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How Not to Fight a Dictator

Scott Ritter, a former officer in the US Marines, spent seven years with UNSCOM, the last two as head of the Concealment Investigations Unit. He gives an original and vivid account of the work of the inspectors in all its drama and frustration. Ritter is the kind of single-minded and conscientious intelligence official who is not always appreciated by, or appreciative of, the higher command, with its wide and diverse problems. Indeed he is scornful of the crosscurrents, the compromises, and the pressures that often go into making high policy. He is impatient with the very idea that there are often hard truths which those higher up do not wish to hear. (I sympathize, having tried, unsuccessfully, in 1944, as an airborne forces intelligence officer, to alert the Allied command to the appalling risks of the forthcoming Market Garden operation in Holland.) During the Gulf War, while still working for US military intelligence, Ritter reported that the Desert Storm coalition’s air and ground effort had not destroyed a single Scud missile launcher. This news, while accurate, was not welcomed by the US military commanders. As the Cockburns comment, “Such independent thinking was not likely to enhance his career prospects.”

One subject about which Ritter’s book is uncharacteristically restrained is the perennial Iraqi accusation that UNSCOM was just a tool of United States intelligence, and the truth about the CIA’s relationship to the commission. Although there have been press reports about the CIA’s using UNSCOM for getting information about the Iraqi regime—information that went far beyond the concerns of arms control—there is very little in Ritter’s book about this crucial subject. He does refer to a CIA team, under a man he calls “Moe Dobbs,” which had been made available by the US to UNSCOM to act as inspectors. Dobbs and his people unaccountably left Iraq for good after a prolonged “standoff,” or blocking, by the Iraqis of UNSCOM’s attempt, in June 1996, to inspect Special Republican Guard facilities believed to conceal material and documents related to weapons of mass destruction. Chairman Ekeus was concerned that if this resistance to UNSCOM inspection were to be interpreted as a “material breach” of the Security Council’s resolutions, the result would be immediate United States air strikes. Therefore, to save the inspection process, he negotiated a compromise on the inspection of sensitive sites with the Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, on June 21. This action was extremely unpopular with the United States, which seemed, at least, to prefer confrontation. “But there would be no war,” Ritter writes, “and the inspections would continue.”

Two weeks later an Iraqi official assigned to accompany Ritter asked him “why you are allowing yourself to be used by the CIA and Mossad for their purposes.” He told Ritter of the thwarted coup in June. The attempted UNSCOM inspection that resulted in a standoff had been timed, he said, to create a crisis that would justify the United States in launching cruise missiles in support of the coup attempt. Ritter thought about “Moe Dobbs,” and comments ruefully, “…I began to understand the Iraqi point of view.”

There seems to be more to the story than that, and most of it to Ritter’s credit. In a recent article in The New Yorker,3 Seymour M. Hersh gives a detailed account of both the CIA’s efforts to use UNSCOM and its antagonism to Ritter. In the spring of 1998 UNSCOM’s interception system began to tap into Saddam Hussein’s most closely protected communications and to expose Iraq’s weapon concealment program. The CIA, however, had a different agenda and evidently felt that UNSCOM, although it had initiated the intercepts, was in the way. The agency wanted to take over the processing of UNSCOM’s intercept intelligence. According to Hersh, the CIA persuaded Richard Butler, Ekeus’s successor, to cooperate and took over control of the intercepts in April 1998. (Butler disputes this account.)

Ritter and his colleagues felt threatened and betrayed by this move. (In his book, Ritter only says that the “enhanced intelligence system so painstakingly put together began to be dismantled piece by piece at the behest of my own country.”) Apart from the abuse of a bona fide international arrangement, the CIA’s intrusion made UNSCOM inspectors vulnerable to prosecution by Iraq on espionage charges. Far from being used for arms control, the intercepts were now being used by the US to concentrate on Saddam Hussein personally and on ways to get at him—not his missiles and warheads. Ritter apparently urged Butler to close the entire intercept operation down, but to no avail.

This was only the latest incident in a long history of CIA resentment of what the agency regarded as UNSCOM’s intrusion on its rightful turf. Ritter had tangled with the CIA on several occasions in the past. Hersh describes, for example, how Ritter had heard through UNSCOM’s sources in Israel that two shipments of Russian gyroscopes had reached Iraq through Jordan. Ritter wanted to arrange with the Jordanians to put beacons on some of the gyroscopes still in Amman so that they could be traced once they were in Iraq. The CIA then claimed that the gyroscopes should be under the control of the US and told the Jordanians that Ritter was unreliable.

