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Whistleblower's Trill on Iraq | The Nation

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Whistleblower's Trill on Iraq

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Iraq is out of the news, mostly, except for the occasional report of a missile fired from a US jet flying over it on patrol. And Maj. Scott Ritter is off the air. We came to know Ritter, the former Marine Corps officer, this past August through his noisy resignation from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), set up to monitor Iraqi disarmament. Through the threats of bombing, an aborted war in November, Operation Desert Fox in December and the demise of Iraqi disarmament altogether in January, Ritter became an American icon, providing commentary on NBC, and was the source of a constant stream of revelations appearing in the Washington Post, The New Yorker and other media outlets, perhaps most notably the Israeli press. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I got to know Scott as a fellow NBC military analyst.)

About the Author

William M. Arkin
William M. Arkin is a columnist for washingtonpost.com and The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Scott is former chief weapons inspector for UNSCOM and the originator of, and subsequent leader of, UNSCOM's Concealment Inspection Unit, which secretly installed listening devices to intercept Iraqi communications. The intelligence specialist was taken on by the commission in 1991 and originally assigned to sort out Iraq's ballistic missile program. His expertise stemmed from his work during the Gulf War as a Scud-missile tracker, where he earned an equal reputation for tumultuousness. Self-confident, outspoken, huge, Ritter does things his own way.

Endgame is thus a strange (though not necessarily unexpected) departure in the annals of book writing. Most provocative nonfiction authors marshal their best material for publication.

But not Scott.

Ritter's work since 1991 rivals any spy movie or novel: the cover provided for CIA and other intelligence agents, the eavesdropping in Baghdad, the penetration of high-level communications, the involvement--witting and unwitting--in coup attempts and target selection. Major Ritter blew open this web of covert activities and dealings that were a part (and took advantage) of UNSCOM's presence in Iraq. Yet to read Endgame, one might conclude that Ritter is merely an innocent and focused disarmament alpha dog. One might accept at face value his indignant posture regarding the CIA's misuse of UNSCOM. One might believe his stance that Washington pulled the rug out from underneath a neutral and unimpeachable organization just when the holy grail was within reach.

On the former subject, Ritter steers clear of further accusation and detail about the CIA, I suspect to deflect attention from his own role as the chief covert coordinatorfor the UN organization, and perhaps also because the government rattled its sabers about the possibility of legal action in response to the book. On the latter charge of Washington going soft on Saddam and obstructing UNSCOM, Ritter fails to substantiate his central point.

On paper, the alpha dog is a pussycat.

There is no question that the US government--most centrally through its bombing in December--is responsible for the death of UNSCOM. But in the words of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Scott Ritter "doesn't have a clue." We now know that UNSCOM, in legitimate pursuit of its Security Council mandate, was forced to establish an unprecedented intelligence capacity to break through Iraq's incredible wall of lies regarding its weapons-of-mass-destruction program. The international consensus to get to the bottom of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons was virtually unanimous. Even Security Council member Cuba voted in 1991 to allow U-2 spy flights over the country.

To build the necessary internal technical expertise and to avoid dependence on the United States--or any other nation--the first UNSCOM chairman, Swedish ambassador to the US, Rolf Ekéus, created a multinational knowledge base and a permanent organization. It was a good thing: UNSCOM remained focused on its singular task even though there were many occasions when world interest in Iraq waned. Yet this organization, created with the expectation that it would finish its work in six to nine months, soon celebrated its second, then its third and then its fourth anniversary, and there was no real end in sight.

The amazing chronology of UNSCOM bravery, discoveries, confrontations and accomplishments is worthy of a book. In this regard, Endgame is a squandered opportunity. But more important, Endgame fails to reflect on the fatigue and frustration that naturally became a part of going up against the Iraqi regime. As each year passed and the fragile bargain of disarmament-on-the-road-to-lifting-sanctions was precariously pursued, the culture of UNSCOM changed. Iraq was not the only adversary. The organization saw itself defending its work and honor from the UN bureaucracy, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iraq's friends on the Security Council and finally the US government itself.

