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.
The other element in all of this, of course, is that, as Scott writes in his book, there were things going on inside his own organization that he didn’t know about, operations being run by the CIA. One of the things that was going on is, as we provoked Saddam and demanded to get into the palaces, their concern was, of course, that the real meaning of the effort was to assassinate him, and, lo and behold—-
Well, that’s exactly what happened. I mean, look, the American policy was regime change. At first they wanted to be passive, we’re just going to contain Saddam through economic sanctions, and he’s going to collapse of his own volition in six months. That failed. We’re going to put pressure on the Iraqis, and we’re going to get some Sunni general to apply the 75-cent solution–the cost of a 9 mm bullet put in the back of Saddam’s head–and the Sunni general will take over. If you want proof positive about the corrupt nature of our regime-change policy, understand this, it wasn’t about changing the regime. It wasn’t about getting rid of the Baathist party or transforming Iraq into a modern democracy back in the early 1990s. It was about getting rid of one man, Saddam Hussein. And if he was replaced by a Sunni general who governed Iraq in the exact same fashion, that was okay. And that shows the utter hypocrisy of everything we did.
But the CIA was having a difficult time getting near Saddam because he has a very effective security apparatus. By 1995, Saddam’s survival becomes a political liability to Bill Clinton, and he was coming up for reelection in ’96, and he turned to the CIA and said get rid of Saddam by the summer of 1996: I need that man gone. And the CIA worked with British intelligence, they brought in somebody named Ayad Allawi. It might be a name familiar to people–he was for a period of time the interim Prime Minister of Iraq after the American occupation. Before he was interim Prime Minister, however, he was a paid agent of British intelligence and the CIA, and he worked with them to orchestrate this coup d’état that required them to recruit people on the inside of Iraq to be ready to take out Saddam. But you needed a trigger, and the trigger was a UN weapons inspection that I helped organize.
We thought we were going after the concealment mechanism, but it turned out that the CIA was setting us up so that we would go to facilities that housed Saddam’s security. It was anticipated they would block us, and then when we withdrew, there would be a military strike that would decapitate the security of Saddam.
The one place that we wanted to go to, the Third Battalion, we weren’t allowed to. The CIA said don’t worry about that, we know those guys, they’re not bad. And they were supposed to rise up and take Saddam out. Well, the Iraqi intelligence service was very effective at infiltrating this coup, they wrapped it up, and nothing happened in terms of getting rid of Saddam. Except one thing, the Iraqis were fully aware of the role played by the CIA in infiltrating UNSCOM and using UNSCOM for devices. And the ultimate tragedy of this is that from that point on, every time a UN weapons inspector went into Iraq–somebody with a blue hat–they weren’t viewed by the Iraqis as somebody who was trying to disarm Iraq, they were viewed by the Iraqis as somebody trying to kill their President, and they were right.
When did you learn about this?
We always knew about regime change. I mean, when I first came in, we knew about regime change. In terms of the infiltration, you know, some people say it’s my fault because I’m the guy who brought in the character I call Modaz and the special activities staff, the covert operators of the CIA. We used them in 1992, we used them in 1993 because it’s tough to do inspections in Iraq. You know, they’re not necessarily the friendliest people in the world when you’re trying to go to a site that they don’t want you to get in. And you can’t have a bunch of thin-necked, geeky scientists trying to do this job. You need guys with thick necks and thick arms, and the CIA had plenty of these guys who could do logistics, they could do planning, they could do communications in austere environments. So we used these guys, and we used them in June.
The problem came afterwards when we started doing up follow-up inspections. First of all, the Iraqis would come to me, and they would say, “Mr. Ritter, what are you doing? You know, you’re supposed to be an inspector, and yet you’re doing all this bad stuff. We know about the CIA’s coup attempts…. We know what happened in June.”
Well, what happened in June? And suddenly we started inspecting cites, and I see documents that start sending off signals in my head about, oh, my gosh, the unit the CIA didn’t want us to go to was the unit that was liquidated by Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the failed coup because that was the unit that was trying to take out Saddam. It’s silly, the light goes off, and you’re sitting there going we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes, we’ve been used. We were used by the United States, though, and they’re the most powerful nation on the Security Council that we as inspectors worked for.
So how do you turn to your boss and say, Hey, you’ve used us? We won’t tolerate that. Well, you can’t do that. What you have to do is continue to plod forward and just redouble your efforts to maintain the integrity of a process that tragically had been terminally corrupted by that point.
The question is, if Clinton wasn’t so good, where are we now?
