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The Coup That Wasn't

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  • The Coup That Wasn't

    Scott Ritter was the former US marine captain tasked with finding Saddam Hussein's weapons. Now, in this first detailed account, he reveals how the CIA plotted to use a UN weapons inspection to overthrow the Iraqi regime - and how fiasco turned to tragedy when it failed

    'This is big, Scott," Moshe Ponkovsky said. "We don't share this with anyone." Israel's military intelligence was already assisting us at Unscom (the United Nations Special Commission, which ran the UN's weapons inspections programme in Iraq) by scrutinising the "take" from the American U-2 spy-plane flights over Iraq. It had proved an unorthodox but fruitful relationship for Unscom: the Israeli analysts had proved far superior to the CIA's. But what I was now proposing to the Israelis was a dramatic expansion of this intelligence-sharing.

    The coup that wasn't

    Scott Ritter was the former US marine captain tasked with finding Saddam Hussein's weapons. Now, in this first detailed account, he reveals how the CIA plotted to use a UN weapons inspection to overthrow the Iraqi regime - and how fiasco turned to tragedy when it failed

    Wednesday September 28, 2005
    The Guardian

    'This is big, Scott," Moshe Ponkovsky said. "We don't share this with anyone." Israel's military intelligence was already assisting us at Unscom (the United Nations Special Commission, which ran the UN's weapons inspections programme in Iraq) by scrutinising the "take" from the American U-2 spy-plane flights over Iraq. It had proved an unorthodox but fruitful relationship for Unscom: the Israeli analysts had proved far superior to the CIA's. But what I was now proposing to the Israelis was a dramatic expansion of this intelligence-sharing.

    Article continues



    I was asking Lieutenant Colonel Ponkovsky and his colleagues to accept tapes from a secret Unscom-British communications eavesdropping operation that we were planning in Baghdad itself. The Israelis would process the data (ie, break any codes or ciphers the Iraqis might be using, and translate), and analyse them to determine if there was anything useful for Unscom's mandate of disarming Iraq.
    It was an ambitious, and possibly dangerous, project, but I had the backing of Unscom's senior executives - its chairman, the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekéus, his American deputy, state department official Charles Duelfer, and Russian arms control expert Nikita Smidovich. By the end of January 1996, the scheme was falling into place: Ponkovsky told me that his boss, director of military intelligence General Ya'alon, had given authorisation. Just one part of the jigsaw puzzle was missing: with Britain providing the intercept team, and Israel doing the analysis, that just left the Americans.

    Earlier that month, Duelfer had handed me a paper from the CIA containing a series of questions about Unscom's communications intercept plan. Until then, the CIA had been disdainful of Unscom as a tool for intelligence-gathering, but now they were getting interested. Not that I knew it at the time, but the hidden agenda was regime change.

    Steve Richter, the head of the CIA's Near East Division, had decided that the CIA would extend a helping hand - as long as they could exploit Unscom's work to further its plans for a coup against Saddam Hussein. This newfound enthusiasm for Unscom was only confirmed when the CIA saw how weapons inspectors were increasingly gaining access to some of the most sensitive sites in Iraq, including bases belonging to the Special Republican Guard - Saddam's personal bodyguard.

    The CIA coup plan went like this: if Unscom inspections could somehow be used to trigger a crisis, that would create a pretext for a US military attack against the Special Republican Guard, then Saddam's personal security force could be decapitated. This would clear the way for the plotters, led by Mohammad Abdullah al-Shawani, a former commander of Iraqi Special Forces who had defected to Amman in Jordan and been recruited by the CIA, to make their move.

    But I had no idea of the CIA's ulterior motives for offering assistance when, on February 4 1996, I greeted the British eavesdropping team as they arrived at Washington's Dulles Airport to receive training and equipment from the CIA. The five intercept operators, led by Gary, a short, fit man in his early 30s, would become known as the "Special Collection Element" (SCE). The Brits proved to be fast learners, and I was back in northern Virginia by mid-February, checking up on the preparation of the SCE team before escorting them to Bahrain and on to Baghdad.