Through it all, Baghdad was maddeningly consistent in its inconsistencies. Ever more intrusive methods were called for, better forensics were needed, finer information was required. Ekéus was determined that UNSCOM was not going to be a rubber stamp or a front company for Washington coup plotters and operators. Yet as the years depressingly mounted and the commission had to resort to more and more confrontational and covert methods to fulfill its task, it became just that.

Frustration, Ritter says, led him and his colleagues to conceive of a new way to break through the wall of Iraqi lies to find the final documents, the machine tools, the chemicals, the biological fermenters, even the missiles (UNSCOM didn't really know), to finish their work. The Iraqis developed a system of secret-police organizations and committees to thwart UNSCOM's efforts and preserve the ability--Iraq analysts believed--to regenerate weapons of mass destruction.

All evidence seemed to indicate that the regime was never really going to come clean. Instead, UNSCOM decided to expose the "concealment mechanism." Ritter is most honest here. In typically arrogant style, he dismisses the organization's entire"material balance approach"--that of verifying Iraqi declarations with physical evidence--as "hopelessly flawed." Only the new Ritter method of pursuing the concealment effort itself had hope. That method, Ritter says without a hint of reflection, would be "at the heart of every major confrontation between Unscom and Iraq from that point until the December 1998 US military strike, Desert Fox."

The goal of the concealment inspections was to provoke a response from Iraq. An inspection targeted on a secret-police facility suspected of being involved in concealment would set in motion a set of protective measures. UNSCOM, with its agents, U-2s, external satellite intelligence support and eavesdropping inside Iraq, was positioned to catch the Iraqis in a mistake or, better, to get inside an actual deception--"crack the code," Ritter says--to be able to swoop down on a convoy of contraband.

In August 1995 two of Hussein's sons-in-law from the al-Majid clan--Lieut. Gen. Hussein Kamal and his brother, Col. Saddam Kamal--fled to Jordan. The defections changed UNSCOM and US policy forever. The simple story is that Hussein Kamal, the Minister of Technical Industry and the head of Iraq's proscribed weapons program, provided long-sought-after proof of the existence of biological weapons. The more complex reality is that terrific forensic work by UNSCOM scientists had already proven this.

More important, the two Kamals and their entourage of bodyguards and insiders provided a look into what Ritter calls "Saddam Hussein's hellish netherworld." In short, they provided new hope. Four years of disarmament battles were transformed overnight when the defectors provided the CIA and UNSCOM with a complete wiringdiagram of the secret-police apparatus and inner circle, including names, units and procedures. They told war stories of how the special security organizations had spirited away evidence under UNSCOM's nose, shuttled proscribed matériel around the country, used private residences, conducted experimentation and met in secret committees, all to preserve weapons of mass destruction for the day that the international consensus on Iraq cracked.

Well, almost all. The procedures and organizations had been perfected over some two decades to protect Saddam Hussein and the regime. Not only was the protection system now compromised at its very heart to enemy intelligence debriefers but UNSCOM--led by the abrasive Ritter as chief inspector--would soon assert the right to open it all up for inspection. And in that, two worlds collided.

The defections also convinced Ekéus to accede to pressure from Britain and the United States to establish a signals-monitoring capability on the ground in Iraq. The Kamal brothers and their entourage pinpointed communications procedures and special telephone networks that would allow monitoring of specific deception efforts. Like all covert operations, the risky introduction of equipment to monitor the Iraqis started with great care and under tight control. But also like most covert ops, the monitoring effort soon mushroomed out of control. The camera system used for monitoring disarmed facilities was used as a cover for eavesdropping antennae; special black boxes exclusively under US control were brought into Baghdad to conduct communications intercepts.

