Books: Another kind of inspector called

Saddam's Secrets: The Hunt for Iraq's Hidden Weapons by Tim Trevan HarperCollins pounds 8.99 Endgame by Scott Ritter Simon and Schuster pounds 14.99
A nest of spies, as Iraq would have it, or the most intrusive, most successful arms inspection regime ever devised? Or both? The United Nations Special Commission, Unscom, was created in April 1991 in the aftermath of the Gulf War to find and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. No-one imagined that the task would take more than a few weeks. Sanctions, it was thought, would oblige Saddam Hussein to give up the secrets of his chemical, bio- logical and nuclear arsenals. But Iraq's "full, final and complete disclosures" were soon discovered to be "full, final and complete fairytales" and the UN weapons inspectors became a permanent fixture in Baghdad, uncovering a weapons programme of unimagined scope but subject to a law of diminishing returns as international resolve weakened.

Baghdad ended its cooperation with Unscom in December last year in the wake of Operation Desert Fox, accusing the United States and Britain of using the Commission as a cover for espionage operations. Iraq's allegations - repeatedly voiced and repeatedly rejected - were amplified last month by the BBC's Panorama. London and Washington, the programme alleged, used Unscom offices in Baghdad for unauthorised eavesdropping; hijacked Unscom headquarters in Bahrain for their own purposes; and appropriated information obtained by Unscom to select the targets for Operation Desert Fox. In a nutshell: Unscom was being used to overthrow Saddam - not to disarm him.

There is nothing of this, not the merest hint, in Tim Trevan's Saddam's Secrets, a rattling account of what Trevan rightly calls "one of the greatest detective investigations of all time". Trevan, a British expert on biological weapons who served as the Commission's spokesman, captures the atmosphere and politics of Unscom under its first chairman, Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus. But Trevan's account, which he admits is based partly on memory (a favourite Iraqi ploy!), contains a number of inaccuracies. Iraq formally declared a military research and development programme for biological weapons at the outset of the first BW inspection, not halfway through. The second inspection was led not by Britain's David Kelly, but by David Huxsoll. And so on. The errors are minor, but important in a book that many will regard as authoritative.

More conspicuously, however, Trevan brushes aside Iraqi allegations of spying, asserting that Unscom exhibited "total dedication to the task of eliminating Iraq's banned weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles - nothing more, but, importantly, nothing less." While this is undoubtedly true of the vast majority of Unscom inspectors, there was, from the very beginning, a dangerous if inevitable alliance between Unscom and the intelligence world. Trevan recalls a May 1991 briefing at which American intelligence analysts with dark glasses and briefcases handcuffed to their wrists lectured the commissioners "like they were little children who could not really understand nuclear and chemical weapons". Even at this stage, he acknowledges, there was concern in Unscom that "the UN operation was so entirely reliant on information coming from one source - a source that might not always provide unbiased information solely for the purposes of the stated UN mandate."

Enter Scott Ritter, a former US Marine Corps officer whose account of his years with Unscom goes a long way towards explaining why Iraq always protested that there were too many Americans in the Unscom teams. Ritter resigned from Unscom in August 1998, accusing Washington of settling for containment through sanctions and so reducing Unscom to an "illusion" of arms control. Since that time he has been the main source of the allegations that Unscom was subverted by its links to the intelligence community. And yet here he is, in the spring of 1992, working with "a team of paramilitary operatives ... seasoned personnel who could operate vehicles, organise logistics, run communications". (Why it took CIA operatives to "operate vehicles" Ritter does not explain.) By June 1996, Ritter was heading an inspection team that included "nine paramilitary cover operators" - none of whom he observed behaving in "an inappropriate manner". Inappropriate for paramilitary operatives, or for weapons inspectors answerable to the UN? Being briefed by spooks is one thing; taking them on the road is quite another.

Today Ritter accuses these same "covert operators" of helping plan an abortive coup in June 1996. Did he, a seasoned intelligence officer himself, not realise that that is what covert operators do? Did he have no inkling that "paramilitary operatives" might not be satisfied with lorries and logistics? It beggars belief.

Endgame, Ritter's account of his rise and fall at Unscom, is also an exceedingly partial account. No mention here of the many trips he made to Israel to meet Israeli security officials - among them, military intelligence chief Major General Uri Saguy. No comment on charges that he handed over to the Israelis aerial surveillance films taken for Unscom by American spy planes. ("I never handed anything over," Ritter told Jane's Intelligence Review last December. "I took such imagery to Israel where it was under my control while it was jointly exploited." That's all right then.) No mention of involvement in an intelligence operation to catch Iraqis shopping for proscribed missile components in Romania.

Ritter claims that his Unscom bosses were aware of, and approved, all his actions. Yet Rolf Ekeus's successor, Richard Butler, told Panorama that none of his inspectors were involved in the Romanian sting. Someone is lying.

Trevan and Ritter both warn of the dangers posed by Iraq's remaining weapons of mass destruction. Both propose solutions. Trevan recommends "concerted action" to remove Saddam. Ritter seems to favour large-scale military confrontation - 250,000 ground troops would do it, he says - but acknowledges that this is "highly unlikely". Neither tackles the questions that the UN must address if the achievements of Unscom are not to be forgotten and similar opportunities declined. How great was the abuse of Unscom? Who in Unscom knew? How much did they know? And how can such abuse be avoided in future - if there is a future, in any meaningful way, for Unscom or anything like it.