The WMD Inspector No One Heeded
Published on Monday, February 9, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
The WMD Inspector No One Heeded
by Harley Sorensen
 

St. Matthew wrote: "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country."

Rodney Dangerfield would have put it differently. He might have said, "They love me over there, but here at home I get no respect."

Scott Ritter is a prophet of sorts, and if we had listened to him and respected his intellect, knowledge and honesty, we could have avoided the war in Iraq and its cost in lives and dollars.

In September 2002, Time magazine asked Ritter whose Iraq policy was worse, Bill Clinton's or George W. Bush's. Ritter's response:

"Bush, because of its ramifications. It threatens a war that probably lacks any basis in law or substantive fact. It has a real chance of putting thousands of American lives at risk and seeks to dictate American will on the world."

Who is this Scott Ritter guy?

He's a former U.S. Marine Corps major and former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq. He's the answer to the question of whether the Bushies knew before the war that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

They knew, or could have known, and certainly should have known.

Before we attacked the Iraqi people, Ritter was often seen on television as a laughable "expert." The Fox News talking heads treated him as a lunatic. How could he be anything else when he disagreed with George W. Bush?

And Ritter has a temper, so that added to the fun. It was a treat to see him get all red faced and wonder when he'd explode.

It mattered not that Ritter was painfully honest and knew exactly what he was talking about.

A search through newspaper and magazine articles leading up to the war against Iraq leads me to these conclusions:

1) Bill Clinton was as concerned about Saddam Hussein as George W. Bush is, but less eager to risk American lives to deal with him. Unfortunately for all of us, the sexy impeachment fiasco pushed by the Republicans diverted our attention, so most of us weren't paying attention.

However, Ritter was far from happy with Clinton's support for the inspectors, or lack of it. In September 1998, he told Newsweek, "I heard somebody say it very effectively: '[Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright blocked more inspections in 1997 than Saddam Hussein did.' It's a funny quip, but unfortunately true."

2) The four days of intensive bombings ordered by Clinton at the end of 1998 probably taught Saddam that his efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction weren't worth the cost. The economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations at the end of the first Gulf War were seriously crippling Iraq, and trying to acquire those weapons simply added to Saddam's misery. He gave up but pretended not to. Saving face is a big deal for dictators, as it is for all politicians (see: "Johnson, Lyndon B."; or "Nixon, Richard M."; or "Bush, George W.")

Those bombings and rocket attacks, by the way, just about matched the munitions thrown at Iraq during the Gulf War. Americans didn't pay much attention, however, and the Republicans accused Clinton of "wagging the dog," diverting attention from his political problems.

3) The "intelligence community" never said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. In all the articles I read, the CIA and other agencies were very careful not to overstate the danger presented by Saddam.

For example, The Washington Post reported in November 2000, "The CIA does not agree that Iraq possesses a crude nuclear weapon. 'We don't believe they have the fissile material required for a nuclear weapon,' said one senior U.S. official. ... 'Nor do we believe they currently have the infrastructure to build a nuclear weapon.'"

4) In a related matter, Clinton was far more concerned about terrorist attacks against the United States than he was about the threat of Saddam. But he had a hard time selling his concern to others, even though he tried. He originated an antiterrorist agency in government in 1994 and increased its budget every year thereafter, from an original $5.7 billion reported in 1995 to $11.1 billion in 2000.

I was unable to find any antiterrorist actions by Bush before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but that doesn't mean he didn't do anything. It could be his efforts just didn't make the public prints, or that I couldn't find the articles about them.

5) Scott Ritter took part in more than 30 inspections missions in Iraq, and probably knew more about Iraq's WMD programs than anyone. The Iraqis were very annoyed with him and accused him and other inspectors of being spies. They were right; the inspectors were pressed into spying. That was a distraction for them.

6) As a U.N. inspector, Ritter was constantly unhappy with the Iraqis because they failed to destroy all their weapons. After the inspectors were pulled out of Iraq in 1998, Ritter appeared to change his tune, saying Iraq's weapons programs were no threat.

The difference, Ritter explained to the scoffers on TV, was that as an inspector, he expected total compliance and didn't get it. Later, as an outsider, he was able to say that even without total compliance Iraq, was no threat.

"I've never given Iraq a clean bill of health," Ritter told Time in September 2002. "I've said that no one has backed up any allegations that Iraq has constituted weapons-of-mass-destruction capability with anything that resembles substantive fact."

The politicians (including Al Gore, who warned of "imminent danger" in 1998) were hyping the Iraq threat, as were my fellow jackals of the press -- especially columnists! -- but the various intelligence agencies were far more prudent. To repeat, they often cautioned against overrating the threat posed by Saddam.

We keep losing troops in Iraq, well over 500 now. God only knows how many arms and legs were lost over there, how many pairs of eyes destroyed. The total cost to each American taxpayer before it's over has been estimated at around $3,000, and when you consider the disability payments we'll be making for the next 50 years or so, that's probably a low-ball guess.

That's quite a price for going after weapons that we had been told do not, and did not, exist. It's too high a price for getting rid of Saddam.

But the real mystery of Iraq is why we're still there. There are no WMDs; Saddam is in custody. Why, now, are we still sacrificing troops and dollars on a guerilla war that will never be won?

What is today's price for funding a president's effort to save face?

Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist. His column appears Mondays. E-mail him at harleysorensen@yahoo.com.

2004 SF Gate

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