The United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) was the most intrusive and extensive monitoring operation in UN history, with a substantial intelligence component. Although not a peacekeeping mission but a disarmament operation established under the enforcement provisions of the UN Charter (Chapter VII), it shared many features in common with PKO’s. In particular, it conducted monitoring in accordance with Security Council resolutions and with written agreement from the host state, for example, the cease-fire agreement which included Iraq’s pledge to destroy all its weapons of mass destruction. To carry out in-country monitoring by international (UN) officials, UNSCOM needed, as do peacekeepers, at least a minimum of cooperation and consent from the host state. This was not always forthcoming. In the end it was denied.
The UNSCOM experience provides many examples and lessons in intelligence directly relevant to peacekeeping. UNSCOM demonstrated several new and ambitious means of information gathering, analysis, and dissemination. In pushing the limits of the grey zone of UN information gathering, it helped clarify some of the boundaries between recommended and prohibited behaviour. Many novel features and significant pitfalls of the Iraq operation were revealed by a former UNSCOM Chief Inspector, Scott Ritter, after his resignation in August 1998.35
One area of UNSCOM innovation was the extensive use of high technology to gather information. High-tech surveillance devices helped considerably to find hidden weapons systems and components in unlikely buildings and locations, both above and below ground and even under water. Some UNSCOM missions included US Navy divers who scoured the bottom of certain Iraqi rivers to find weapons components. UNSCOM used US high-altitude U-2 planes to cover vast tracks of Iraqi land, an activity that helped spot suspicious sites and vehicle movements.36 UNSCOM also received high-resolution US satellite imagery, which helped to provide an estimate (downwards) of the number of undeclared mobile missile launchers and to discover camouflaged roads to sensitive sites. Germany provided helicopters with ground penetrating radar in an effort to discover Iraqi SCUD missiles and metal components buried under sand, though no missiles were found.
UNSCOM installed video cameras at sensitive dual-use sites (like foundries) to make sure that no undeclared activities (e.g., missile fabrication) were taking place. These cameras and other unmanned sensors transmitted information continuously to the Baghdad Monitoring and Verification Centre (BMVC) to permit surveillance of key alarm indicators, such as sound and heat from machine operation. Video cameras were also employed during inspections, and even in negotiations with Iraqi authorities, as a manner of recording personal responses and remarks for later playback. In one inspection, UNSCOM personnel filmed a convoy of heavy tractor-trailers leaving a site that m as about to be inspected. These transports carried the unmistakable forms of Calutrons, proving that Iraq had sought to produce highly enriched uranium.
Signals intelligence also became a part of the UNSCOM effort. Britain supplied sensitive communication scanners for surveillance of Iraqi military communications, in an effort to reveal the Iraqi weapons concealment mechanism. The BMVC itself employed a variety of high-tech counterintelligence measures, including electronically swept facilities with double-door access and encrypted telephone links to UN headquarters.37 Inspection teams in the field also had satellite telephones for direct communications to New York, which were particularly useful during tense stand-offs with Iraqi authorities. An early incident occurred when a group of UNSCOM inspectors were immobilised in a Baghdad parking lot after they had uncovered secret files on Iraq’s nuclear capability. A US national, David Kay, fearing the confiscation of documents, faxed revealing documents directly to Washington, thereby bypassing the UN in New York. Iraq used this instance, and others, to assert that UNSCOM was providing a cover for US espionage, and Kay was later reprimanded by UN officials.
On-site inspections were the backbone of UNSCOM’s investigations and international inspectors had unprecedented rights. Based on Security Council resolutions, which invoked the enforcement provisions of the UN Charter, UNSCOM could conduct inspections virtually anywhere, anytime, without right of refusal. In practice, UNSCOM had to be sensitive to Iraqi sovereignty and requests. A cat and mouse game was played, with Iraq usually losing out. From inspections, for instance, UNSCOM exposed Iraq’s undeclared chemical weapons and facilities, its nuclear weapons program, and significant elements of its biological weapons program.
UNSCOM also demonstrated the great utility of document searches. Initially the Iraqis were caught off guard, not having sequestered documentation, as it had with the actual weapons and other hardware. The examination of secret documents and correspondence in government files (especially those found in the Agriculture ministry) were especially valuable in tracing Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program. Such Iraqi paperwork also helped reveal the nature of Iraq’s concealment effort, which had to be carefully co-ordinated among various Iraqi organisations. From vehicle manifests, for example, the movements of certain illicit cargo were tracked. On several occasions, UNSCOM inspectors successfully pursued men fleeing with large bundles of documents (labelled ‘Top Secret’) under their arms. In addition to translators, UNSCOM employed computer experts to recover deleted files from Iraqi hard drives, an activity that proved especially useful in uncovering information on Iraqi ballistic missile programs.
