A Most Unusual Collection Agency

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

With an intelligence community of over a dozen components, billion-dollar budgets, and cutting-edge technology, the U.S. can cast a wide net, be it with human sources or signals interception. Iraq, however, has presented a special challenge since Saddam's Ba'ath party took power in 1968. "In Iraq," says Israeli intelligence expert Amatzai Baram, "you are dealing with what is arguably the best insulated security and counterintelligence operation in the world. The ability of Western or even unfriendly Arab states to penetrate the system is very, very limited."

According to the former Cairo station chief of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the West got this message loud and clear after Iraqi counterintelligence pulled British MI6 case officers off a Baghdad street in the mid '80s and took them to a warehouse on the outskirts of town. "They had arrayed before them the various agents they had been running," the ex­ASIS officer told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1994. "There were wires hanging from the rafters in the warehouse. All the men were strung up by wires around their testicles and they were killed in front of the faces of their foreign operators, and they were told, you had better get out and never come back."

When UNSCOM was inaugurated in 1991, it quickly became apparent that the organization's intelligence capability would depend largely on contributions from various UN member countries. According to several intelligence community sources, while the CIA did provide UNSCOM with information, and, later, serious hardware like a U-2 spy plane, the focus of the U.S. intelligence community at the time was on working with anti-Saddam groups in and around Iraq to foment a coup.

Mark Phares

What resulted, as investigative authors Andrew and Patrick Cockburn demonstrate in their just published book Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein, were two of the most colossally bungled CIA covert operations since the Bay of Pigs. While details of one of the failed operations were widely reported, the Cockburns fleshed out details of an arguably worse coup attempt gone awry in June 1996. Iraqi counterintelligence had not only managed to finger most of the suspects in advance, but months before had even captured an encrypted mobile satellite communications device that the CIA gave the plotters. Adding insult to injury, the Cockburns report, Iraqi counterintelligence used the CIA's own device to notify them of their failure: "We have arrested all your people," the CIA team in Amman, Jordan, reportedly was told via their uplink. "You might as well pack up and go home."

Some UNSCOM staffers— first under Russian Nikita Smidovich, later under American Scott Ritter— managed to create what amounted to a formidable micro-espionage unit devoted to fulfilling UNSCOM's mission. Between information passed on from various countries and use of unspecified but probably limited surveillance equipment, the inspectors were gathering a great deal. But in March 1998, according to Ritter, the U.S. told UNSCOM chair Richard Butler of Australia that it wanted to "coordinate" UNSCOM's intelligence gathering.

Ritter insists that no U.S. spies under UNSCOM cover could have been operating in Baghdad without his knowledge prior to his resignation in August 1998. However, as veteran spies point out, if they were, Ritter probably wouldn't have known. A number of sources interviewed by the Voice believe it possible that Special Collection Service personnel may have been operating undercover in Baghdad.

According to a former high-ranking intelligence official, SCS was formed in the late 1970s after competition between the NSA's embassy-based eavesdroppers and the CIA's globe-trotting bugging specialists from its Division D had become counterproductive. While sources differ on how SCS works— some claim its agents never leave their secret embassy warrens where they perform close-quarters electronic eavesdropping, while others say agents operate embassy-based equipment in addition to performing riskier "black-bag" jobs, or break-ins, for purposes of bugging— "there's a lot of pride taken in what SCS has accomplished," the former official says.

Intriguingly, the only on-the-record account of the Special Collection Service has been provided not by an American but by a Canadian. Mike Frost, formerly of the Communications Security Establishment— Canada's NSA equivalent— served as deputy director of CSE's SCS counterpart and was trained by the SCS. In a 1994 memoir, Frost describes the complexities of mounting "special collection" operations— finding ways to transport sophisticated eavesdropping equipment in diplomatic pouches without arousing suspicion, surreptitiously assembling a device without arousing suspicion in his embassy, technically troubleshooting under less than ideal conditions— and also devotes considerable space to describing visits to SCS's old College Park headquarters.

"It is not the usual sanitorium-clean atmosphere you would expect to find in a top-secret installation," writes Frost. "Wires everywhere, jerry-rigged gizmos everywhere, computers all over the place, some people buzzing around in three-piece suits, and others in jeans and t-shirts. [It was] the ultimate testing and engineering centre for any espionage equipment." Perhaps one of its most extraordinary areas was its "live room," a 30-foot-square area where NSA and CIA devices were put through dry runs, and where engineers simulated the electronic environment of cities where eavesdroppers are deployed. Several years ago, according to sources, SCS relocated to a new, 300-acre, three-building complex disguised as a corporate campus and shielded by a dense forest outside Beltsville, Maryland. Curious visitors to the site will find themselves stopped at a gate by a Department of Defense police officer who, if one lingers, will threaten arrest.

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