Published on Sunday, July 20, 2003 by the Baltimore Sun
A War Critic Returns to the Spotlight
by Robert Little
Scott Ritter watched the televised war unfold like everyone else, and writhed with anxiety as Americans in chemical suits rumbled toward the unknown treacheries of outer Baghdad. For one of the few times that he has ever acknowledged, Ritter started to wonder if maybe he was wrong.
The former United Nations weapons inspector had spent the previous seven months touring newsrooms and universities around the United States and the world to argue that Iraq was not a threat, and that it almost certainly did not possess meaningful quantities of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
Unlike other pre-war commentators, Ritter had inspected Iraq's weapons sites himself and interviewed the country's scientists and government leaders. He began that tour, he says, because he was certain that the Bush administration was lying about Iraq's weapons potential, to justify what he sees as an illegal war.
Yet, as soldiers plowed toward Baghdad last March, Ritter imagined Iraqi troops air-bursting a chemical warhead over their heads, killing Americans and proving Bush right.
"Given the forcefulness of the Bush administration's assertions," Ritter wrote in his new book, which began arriving in stores last week, and repeated in a recent interview, "I had gnawing doubts."
Today Ritter has rarely seemed more right. The former U.S. Marine, whose stature as an authority on Iraqi weapons was seemingly shattered before the war by various claims that he was a turncoat, a spy or a criminal, has begun a re-emergence of sorts, bolstered by the Bush administration's persisting failure to prove him wrong. A man widely dismissed as a traitor when he gave a speech in Baghdad to say the United States was "on the verge of making a historical mistake," is getting calls again from reporters and speech schedulers, as the search for Iraq's weapons stockpile plods on.
"Everything I said in that speech in Baghdad has been shown to be dead-on accurate, and it will stay that way because that's what it was - the truth," said Ritter, 42, in a telephone interview from his home outside Albany, N.Y.
"We staggered collectively into this war without scrutinizing the evidence, without being harshly critical of the case that the Bush administration was presenting, and now we're finding out - surprise, surprise - that it's all based on a lie.
"A lot of people ask if I feel vindicated, but that question assumes this is about me. It's not. It's about the credibility of the United States. And that's one of the great tragedies of all this."
If Ritter's image has not been fully restored by the latest events in Iraq, that might be because it has vacillated so wildly since he first emerged in the public eye in 1998, by resigning spectacularly as the United Nations' chief weapons inspector in Iraq. When he went before Congress that year to explain that the Clinton administration had corrupted his inspections team with spies and that Iraq posed an imminent threat if the inspections process was not cleaned up and strengthened, he was hailed as a fearless patriot.
Paul D. Wolfowitz, then in academia and now one of the Bush administration's primary Pentagon strategists, called Ritter "a public servant of exceptional integrity and moral courage," and said he was honored to speak at the same hearing with him.
That honeymoon with the hawks began to wither as soon as Clinton ordered four days of missile strikes against Baghdad in December of 1998, a reaction that Ritter considered unnecessarily harsh, illegal under international law and grossly out of proportion to the threat he believed Iraq to pose.
"To me, that was just proof that the American administrations dating back to Bush the elder were never concerned with weapons of mass destruction or Iraq's military threat," Ritter said. "They just wanted to get Saddam Hussein."
Ritter would be transformed in the ensuing years from the conservatives' darling into one of the most prominent anti-war critics in the country.
"It's one thing for a tree-hugger from San Francisco to say there was no justification for war in Iraq. It's another thing for someone who was a Marine for 12 years, who fought a war in Iraq himself, who spent seven years in Iraq hunting for weapons of mass destruction and has followed the trail of evidence," he said. "I knew people wouldn't like it, but I knew people would listen."
And he denies that his arguments have changed since 1998. He always believed that Iraq had substantially disarmed, but that an inspections regimen was necessary to suppress the 5 percent or 10 percent of its capability that remains. But the suggestion of a "flip-flop" has dogged his credibility ever since.
"My view is that he is ... not a particularly credible figure on this subject," said Daniel Klaidman, Newsweek's Washington Bureau chief, in an interview with CNN before the war. "He's had this weird conversion from being very anti-Iraq, and all of a sudden he is the biggest ... anti-war guy out there."
Ritter's deep association with Iraq began during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when he served in the Marine Corps as an intelligence analyst who interpreted battle-damage reports. He resigned form the Corps not long after the war's conclusion and went to work for the commission of the U.N. Security Council that was established to monitor Iraq's disarmament. In July 1995, he became the chief inspector for UNSCOM, as the committee was called, and would retain that post until he resigned.
In the summer of 1996, Ritter says, he was approached by employees of the CIA and asked to join the agency as an agent, and that he agreed to take a lie-detector test as part of the interview process. After the test, allegations surfaced that he was working for UNSCOM as an Israeli spy; he came to believe that the U.S. government had some furtive foreign policy goals that conflicted with his role as a U.N. inspector.
Other claims have surfaced since his resignation from UNSCOM, including unsubstantiated reports that he was on Saddam Hussein's payroll.
"It's the kind of game they play, to create the impression that you're tainted goods and then just leave it out there to follow you everywhere you go," Ritter said. "I mean, what was Saddam going to pay me for? To tell the truth?"
The most recent flap caused perhaps the most damage, and came just days before he was to depart for a second meeting in Iraq - this time to promote a proposed peace solution. A New York newspaper reported that Ritter had been arrested in 2001 for allegedly trying to set up a meeting with a 16-year-old girl over the Internet. The misdemeanor case was adjourned in contemplation of dismissal, and the file sealed. But the FBI was reportedly contemplating another look at the case, which led to its public disclosure. The trip to Iraq was canceled.
Ritter says that a court order prevents anyone involved from discussing the case, and has persistently refused to discuss it in any detail or even acknowledge the basic details. The charges and his reaction to them further alienated him from the mainstream media.
His new book, Frontier Justice: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Bushwhacking of America, chronicles his viewpoints about Iraq's weapons and how they have so far endured. It was published by Context Books, which specializes in controversial subjects that other publishers spurn.
He continues to gives speeches when invited, lately to slightly larger audiences. And people familiar with his work and his history expect him to continue.
"Scott is technically very knowledgeable and was a first-rate inspector. He's certainly qualified to make operational assessments about how inspections should be conducted and the effectiveness of those inspections," said Jay Davis a former UNSCOM inspector who was the founding director of the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
"The only criticism I have of Scott's comments - not of Scott himself, but his comments - is that he has not had access to the primary intelligence used to assess Iraq's weapons capabilities since he ceased to be an inspector. He's no more qualified to comment on what has taken place since he left than you or I.
"But I'll say this about him as well: He's smart enough to have known how some people were going to treat him during all this. You're a little naive if you make enemies inside the Beltway and think that they're not going to do whatever they can to make you regret it."
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun