Secrets And Spies
issue 316 - September 1999
In April 1991 the United Nations set up UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission) in order to ensure that Iraq disclosed and disarmed all its weapons of mass destruction in the aftermath of the Gulf War. It was to have ‘full access’ but also take into account Iraq’s ‘sovereignty, dignity and national security concerns’. In the years that followed Iraq was substantially disarmed, but then came a series of accusations and counter-accusations between UNSCOM and Iraq. These resulted first in the resignation of Scott Ritter, one of UNSCOM’s key weapons inspectors, and finally in the suspension and expulsion of the organization amid revelations of spying by the CIA. It was this that triggered the bombings in December 1998 by the US and Britain.
Until his resignation last summer William ‘Scott’ Ritter was known as the toughest of the UNSCOM inspectors who scoured Iraq for Saddam Hussein’s programme of weapons of mass destruction. Ritter joined UNSCOM in 1991 when he left the US Marines where he had been involved in arms-control work and inspections in Russia. He eventually resigned amid much publicity: ‘when it became clear that the US and Richard Butler, Executive Director of UNSCOM, were manipulating inspections as a vehicle for maintaining economic sanctions, instead of disarmament. I could not be part of that. My job was to find the weapons.’
Butler, he says, ‘stopped being a man objectively carrying out the will of the Security Council and became a man who carried out the will of the US and the UK. And when you enter that kind of buddy-buddy relationship, you give them the green light to misuse and abuse the relationship with UNSCOM.’
There was always a tightrope to walk – and he maintains that while Butler’s predecessor, Rolf Ekeus, could balance, Butler fell off. Ritter alleges that Butler’s fatal mistake was thinking that he could succeed where Ekeus had failed.
UNSCOM foundered on accusations – later proved to be accurate – that US Intelligence Services used it to spy on Iraq for purposes unrelated to its disarmament mission. Ritter himself was at the centre of this debate as he was in charge of the Concealment Inspection Unit which secretly installed listening devices to intercept Iraqi communications. He was also responsible for liaison with Israel. For many observers its relationship with Israel was one of UNSCOM’s fatal political mistakes. Many Arabs compared the relentless application of UN Resolution 687 in Iraq with Israel’s perennial defiance of the Security Council over the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. Many also felt that Israel’s nuclear capability justified Iraq’s weapons programme. Ritter admits that: ‘Everybody knew it was politically dangerous,’ but, he says, although ‘everyone knew that the Iraqis were lying back in 1992 and 1993, we were missing hard leads. On the other hand, if UNSCOM wrote a report favourable to Iraq, then there was no way that the Israelis would allow the Americans to accept it.’
‘By going to Israel we not only got information, we co-opted them. We made Israel buy into the UNSCOM machine. By following up every Israeli lead, we made sure that when the time came the Israelis couldn’t say “boo!” I’m the one that went over to set up the relationship, and I’m telling you, we were in charge. The Israelis were supporting us, not the other way round. They knew that it was in their interests for UNSCOM to succeed and they knew that if anything came out badly, it would affect the work.’
Ritter explains part of the problem with Butler as insecurity of tenure. Ekeus was a Swedish diplomat, paid for by Stockholm and seconded to the UN. Canberra refused such an arrangement for the Australian Butler, who was in fact the choice of Ekeus rather than Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General. ‘So the US stepped in and brokered a deal. The Australians deposited the money with the US who passed it on to a secret bank account where cheques were cut in the name of the UN. So Butler was in the pocket of the US from the beginning. He became very much aware that Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, could make or break him – he spoke about it often.’
Which is why, Ritter claims, Butler did not speak out when Albright stated in March 1997 with her statement that the sanctions stayed until Saddam Hussein went. ‘She basically destroyed the credibility of UNSCOM, and took away any hope that Iraq would ever comply. UNSCOM became the problem for the US and they set out to destroy it. Now it’s gone.’
So how successful was UNSCOM? ‘In terms of 100 per cent disarmament, we didn’t succeed. But what has been disarmed is a very high percentage – over 90 per cent.
Axing the factory
Today, the place is derelict and dismal. Dr Jassem denies that it was ever a chemical-weapons factory. He is visibly still upset but also determined that one day it will open again: ‘I have sent a letter of complaint to Kofi Annan; I am thinking of putting a case before the International Court in the Hague. I will never give up.’
‘Take chemical weapons. There’s a real possibility that Iraq still has five hundred 155-mm mustard shells. But militarily that’s nothing. To have an effect on the battlefield you need tens of thousands. A few years ago it had a major plant making chemical weapons. It does not today. The same goes for the biological, nuclear and ballistic programs.’
What the Iraqis did, he claims, is ‘hold on to just enough to allow reconstruction. We were going after the seed stock that would enable Iraq to reconstitute its weapons programme. What the world should be doing to solve this problem is getting inspectors in, not to hunt down this seed stock, but rather to prevent them from using it.
The US should acknowledge, even if only to themselves, that they screwed up, and the only way is to pass another resolution redefining Iraq’s standards for compliance. The world has a responsibility to lift sanctions, trading off lifting them for an inspection team that would monitor quantitative as opposed to qualitative compliance.’
That can only be done through diplomacy, he states, but adds, ‘How can you negotiate with a regime that you are trying to overthrow? There’s no way that the opposition will topple Saddam. I think there’s little chance of assassination, so the US tumbles yet again into a quagmire that requires Iraq to be contained economically and militarily.’
Calmly but with feeling, the ex-Marine admitted, ‘For myself, I hate sanctions, I think they’re counterproductive, not effective, and they target the wrong part of the population. I was in charge of looking at the Security Apparatus, the Presidency, so I knew damn well that sanctions weren’t affecting them.’
His own resignation put him in a career quagmire. For upsetting the Clinton Administration he could have posed as a patriotic Marine martyr for the right wing – but he was not saying what they wanted to hear, as he ruefully admits. ‘I’ve burnt my bridges with the Government and everyone else.’ He does not expect an invitation to join the Council on Foreign Relations, the home which Richard Butler has found now UNSCOM is finished.
This does not prevent Ritter from feeling pride for what UNSCOM accomplished. ‘It was a fine organization. One of the finest the United Nations was ever able to cobble together. We believed in our job. We spent more time confronting the US than anyone else. We were nobody’s tools, but implementers of Security Council mandates.’ Now, he says, ‘There’s no realistic hope for its revival.’ And as UNSCOM slips into irrelevance, Iraq goes sanctioned but uninspected.
Ritter’s book Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem - once and for all; published by Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Ian Williams is United Nations correspondent for The Nation and Middle East International, and author of the UN for beginners.