Standing Firm on Shifting Sands: A Former Weapons Inspector Blows the Whistle on the US Intrigues in Iraq
by Gar Smith / The-Edge
November 29, 2002

Former UN chief weapons inspector Scott Ritter.
On November 14, a car sped down a darkened Highway 101 toward San Francisco International Airport. In the back seat, two passengers were engaged in a passionate exchange of ideas. One passenger was Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. The other was former United Nations chief weapons inspector Scott Ritter. The two men had met for the first time in a movie theater earlier that evening. Shortly after they shook hands, Ellsberg leaned forward and confided to Ritter, “You are my hero.”

Ritter had just finished an appearance at the theatrical debut of his documentary, In Shifting Sands, an hour-long film that catalogs Ritter’s harrowing, and ultimately disillusioning, work as a member of the international team entrusted with ferreting out and destroying Iraq’s hidden cache of chemical weapons. The only movie house in the US that is currently screening In Shifting Sands is the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco [].

As Ritter emphasized during a long question-and-answer period sandwiched between showings of the film, his disillusionment did not come at the hands of the Iraqi government. It arose, instead, because of US interference that succeeded in transforming the UN inspectors from “honest brokers” into US-directed political provocateurs.

Iraq’s Weapons Were Found – and Destroyed
Ritter, a former US Marine Intelligence officer who fought in the Gulf War under US General Norman Schwarzkopf, states up-front that the Iraqi government tried to hide records and weapons from the UNSCOM inspectors. But what Ritter says next is much more important and much less reported.

The UNSCOM weapons inspection team refused to be rebuffed or misdirected. They pushed and prodded relentlessly. They tracked records of potential suppliers through the capitals of Europe and the US as well as through the Middle East. They outlasted the Iraqis. They repeatedly called their bluff.

Eventually, as a result of these rigorous and tenacious efforts, Ritter claims, the Iraqi government ultimately abandoned its attempts at evasion. Weapons were found and destroyed. Rockets were crushed. Munitions were exploded. Factories were razed.

By 1995, Ritter maintains, Iraq had been effectively disarmed. The UNSCOM team had, by Ritter’s estimate, managed to locate and eradicate 90-95 percent of the country’s known and suspected weapons. In the real world, Ritter noted, that is about as good as you’re ever going to get. There will always be a margin of unaccounted product, but that percentage, Ritter believes, is marginal, fragmentary and virtually insignificant in the light of the big picture.

Disarmament is in Iraq’s interests. When Iraq agreed to open its borders to international weapons inspectors, it did so with the promise that, once its disarmament was certified, the UN would lift the punishing economic sanctions that had thrown the country’s citizens into a spiral of poverty and suffering.

The Perils of Truth-telling
Ritter’s contention that Iraq does not pose a military threat to the US or its neighbors is not one that the Bush administration wishes to encourage as it attempts to stampede the country into an unprecedented act of “pre-emptive” aggression.

When a member of the audience asked Ritter if he had suffered any repercussions as a result of his outspokenness, he replied that he has not been muzzled and values the fact that, in the United States, a citizen still has a First Amendment right to speak out.

Unfortunately, Ritter added, he has not been able to have his contrary views widely aired. The major news networks have refused to interview him. Despite a flurry of calls from concerned citizens, Ritter was banned from testifying on the Iraq threat during critical congressional hearings during the summer.

There have been serious personal consequence of speaking out, Ritter confided to the Roxie’s Thursday night audience. “I’ve been called a traitor, which I find very strange,” Ritter said with a note of indignation. “I’ve fought for my country as a Marine. I’ve done some ‘pretty neat’ things for my country.”

But Ritter’s problems these days involve more than mere name-calling. “I’m currently the target of four FBI investigations,” he revealed. Laughing at the absurdity, he added: “The FBI has accused me of being a spy for Iraq and a spy for Israel — both at the same time!”

After he spoke before the Iraqi parliament earlier this year, Ritter's opponents — both inside and outside of government — used this photo in an attempt to demonize and discredit him.
It’s about World Domination, Stupid
“This war isn’t about Iraq,” Ritter concluded somberly. “It’s about US imperialism. Iraq is a case study for implementing the Bush Doctrine. Saudi Arabia will be next. Iran will be number three and we will have a continuing war of colonial violence.” Ritter’s prediction that Saudi Arabia would be Bush’s next target after Iraq brought gasps from the audience.

