Scott Ritter

What turned the hawkish Iraq weapons inspector into a dove?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

If you’ve been paying any attention to the debate over invading Iraq, you’re probably familiar with Scott Ritter, the blustery former U.N. weapons inspector who has spent the past few weeks vigorously denouncing the Bush administration’s rush to war. Ritter’s ubiquity has been breathtaking. Lately he has appeared on every major TV network and in a slew of major newspapers arguing that, contrary to what you may have heard, Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein poses no real threat to anyone.

You may also be aware that Ritter didn’t always feel this way. In the 1990s he made his name as the macho leader of U.N. inspectors hunting for Iraq’s hidden chemical, germ, and nuclear weapons programs. A hulking figure at 6 feet 4 inches and 200-plus pounds, Ritter was known for shouting down Iraqi officials during tense standoffs outside suspected weapons sites. When he concluded in 1998 that neither the United States nor the United Nations had the stomach for disarming Iraq and resigned in disgust, he was a regular on television and at Capitol Hill hearings, urgently warning of the horrors that would reward the world’s wimpiness. Iraq is “not nearly disarmed,” he wrote in a 1998 New Republic article, asserting that Saddam likely retained everything from nerve gas to anthrax, as well as his “entire nuclear weapons infrastructure.” Iraq could completely resurrect its weapons of mass destruction programs “within a period of six months,” he told a Senate committee that year. As for Saddam, Ritter said he “remains an ugly threat to hisneighbors and to world peace.”

Today Ritter sings a suspiciously different tune. He now contends that Iraq was “fundamentally disarmed” in the 1990s. It turns out that when U.N. inspections ended in 1998, Saddam “did not have the capability to reconstitute” his death machine. Ritter now assures us that “Iraq is a threat to no one.” Earlier this month, he took the extraordinary step of visiting Baghdad to address the Iraqi assembly, where he said that “in regards to the current situation between the United States and Iraq, the truth is on the side of Iraq.”

Ritter hasn’t provided any explanation for his change of heart or cited any new evidence. Instead, he denies contradicting himself. He says that as an arms inspector in the 1990s, he observed the United Nations’ absolute, “quantitative” standard for disarmament. Anything but the elimination of 100 percent of Iraq’s WMD program was unacceptable. Now he urges a more subjective, “qualitative” measurement: “the elimination of a meaningful, viable capability to produce or employ weapons of mass destruction.” For instance, Ritter says that although U.N. inspectors may have failed to destroy some portion of Saddam’s chemical and germ weapons, most of them have lost their potency by now and are merely “harmless goo.”

There may be some merit to this distinction, but it doesn’t get Ritter off the hook. In 1998, he suggested that Iraq failed both the quantitative and qualitative tests, writing that Iraq’s remaining weapons “represent a vital ‘seed stock’ that can and will be used by Saddam Hussein to reconstitute his former arsenal.” Ritter’s argument also fails to explain his old insistence that Iraq could quickly restart its weapons programs. Nor does it account for the probability that Iraq had weapons Ritter never found out about in the first place.

That leaves us to consider ulterior motives. One popular theory, recently advanced by Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard, holds that Ritter has essentially been bought off. By his own admission, Ritter accepted $400,000 in funding two years ago from an Iraqi-American businessman named Shakir al-Khafaji. Ritter used the money to visit Baghdad and film a documentary purporting to tell the true story of the weapons inspections (which in his telling were corrupted by sinister American manipulation). As Hayes has reported, al-Khafaji is openly sympathetic to Saddam and regularly sponsors anti-American conferences in Baghdad. Al-Khafaji seems to have gotten his money’s worth: The documentary was so anti-U.S., says one of Ritter’s former U.N. colleagues, that Iraqi officials were passing out copies of it on CD-ROM at a recent international conference.

But this theory doesn’t solve the Ritter riddle. Of the $400,000, he claims that only $42,000 went into his own pocket—which, if true, is a low price for the integrity of a former Marine who by all accounts was a zealot for his old cause. And Ritter didn’t need to switch sides to make money. A few years ago, he had ample work as an Iraq-bashing TV analyst, lecturer, and author. As a Bush critic, he may be more visible, but he is certainly less employable; Fox News, for instance, dumped him as an analyst after deciding his views had become too pro-Iraq.

What’s more, Ritter’s conversion apparently began before he ever met al-Khafaji. In 1999 he published Endgame, a book that railed against the Clinton administration, labeled the sanctions against Iraq “evil,” and suggested that the international community could do business with Saddam. It was only after Endgame was published that Ritter says he was approached by al-Khafaji. It’s possible that Ritter took money from al-Khafaji, or some other ally or agent of Saddam, before writing Endgame. But there’s no evidence of that.

Finally, Ritter hardly sings in perfect tune with Baghdad. He has recently called Saddam Hussein “a pathetic old, brutal dictator” who is “clearly repressing the innocent people of Iraq” and who he wishes would “drop dead.” Nor does he pretend that Saddam Hussein’s phony inspections ploys are a solution. “[I]f Iraq chooses to play cat and mouse and cheat, we don’t play that game,” he told the Guardian last week. “We back off and the Security Council takes decisive”—presumably military—”action.” Ritter’s basic position—that the Bush administration should work with the United Nations to win the return of an unrestricted inspections process under the threat of force—is not so different from Al Gore’s.

Why else would Ritter be making friends in Baghdad? Another theory holds that he’s an embittered man grinding an ax against his government. Ritter left his weapons-inspector job in 1998 feeling betrayed by the Clinton administration, which, not wanting to back up his aggressive tactics with force, had grown uncomfortable with his runaway machismo. After he resigned, Clinton officials publicly trashed him. And just when he would have been looking for a new government job, Ritter learned he was under investigation by the FBI, on suspicion of being a spy for Israel (with whom he had shared some seemingly benign U.N.-gathered intelligence data about Iraq). Ritter had already been denied a security clearance a few years earlier because U.S. officials suspected his wife, a former Soviet translator, of having been a spy herself for the Soviets.

Together the experiences appear to have left him with an (understandable) persecution complex. “[A]fter all this time of serving my country I don’t want to be treated like Aldrich Ames or Edward Lee Howard. It incenses me. I’m not a spy, I’m a patriot,” he told the Washingtonian magazine in 1999, demanding public apologies from FBI Director Louis Freeh and CIA Director George Tenet. More recently Ritter fumed to the journalist David Wallis that “[s]ome idiots in Washington, D.C., betrayed me.” But a sense of betrayal isn’t an entirely satisfying explanation, either. Most of the national-security officials who Ritter feels undercut him, like MadeleineAlbright and Sandy Berger, are now out of government. And it’s hard to see how questioning George Bush’s Iraq policy amounts to revenge against the FBI.

Perhaps a better possibility is thatduring his thousands of hours in Iraq, Ritter developed something like Stockholm syndrome. He may feel a genuine concern for Iraq that makes him want to see it restored to economic and political health. In interviews Ritter has spoken of the “warmth” of the Iraqi people, the beauty of the country’s mosques and ziggurats, and the suffering of children who he says are victims of economic sanctions. It’s conceivable that Ritter has simply had a change of heart about our Iraq policy and is too bull-headed to acknowledge it. (One person who knows him says Ritter once told him, in all seriousness, “I’ve never been wrong.”) But if Scott Ritter wants to be treated with respect and not with mistrust, he’ll have to admit that his story has changed—and explain why a lot more persuasively than he has.