A Most Unusual Collection Agency

How the U.S. undid UNSCOM through its empire of electronic ears

When Saddam Hussein raised the possibility of attacking U.S. planes in Turkey last week, his threats illustrated what many in diplomatic circles regard as an international disgrace— the emasculation of the UN by the U.S.

When UNSCOM, the UN's arms-inspection group for Iraq, was created in 1991, it drew on personnel who, despite their respective nationalities, would serve the UN. Whatever success UNSCOM achieved, however, was in spite of its multinational makeup. While a devoted group of UN staffers managed to set up an independent unit aimed at finding Saddam's weapons and ways of concealing them, other countries seeking to do business with sanctions-impaired Iraq— notably France and Russia— used inspectors as spies for their own ends.

But what ultimately killed UNSCOM were revelations that the U.S. government had manipulated it by assuming control of its intelligence apparatus last spring (or perhaps even earlier by using the group to slip spies into Iraq) not so much to aid UNSCOM's mission, but to get information for use in future aerial bombardments. When stories to this effect broke last month, however, there was almost no consistency in descriptions of the agencies involved or techniques used. The New York Times, for example, said only one CIA spy had been sent into Baghdad last March to set up an automated eavesdropping device. Time had multiple Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) operatives planting bugs around Baghdad throughout 1998. The Wall Street Journal referred to the use of one "device" from the National Security Agency (NSA) last year and "a series of espionage operations used by the U.S. [since] 1996 to monitor the communications" of Saddam and his elite.

Mark Phares

When probing the world of espionage, rarely does a clear picture emerge. But according to a handful of published sources, as well as assessments by independent experts and interviews with current and former intelligence officers, the U.S. government's prime mover in Iraqi electronic surveillance was most likely a super-secret organization run jointly by the the CIA and the NSA— the spy agency charged with gathering signals intelligence (known as SIGINT)— called the Special Collection Service. Further, there is evidence to suggest that the Baghdad operation was an example of the deployment of a highly classified, multinational SIGINT agreement— one that may have used Australians to help the U.S. listen in— months after the CIA failed to realize the U.S. objective of overthrowing Saddam Hussein through covert action.

According to former UNSCOM chief inspector Scott Ritter, when the U.S. took over the group's intelligence last year, a caveat was added regarding staffing: only international personnel with U.S. clearances could participate. "This requirement," says Ritter, "really shows the kind of perversion of mission that went on. The U.S. was in control, but the way it operated from day one was, U.S. runs it, but it had to be a foreigner [with a clearance] operating the equipment."

Under the still-classified 1948 UKUSA signals intelligence treaty, eavesdropping agencies of the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand share the same clearances. According to Federation of American Scientists intelligence analyst John Pike, this gives the U.S. proxies for electronic espionage: "In the context of UKUSA, think of NSA as one office with five branches," he says. As UNSCOM demonstrates, though, sometimes the partnership gets prickly; the British, according to Ritter, withdrew their personnel following the U.S.'s refusal to explain "how the data was going to be used." (According to a longtime British intelligence officer, there was another reason: lingering bad feelings over the NSA's cracking a secret UN code used by British and French peacekeepers during a Bosnian UN mission.) At this point, says Ritter, he was instructed to ask the Australian government for a "collection" specialist. "We deployed him to Baghdad in July of 1998," recalls Ritter. "In early August, when I went to Baghdad, he pulled me aside and told me he had concerns about what was transpiring.

He said there was a very high volume of data, and that he was getting no feedback about whether it was good, bad, or useful. He said that it was his experience that this was a massive intelligence collection operation— one that was not in accordance with what UNSCOM was supposed to be doing."

In other words, the Australian— most likely an officer from the Defence Signals Directorate, Australia's NSA subsidiary, who was supposed to have been working for the UN— may have been effectively spying for the U.S. Stephanie Jones, DSD's liaison to NSA, did not take kindly to a Voice inquiry about this subject; indeed, despite being reached at a phone number with an NSA headquarters prefix, she would not even confirm her position with DSD. However, a former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official said that such a scenario was probable. "The relationship between the UKUSA partners has always been of enormous value to U.S. intelligence, even when their governments have been on the opposite sides of policy issues," the official said. "I would not be surprised at all if the Aussies happened to be the ones who actually did this [at U.S. behest]."

Next Page »