If US and British forces are scratching their heads at their inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, perhaps they should talk to Scott Ritter, the United Nations weapons inspector who famously quit in 1998, after seven years on the job, and has been a controversial figure ever since.
For months, Mr Ritter has said Iraq's capability of producing or deploying chemical or biological weapons was 90-95 per cent destroyed on his watch and was very unlikely to have been built up again under international sanctions and the constant surveillance of spy satellites and US and British war planes.
Iraq's nuclear program was dismantled at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, he said, and factories to produce chemical or biological agents deactivated shortly thereafter. Any leftover nerve agents would only have a shelf life of five years and would probably be useless by now. The anthrax and botulism toxin that Iraq produced was never weaponized and, although it was put into warheads at one point, was no more than harmless sludge that "could only kill you if it landed on your head".
This is the same Scott Ritter who, when he first made these assertions last autumn, was vilified in the US media as "misguided", "disloyal", not to be taken seriously and "an apologist for and a defender of Saddam Hussein". One cable news host, Curtis Sliwa said on air he was a "sock puppet" who "ought to turn in his passport for an Iraqi one".
Perhaps it's time to give Mr Ritter another chance. It may, in fact, be time to reassess who exactly has been the deceiver and who the dupe in this whole affair. What Mr Ritter and others now allege, with increasing confidence, is a pattern of false information emanating from both Washington and London since last September – lies and distortions that launched a major war and are only now beginning to be widely exposed.
Exhibit number one is a speech Vice President Dick Cheney gave to the Veterans of Foreign Wars last summer. "The Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents." he said. "And they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago." Mr Ritter says this is pure fiction.
Mr Cheney attributed his information to high-level defectors, including Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal. Supposedly, Kamal led UN inspectors in 1995 to a chicken farm stuffed with secret documents on ongoing weapons programs. Actually, according to Mr Ritter, Hussein Kamal told US intelligence that the weapons had been destroyed, and the chicken farm documents subsequently examined by UN inspectors corroborated that.
Exhibit number two is the briefing paper issued by Downing Street on 24 September, which first alleged the purchase of uranium for nuclear weapons use from Niger. The documents indicating this purchase have now been exposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency as glaringly obvious fakes.
The timing of the nuclear allegation was crucial in persuading the US Congress to grant President Bush full war powers against Iraq a few weeks later. Several angry congressmen who voted in favor now want to know how and why they were misled.
"This is a breach of the highest order, and the American people are entitled to know how it happened," Henry Waxman of California wrote to the President last month. "I believed that you had access to reliable intelligence information that merited deference... The two most obvious explanations – knowing deception or unfathomable incompetence – both have immediate and serious implications."
Exhibit number three is the list of dangerous substances that President Bush and Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, said the Iraqis had not accounted for. Another distortion, according to Mr Ritter. The 15,000 liters of anthrax on the list, for example, was a hypothetical projection of future production at a biological plant that was closed down long ago.
Mr Ritter has not, of course, been vindicated quite yet. US intelligence may really know something, and significant hidden caches of weapons could still materialize. But the pattern of deception and unsubstantiated allegation is unmistakable, even as the political embarrassment for the Bush administration deepens.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd