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Spies in UNSCOM?

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United Nations security council deliberations resume this week on the future of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) monitoring weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The uncertainty regarding the commission's operations following the recent US-United Kingdom bombing raids has been further complicated by allegations that US intelligence used UNSCOM to collect information on President Saddam Hussein's security forces. What seems clear from public information is that the US, among other UN member nations, was asked to assist UNSCOM in locating weapons and in frustrating Iraqi government efforts at concealment. With the most sophisticated intelligence technology, the US was uniquely placed to provide this assistance. At issue is whether Washington took advantage of the UNSCOM opportunity to pursue American aims. Ambassador Richard Butler, chief of UNSCOM, has denied any complicity in affording inappropriate access to US spies. Nevertheless, if technical means are used to intercept, translate, and read messages relating to the hiding of weapons, that information is also available to the supplier of the equipment for other purposes. Clinton administration officials were cited in The Washington Post denying that eavesdropping on Saddam Hussein's security forces was part of a design to overthrow him; such forces are directly involved in concealing weapons and are, therefore, a legitimate intelligence target. It must be assumed, however, that intelligence, in this case, was a two-way street. Information relating to security force efforts to hide weapons also provides insights into the operations and organization of such forces - useful in other ways. In addition, according to The New York Times, quoting "American officials," the US included some intelligence officers among its members on the UN commission. Certainly, for the US intelligence community, this was an opportunity too enticing to be missed. Why and by whom the reports of US intelligence involvement were divulged remains a mystery. The leaks come at a time of turmoil over the future of UNSCOM and its chief, Ambassador Butler. France, Russia, and China are pressing for a new entity, less tied to the US and Britain and more acceptable to Iraq, that will provide Baghdad with greater prospects for lifting sanctions. What are the likely effects of these allegations of espionage on the future of weapons monitoring? Saddam has long accused UNSCOM of being a nest of US and British spies; the reports merely confirm his suspicions. He should certainly not be surprised; by his own obstructionism, he has forced UN experts to try every means possible to penetrate his wall of secrecy. Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, has been quick to defend the integrity of the UN system. A Russian statement has deplored this possible violation of the neutrality of a UN commission. France and China may also be expected to criticize. It would be disingenuous, however, of France, Russia, and China to be too critical of another member's exploitation of the UN for its own national purposes; if they are not already doing so, they would if they could. UNSCOM personnel have been withdrawn from Baghdad, but some equipment remains. Some press reports suggest that monitoring is still continuing, but without the advantage of experts on the spot. Saddam has made it clear, however, that he will not permit the commission to resume operations under its current leadership and composition. Although Washington continues to support the resumption of the commission's work under Butler, in reality, the US concluded before the bombing raids that UNSCOM could no longer work effectively. If the raids did, in fact, mean the end of UNSCOM and whatever intelligence advantages the US secured, these were acceptable risks. Whatever the official position now, Washington is concentrating on what the US regards as the only realistic solution of the weapons problem - a change in the regime in Baghdad. David D. Newsom, a former ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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