WASHINGTON -- When United Nations inspectors last scoured Iraq for weapons of mass destruction in 1998, the CIA and its sister spy services were rarely far away.
Undercover U.S. agents working with the U.N. teams secretly planted a high-tech "black box" device in Baghdad that year to eavesdrop on Saddam Hussein's phone calls, among other Iraqi communications, former inspectors say. The signals then were encrypted in other U.N. data and transmitted via satellite to the National Security Agency headquarters at Ft. Meade, Md.
Other operatives helped the U.N. team track Iraqi officials abroad. In one case, they planted hidden cameras and microphones in the hotel room of an Iraqi scientist trying to buy banned missile parts in Romania — and then sneaked into his room at night to photograph the contents of his briefcase.
As new U.N. inspectors plan to return to Iraq after a four-year absence, and as the Bush administration prepares for a possible war there, the role of intelligence in the effort to disarm Iraq is the subject of sharp debate at the U.N. and in Washington and other world capitals.
Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, argues that U.N. credibility was badly hurt by disclosures about covert CIA, British MI6 and Israeli Mossad operations with the former U.N. inspection teams.
Some of the intercepts and other data were used to help identify and target Hussein's suspected hide-outs when U.S. and British bombers launched the Desert Fox airstrikes in December 1998 after the U.N. inspectors were withdrawn, former inspectors say. If U.N. teams go back to Iraq in coming weeks, Blix insists that he will not provide any direct assistance or information to U.S. or other intelligence agencies that could compromise the teams.
"We are not an espionage service, a spy organization," Blix said in a recent interview. "We want intelligence from member governments, but it must be a one-way street. We will tell them what we are interested in."
But U.S. diplomats are fighting to ensure that a new U.N. resolution on Iraq will allow the U.S. and other permanent Security Council members to send their own "experts" and equipment with the disarmament teams, which otherwise would be limited to U.N. employees.
France, Russia and Iraq, among others, objected to the initial U.S. proposal last month, saying the addition of such outside experts was a pretext to permit spying under the U.N. flag.
A second U.S. draft resolution emerged Monday, three days after Blix met with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to discuss the inspections. It suggests that they reached a compromise.
The new draft would allow Blix and Mohammed Baradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for finding and dismantling Iraq's suspected nuclear weapons program, to choose which outside experts could join their teams.
"The key thing is that [the U.N. and IAEA] shall determine the personnel, not Iraq," said a Security Council diplomat.
Significantly, the new proposal does not bar outside experts from reporting to their home governments. The draft also would guarantee experts "the right to unrestricted voice and data communications, including encrypted communications," as well as the right to use "equipment or materials for inspections and to seize and export any equipment, materials or documents taken during inspections."
The Security Council diplomat denied that such language was designed to provide cover to intelligence operatives. "Some people are trying to read all sorts of rubbish into it," the diplomat said. "All it means is that the personnel are selected by merit."
A former senior weapons inspector said the proposal would allow U.S. experts to provide intelligence to senior members of the U.N. team. Only the U.S. experts, he said, would handle sensitive U.S. intelligence. Anything gathered in Iraq could be sent directly to Washington without sharing it with every member of the U.N. team.
Such a setup is designed to prevent Iraqi spies or informants from penetrating U.N. inspection operations in New York, Baghdad and at the U.N. office in Bahrain, as they did in the 1990s, former inspectors said.
The U.N. maintains a roster of 220 scientists, technicians and other arms control experts who could be deployed in shifts to Iraq. But Ewen Buchanan, the public information officer for the weapons inspectors, said other experts also could be sent.
"We have used staff on the roster of trained individuals," Buchanan said. "But that's not an absolute. We could also call upon people for specific jobs or for short-term tasks, not necessarily from that roster."
However reliable intelligence is collected — from satellites, sensors or spies — it will be crucial to the success of a new round of inspections and disarmament, intelligence officials and former inspectors say.
More than 30 governments provided the U.N. teams with intelligence data in the 1990s, officials say, although only a handful apparently were involved in covert collection operations against the Iraqis.
Some of the programs were overt. Washington flew a U-2 spy plane based in Taif, Saudi Arabia, to shoot aerial photographs for the U.N. inspectors, for example, while U.S. spy satellites provided other pictures.
But starting in 1996, other operatives secretly monitored Iraqi military radio frequencies during U.N. inspections to determine where Hussein's forces were moving or hiding banned weapons. By 1998, the system "worked like a charm," said Scott Ritter, who ran the intelligence-gathering program for the U.N. team.
"We nailed down the frequencies," said Ritter, who publicly opposes U.S. policy toward Iraq. "It was all encrypted. The operators would grab it, shoot it over a satellite to Bahrain, the CIA would de-encrypt and interpret it, then shoot it back. It was real-time, high-value intelligence."
A U.S. intelligence official declined to comment on what the CIA did to help the U.N. inspectors in the 1990s, or what its role will be if the inspectors return.
Robert Gallucci, a former deputy chairman of the U.N. disarmament team, says new inspections will fail unless team members are allowed "to get and share intelligence" with U.S., British, French, Chinese and Russian intelligence services.
"If you're dealing with Iraq, you need a dialogue with the intelligence community," said Gallucci, now dean of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington.
"The intelligence community is going to have to trust the inspection regime."
Drogin reported from Washington and Farley from the U.N.