SAN MATEO -- The keynote speaker at Sunday's 2003 Peninsula Symposium and Benefit for Peace, Justice and Human Rights railed against President Bush and left the audience with a straightforward message for the 2004 presidential election: "Remember the A-B-C's -- Anything but Bush and Cheney." The message was met with unsurprising enthusiasm from the crowd. But the speaker himself had a bit of a surprising background: Scott Ritter, former U.N. chief weapons inspector, is a self-professed conservative Republican who admitted to the audience he voted for Bush three years ago.
Since then, Ritter said, Bush has lied to the American public about the true situation in Iraq, particularly in regard to the weapons of mass destruction, which American forces, to date, have failed to locate.
"I leave the door open that they still may find something," Ritter said to the group of 100 or so people gathered in the darkened auditorium at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center on Sunday. "But even if anything is found, it won't be anywhere near what they said it was -- thousands of tons of biological weapons."
Ritter's new book, "Frontier Justice: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Bushwhacking of America," published by Context Books, is due out next week.
A 12-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and an intelligence officer who served as a central weapons inspector between 1991 and 1998, Ritter said if no weapons are found, Bush's decision to wage war on Iraq should be condemned -- whether he lied or made an honest mistake.
"If Iraq is in possession of weapons of mass destruction, they are in violation of international law," Ritter said. "If they aren't, then we are in violation of international law."
Ritter resigned from the U.N.'s special commission in charge of inspections -- UNSCOM -- in 1998, citing interference from the U.N. Security Council as well as members of the Clinton administration.
Ritter, who now lives in Albany, N.Y., flew out at the invitation of the Peninsula-based lobby "The 100 Year March" to speak on Iraq, as well as his beliefs on the importance of active citizenship and of fighting for constitutional rights.
At Sunday's event -- which featured speakers from other peace and human-rights groups, including the NAACP and Peace Action of San Mateo County -- Ritter urged members of the audience to use the upcoming Fourth of July celebration as an occasion to think about what it truly means to be an American citizen.
"Are you citizens or something else?" he asked, gesturing to the audience. "If you are consumers, you will wrap yourself in comfort, do what you can to not rock the boat. If you are citizens, you will interest yourselves in forming a community, preserving the Constitution."
After his speech, Ritter met activists and peace lobbyists, some wearing colorful hats and beaded jewelry, who waited to thank him for his words.
Ritter, wearing a gray suit, bright blue shirt, and yellow tie, sat near a table with John Kerry election posters. He acknowledged if someone had told him three years ago he would be speaking at a peace symposium attended largely by left-wing liberals, he wouldn't have believed it.
"In college I was a Reagan Republican," Ritter said. "I thought it was the government's responsibility to serve the people."
Ritter stated he's still a conservative Republican, but in his estimation, the current government has stopped serving the people.
"I may even vote for that guy," Ritter said smiling and pointing to the John Kerry signs.