At Home, the FBI Keeps Tabs On Iraqis

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Rumsfeld: Saddam could strike here

FBI agents are keeping a tight watch on a handful of suspected Iraqi intelligence officers in the US, according to government sources. They're also quietly keeping looser tabs on as many as 1,000 Iraqi nationals considered "persons of interest" because they are suspected to be fervent Saddam partisans. These covert monitoring programs, along with a recently disclosed overt FBI effort to interview about 50,000 Iraqi emigres scattered around the US, are aimed at spotting early warning signs that the Baghdad regime is attempting to organize terrorist attacks on US soil.

Senate Intelligence Committee member Evan Bayh, D-Ind., believes one reason Saddam has sought chemical and biological weapons may be to blackmail the US into standing down if he invades Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or other neighbors. "To smuggle a few vials of anthrax or some other sinister agent like that into our country is far easier than a nuclear weapon," says Bayh. Saddam could then threaten: "You want to stop my action here? Fine. But you should know what I have in Los Angeles, you should know what we have in Chicago, or fill in the blank." Or, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told members of the House last week, according to Congressional sources, Saddam could strike inside the U.S. by handing off horrific substances to terrorist groups able to operate here.

Either way, US experts believe the Iraqi intelligence service will set the plots in motion, then recruit or extort amateurs to do the dirty work. That's why the FBI is aggressively monitoring the 20 or so employees of Baghdad's mission to the United Nations and the smaller Iraqi interest section at the Algerian Embassy in Washington. Some of them are believed to be professional spies, others "co-opted" to do the intelligence service's bidding. "The fact the Iraqi regime doesn't have a business presence, an airlines presence or a diplomatic presence takes away a platform Saddam could have used" for spying and terrorism, says a retired FBI counter-espionage veteran. "The Iraqi intelligence apparatus wordwide was dramatically diminished in the Persian Gulf crisis." In 1991, the U.S. expelled most Iraqi diplomats, including all known Iraqi intelligence officers using diplomatic or business cover. The CIA and FBI passed information about Iraqi agents and assets to allied security services. "We shared the names with each other so they couldn?t reappear somewhere else," says the ex-G-man. According to the Washington Post, the CIA is currently conducting a similar intelligence-sharing program to expose and neutralize Iraqi agents worldwide.

FBI agents believe even one or two Iraqi agents could do a lot of damage. Small amounts of chemical or biological agents could be secreted in diplomatic pouches dispatched to the Iraqi UN mission, located across the street from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's residence in Manhattan, to the Iraqi interest section in Washington's ritzy Kalorama Triangle or smuggled across the US-Canadian border.

When it comes to the risky work of planting lethal substances or detonating bombs, Saddam is not likely to expose his few trained agents. In the past, says an FBI veteran, "They've used people who are expendable" — and amateurish. During the Persian Gulf war, two Iraqi students blew themselves up trying to bomb a US Information Service building in Manila. FBI laboratory scientists who examined an unexploded bomb recovered in 1991 from the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Jakarta, a second device intercepted by Turkish authorities and a third bomb seized in April, 1993, by Kuwaiti police when they arrested 10 Iraqis for plotting to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush determined, says a retired FBI agent, that "the wiring board was done by the same person." The conclusion: all four devices were built by Baghdad.

The FBI is worried that Iraqi agents will try to coerce students and other Iraqi nationals in the US into participating in terrorist plots by threatening to torture and kill their relatives back home. "They've raised family extortion to new level," says one veteran counter-terror hand. That concern is behind the FBI's 50,000 interviews in immigrant communities — agents hope reluctant recruits will blow the whistle on Saddam's schemes.

To prevent Iraqi agents from making contact with al-Qaeda fanatics willing and able to carry out terror schemes inside the U.S., the FBI is expected to dust off a few tricks developed during the Cold War to "bumper-lock" — confuse and immobilize — the KGB. A favorite: waves of double-agents, called "cold walk-ins," approach enemy agents and "volunteer" for nasty missions. If the ploy works, the FBI has achieved a penetration. Sooner or later the walk-ins are revealed as plants. IF they're burned a few times, so the theory goes, the Iraqis will suspect and reject even bonafide volunteers from al-Qaeda.