US President George W. Bush has good reason to proceed with caution before launching a military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein and install a new government in Iraq. History has shown that intelligence operations mounted by friend and foe can inject a frightening element of the unknown into the best laid plans.
Take the case of North Korea, and US intelligence efforts to monitor its development of nuclear weapons and uranium enrichment back in the early 1990s.
In a January 21 item headlined “CIA got Russia to spy on North Korea”, James Risen recounted in The New York Times how the CIA asked the Russian intelligence service SVR to install US monitoring equipment in the Russian embassy in Pyongyang.
“The joint operation represented a major test of efforts by the CIA and SVR to forge a new relationship in the post Cold War period,” Risen wrote.
“Even though the CIA had asked for help, it did not completely trust the Russians to tell the truth about what the nuclear monitoring equipment detected. As the clandestine American-Russian operation was getting under way, the North Korean nuclear program was quickly becoming one of Washington’s biggest concerns. North Korea had pledged not to develop nuclear weapons…but by the early 1990s, there was growing evidence that North Korea was secretly flouting its agreements.”
In 1994, the Clinton administration reached an accord with North Korea, under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear program, especially the enrichment of uranium at the Yongbyon facility. But a short time later, it became clear the North Koreans were pressing ahead with uranium enrichment.
Now, nine years later, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that North Korea has at least two nuclear bombs and is now busy building four to six additional devices. Negotiations are in various stages of progress with several countries in the Middle East – Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Syria – on the sale of two or three bombs.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources note that counter-espionage has played a key role in the US-Russian-North Korean nuclear triangle. Back when the CIA nuclear monitoring devices were whirring away in the Russian embassy in Pyongyang – signaling burgeoning cooperation with the SVR – Washington’s most sensitive political, military and technological secrets were regularly being passed to the Russian intelligence service’s headquarters in Yasenevo, near Moscow.
The material made its way to Moscow via encrypted Toshiba laptop computers that were specially modified by the 8th Chief Directorate-Communication and Cryptography of the SVR’s First Chief Directorate, an organization still in existence. The SVR would dispatch the computers in diplomatic pouches to the then-Soviet Union’s embassy in Washington and to the delegations of Russia or other friendly countries at UN headquarters in New York. From there, the laptops would make their way to FBI or CIA turncoats who spied for Russian intelligence: Aldrich Ames, Robert Philip Hanssen, Earl Pitts and Harold Nicholson.
Once their hard drives could hold no more secrets, the spies would leave the computers at pre-arranged “drops” and pick up fresh laptops at other hiding places. The computer swap system was used for years. Ames, the CIA’s chief of counter-intelligence for Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, was a spy for at least 14 years, from 1980 to 1994. Hanssen, who spent much of his 25-year career with the FBI in counter-intelligence, swapped computers from the late 1970s to late 2000.
It is highly likely that from 1991 until the nuclear freeze deal was signed with North Korea in 1994, the Russian laptops conveyed to Moscow not only data collected by the US equipment in the Russian embassy in Pyongyang but also what the United States believed the Russians had learned by tapping into those monitoring devices.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts and sources, the handful of historians researching counter-espionage in the 20th century have no doubt the head of the First Chief Directorate in Yasenevo would not have been satisfied with merely possessing Washington’s most closely-held secrets. The spymaster, they believe, would have insisted on reselling them to the highest bidder.
How Moscow sold North Korean nuclear secrets to Iraq
Iraq’s military intelligence and atomic energy commission were two of Yasenevo’s top clients for the freshest possible information on North Korea’s nuclear program and uranium enrichment efforts.
Once the price was set, the material was sent in its entirety to Baghdad, without the deletions usually made before intelligence services transfer sensitive information. The First Chief Directorate was always proud of the quality and quantity of the material it provided.
After paying out several million dollars to obtain the requisite data, Saddam Hussein was in a position in the 1990s to weigh the advantages of forging nuclear ties with North Korea and its potential contribution towards accelerating Iraq’s nuclear program and the building of an Iraqi atomic bomb.
More disturbingly, Osama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, had acquired direct links with Moscow and indirect contacts with European, Arab and Moslem intelligence operatives. They had the choice of buying encrypted computer programs directly from the First Chief Directorate or indirectly in a way that would enable them to bypass or tap into the United States’ most secret intelligence systems. This capability turned them into shadows, able to travel around the world invisibly, infiltrate the United States itself and run sleeper cells without interference.
A Washington Post article published on September 14, 1997 sheds some more light on the labyrinth of international counter-espionage. It told of a small town north of Moscow called Sergiyev Posad, where under the terms of the START-1 arms control treaty with the United States, a Russian military plant dismantled ballistic missiles deployed on Russian submarines. According to the report, the Russian ballistic missiles arrived at the gates of the facility, called the Scientific Testing Institute of Chemical Machine Building, after their warheads had been removed. But the missiles still contained highly sophisticated electronic guidance systems, including gyroscopes that keep the weapons on course to their targets.
Independent investigators discovered that 30 gyroscopes from disassembled missiles in Sergiyev Posad made their way to Iraq at about the same time that Iraq expelled the UN arms inspectors in 1998.
In a more recent development, William H. Hamilton, president of Inslaw Inc, appealed this month to Thomas H. Kean, former governor of New Jersey and chairman of the National Commission investigating the September 11, 2001 attacks, to look into information he received that “Promis” databank software produced by his company in the 1980s – and which Inslaw has accused the US Justice Department of stealing – was transferred to bin Laden.
Hamilton wrote to the commission that “Bin Laden reportedly bought the US intelligence community’s version of the Promis database software on the Russian black market after former FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen had stolen it for the Russians and used Promis in computer-based espionage against the United States.”
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that Hamilton was mistaken: Bin Laden did not buy Promis, having decided he had no practical use for such a program in the mountains of Afghanistan, the valleys of Pakistan or the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, where he is now hiding out.
The money he might have spent on Promis was used instead to buy the top-secret encryption codes that enabled him during the 9/11 attacks to penetrate the communications and monitoring networks of US civil and military aviation and the US Coast Guard.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence experts, all these developments have persuaded Bush to be especially cautious before launching a war against Iraq. The big unknown – the secret intelligence bag of tricks at the disposal of the Iraqi ruler, his military intelligence agency and Osama bin Laden – is the clue to the CIA’s resistance to US military action against Iraq. It is also at the bottom of British, Russian and French apprehensions over what a military offensive might trigger.