Scott Ritter and Seymour Hersh: Iraq Confidential
EDITOR'S NOTE: Iraq is a nation on fire, a conflagration of America's making that threatens to consume everything the nation stands for. How did we get there? How do we get out? Can we get out?
In this edited transcript of an October 19 public conversation sponsored by The Nation Institute at the New York Ethical Culture Society, legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and former UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter discuss how the CIA manipulated and sabotaged the work of UN departments to achieve a hidden foreign policy agenda in the Middle East. The conversation was based on revelations in Ritter's new book, Iraq Confidential, published by Nation Books. Hersh's most recent book is Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, published by HarperCollins.
What I'm going to do is just ask Scott a series of questions. I've read his book a couple of times, and basically we're going to try to have some fun. Consider Scott and I your little orchestra playing on the deck of the Titanic as it goes down, because we're all in grave trouble here. So, Scott, to begin, before we even talk about how we got to where we are, my own personal view is we have two options in Iraq. Option A, we can get all our troops out by midnight tonight, and option B, we can get them all out by tomorrow night at midnight. And so I wonder where you sit on that, what's your view?
Well, I view that Iraq is a nation that's on fire. There's a horrific problem that faces not only the people of Iraq but the United States and the entire world. And the fuel that feeds that fire is the presence of American and British troops. This is widely acknowledged by the very generals that are in charge of the military action in Iraq. So the best way to put out the fire is to separate the fuel from the flame. So I'm a big proponent of bringing the troops home as soon as possible.
Today's the best day we're going to have in Iraq. Tomorrow's going to be worse, and the day after that's going to be even worse. But we also have to recognize that one of the reasons why we didn't move to Baghdad in 1991 to take out Saddam was that there was wide recognition that if you get rid of Saddam and you don't have a good idea of what's going to take his place, that Iraq will devolve into chaos and anarchy. Well, we've done just that. We got rid of Saddam, and we have no clue what was going to take his place. And pulling the troops out is only half of the problem.
We also have to deal with three critical issues that have emerged since we invaded:
--A, the Shia, and I'm not talking about the mainstream Shia of Iraq. I'm talking about this political elite that's pro-Iranian that has conducted a coup d'etat. They're running the government today.
--B, the Sunni. We took a secular bulwark against the expansion of radical anti-American Islamic fundamentalism, and we've radicalized them. And if we just pull out and leave the situation as it is, we've turned the Sunni heartland into a festering cesspool of anti-American sentiment. It's the new Afghanistan, the new breeding ground for Al Qaeda.
--C, the one that nobody talks about in the media is the Kurds. We somehow have given the Kurds this false sense that they're going to have an independent homeland, and yet our NATO ally, Turkey, has said this will never happen. And if we allow the Kurds to move forward towards independence, we're compelling the Turks to radical military intervention at a time when Turkey has just been invited to enter into the fifteen-year negotiation with the European Union about becoming a member of the European community. If the Turks move against the Kurds, that negotiation's over which means that Turkey has been rejected by Europe and will be heading towards the embrace of radical anti-American Islam. So it's not just about getting the troops out. We have to recognize that there are three huge ongoing issues in Iraq that affect the national security of the United States, and we need a policy to address these. But keeping our troops in Iraq is not part of that policy.
How do you get them out, how quickly?
The quicker the better. I mean, I'd leave it up to military professionals to determine how you reduce perimeters. There are some areas of the country where you can just literally up and run. But we have a significant force in place, we have significant infrastructure in place, and we have an active insurgency that would take advantage of any weaknesses. But I guarantee you this, if we went to the insurgents--and I do believe that we're having some sort of interaction with the insurgents today--and said we're getting out of here, all attacks would stop. They'd do everything they can to make sure that the road out of Iraq was as IED-free as possible.
One of the things about your book that's amazing is that it's not only about the Bush Administration, and if there are any villains in this book, they include Sandy Berger, who was Clinton's national security advisor, and Madeleine Albright.
