Nov 1 2002

A Scoop They’d Rather Forget

U.N. spying scandal goes from fact to allegation

Nothing makes a newspaper prouder than a juicy foreign policy scoop. Except, it seems, when the scoop ends up raising awkward questions about a U.S. admin­istration’s drive for war.

Back in 1999, major papers ran front-page investigative stories reveal­ing that the CIA had covertly used U.N. weapons inspectors, known as UN­SCOM, to spy on Iraq for the U.S.’s own intelligence purposes. “United States officials said today that American spies had worked undercover on teams of United Nations arms inspectors,” the New York Times reported (1/7/99). According to the Washington Post (3/2/99), the U.S. “infiltrated agents and espionage equipment for three years into United Nations arms control teams in Iraq to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military without the knowledge of the U.N. agency.” Undercover U.S. agents “carried out an ambitious spying opera­tion designed to penetrate Iraq’s intel­ligence apparatus and track the move­ment of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, according to U.S. and U.N. sources,” wrote the Boston Globe (1/6/99).

Each of the three news stories ran on the papers’ front pages. At first, U.S. officials tried to deny them, but as more details emerged, “spokesmen for the CIA, Pentagon, White House and State Department declined to repeat any categorical denials” (Washington Post, 3/2/99). By the spring of 1999, the UNSCOM spying reported by the papers was accepted as fact by other outlets, and even at times defended: “Experts say it is naive to believe that the United States and other govern­ments would not have used the oppor­tunity presented by the U.N. commis­sion to spy on a country that provoked the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and that has continued to tangle with U.S. and British forces,” said a USA Today news article (3/3/99).

Reluctant to recall

But now that the Bush administration has placed the inspectors at the center of its rationale for going to war, these same papers have become noticeably reluctant to recall UNSCOM’s past spy­ing. The spy scandal badly damaged the credibility of the inspections process, especially after reports that data collected through UNSCOM were later used to pick targets in the December 1998 bombing of Iraq: “National security insiders, blessed with their unprecedent­ed intelligence bonanza from UNSCOM, convinced them­selves that bombing Saddam Hussein’s internal apparatus would drive the Iraqi leader around the bend,” wrote Wash­ington Post analyst William Arkin (1/17/99).

Suddenly, facts that their own correspondents confirmed three years ago in interviews with top U.S. officials were being recycled as mere allegations from Saddam Hussein. The UNSCOM team, explained the New York Times‘ Barbara Crossette in an August 3 story, was replaced “after Mr. Hussein accused the old commission of being an American spy operation and refused to deal with it.” She gave no hint that Saddam’s “accusation” was reported as fact by her Times colleague Tim Weiner in a front-page story three years earlier.

“As recently as Sunday, Iraqi officials called the inspectors spies and accused them of deliberately prolonging their work,” the Washington Post‘s Baghdad correspondent wrote in a story casting doubt on the Iraqi regime’s current intentions of cooperating (9/8/02). Readers were not reminded that the Post‘s Barton Gellman exhaustively detailed the facts of the spying in a series of 1999 articles.

“Iraq accused some of the inspectors of being spies, because they remained on their host countries’ payrolls while reviewing Iraq’s weapons,” wrote the Boston Globe‘s Elizabeth Neuffer (9/14/02), in an oddly garbled rendi­tion of the charges. She could have boasted that her paper’s own Colum Lynch (now with the Washington Post) was widely credited with first breaking the story of UNSCOM’s spying in a January 6, 1999 front-page exposé. But she chose not to.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that certain media outlets would rather that UNSCOM’s covert espionage had never been exposed in the first place. The day after Barton Gellman of the Washington Post first reported the spying charges, in a story sourced to Kofi Annan’s office, his own paper ran a thundering editorial denouncing Annan’s “gutless ploy” (“Back-Stabbing at the U.N.,” 1/7/99) and telling the U.N. leader that he and his aides should have “raised their concerns in private”— rather than sharing them with a reporter for the Washington Post.

The UNSCOM spying scandal is hardly ancient history. The Iraq debate at the U.N. Security Council in the fall of 2002 centered around U.S. demands that the rules for sending inspectors back to Iraq be replaced—because the existing rules, imposed by the council in 1999 in an atmosphere of diplomat­ic outrage over the spy scandal, limit U.S. control over inspections (London Times, 9/18/02).