    The Iraqis, meanwhile, were well aware of the potential intelligence value of the access gained by the weapons inspectors. The Iraqi secret service, the Mukhabarat, already maintained a unit dedicated to Unscom. The Mukhabarat's priority was to get sanctions lifted - Iraq's number one national security priority. Its director had been told by Saddam Hussein himself that Iraq had disarmed, and no longer had any interest in developing any WMD capability. But sanctions could not be lifted until Unscom inspectors reached that conclusion for themselves.

    So the Mukhabarat's objective was not to obstruct our work; quite the reverse, they had an interest in getting the Iraqi experts who were our counterparts to cooperate. Their problem was that these officials were petrified of the Special Security Organisation, run by Saddam's son Qusay Hussein. If their cooperation with Unscom was seen as compromising the regime's security, the consequences for the individuals involved would have been brutal.

    Because they regarded such locations as Special Republican Guard units as off-limits, the Special Security Organisation demanded early warning of any inspection effort targeting presidential security. As a consequence, the Mukhabarat redoubled its efforts to penetrate Unscom - with outstanding success. First, electronic surveillance of our computers in Baghdad, Bahrain and New York was established. Then, with French technical assistance provided via the French economic liaison in Baghdad - whether by rogue element, or with official permission is still unknown - the Mukhabarat broke Unscom's encryption system, so they could listen in on all "secure" phone calls between Baghdad and New York. With their advance knowledge of Unscom's plans, the Iraqis were able to pre-empt inspections at will.

    By June 1996, a new inspection, Unscom 150, was getting under way. The aim was to shed light on the Iraqi mechanism of concealment - specifically the role of the Special Security Organisation. The paramilitary wing of the CIA was taking an extraordinary interest in Unscom 150. A man I knew as Moe Dobbs, a former American weapons inspector who was in fact a senior officer in the CIA's covert operations Special Activities Staff (SAS), had assigned three men to provide logistics and communications support for the team. In retrospect this was suspicious, but at the time I was just grateful to get the help we so badly needed.

    Smidovich and I put together an inspection plan, which had us "squeezing" Special Republican Guard facilities in the Baghdad area. With Israeli help, I had found the location of every Special Republican Guard unit around the capital. Strangely, Dobbs and the SAS objected to one of these targets - a barracks belonging to the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Brigade. "There's nothing there," Dobbs said. "We've checked it out." We dropped it from our list.

    While we were busy planning our inspection, the CIA's Iraq Operations Group had dispatched a special team of agents to its Amman Station to coordinate coup planning with the Iraqi National Accord (INA), a group of Iraqi expatriates led by a former Ba'athist official, Iyad Alawi, whom Richter had brought together with al-Shawani.

    The White House was under political pressure to be seen to be doing something about Iraq. When the CIA said they had a plan - the "Silver Bullet" coup - to get rid of Saddam Hussein, the White House approved it. Of course, there was a political dimension: the upcoming presidential elections in November 1996. Tony Lake, the national security adviser to President Clinton, was sensitive to any possibility of an "October Surprise" and, in private discussions with CIA director John Deutch (denied by both Deutch and Lake, but acknowledged by many CIA insiders), ordered that the coup be wrapped up by early summer.

    The only problem was that this coup, supposedly planned in great secrecy, was well known to the Iraqi government. Many of the defectors being used by the CIA were actually Mukhabarat double agents. Then, through a series of tragic mistakes, the Mukhabarat took control of one of the CIA's secure satellite communications units used by the INA to communicate with the plotters in Baghdad. So the Mukhabarat learned every detail of the plan - including the fact that the CIA was linking the timing of the coup with the Unscom inspection in early June.

    Checkpoint stand-off

    When the Unscom 150 team arrived in Baghdad on June 10 1996 under the watchful, if somewhat hostile, stares of our Iraqi minders, Rolf Ekéus and the rest of Unscom were completely unaware of the CIA's ulterior motive. On the very first day, one team was prevented from inspecting a Special Republican Guard barracks in Abu Ghraib. The following day, another group set out for the headquarters of 1st Brigade, SRG. The Iraqis were having none of that either, and Unscom 150 found itself in a stand-off with automatic-rifle-wielding SRG troopers. The Security Council reacted to Baghdad's non-cooperation by passing a new resolution, 1060, which "deplored" the denial of access and demanded full cooperation. Two days later, the inspectors were still parked in the sun.

