at the center of the furor over the relationship between U.S. intelligence agents and inspectors with the U.N. Special Commission, which is supposed to be independent and not pursue the policy or intelligence goals of individual members.
U.S. officials explained in some detail the origins of the operation, making clear how U.S. intelligence came to dominate the inspections in the months before the United States bombed Iraq. The officials and others insisted that the eavesdropping operation was not a unilateral, covert U.S. espionage gambit, and that it had the blessing of Richard Butler, chairman of the commission, which is known as UNSCOM.
"It should not shock people that U.S. intelligence did everything it could to help UNSCOM undermine" Saddam, a senior intelligence official said.
Eighty-five percent of what was overheard in Baghdad was useless, another official said. But the rest led the weapons inspectors to focus intensely on Iraq's hidden weapons programs and security networks. That deep look inside Saddam's most precious military and intelligence programs ended in December, when Baghdad expelled the inspectors.
Hours later, a four-day-long U.S.-led bombing campaign began. Cruise missiles hit some targets selected from data gleaned by the U.S.-led espionage, U.S. and U.N. officials said. But there is little evidence that the bombing did permanent damage to Iraq's weapons programs.
All but one of the officials spoke on the condition that they would not be quoted directly. It appeared from their descriptions that they believed the inspection team would never return to Iraq in its original form.
The inspectors undertook their first electronic eavesdropping three years ago. For the first two years, though it had some success, its goal was frustrated by Iraqi security. In March it was replaced by the U.S.-led effort.
While some U.N. officials suspect that the effort was a U.S. covert operation, U.S. officials insisted yesterday that a handful of key UNSCOM officials approved the secret program.
The origins of the operation go back to 1995, after the defection of an Iraqi general, Hussein Kamal. Kamal, a son-in-law of Saddam, inexplicably returned to Iraq, apparently gripped by remorse. He was promptly shot.
But some aides who defected with him stayed out of Iraq. For the past four years, they have provided the United States and UNSCOM with a unique window into the Iraqi security apparatus, which had successfully hidden Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs from the U.N. inspectors since 1991.
For the first time, the United States and the United Nations understood the depth and the sophistication of Iraqi security, which includes thousands of officers commanded by the Special Republican Guard, the Special Security Office and Saddam's personal details. The most important target, they now understood, was a sector of Iraq's Special Republican Guard known as the National Monitoring Directorate.
The problem was how to penetrate those networks.
A U.N. official said it was naive to assume that his organization was innocent in espionage matters. "The U.N. has been and continues to be a focal point for espionage by everybody," he said. Intelligence officers from most of the world use the organization as a base of operations, he said.
But Rolf Ekeus, then the chairman of the U.N. inspections team, needed help. He asked the United States to help him create a system to listen in on the Iraqi security networks, many of which operated at frequencies that U.S. spy planes and spy satellites could not hear, U.S. officials said.
Washington did help, offering technology designed by the National Security Agency and the CIA, which picked up Iraqi telecommunications, beamed them to Bahrain and filtered through the conversations for key words like "missile" or "chemical." The information was shared with U.N. inspectors and with other nations involved with the inspection effort -- though not with Russia, officials said.
Pub Date: 1/08/99