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.
Vice President Cheney in a recent speech said, "Saddam devised an elaborate program to conceal his programs to develop chemical and biological weapons." And he said, "The inspectors missed a great deal" and that "The inspectors were actually on the verge of declaring that Saddam's programs . . . had been fully accounted for, a shutdown, but then Saddam's son-in-law suddenly defected and began sharing information. Within days, inspectors were led to an Iraqi chicken farm. Hidden there were boxes of documents and lots of evidence regarding Iraq's most secret weapons program." What's your comment on that?
A harsh comment. Either the vice president has been misinformed or lied to by his own intelligence services, the CIA and others, or he himself is lying. Let's set the record straight: In the spring of 1995, the executive director of UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission), my boss, was prepared to make a finding that Iraq had been fundamentally disarmed. We weren't going to give them a clean bill of health. But we wanted to progress the issue of disarmament to the point where we could talk about lifting economic sanctions. They were crippling Iraq, causing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children to lose their lives. We had fundamentally disarmed Iraq: That meant 90 to 95 percent of Iraq's weapons capability had been accounted for.
Saddam Hussein's son-in-law defected in August 1995. We achieved our final breakthrough prior to his defection. I have the transcripts of the debriefs of the son-in-law, Hussein Kamal. Listen to what he said: "I ordered in 1993 that all remaining weapons be destroyed. Today in Iraq there are no weapons. We destroyed them all." How does Dick Cheney turn that statement into one saying Saddam Hussein's son-in-law spilled the beans about Iraq's weapons program? All he did was confirm our conclusion that in fact these weapons had been destroyed.
So Dick Cheney is misleading the American public.
What were the circumstances that led the U.N. weapons inspectors to leave Iraq in December 1998? The Bush administration and the media often repeat that Saddam "kicked out" the weapons inspectors, and that's why we face the necessity of war today.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Iraqis did not kick the inspectors out in December 1998. The Americans ordered the inspectors out, and then bombed Iraq using intelligence information gathered by the inspectors to target Saddam Hussein and his security apparatus.
It's impossible to talk about the return of unfettered access until there's some guarantee that the U.S. won't again use the weapons inspectors as a vehicle for spying on Saddam, and targeting Saddam. As long as the Americans continue to say that regime removal is their number-one policy priority regarding Iraq, even ahead of disarmament, we have no chance of getting weapons inspectors back in.
What if we are shown evidence that Iraq now possesses weapons of mass destruction?
I believe that not only would the Security Council approve military action against Iraq under those circumstances, but we would have a large and viable coalition supporting us. But if Iraq has these weapons, the Bush administration needs to back up its rhetoric with evidence to support it. The fact that they haven't suggests they don't have the evidence, and that this is strictly about domestic American politics.
You spoke to the Iraqi parliament, urging them to re-admit U.N. weapons inspectors. What kind of response did you receive from them?
First let me explain why I spoke there. It was not in order to address Iraqi democracy. There is no democracy in Iraq. Their parliament is a Baath Party organization. I picked the parliament to use it as a platform to address the Iraqi government and also, frankly, to reach an American domestic audience. Decisions in Iraq are made not by the parliament but by the government -- and they were listening closely. Not only at the parliament but in my meeting with [Foreign Minister] Tariq Aziz and other ministers who advise the president. I told them all the same thing: If they didn't let inspectors in, and give them unfettered access, there would be war, and it would destroy their country. That message was received openly and understood clearly.
How do you interpret Bush's speech to the U.N. on 9/12?
If I believed the Bush administration was committed to disarming Iraq, that their final objective was eliminating weapons of mass destruction, I would be supportive of that speech. But it was a hypocritical speech -- because the final objective of the Bush administration is regime removal, pure and simple. Bush was saying the U.N. has to agree to remove Saddam's regime. But that runs counter to the U.N. Charter. The U.N. has never authorized regime removal in Iraq. That is purely a unilateral U.S. policy. It's been promoted since 1991 by James Baker under George Herbert Walker Bush. Baker made it clear at that time that even if Iraq complied with U.N. resolutions, sanctions would continue until Saddam was removed from power. This statement undermined the ability of the inspectors to work in Iraq. What motives do the Iraqis have to cooperate when the U.S. says their cooperation is irrelevant? Clinton and Madeleine Albright said the same thing. But no U.N. Security Council resolution talks about removing Saddam Hussein from power.
What's the next move?
The ball is now clearly in Iraq's court. The most important force that can head off this war is the government of Iraq itself. They must allow the unconditional return of U.N. inspectors with unfettered access. They've made it clear that they won't agree unless they can guarantee that inspectors won't be used to spy on them. There are some promising developments on that front. The Canadian prime minister appears to be ready to offer to serve as an honest broker between the inspectors and Iraq. Canada would monitor their interaction to ensure the inspectors don't go off task. Canada could be joined by South Africa, the leader of the nonaligned movement. And the government of Belgium, another member of NATO, is likewise contemplating serving as a guarantor of proper behavior by the inspectors. The question is whether these countries have the will to step forward. No nation has exhibited that yet.
How much time do we have before war begins?
The U.S. Central Command is deploying battle staff to Qatar. Six hundred officers will be positioned there in November. This means we're going to war soon. We're already bombing the Iraqis frequently. We already have troops deployed in the region. Deploying the battle staff in November, I think, means war is going to start maybe as soon as December or January.
Who did you vote for in the presidential election in 2000?
I voted for George Bush.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.