The results were impressive: The look inside the security organizations and inner circle justified better equipment and faster processing. And then, at its peak in July 1998, the rules changed. Britain withdrew its intelligence monitors, Israel was stiff-armed out of the picture and the United States took over the operation. Ritter merely explains that his method was "too controversial" and that the Clinton Administration was "afraid to provoke" Iraq into noncompliance with Security Council resolutions. "The Clinton team instead decided on an uninspired, no-endgame strategy of containment through economic sanctions of indefinite duration," he writes.

That's all Ritter has to say on the matter. No real proof, no nuance, no self-reflection, no explanation.

The concealment inspections drove the Iraqis wild, and led to the very confrontations that in Ritter's mind confirmed the value of the approach. Did they ever produce anything other than more potential targets for further concealment inspections? Ritter utterly fails to justify the intentionally confrontational method. He instead blames Washington and the UN for undermining his method. The accusations made Ritter a Republican Party poster boy and a darling of the media. Who couldn't envisage the Clinton Administration prevaricating and hesitating on Iraq? Meanwhile, liberal arms controllers and proliferation junkies have been alarmed about the seeming political concession jeopardizing 100 percent disarmament. Lost in all the posturing is the gloomy truth that the inspections themselves were unproductive and ill conceived.

It was UNSCOM's discoveries and defeats, over many years, that led Washington to come to the conclusion that the 1991 rules on Iraq could no longer apply. One might criticize the White House for changing official policy regarding the lifting of sanctions, but Iraq made it ever so difficult to conceive of a peaceful outcome. Thus emerged the on-again, off-again, on-again policy of seeking the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It would probably be an overstatement to say that UNSCOM was enlisted in the effort. But the fruit of its work and its physical access to Baghdad were exploited. Policy-makers in Washington felt that the Iraq case was so extreme, the outcome so worthwhile, that they were willing to compromise the UN and threaten the future of disarmament.

A host of defections, UNSCOM's information and the eavesdropping bonanza also served to convince Washington that there was a chance that Hussein could be overthrown. Ritter, tactless and conceited, under suspicion of cutting deals with foreign governments to exchange information, was himself cut off from the intelligence take. If the intelligence was to be used to pinpoint the Iraqi leader's whereabouts to facilitate a coup, it appeared that no one wanted Ritter involved or in the way.

It's all over now. No UNSCOM, no access to Iraq, no overthrow in sight. And no diplomatic outcome is on the horizon either.

So what is the solution? Astoundingly, alpha dog Ritter suggests negotiating and monitoring, and a sort of backhanded reward for the Iraqi regime in the form of a "nation-building" Marshall Plan. Ritter naïvely goes one step further, suggesting that the United States and Iraq engage in "direct diplomacy" to iron out any misunderstandings. He comically suggests Richard Holbrooke as a potential negotiator. At least with bombs falling on Yugoslavia, Holbrooke is temporarily out of a job.

If this is the best that can be offered, it is no wonder that Washington thinks "sanctions until regime change" is a better alternative. Normal Iraqis are meanwhile held hostage because of the 1991 cease-fire principles and those damned weapons of mass destruction. Humanitarians can argue forever that enough is enough, but they will be vetoed by those who dispense international security.

The greatest damage Ritter does in his flawed book is in understating UNSCOM's achievements, thus also overstating Iraq's current potential for weapons of mass destruction. The commission probably completed 99 percent of its task. Iraq no doubt continues to conceal capabilities, but we now also understand the ease with which chemical or biological weapons can be made from "dual use" civilian resources. This means that 100 percent can probably never be guaranteed. Which argues in favor of a different solution.

The sad thing about Endgame is that the newly minted diplomat Mr. Ritter is correct in suggesting a nonconfrontational opportunity for the Baghdad regime to "confess" in exchange for a sure end to sanctions. His telling of the UNSCOM story, however, neither justifies this tack nor provides enough insight about Iraq to build a consensus behind why it is indeed a superior endgame.

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