The CIA even sent CIA teams into Iraq disguised as UNSCOM inspectors, who used UNSCOM equipment and office space. When Ritter learned of this scheme he formally notified Ekeus’s American deputy, Charles Duelfer, but not Ekeus himself. Hersh quotes Ritter as saying “I was walking the line between being a good American, which I place above all else, and doing my UNSCOM duties with full integrity.” Ritter acknowledges that this was not his finest moment. He realized that the CIA’s use of UNSCOM, if revealed, would discredit not only the commission itself, but also the entire process of international arms inspection and control.

The CIA has certainly contributed much to the demise of UNSCOM, to the discrediting of the United Nations, and to the current impasse in Iraq, which, Hersh concludes, “with no inspectors on the scene and American bombs falling daily in the no-fly zones, is a devastating setback for arms control….” It is hard to see how such grave damage can easily be undone. Perhaps one of the public apologies that are now in fashion, along with a clear declaration of a change in United States policy, might be a start. The strong possibility that all sorts of warlike material is now flowing into Iraq from Russia only adds to the ominous picture.

Ritter’s position first became publicly controversial during the chairmanship of Ekeus’s successor, Richard Butler, who took over in July 1997. After six years, there were growing doubts about UNSCOM’s mission. It had been widely assumed by UN members that when UNSCOM had satisfactorily completed its task, this would be the signal for lifting sanctions; but support for sanctions was eroding fast. Even the Pope was denouncing them. Ritter specialized in surprise inspections of particularly sensitive targets such as presidential buildings and ministries; he would then check the results against what was known of the Iraqi concealment program. UNSCOM had had some successes with this technique in previous years, but by 1997 the overall political situation surrounding UNSCOM was changing.

In March 1997, after Clinton’s second inauguration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the United States did not agree that sanctions would be lifted even if Iraq fulfilled its obligations concerning the disposal of weapons of mass destruction. For Saddam Hussein this meant that there was little to gain from cooperating in completing the work of UNSCOM. (In much the same way, the demand for “unconditional surrender” in 1943 deprived the Nazis of any motivation for not fighting on to the end.) The only means of punishing Iraq’s refusals to allow UNSCOM inspections was through US and British air strikes, which had less and less support in the Security Council and throughout the world. For Saddam Hussein therefore, a promising new long-term strategy could be to provoke a crisis with UNSCOM from time to time, risking periodic air strikes. He would thus promote the increasing isolation of the United States on the Iraqi question, as well as the demise of UNSCOM and the growing anti-sanction mood in many nations. If this strategy succeeded, Saddam Hussein would be able to keep whatever remained of his weapons of mass destruction program, and perhaps see the end of sanctions as well.

This was the background to Ritter’s efforts as director of concealment investigations and his eventual resignation in August 1998, which he describes in detail in the prologue to his book. By 1998 there were basically two people who could provoke a confrontation. One was Saddam Hussein with his on-again off-again cooperation with UNSCOM. The other was Ritter with his policy of surprise inspections of “sensitive” sites.

Ritter denounces the US administration, and especially Madeleine Albright, for undercutting his aggressive inspection policy and putting pressure on Richard Butler—who strongly denies his charges—to rein him in. His only hero in the US administration is UN ambassador Bill Richardson, who apparently supported Ritter’s damn-the-torpedoes approach. In his resignation statement Ritter said, “The illusion of arms control is more dangerous than no arms control at all,” and he would not be a party to such an illusion. For an arms control inspector this may well be a sound and courageous position, but it does not take into account the complexities of the relationship between the US and Saddam in 1998.

Other considerations certainly influenced the apparently inconsistent US policy of sometimes restraining UNSCOM and sometimes launching air strikes. The last of these, Desert Fox in December 1998, was justified by the US as a response to Iraq’s refusal of access by UNSCOM to eight “presidential sites.” It seems finally to have put an end to the practical working of UNSCOM, with both sides declaring victory.

If Saddam Hussein’s repeated provocations of a crisis were part of a new long-term policy of eroding international support of the United States, it was in the US interest not to fall in with it. (The Cockburns report that on August 5, 1998, when Saddam Hussein announced once again that Iraq was ending all cooperation with UNSCOM, Tariq Aziz was heard on an intercept angrily complaining to Russian Foreign Minister Primakov that “the Americans are not reacting” to the Iraqi move.) Thus, the perspective of a courageous international inspector and the policy of the government of a world power with multiple concerns and responsibilities inevitably came into conflict.

