Is U.N. the Latest Cover for CIA Spies?

David Wise, who writes frequently about intelligence and national security, is the author of "Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million."

To understand the latest flap over the Central Intelligence Agency’s reputed use of U.N. weapons inspectors to spy on Iraq, it is best to study the hermit crab, coenobita clypeatus.

As it scuttles about the beach, the hermit crab inhabits the empty shells of other creatures, sea snails, for example, or whelks, moving into bigger shells as it grows. When it senses danger, the hermit crab retracts into its borrowed protective shell and becomes invisible.

In the CIA, the same mechanism is called cover. For the most part, the intelligence agency operates out of its “stations” around the world, which are usually inside U.S. embassies. Its spies pose as U.S. diplomats. Everybody knows this, but the CIA does not acknowledge that it even has stations, because the State Department is always sensitive about the possibility that the political or consular officer in an embassy overseas may, in fact, be a spook.

But the agency does not confine itself to using diplomatic cover as it gathers intelligence around the globe. Although the CIA has largely stopped using the news media and the clergy for cover because of public controversy, over the years it has penetrated all sorts of institutions to facilitate its work, including private foundations, corporations, television networks, newspapers, religious organizations and international agencies.


The United Nations is no exception. In New York, the CIA maintains a large and active station that operates out of the U.S. mission to the U.N. on Manhattan’s East Side and from more discreet, unmarked locations in office buildings. One of its largest targets has always been the United Nations, which brings together delegates from 185 countries. The U.N.'s headquarters along the East River is a veritable honey pot for U.S. spies, a convenient intelligence bazaar that is a sort of 1990s version of the Vienna after World War II portrayed by Graham Greene in “The Third Man.”

Although the CIA has its officers in the U.S. mission, it is not likely that it has overlooked the U.N. itself as a place to penetrate. President Bill Clinton has announced that his Iraq policy envisions the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and Congress has openly authorized spending up to $110 million for this purpose.

The CIA has been trying to overthrow the Iraqi regime for several years. It gave covert support to two Iraqi opposition groups, an effort that ended in failure in 1996. About 100 CIA-backed dissidents in one group, mostly military officers, were jailed and another 30 were executed. A separate CIA-backed opposition group of Kurds in the north was overrun by Hussein’s forces and many of its members captured or killed.

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, the U.N. Security Council established the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, and gave it the job of disarming Iraq, which meant finding and destroying Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. It should surprise no one that the CIA provided some of the experts who formed the teams of UNSCOM weapons inspectors. Or that it helped UNSCOM listen in on cell-phone and other communications among top Iraqi officials. The agency, after all, is in the business of spying, and Iraq is an important and difficult target.


The latest furor arose with a news leak. The Washington Post reported on Jan. 6 that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was persuaded that UNSCOM had helped U.S. intelligence to eavesdrop on Iraqi communications as part of Washington’s effort to topple Hussein. “We have never conducted spying for anybody,” UNSCOM’s chairman, Richard Butler, said the next day. “Have we facilitated spying? Are we spies? Absolutely not.”

The State Department spokesman declared that “at no time did the U.S. work with anyone at UNSCOM to collect information for the purpose of undermining the Iraqi regime.”

Both statements were perhaps technically correct, but, as seems to be the fashion in Washington these days, designed to mislead. UNSCOM did turn to the United States and other countries for intelligence help in carrying out its mission. But it argues that it was not trying to topple Hussein, just find his weapons.

U.S. officials confirm that the CIA and the National Security Agency eavesdropped on Iraq, but they maintain it was only done to help the U.N. It happens that the same special security forces that protect Hussein are also in charge of concealing his nerve gas and other prohibited weapons. By helping UNSCOM, the CIA reaped intelligence benefits for itself. In short, how the CIA’s spying in Iraq is viewed is akin to concluding whether a cup is half empty or half full.


The CIA’s continuing search for the equivalent of sea snails and whelks--its ongoing need for cover--has been a source of controversy almost since the agency was created more than 50 years ago. When President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, for example, he went to extraordinary lengths to make sure it was out of bounds to the CIA. As a result, the Peace Corps has a record as a “clean” agency that does not harbor spies.

In October, however, the United States Information Agency will be absorbed into the State Department as part of a reorganization. USIA has traditionally been a place where the CIA avoids providing cover for its operatives. But USIA press and cultural officers overseas are said to be worried that merging with the State Department may erode the ban.

Until the practice was exposed in 1976 by the Senate Intelligence Committee headed by the late Sen. Frank Church, the CIA also penetrated some U.S. news organizations and deployed spies posing as journalists, or it paid journalists to spy. Since 1977, the CIA has said it will not use “accredited” journalists, but the agency’s director can make exceptions to the rule, which does not, in any case, apply to freelance journalists. During Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, it was disclosed that the CIA, albeit with the approval of the National Security Council, had penetrated the National Student Assn. and literally dozens of charitable and other foundations.

Even religious groups were not exempt from the agency’s need for cover. The Church committee reported that the CIA, two decades ago, was using 21 missionaries or clergy in its operations. The agency said that as of 1976 it had no such relationships and would continue that policy. But it also said that the CIA’s regulations allowed the deputy director for operations to approve “the use of religious groups.”


The CIA also has secretly funded research at prestigious universities, and some professors at Ivy League and other schools have acted as talent spotters, helping the agency to recruit likely prospects for Langley. The agency’s officials argue that since much of the CIA’s work consists of research and analysis, there is no sin in drawing upon the expertise of the academic community or financing university research.

The intelligence agency has always used “commercial cover” to supplement embassy cover, planting its officers inside U.S. companies that do business abroad, often with the approval of a friendly high-level corporate executive. Unlike the CIA’s diplomats, who normally face only expulsion if caught spying, officers under “nonofficial cover,” known as NOCs (pronounced “knocks”), face much greater hazards if caught, since they do not enjoy diplomatic immunity. They can be beaten, imprisoned or shot.

In a rare bit of candor for a CIA director, R. James Woolsey said in a 1994 speech: “What we really exist for is stealing secrets.” That, like the hermit crab, requires cover. For this reason, the CIA will presumably continue to penetrate all sorts of institutions, retracting into its shell and making itself as invisible as possible when the practice, as it often does, leads to political fallout.*