    The decision to send Ekéus to Iraq was, on the surface, curious. Clearly, had the US still wanted to bomb Iraq, they would have pushed harder for a finding of "material breach". The truth was that this sudden U-turn - renewed American support for diplomacy - was driven by the fact that the CIA coup plot was collapsing around them.

    While Unscom 150 was parked out front of the Special Republican Guard facilities, the CIA station in Amman was desperately trying to contact the ringleaders of the coup in Baghdad. But their entire network was silent. It was as if they had disappeared off the face of the earth. In reality, Saddam's intelligence service had so thoroughly infiltrated the plot that there wasn't a single CIA-controlled asset left in Iraq who had not been arrested by the Mukhabarat.

    For the Iraqi leadership there was a clear case for terminating all contact with Unscom, but the Mukhabarat's Unscom cell had convinced Tariq Aziz and others, including Saddam, that Unscom was being used and was not a witting player in the coup attempt. The Iraqis knew economic sanctions could not be lifted without a favourable report on compliance from Unscom; Ekéus promised to work hard to this end, but needed help. On June 22, Ekéus and Tariq Aziz signed what became known as the "Agreement for the Modalities of Sensitive Site Inspections", which governed how Unscom would go about inspecting sites belonging to Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard, Special Security Organisation, Mukhabarat and other security institutions. Ekéus had done his job - averting a war, while keeping weapons inspections on track.

    The ramifications of the collapsed coup had yet to sink in. Any remaining hopes within the CIA were quashed when, on June 26, the Agency's Amman station allegedly received a transmission from one of their secure satellite phones. On the line was the Mukhabarat, who told astonished CIA agents that the game was up. Within days the CIA team in Amman vanished. The US had witnessed a covert action fiasco of a kind not seen since the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Saddam's security services had rounded up more than 800 suspected plotters, most of whom were tortured and executed.

    All traces of the CIA's involvement in a coup plot against Saddam were eliminated. It was the last time I, or anyone in Unscom, saw Moe Dobbs and his colleagues.

    Suspicious activity

    Meanwhile, I was anxious for an opportunity to put the new agreement to the test. On June 24, I got it - in the form of a CIA-provided photograph that showed a gathering of vehicles outside a Special Republican Guard site on the southern tip of Saddam International Airport, which I labelled "Site 1a". SCE intercepts of Iraqi minder communications showed that, at the time the U-2 photograph was taken, the Iraqis wanted to know where every inspector was -arousing our suspicion of ongoing concealment activity. This made "1a" an ideal candidate for testing the "sensitive site modalities".

    Less than a month later, we formed up outside the Baghdad Monitoring and Verification Centre. At the initial Special Republican Guard checkpoint just on the edge of Saddam International Airport, the two convoys - Iraqi and Unscom - linked up and proceeded down the road. We passed through the next two Special Republican Guard checkpoints without problems. But then, as we closed in on Site 1a, we came to a new checkpoint, and these guards weren't playing around. Taking up positions in a horseshoe pattern, they aimed loaded rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers at our convoy.

    Suddenly, a vehicle arrived in front of us, on the other side of the checkpoint. Two officers stepped out, took a quick look at the situation, and barked some orders. The gate was opened and we moved on. To our left was the southern edge of Saddam International Airport, and to our right a lush game park with several different species of gazelle and antelope - Saddam's personal stock for his kitchen. Finally, we reached the compounds of Site 1a.

    As soon as the inspection began, I understood why the Iraqis were so nervous about our presence here. The eastern compound was, as we thought, affiliated with the Special Republican Guard. But it wasn't just any SRG unit - it was Saddam's personal bodyguard, the Radwaniyah Platoon, 2nd Company of the 1st Battalion.

