Scott Ritter and Seymour Hersh:
www.thenation.com, October 26,
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
MR. HERSH: 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
MR. RITTER: 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
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.
MR.HERSH: How do you get them out, how
MR. RITTER: 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.
MR. HERSH: 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
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?
MR. RITTER: 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.
MR. HERSH: 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?
MR. RITTER: 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
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.
MR. HERSH: 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----
MR. RITTER: 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
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.
MR. HERSH: When did you learn about this?
MR. RITTER: 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.
MR. HERSH: The question is, if Clinton
wasn't so good, where are we now?
MR. RITTER: 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.
MR. HERSH: 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?
MR. RITTER: 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.
MR. HERSH: But let me ask you this, as
somebody who knows the military pretty well, what about the failure
of the military to speak out?
MR. RITTER: 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?
MR. HERSH: Do you have any optimism at
MR. RITTER: 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
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.
MR. HERSH: What about the chances of expanding
the war? What about the chances of expanding the war into Syria
or even into Iran?
MR. RITTER: 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
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?
Index of Website