Bugging Saddam

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If Bill Clinton can ask us to ponder what is is, we should probably not be surprised when Saddam Hussein forces us to clarify what spying is. For years the Iraqi dictator has insisted that the U.N. inspectors rummaging through his country in search of concealed weapons were no more than CIA agents working for Washington. Saddam is a poor candidate for victimhood, but last week his protests got a boost as a leak-and-leak-again battle between the U.N. and the U.S. spun out. The suggestion: U.S. spies had used UNSCOM, a purportedly neutral U.N. commission, to collect lethal targeting intelligence about Saddam while masquerading as independent inspectors. It was a shocking charge--as if Girl Scouts peddling cookies were also casing your house for a burglary--and American officials were quick to shoot back. We may have spied, they said, but we spied only to help the U.N. inspectors.

UNSCOM was set up in 1991 as part of the truce agreement to end the Gulf War. It had a simple mission: to verify the destruction of Saddam's remaining missile, chemical- and biological-weapons capability. But U.N. inspectors quickly hit a wall: Saddam had no intention of cooperating with their inspections. So, eager to do their jobs, they turned from monitoring to spying to uncover his hidden caches. In interviews with key intelligence and military officials, TIME has pieced together that slow slide into espionage--one that peaked last March when a specially trained operative from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency slipped into Iraq as part of an UNSCOM team. U.S. officials stressed to TIME that they never misused the inspection agency. Explained an exasperated White House aide: "The whole purpose of UNSCOM was to spy on Iraq."

UNSCOM's spying activities began in earnest in 1992, when the U.N. sent out a call for help from member states in tracking Saddam's chemical- and biological-weapons activities. In response, the U.S. Air Force lent the U.N. a U-2 spy plane and crew and provided highly detailed photos from its KH-12 spy satellites orbiting above Iraq. According to UNSCOM head Richard Butler, the U.S. was not alone: 40 or more other nations contributed. Many have sent intelligence and weaponry experts to serve on the inspection teams. France, Britain and Russia did so--with Russia even sending a senior KGB officer who had previously served in New York City.

But UNSCOM, which never had an intelligence section of its own, found out how much it still didn't know in 1995, when Saddam's brother-in-law, Lieut. General Hussein Kamel al-Majid, defected to Jordan and laid out for his debriefers the details of Saddam's elaborate concealment system. It was operated, Kamel told the CIA, by the Special Republican Guard and the Special Security Organization, the same outfits that serve as Saddam's personal and palace guards.

The inspectors decided they needed scanners and recorders that would let them listen in on the security forces as they shuttled weaponry, components, technical manuals and chemical and biological materials around Iraq. Scott Ritter, the former U.S. Marine major who was then a leading UNSCOM inspector, traveled to Israel and persuaded that country's intelligence agency, the Mossad, to provide scanners to tap into the radio and cell-phone frequencies used by the Iraqi security units.

At first, officials told TIME, the inspectors carried the scanners around the country in backpacks. By the end of 1997, however, Butler and his colleagues were worried that it was becoming too dangerous. A search by the Iraqis would have revealed that select team members were wired up with special recording and eavesdropping devices. Another problem was the sheer volume of information that was flooding in over these taps. The British, who had been deciphering the tapes, were tired of digging through thousands of hours of Arabic conversations--99% of which was useless.

Washington and its National Security Agency came up with a solution: an automated system that did not put people at risk. The NSA has a team of covert operatives who work with agents in the CIA's Science and Technology Directorate to manufacture the highly sophisticated ground scanners and signal interceptors that the U.S. plants in foreign countries. To intercept signals, the NSA and S&T teams developed miniaturized monitors that are concealed in everyday objects such as lamps, phones, signposts, building gutters and commercial electric equipment. The CIA even has its own secret factory, which produces microbatteries no bigger than fingernail clippings to power the devices. For the Baghdad operations, the CIA-NSA team built special devices and concealment packages so the bugs wouldn't be detected by the Iraqis.

In March 1998, Defense Intelligence Agency agents slipped into Baghdad as UNSCOM operatives to install the devices covertly. The new devices were unmanned, hidden in seemingly benign objects--relieving inspectors of the dangerous backpacks. Signals intercepted by the new hardware were beamed up to a satellite and downloaded to the NSA's headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland. The agency then used supercomputers that were alerted to key words to help "listen" to conversations and edit out irrelevant chatter.

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