    This unit was equipped with shiny silver Mercedes sedans, parked in a line under a covered lot. Two of the cars had tarpaulins over them, which, when pulled back, showed the effects of an earlier ambush. One had been riddled with machine-gun bullets, shattering the bullet-proof windows and penetrating the armoured doors. The occupants of the second car had gone through an even more terrifying experience: it had obviously been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

    Otherwise, it was a standard military barracks, but a search of files turned up something that caught my attention: an emergency administrative notice, declaring that the 3rd Battalion (Special Forces), Special Republican Guard, was "liquidated", and all its members were placed on administrative leave pending further notice. The 3rd Battalion had been the unit singled out by Dobbs and the CIA as being off-limits for inspection during Unscom 150. I now realised what this meant: "Stay away, those are our guys." Reading of their fate, I felt sick to my stomach.

    Cover blown

    On my way home through London, I again took advantage of a layover at Heathrow to pay a visit to the Defence Intelligence Staff, which had provided Gary and his colleagues for Unscom's Special Collection Element in Baghdad. I was unshaven and dressed in jeans, with the desert dust of Iraq still in the crevices of my hiking boots. I looked very rough, but this was just a social visit, a chance to get a quick bite to eat with friends. Or so I thought.

    The door to the director's office opened, and the director himself walked out, a tall man with a broad smile and firm handshake. "Please join us, will you? We have something we want you to read and comment on."

    Inside the folder I was handed was a lengthy report, classified top secret, and containing several US codewords I was familiar with. The subject line read: "UN COMMUNICATIONS INTERCEPT OPERATION UP AND RUNNING IN BAGHDAD." I glanced down at the list of addressees. This document had been sent around the world, to every embassy and military headquarters the US maintained. This was more than just giving people a heads-up about our SCE operation. This was blowing its cover to smithereens.

    "The Yanks seemed to have sent it everywhere except Tariq Aziz's own office," remarked a Ministry of Defence official.

    Very few people in London knew about the operation. And now all the details, including the real names of the personnel involved, had been broadcast around the world. "We would like your opinion on this matter," said the director.

    I didn't hesitate. "Clearly we have to take the best interests of the SCE team itself first. This report represents a compromise of their security, which is unacceptable. From an Unscom point of view, we must cease the SCE operation immediately."

    Whether done on purpose or accident, the American publication of the sensitive details of a covert British intelligence operation, operating under Unscom cover, was an incomprehensible act. The US had killed the SCE, so now we had nothing specific to go on. We needed high-quality intelligence, without which weapons inspections were going nowhere. I had tried my best to develop sources of information, but had been sabotaged by the CIA.

    The failed June 1996 coup attempt had largely been determined by domestic American political considerations. Like President George HW Bush before him, Clinton and his political handlers were sensitive to public perception in a presidential election year. This shaped both the coup's mission (get Saddam) and its timing (early summer, before the Republicans had nailed down their candidate). Not only was the 1996 plot chiefly a "wag the dog" scenario, but once again, any chance of Iraq disarming under UN supervision had been cynically undermined by the larger US objective of regime change

    Bodyguards and bullet holes

    Grim evidence of botched coup plan

    Assassination attempts

    Ritter discovered that the barracks there belonged to the Radwaniyah Platoon - Saddam's personal bodyguard, equipped with a fleet of silver Mercedes sedans. Two of these cars were badly damaged by machine-gun fire and rocket attack - evidence of a recent assassination attempt on senior regime officials.

    The mystery of the 3rd Battalion

    This U-2 photograph, provided by the CIA, was taken on June 11 1996, just as Ritter's Unscom 150 weapons inspection was getting under way. While searching the barracks here, Ritter found files declaring that the 3rd Battalion (Special Forces) of the Special Republican Guard had been liquidated and its members placed on "administrative leave". Ritter recalled that the 3rd Battalion had earlier been placed "off limits" by the CIA. "I now realised what this meant: 'Stay away, those are our guys'."

    The means of disposal

    The sensitivity of Site 1a led to prolonged stand-offs between weapons inspectors and Iraqi soldiers. Intelligence gathered from Unscom's covert listening post in Baghdad suggested that the vehicles may have been used to move material and documents they did not wish inspectors to find.

    · This is an edited extract from Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of America's Intelligence Conspiracy, by Scott Ritter, with foreword by Seymour Hersh, published by IB Tauris