Ritter described the Iraq situation as “shades of gray. That’s the reality.” He counseled the audience not to trust the Bush administration’s statements. “We can only trust ourselves. Question everything. You need independent information to make up your own minds. That’s why I made this movie.”

For Ritter, the weapons-hunter, the issue in Iraq was always a matter of “accountability.” Ritter took this assignment very seriously. His uncompromising insistence on full disclosure lead to his being “demonized by Iraq.” Ritter recalled with a grin that the Iraqis awarded him the nickname, “The Father of all Crisis.”

“During the seven years that I served on UNSCOM in Iraq,” Ritter stated, “I became known for two things. First, I became known as a hard-nosed sonuvabitch. Second, I became known as someone who never lied to the Iraqis. Never!”

In 2000, when he decided that he needed to make this film (he’d never made a film before), he went to the United Nations to acquire video footage of the inspections. To his surprise, the UN refused to let him have access to any of the archived video. When he subsequently made the same request of Baghdad, Ritter told the crowd, “Iraq gave me 100 percent.”

Understanding Iraq
Another question from the audience was: “In your opinion, how popular is Saddam Hussein inside Iraq?”

“In order to understand Iraq,” Ritter suggested, “You first need to lose your US perspective. This is a country that has, at best, a tradition of tribal democracy where five generations pledge their loyalty to one core male.”

Saddam Hussein is a contradiction. “He’s a brute and a killer,” Ritter noted without hesitation. But, on the other hand “He’s created universal health care and universal education for men and women.” Before the Gulf War and the imposition of economic sanctions, Iraq had one of the most acclaimed healthcare systems in the Middle East.

“Would the Iraqi people welcome a UN-lead invasion to topple Saddam?”

Ritter responded by recalling the German invasion of Russia in 1941. “Russia was ruled by Joseph Stalin at the time. Did the Russian people welcome the German invasion and topple Stalin?” Ritter asked. “No, the Russians fought back and overcame the Germans. Why? Because the Russian people were not fighting to defend Stalin, they were fighting to defend their country.” Ritter anticipates that most Iraqis would resist a similar invasion by US, British and Turkish forces.

The UN Resolution’s ‘Hidden Trap’
Does the revised UN Resolution 1441 provide for fair inspections? Ritter says no. “There is a ‘hidden trap’ and it is Paragraph 4.” That paragraph states that when Iraq submits its list of weapons on December 8, “any omission” will be seen as “constituting a material breach” of the resolution that will justify a military response.

Iraq has consistently insisted that it no longer has any weapons of mass destruction. If Iraq is telling the truth, that puts the country in an ironic position. In order to comply with the resolution and avoid war, Iraq would have to quickly acquire some suitable weapons that it could then identify and submit for destruction.

The only way to determine whether “Iraq is clean” is with inspections. But the US can use the “material breach” clause as an excuse to call off inspections before they even begin.

As Ritter explained, the US doesn’t want inspections and it doesn’t want to establish that Iraq is effectively disarmed. Why? Because as soon as Iraq is judged to have destroyed its weapons base, the UN is required to lift the economic sanctions.

“The US will not allow sanctions to be lifted as long as Saddam Hussein is still in power,” Ritter stated. Bush himself has stated that disarmament is not the goal: the real goal is replacing Hussein with a new regime that meets the approval of the US.

And that, Ritter explained, is why the initial UN inspection process was sabotaged. By 1996, Iraq was insisting that it had complied with the 1991 UN resolution to disarm and was insisting that the United Nations was required to fulfill its promise to lift the sanctions.

To avoid this outcome, the US infiltrated the UNSCOM operation and turned it into a platform for spying on the Iraqi government. US intelligence agents posing as inspectors planted bugs and listening devices during the course of “inspections.” The discovery of this operation outraged the Iraqis and embarrassed the UN.

