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SCOTT RITTER WAS SENIOR U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR IN Iraq from 1991 to 1998. For the last couple of years, the former U.S. Marines major has been a high-profile critic of U.S. policy against Iraq, arguing that Saddam Hussein represents no military threat. Last week, after President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed to have evidence of new activity at a suspected Iraqi nuclear-weapons facility, Ritter traveled to Iraq and visited the site with a group of journalists and TV cameramen to demonstrate that Bush and Blair were wrong. He also spoke to the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, urging it to head off U.S. military action by re-admitting U.N. inspectors and letting them do their job. A few days later, Iraq told the U.N. it was willing to submit once again to inspections. Jon Wiener spoke with Ritter before and after his visit last week to Baghad.
L.A. WEEKLY:What can you tell us about Saddam and nuclear weapons?
SCOTT RITTER:Clearly Iraq had a nuclear-weapons program. Of the four categories of prohibited weapons, nuclear is the one we most thoroughly eradicated. Especially the part of their nuclear program that was dedicated to enrichment, to producing the highly enriched uranium needed for the fissile core of a nuclear device. This was wiped out, there was nothing left. For Iraq to reconstitute that would require not only tens of billions of dollars of investment, but also the reconstitution of entire industrial facilities that are easily detected by our intelligence services. It would also require technology to be purchased abroad, which is tightly controlled and not something Iraq could do without being detected. I find it hard to believe the vice president when he says Iraq is close to developing a nuclear weapon -- they weren't anywhere near close in 1998, when inspectors left. If some new development has transpired in the last four years, I wish the White House would share that evidence with the American people.
What about chemical weapons? We know that in the Iran-Iraq war Saddam used mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin on the Iranians, and he also used chemical weapons on the Kurds at that time. What happened to that chemical-weapons capability when you and the U.N. inspectors were there from 1991 to '98?
Iraq had a massive chemical-weapons industry, with gigantic factories dedicated to the production of these deadly agents. They did use them against the Iranians and against the Kurds, which is one reason why the international community outlawed them in 1991. Once inspectors went into Iraq, we not only destroyed the factories and equipment that produced these agents, we also rounded up the weapons and the precursor chemicals that are mixed together to produce the deadly agent, and we eliminated them. We achieved tremendous success in this area. We eradicated their mustard-agent and their sarin- and tabun-agent production capability. If Iraq managed to hide some of their nerve agent from us, it has a shelf life of only five years, so today, with their factories destroyed, Iraq has no nerve-agent capability -- unless they reconstituted their manufacturing base, which no one has demonstrated.
VX is a different subject altogether. Iraq lied to us from day one about VX. They said they never had a VX program. But we uncovered their entire research-and-development plant, which had been bombed during Desert Storm and destroyed. Using documentation recovered from that, we were able to track down and discover Iraq's stockpile of VX, confirming that it had been destroyed. We also exposed another Iraqi lie -- that they had never stabilized VX. We even proved that they put it in warheads, contrary to what they had declared. [But] the bottom line is -- even though the Iraqis lied to us about VX, and we still might have some concerns about this program, there is no VX production capability in Iraq today -- unless Iraq went out after 1998 and acquired all this technology that we had destroyed.
The third category of weapons of mass destruction is biological. I wanted to ask especially about anthrax.
For a biological weapon to work, you have to either turn it into an aerosol, with particles of a certain size which can be inhaled into your lungs, or a dry powder of a certain size, such as we found in the letters that were mailed in October. Iraq successfully produced biological agents: They produced anthrax and botulism toxin. But they never successfully produced a biological weapon. They did put agent -- liquid sludge -- into bombs and warheads, but the fact is, the only way that was going to kill you was if it actually landed on you. They had no way of disseminating the agent, it would have simply soaked into the ground where it landed. We destroyed the factories that produced this agent, we destroyed the production equipment, and we destroyed the pieces of technology that Iraq could have used to weaponize this agent.
There was some concern that Iraq might have produced more anthrax than they declared. But liquid bulk agent of the type that Iraq produced has a maximum shelf life under ideal conditions of three years. After that it germinates and becomes useless sludge. For Iraq to have biological weapons today, they would not only have to reconstitute the manufacturing base to produce biological agent, but they would have to perfect the technology to turn that agent into a weapon, to aerosolize it or turn it into dry powder. They didn't have that capability in December 1998, and no one has demonstrated that they have that capability today.