Both the Cockburns and Ritter are dismissive of the efforts of Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, and particularly of his visit to Baghdad in February 1998 to arrange for the resumption of UNSCOM inspections and avoid an American air strike. (I must here declare an interest, having worked closely with five of Annan’s predecessors, all of whom at one time or another became scapegoats when their efforts to achieve peaceful solutions proved to be only temporarily effective.) Ritter even goes so far as to compare Annan with Neville Chamberlain and calls his chapter on the subject “Black Umbrella Days.” The banality and cheapness of this comparison do no credit either to Ritter’s knowledge of history or his appreciation of the enormous complexity of the Iraqi problem. It contrasts oddly with Ritter’s comment, quoted above, on a similar negotiation by Ekeus in 1996.

Ritter’s judgmental style is very much in evidence in his chapter on Kofi Annan, and it needs challenging. He says, for example, that he had a copy of “a confidential letter from Tariq Aziz to Kofi Annan, dated the same day as the Memorandum of Understanding, that constituted a secret protocol” to the effect that “the inspections of presidential sites would be a one-time event, after which the secretary general would seek to get the economic sanctions lifted.” This sounds like a dramatic disclosure but it is not. The truth is that after signing the memorandum, Tariq Aziz wrote a letter asking for further concessions. Annan gave copies of this letter to UNSCOM Chairman Butler and a few key governments. He then sent an answer rejecting Tariq Aziz’s requests. Not exactly a “secret protocol.” This kind of distortion undermines an author’s credibility.

Annan was trying to find a way to preserve UNSCOM and also to avoid a large-scale air strike which might well put an end to it altogether. In doing this he was very well aware that he would be a useful scapegoat when things went wrong again and when no one, in the United States or elsewhere, could come up with an effective way of dealing with Saddam Hussein. Incidentally Annan’s modest suggestion in 1998 that perhaps it was time to reevaluate the approaches to the Iraqi problem that had been taken so far—much criticized at the time—is exactly what Ritter suggests in his final chapter.


Indeed, what is to be done about Saddam Hussein? Ritter ends on a surprisingly doveish note. UNSCOM is dead. There is no sustainable basis for another war against Iraq, so, in his view, “diplomatic engagement” seems the best option. He advocates the appointment of a special United States envoy who would engage in direct diplomacy with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After all the huffing and puffing about Kofi Annan’s having given new legitimacy to Saddam Hussein by his visit to Baghdad in 1998, this is a little surprising. Ritter suggests that Bill Richardson, Richard Holbrooke, or George Mitchell take on this Herculean task. (They will all, I am sure, be duly grateful.)

The Cockburns insist that “the biggest mistake of all was to make the Iraqi people pay the price of besieging Saddam.” They propose no plausible new plan, but urge the importance of finding ways of limiting Saddam Hussein’s ability to do harm, as UNSCOM did in its heyday. They believe that Saddam’s downfall will eventually come at the hands of his own people, without outside intervention. What, if anything, the so-called international community should do in the meantime, especially with regard to the very real problem of weapons of mass destruction, they do not say.

Certainly there is no easy or obvious answer to the Iraqi problem, but it would also be a grave mistake to ignore a regime that is still so potentially dangerous. After reading the revealing and sometimes disturbing books by the Cockburns and Ritter, I found myself turning once again to the quiet voice of William R. Polk in his essay in these pages two months ago. After outlining various heroic, and impractical or unwise, options, Polk proposed a pragmatic course based on influencing Saddam Hussein’s conduct in ways that we can sustain, and on finding ways to make the motives that drive Saddam work to our advantage. These goals entail diplomatic efforts to stabilize the situation in the Gulf, especially with regard to Iran, Saddam’s most dreaded enemy; to limit arms shipments and especially the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and to embark on a long-term initiative to create a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

Another long-term aim should be to do what we can to encourage a democratic, open society in Iraq and, as Polk puts it, to try to “ameliorate the condition of the Iraqi people and to get them back on the road to economic development.” These are immensely difficult objectives that will require hard work, tact, skill, patience, and a willingness to compromise on all sides for many years to come. There is no certainty of success.

Not a very impressive or eye-catching policy, perhaps. But with the international heroic age and the New World Order of the early 1990s now only a distant, and rather hollow, memory, what better course is there?

  1. 3

    Saddam’s Best Friend: How the CIA made it a lot easier for the Iraqi leader to rearm,” The New Yorker, April 5, 1999.

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