Did America Break the Rules By Spying on Iraq?

Major newspapers–and Saddam Hussein–are making a big deal out of allegations that the U.S. used its inspectors in Iraq as spies. Why is this a scandal? Iraq lost the war. Is there something wrong with spying on Iraq? What is the difference, if any, between inspecting and spying?

The issue is not spying per se, but misuse of a United Nations agency. American officials admit that, in March of last year, American spies entered Iraq as UNSCOM weapons inspectors. (UNSCOM is the U.N agency charged with disarming the Iraqis, as agreed to in its 1991 surrender in the Gulf War.) The Americans planted highly sophisticated bugs–with batteries the size of “fingernail clippings” (Time)–to monitor Iraq’s military transmissions. The intercepted signals were routed via satellite to the United States, where intelligence officials translated and analyzed them.

American officials insist that the bugs were planted at UNSCOM’s behest and that intercepted information about chemical and biological weapons was shared with top UNSCOM officials. UNSCOM frequently relies on Western intelligence agencies for equipment and expertise, but it won’t say in this case whether it requested the American help or was used. Scott Ritter, who recently quit as a top UNSCOM inspector, insists that the Americans were deceiving UNSCOM, not assisting it. American government officials say Ritter was not given the top-secret information because they didn’t trust him, but that the information was indeed passed along to his superiors.

Still, what would be wrong with what these inspectors, or pseudo-inspectors did? Most nations–except Iraq of course–accept the right of UNSCOM inspectors to monitor Iraq’s military radio traffic. This is because elite Iraqi military units are suspected of concealing weapons by shuttling them around in trucks. But intercepted military communications also give clues about Saddam Hussein’s whereabouts, which is useful information if you’re interested in killing him. So it’s possible that the U.S. only agreed to help UNSCOM because the opportunity to plant bugs would be useful in tracking Saddam Hussein. And it’s even possible that the U.S. planted the bugs without UNSCOM’s knowledge. In other words, UNSCOM may have been used–either wittingly or unwittingly–as cover for an independent American spying operation meant to unseat Saddam Hussein.

Even if so, what’s the downside? Answer: UNSCOM disarmament inspectors are strictly forbidden to act as spies serving individual countries. The reason is that, while Iraq may have no choice about letting in U.N. inspectors, other nations do–and are unlikely to cooperate without such a rule. Even Iraq has won some sympathy (click here to see Slate’s “International Papers”), since Saddam Hussein turned out apparently to be right all along in charging that U.N. inspectors were really U.S. spies.

If the charges are true, the U.S. was being fundamentally dishonest when it denied that UNSCOM was a tool of American espionage. Of course all espionage is dishonest. Whether and when an official lie is justified in the national interest can be debated. But even justified dishonesty carries a cost in future credibility. Even if you think a lie is justifiable, you need to consider whether it’s worth that cost.

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