Sources in the U.N. Security and Safety Service say that the members of Mr. Annan's personal protective detail have been using the German-made MP5 submachine guns since 1998, despite an apparent failure to obtain U.S. clearance for their use.
U.N. officials say that the use of the highly restricted firearm has been cleared with U.S. authorities. But Mike Campbell, a spokesman for the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol,Tobacco and Firearms, confirmed in an interview that an inquiry into the U.N. personnel's use of the weapon was initiated two weeks ago.
The dispute is made even more sensitive by the fact that Mr. Annan himself led a U.N. effort last summer to stem the production and sale of small arms around the world, an effort that drew criticism from U.S. gun-ownership groups and from the Bush administration. "There is no single tool of conflict so widespread, so easily available and so difficult to restrict as small arms," Mr. Annan told a special meeting of the Security Council in July.
The MP5, described by its German manufacturer Heckler and Koch GmbH as a "paramilitary assault rifle" commonly used by police SWAT squads, is just one of several varieties of assault weapons currently in the possession of the United Nations, said one U.N. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
America's use of the MP5 is normally limited to law-enforcement organizations, Mr. Campbell said. Importation of the submachine gun is tightly controlled, he said.
The United States does not consider the U.N. security service a law-enforcement organization and thus deems it ineligible to possess weapons such as the MP5, according to a State Department official. "If the United Nations had applied for permission to obtain these guns, most likely it would have been rejected" again, said the official, who requested anonymity.
The State Department official said the United Nations first approached the U.S. government for permission to purchase the MP5 in early 1998 and was refused. Just how Mr. Annan's security detail obtained the weapons is the focus of the U.S. government probe.
Michael McCann, who has directed U.N. security operations since 1994, refused to comment on the issue, but U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard denied any wrongdoing. Mr. Eckhard said he had checked with the security service and was told that all the necessary licenses for the weapons carried by U.N. personnel had been obtained. "I flatly reject the notion any laws have been broken," he said.
An American citizen and a veteran of the New York Police Department, Mr. McCann has been a frequent target of criticism by both U.N. diplomats and staff over security at the New York site.
On September 11, it took hours to evacuate the U.N. headquarters after the plane attacks on the World Trade Center; employees at the Twin Towers were evacuated in 45 minutes. Several staffers described the evacuation process as "mass confusion."
Umberto Ravalico, Mr. McCann's predecessor, rejected the use of the MP5 guns. U.N. sources said that Mr. Ravalico felt they were "too dangerous" for use within New York City. Although the United States cannot control the use of such weapons inside the U.N. compound, U.S. laws do apply if the weapons are carried outside.
Documents obtained by The Washington Times indicate that U.N. submachine guns frequently leave U.N. headquarters, accompanying Mr. Annan on trips around the New York area and for use in target-practice sessions for U.N. officers at a shooting range on Long Island.
A U.N. document on training standards for security officers appears to note the sensitivity of taking the MP5 outside the U.N. headquarters building. For the twice-yearly proficiency tests required for security officers, the officers and the weapons are transported to the range in a vehicle provided by the U.N. security service.
If officers travel to the range on their own, they cannot bring their firearm with them. "Under no circumstances should a United Nations weapon be transported in a private vehicle," according to a U.N. instruction sheet titled "Qualification on the Service MP5." The passage is highlighted in bold-face type. Conventions on diplomatic immunity do not apply to weapons possession.
A survey of the United Nations' five permanent Security Council members - the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia found that only U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte was assigned an armed protective detail. He has only a small security detachment with standard sidearms, according to a State Department spokesman.
There has never been an assault on a U.N. secretary-general in the United States. While in the United States, Mr. Annan is protected by U.N. security, the New York police force and by the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, depending on the circumstances.
An official at the Diplomatic Security Service said the U.S. government has no way to track the movement of U.N.issued weapons. "It is a matter between the U.N. and local jurisdictions," he said.
The official also acknowledged there was no way the Diplomatic Security Service could independently verify that the United Nations was in compliance with local laws whenever the weapons left the compound. That is in marked contrast to the rules governing foreign embassies, which are under tight restrictions on the ownership and transportation of any firearms.
Currently, the United Nations has more than 20 officers in the MP5 qualification program. The majority of participants are foreign nationals, which has raised additional concerns at the State Department and ATF.