Well, I mean, I’ll start off, and I want to highlight that point that Clinton wasn’t so good. You know, there’s a lot of talk today in the Democratically controlled judiciary committee about going after the Bush Administration for crimes, for lying to Congress, and etc. And I’m all in favor of that, bring on the indictments, but don’t stop at the Bush Administration. If you want to have a truly bipartisan indictment, you indict Madeleine Albright, you indict Sandy Berger, you indict every person on the Clinton Administration that committed the exact same crime that the Bush Administration has committed today. Lying during the course of your official duty: That’s a felony, that’s a high crime and misdemeanor. That’s language in the Constitution that triggers certain events like impeachment. So let’s not just simply turn this into a Bush-bashing event. This is about a failure of not only the Bush Administration but of the United States of America, and we have to look in the mirror and recognize that, well, all the Bush Administration did is take advantage of a systemic failure on the part of the United States as a whole, a failure that not only involves the executive, but it involves the legislative branch, Congress.
Congress has abrogated its responsibilities under the Constitution, and they’ve abrogated it for years. Then there’s the media, and, yes, we can turn this into a media-bashing event. But you know what? The media only feeds the American people the poison they’re willing to swallow. And we the people of the United States of America seem to want our news in no more than three-minute chunks with sound bites of thirty seconds or less, and it can’t be too complicated. So what we did is allowed ourselves during the decade of the 1990s to be pre-programmed into accepting at face value without question anything that was negative about Saddam Hussein’s regime, and this made selling the war on Iraq on the basis of a lie the easiest task ever faced by the Bush Administration.
There’s always the argument that one virtue of what we did, no matter how bad it is, we’ve got rid of a very bad dictator. What’s your answer to that one?
That invokes the notion of the ends justify the means. I mean, that’s basically what we’re saying here is that who cares about the lie, who cares about the WMD. You know, we got rid of a bad guy. The ends justify the means. And I have to be frank. If there’s anybody here who calls themselves a citizen of the United States of America and you endorse the notion of the ends justify the means, submit your passport for destruction and get the hell out of my country. Because this is a country that is founded on the rule of law as set forth by the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution that the men and women who serve us swore an oath of allegiance to, the Constitution that our government, every government official swears an oath of allegiance to, and it’s about due process. Democracy is ugly. Sometimes it doesn’t work as smoothly as we want it to. But if you’re sitting here and saying that when it comes to Saddam, that the ends justify the means, where do you draw the line? Where do you draw the line?
And you can’t tell me that it’s only going to stop here. It’s about the rule of law, it’s about the Constitution. And if we wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein, then we should have had a debate, discussion, and dialogue about the real reasons and not make up some artificial WMD.
But let me ask you this, as somebody who knows the military pretty well, what about the failure of the military to speak out?
Well, I’m not saying that they shouldn’t speak out. I mean, it would be wonderful if soldiers came back from Iraq and said this is a war that’s not only unwinnable, but this is a war that’s morally unacceptable, and I can no longer participate in this conflict. But it’s a very difficult thing to ask a soldier to do what the average American citizen won’t.
I mean, why do we put the burden on the soldier to speak out instead of putting the burden on the American public to become more empowered, to become enraged about what’s happening? We’ve got an election coming up in 2006. Rather than waiting for soldiers to resign, why don’t we vote out of Congress everybody who voted in favor of this war?
Do you have any optimism at this point?
No. I wish I did.
I mean, the sad fact is, one of the reasons why I was arguing against this war was not just that it was based on a lie, but it’s a reflection of the reality that was recognized in 1991: If you remove Saddam and you don’t have a clue what’s going to replace Saddam, you’re going to get chaos and anarchy. People continue to say they want the elegant solution in Iraq. I mean, that’s the problem, everybody’s like, well, we can’t withdraw because we got to solve all the problems.
Ladies and gentlemen, there’s not going to be an elegant solution in Iraq. There’s no magic wand that can be waved to solve this problem. If we get out and we have a plan, you know, it’s still going to cost 30,000 Iraqi lives. Let’s understand that, there’s going to be blood shed in Iraq. They’re going to kill each other, and we’re not going to stop it.
If we continue to stay the course, however, that 30,000 number may become 60,000 or 90,000. At the end of the day, we’ve created a nightmare scenario in Iraq, and the best we can do is mitigate failure. And that’s what I’m talking, and, unfortunately, that’s a politically unacceptable answer. People say, no, we have to win, we have to persevere, there has to be victory. There’s not going to be victory.
What about the chances of expanding the war? What about the chances of expanding the war into Syria or even into Iran?
Well, the sad thing right now is that we have a Bush Administration that’s populated by people who don’t understand war. They’ve never been in the military, they’ve never served in combat, and they don’t know what it means to have a son die or to have a friend die or have a brother die or have a comrade die.
And so that’s why you have a Secretary of State like Condoleezza Rice who has the gall to stand before the American people and say that war is the only guarantor of peace and security. And now she testified before the US Congress today, and she said that not only is Iraq probably going to be another ten-year investment of time, blood, and national treasure for the American public, but that Syria and Iran may very well be the next targets of the Bush Administration. So this Administration has learned nothing, but what’s worse is that Congress has learned nothing.
There were no tough questions to Condoleezza Rice. And now we have the American people. What lessons have we learned, what actions are we going to take?