WASHINGTON -- A deepening rift involving the United States, the United Nations secretary-general and U.N. weapons inspectors broke into the open yesterday with allegations that inspectors had helped U.S. intelligence agencies spy on Iraq.
The chief U.N. weapons inspector, Richard Butler, and the United States vehemently denied the charge. But the dispute further clouded prospects for getting effective weapons inspections started again in Iraq and imperiled the concept of U.N.-controlled disarmament.
[U.S. officials have acknowledged that American spies worked undercover on teams of U.N. arms inspectors ferreting out secret Iraqi weapons programs, the New York Times reported in today's editions.
[By being part of the team, the Americans gained a firsthand knowledge of the investigation and a protected presence inside Baghdad, the officials said.
[Scientists, military officers, diplomats and other professionals serve on the commission. The United States included intelligence officers, using diplomatic cover or other professional identities, to gather intelligence independently, according to the officials.
[The officials did not say how many U.S. intelligence officers served on the commission or describe their precise roles.]
The flare-up yesterday put a spotlight on a growing disagreement between the Clinton administration, which favors maintaining a tough posture against Iraq until Baghdad disarms, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is known to have doubts about the U.S. policy of using force to compel Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions.
Iraq has long complained that the U.N. inspection team headed by Butler serves as an espionage tool for the United States and Israel. For years, the United States has been a major source of intelligence that provides leads for U.N. weapons inspectors in their search for any hidden Iraqi weapons capability.
Until this week, the charge that the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) was spying for the United States was widely rejected as Iraqi propaganda.
But in comments to the Washington Post, unidentified aides to Annan expressed concern over reports that inspectors had helped the United States eavesdrop on Iraqi officials, yielding potentially valuable intelligence about the security apparatus surrounding Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
A top adviser to Annan, Assistant Secretary-General John Ruggie, told the Post that Annan had "no knowledge of any of these alleged activities" but added, "If the allegations were to be true, they would pose a serious challenge for the United Nations with regards to our disarmament work in Iraq and multilateral arms control efforts generally."
The newspaper quoted an unidentified Annan adviser as saying that the secretary-general feared the United Nations was being used improperly to help overthrow Hussein's government.
Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said, "We not only have no convincing evidence of these allegations; we have no evidence of any kind," he said. "We have only rumors. Neither the secretary-general nor any member of his staff has access to classified U.S. intelligence, although UNSCOM does."
Annan "rejects the characterization of his state of mind attributed to so-called 'confidants,' such as that he is convinced of things, aware of facts and so on," Eckhard said. Echoing Ruggie, he said that if the charges are true, it will "damage U.N. disarmament efforts."
Butler and State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said that though the United States has provided information to UNSCOM, that has been done as a one-way transaction intended to help inspectors disarm Iraq, not to help U.S. intelligence services.
"American support was specifically tailored to facilitate UNSCOM, the U.N. inspectors' mission, and for no other purpose, and was done at the direct request of the U.N. Special Commission," Rubin said.
Butler said in a statement, "We have never conducted spying for anybody. Have we facilitated spying? Are we spies? Absolutely not. Don't believe everything you read in print. There is much in those articles which is wrong."
The report provided a propaganda windfall for Iraq and its supporters on the United Nations Security Council, who have opposed U.S. military strikes against Iraq and favor lifting the sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990.
UNSCOM turned in a harsh report to the Security Council in December, declaring that Iraq had failed to meet its obligations on disarmament efforts.
The report provoked the largest U.S.-British air attacks against Iraq since the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Since the attacks, Iraq has stopped cooperating with UNSCOM and has challenged the U.S. and British "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq.
There is considerable overlap between the intelligence sought by UNSCOM inspectors and the intelligence the United States and Britain needed for the airstrikes.
The targets of both are elite Iraqi security agencies and military units, which conceal Iraq's weapons programs and protect the Iraqi leadership, including Hussein, experts say.
Annan has not pushed for Butler's resignation but has withheld wholehearted support and favors a less aggressive role by inspectors than the one pushed by Butler and the United States.
Pub Date: 1/07/99