In an escalation of efforts to antagonize the Iraqis (in hopes that they would act unilaterally to expel the inspection teams), UNSCOM members were told to push the envelope by staging unannounced visits to sensitive sites that were supposed to be excluded from inspections.

Ritter’s film includes one white-knuckled sequence shot during one of these “midnight raids” when a convoy of UN vehicles attempted to drive into a private security area. Speeding past one screaming armed guard, Ritter’s vehicle is suddenly blocked by several cars filled with rattled-looking Iraqi security police. The first inspection vehicle managed to get through the roadblock but Ritter was forced to make a desperate call pleading with the driver to stop and turn around. Ritter made the call with an Iraqi police officer pressing a pistol to his head.

We Need a Provocation – ‘Within Five Days’
After seven years of difficult but productive work, he was called back to Washington. In a meeting with Chief UN Weapons Inspector Richard Butler, Ritter was shown a chalkboard illustrated with a simple grid. He was told that the US wished to stage a military attack on Iraq but it had to begin and end before the start of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.

Butler told Ritter that, “within five days,” he was expected to create a provocation sufficient to provide a pretext for a US military strike. Ritter was couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

He returned to Iraq but studiously avoided staging a provocation. “That was not my job. That was not our mandate.”

Ritter was eventually asked to write a letter of resignation, which Butler announced with a public expression of “regret.” Ritter’s special team of highly trained investigators was demobilized and a new team was brought in to accomplish the US’ goals.

In Shifting Sands documents one of these subsequent confrontations when the new handpicked weapons inspector demands entrance to Iraq’s Ministry of Defense. Ritter noted that earlier inspections had insisted on gaining access to facilities that housed the Republican Guard. It was clearly understood that such requests were seen as “humiliations” and “insults to national sovereignty.”

Though it was not widely reported in the US media, the Iraqi government — after prolonged arguments and indignant protests — eventually granted the inspectors access to the disputed sites. But the Defense Ministry, Ritter recalled, was special. “This was the Holiest of Holies.”

In the documentary, an Iraqi general standing at the entrance to the ministry compound, calmly points out that the “special modalities” of the UN agreement that set up the inspections established that certain sites were to remain exempt from inspections. These included certain military and government sites as well as personal homes and the presidential palaces. Other agreements limited the number of inspectors allowed into a site at any one time.

The UN inspector’s response, however, is to tell the general that the rules have been changed and the “modalities” no longer prevail. The Iraqi officer is astonished. Eventually, after a two-hour standoff, the UN officer indicates that he is withdrawing his inspection team. It is clear that he intends to report the Iraqis in violation of the UN inspection agreement.

Again, the Iraqis relented. A UN inspections chief recalls on camera how a team was eventually allowed inside the Defense Ministry and permitted to roam around the premises at will. “And what was the result?” an interviewer’s off-camera voice asks. The inspector pauses and says: “We found nothing.”

“No War for Oil”
“I’m just a simple Marine. A single American trying to do the best I can,” Ritter declares. “The Iraq problem is an inherited problem,” he cautions. It goes back at least to the presidency of George H. W. Bush.

It was in August 1990 that Bush’s Chief of Staff James A. Baker III said of the first planned attack on Iraq “It’s for oil.” Baker was severely reprimanded for his moment of candor and the word “oil” has seldom been uttered by any of the subsequent US regimes that inherited the Baghdad “problem.”

Ritter believes that regime change would be beneficial for Iraq but he doesn’t believe that superpowers should impose political puppets on sovereign states. “Instead, I would seek an indictment of Saddam Hussein through the International Court of Justice. The best way to help the Iraqi people is not to impose a regime change but to lift the sanctions. This would empower the Iraqi people to deal with Saddam themselves.”

An audience member wondered why it was so difficult for the Democrats to mount an effective opposition to the threat of an illegal and politically disastrous war. “Bush’s father compared Saddam to Hitler,” Ritter explained. And once you’ve made that comparison, it becomes politically impossible to take a position that makes you appear “pro-Hitler.”

“It’s an easy government to demonize,” Ritter admitted. “I hate Saddam personally, but I love Americans more. I don’t want to see a single American life lost in a war for oil.”

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