Another thing that's breathtaking about this book is the amount of new stories and new information. Scott describes in detail and with named sources, basically, a two or three-year run of the American government undercutting the inspection process. In your view, during those years, '91 to'98, particularly the last three years, was the United States interested in disarming Iraq?
Well, the fact of the matter is the United States was never interested in disarming Iraq. The whole Security Council resolution that created the UN weapons inspections and called upon Iraq to disarm was focused on one thing and one thing only, and that is a vehicle for the maintenance of economic sanctions that were imposed in August 1990 linked to the liberation of Kuwait. We liberated Kuwait, I participated in that conflict. And one would think, therefore, the sanctions should be lifted.
The United States needed to find a vehicle to continue to contain Saddam because the CIA said all we have to do is wait six months and Saddam is going to collapse on his own volition. That vehicle is sanctions. They needed a justification; the justification was disarmament. They drafted a Chapter 7 resolution of the United Nations Security Council calling for the disarmament of Iraq and saying in Paragraph 14 that if Iraq complies, sanctions will be lifted. Within months of this resolution being passed--and the United States drafted and voted in favor of this resolution--within months, the President, George Herbert Walker Bush, and his Secretary of State, James Baker, are saying publicly, not privately, publicly that even if Iraq complies with its obligation to disarm, economic sanctions will be maintained until which time Saddam Hussein is removed from power.
That is proof positive that disarmament was only useful insofar as it contained through the maintenance of sanctions and facilitated regime change. It was never about disarmament, it was never about getting rid of weapons of mass destruction. It started with George Herbert Walker Bush, and it was a policy continued through eight years of the Clinton presidency, and then brought us to this current disastrous course of action under the current Bush Administration.
One of the things that's overwhelming to me is the notion that everybody believed before March of '03 that Saddam had weapons. This is just urban myth. The fact of the matter is that, in talking to people who worked on the UNSCOM and also in the International Atomic Energy Agency, they were pretty much clear by '97 that there was very little likelihood that Saddam had weapons. And there were many people in our State Department, in the Department of Energy, in the CIA who didn't believe there were weapons. And I think history is going to judge the mass hysteria we had about Saddam and weapons. And one of the questions that keeps on coming up now is why didn't Saddam tell us. Did he tell us?
Well, of course he told us. Look, let's be honest, the Iraqis were obligated in 1991 to submit a full declaration listing the totality of their holdings in WMD, and they didn't do this. They lied. They failed to declare a nuclear weapons program, they failed to declare a biological weapons programs, and they under-declared their chemical and ballistic missile capabilities. Saddam Hussein intended to retain a strategic deterrent capability, not only to take care of Iran but also to focus on Israel. What he didn't count on was the tenacity of the inspectors. And very rapidly, by June 1991, we had compelled him into acknowledging that he had a nuclear weapons programs, and we pushed him so hard that by the summer of 1991, in the same way that a drug dealer who has police knocking at his door, flushes drugs down a toilet to get rid of his stash so he could tell the cops, "I don't have any drugs," the Iraqis, not wanting to admit that they lied, flushed their stash down the toilet.
They blew up all their weapons and buried them in the desert, and then tried to maintain the fiction that they had told the truth. And by 1992 they were compelled again, because of the tenacity of the inspectors, to come clean. People ask why didn't Saddam Hussein admit being disarmed? In 1992 they submitted a declaration that said everything's been destroyed, we have nothing left. In 1995 they turned over the totality of their document cache. Again, not willingly, it took years of inspections to pressure them, but the bottom line is by 1995 there were no more weapons in Iraq, there were no more documents in Iraq, there was no more production capability in Iraq because we were monitoring the totality of Iraq's industrial infrastructure with the most technologically advanced, the most intrusive arms control regime in the history of arms control.
And furthermore, the CIA knew this, the British intelligence knew this, Israeli intelligence knew this, German intelligence, the whole world knew this. They weren't going to say that Iraq was disarmed because nobody could say that, but they definitely knew that the Iraqi capability regarding WMD had been reduced to as near to zero as you could bring it, and that Iraq represented a threat to no one when it came to weapons of mass destruction.