The greatest revelations, however, came from several high-level defectors, especially Hussein Kamal, a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, who was in charge of the Military industrial Commission. In August 1995 meetings in Jordan with UNSCOM head Rolf Ekeus, he described key elements of Iraq’s concealment mechanism, and told of previously unknown bioweapons projects, hidden ballistic missiles, and large document caches. As a result, UNSCOM obtained at his chicken farm 1.5 million pages of hidden documentation (for which the Iraqi government blamed Hussein Kamal, saying he was acting without authorisation or government awareness in carrying out the programs described therein) and later found missile production tools at another farm.
Through the process of information sharing and cooperation with national intelligence agencies, UNSCOM found itself in the black (prohibited) zones. As an operation run by the UN, it had to maintain objectivity and impartiality, in both fact and international perception, in carrying out a specific mandate. But, one of Iraq’s key allegations was that the UNSCOM employed CIA agents. This was consistently discounted in the West, but subsequently revealed to be true by Inspector Ritter. In fact, during one inspection directed at the Special Presidential Guard, UNSCOM was said to have on its inspection team nine CIA paramilitary covert operators who were alleged to have supported a failed coup plot by units of the Guard.
UNSCOM had to be careful not to be too closely associated with the United States because it was routinely called an American pawn by the government of Iraq, on whom it depended for inspection privileges and cooperation. The US domination also boded poorly with Russia and France, who thought that UNSCOM was being used as a tool of US foreign policy. Indeed, on several occasions overly intrusive UNSCOM inspections were apparently designed to serve as a pretext for US military attacks. Yet, some association with the United States was inevitable. Many UNSCOM inspectors and its deputy head were from the United States, and UNSCOM relied heavily on the United States for technology, inspection personnel, and funding.
A more obvious transgression of UN impartiality was the sharing of UNSCOM intelligence with the military intelligence service of Israel, Iraq’s mortal enemy. Ritter himself originally proposed making contact with Israel. The idea was dismissed in 1992, but by 1994 the Executive Chairman of UNSCOM had a channel to the Israeli military intelligence service, Aman, which produced a subsequent stream of information. Ritter arranged for US U-2 images to be delivered to Israeli intelligence through UNSCOM in exchange for Israeli help in interpreting them, so that inspection targets could be more accurately identified. This imagery could potentially be put to other uses by Israel, for example, for future targeting during military operations, or for espionage and sabotage. Indeed, Israel was eager to monitor Saddam Hussein’s movements and even passed this information on to Ritter. It also tipped off UNSCOM about an illegal shipment of gyroscopes, enough to provide guidance systems for a dozen missiles, leading to their interception in Jordan with the help of the Jordanian government.
UNSCOM also developed a substantial analytical capability. After its creation in 1991, it initially depended heavily on U.S. information analysis. But after the establishment of an Information Assessment Unit (IAU), it was able to rely more on its own facts and estimates, and those from alternate intelligence sources and agencies. The United States then increasingly sought information from UNSCOM. Secrecy measures were adopted by UNSCOM, not only in its dealings with foreign intelligence agencies, but also in its relations with Iraq itself. Two secret agreements were negotiated between the UN and Iraq on the modalities and limits of UN inspections: the agreement of 21 June 1996 negotiated by Rolf Ekeus, and a secret protocol of 23 February 1998 resulting from the trip of Kofi Annan to Baghdad.38 As an organisation devoted to transparency, and with a UN Charter that provides that all international agreements should be open, the use of secret memoranda and agreements seems highly duplicitous and easily leads to a loss of credibility in the UN when exposed.
UNSCOM’s experience shows the many pitfalls of overly aggressive intelligence-gathering. It also allows some general rules to be proposed.
First, the UN should preferably not use deception in its information gathering, though surprise plans and non-identification of inspectors can fall in the acceptable (grey) zone. (Under most arms control verification regimes, the host state has the right to reject certain inspectors.)
Second, the UN should be open to receiving information from defectors but should not be encouraging them.
Third, signals intelligence should be used only to the extent justified by the inspection mandate. Inspections should be restricted to its mandate, and member states not be allowed to use inspections for other objectives.7
Fourth, and finally, while the UN nay retain secrets, it should not make secret agreements with governments, especially the inspected state.