Scott Ritter spent seven years, 1991-98, as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq. With the war debate centering on Iraq’s capabilities to produce and use weapons of mass destruction, and at a time when the United States is questioning the value of renewed UN inspections, Ritter offers concrete knowledge and useful perspectives. He was interviewed in August by William Rivers Pitt. Excerpts follow. –The Editors

Pitt:

I’d like to talk for a moment about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.

Ritter:

When I left Iraq in 1998, when the UN inspection program ended, the infrastructure and facilities had been 100 percent eliminated. There’s no debate about that. All of their instruments and facilities had been destroyed. The weapons design facility had been destroyed. The production equipment had been hunted down and destroyed. And we had in place means to monitor–both from vehicles and from the air–the gamma rays that accompany attempts to enrich uranium or plutonium. We never found anything. We can say unequivocally that the industrial infrastructure needed by Iraq to produce nuclear weapons had been eliminated. Even this, however, is not simple, because Iraq still had thousands of scientists who’d been dedicated to this nuclear weaponization effort…. There is concern, then, that the Iraqis might intend in the long run to re-establish or reconstitute a nuclear weapons program. But this concern must be tempered by reality. That’s not something that could happen overnight, nor is it something that could happen as long as weapons inspectors were inside Iraq. For Iraq to reacquire nuclear weapons capability, they’d have to basically build, from the ground up, enrichment and weaponization capabilities that would cost tens of billions of dollars. Nuclear weapons cannot be created in a basement or cave. They require modern industrial infrastructures that in turn require massive amounts of electricity and highly controlled technologies not readily available on the open market.

Pitt:

What about chemical weapons?

Ritter:

Iraq manufactured three kinds of nerve agents: sarin, tabun and VX…. Sarin and tabun have a shelf life of five years. Even if Iraq had somehow managed to hide this vast number of weapons from inspectors, what they’re now storing is nothing more than useless, harmless goo. Chemical weapons were produced in the Muthanna State establishment: a massive chemical weapons factory. It was bombed during the Gulf War, and then weapons inspectors came and completed the task of eliminating the facility. That means Iraq lost its sarin and tabun manufacturing base. We destroyed thousands of tons of chemical agent. It’s not as though we said, “Oh we destroyed a factory, now we’re going to wait for everything else to expire.” We had an incineration plant operating full time for years, burning tons of the stuff every day. We went out and blew up in place bombs, missiles and warheads filled with this agent. We emptied Scud missile warheads filled with this agent. We hunted down this stuff and destroyed it….

We knew the Iraqis wanted to build a full-scale VX nerve-agent plant, and we had information that they’d actually acquired equipment to do this. We hunted and hunted, and finally in 1996 were able to track down 200 crates of glass-lined production equipment Iraq had procured specifically for a VX nerve-agent factory. They’d been hiding it from the inspectors. We found it in 1996 and destroyed it. With that, Iraq lost its ability to produce VX….

Iraq was technically capable of restarting its weapons manufacturing capabilities within six months of our departure…. The important phrase here, however, is “technically capable.” If no one were watching, Iraq could do this. But just as with the nuclear weapons program, they’d have to start from scratch, having been deprived of all equipment, facilities and research. They’d have to procure the complicated tools and technology required through front companies. This would be detected. The manufacture of chemical weapons emits vented gases that would have been detected by now if they existed. We’ve been watching, via satellite and other means, and have seen none of this.

Pitt:

Do we have the ability to detect if Iraq attempts to reacquire equipment necessary to make chemical weapons?

Ritter:

As a weapons inspector I worked with the intelligence communities of a number of nations to interdict Iraqi covert procurement efforts abroad…. I assembled lists of literally hundreds of Iraqi intelligence front companies operating around the world. We traveled everywhere investigating them…. Even with inspectors no longer operating inside Iraq, the capability exists, inherent in the intelligence services of other nations, to readily detect any effort by Iraq to acquire proscribed capabilities.

Pitt:

What about biological weapons? What did they try to make?

Ritter:

They didn’t just try. They actually made it, primarily anthrax in liquid bulk agent form. They also produced a significant quantity of liquid botulinum toxin. They were able to weaponize both of these, put them in warheads and bombs. They lied about this capability for some time. When they finally admitted it in 1995 we got to work on destroying the factories and equipment that produced it…. Iraq was able to produce liquid bulk anthrax. That is without dispute. [But] liquid bulk anthrax, even under ideal storage conditions, germinates in three years, becoming useless…. For Iraq to have biological weapons today, they’d have to reconstitute a biological manufacturing base.

Pitt:

What about Iraq’s delivery systems?

Ritter:

The bottom line is that Iraq doesn’t have the capability to do long-range ballistic missiles. They don’t even have the capability to do short-range ballistic missiles. They’re trying, but not succeeding…. Of course now the inspectors have left Iraq, we don’t know what happens inside factories. But that doesn’t really matter, since they can’t conduct tests indoors. You have to bring rockets out, fire them on test stands. This is detectable. No one has detected any evidence of Iraq doing this.

The interview from which these excerpts come is contained in War on Iraq, by William Rivers Pitt with Scott Ritter, just published by Context Books.