Person of the Week: Scott Ritter

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Former inspector Scott Ritter, center, speaks at the Iraqi National Assembly

Never mind the naysaying European heads of state, the anxious Arab leaders or the skeptical senators — the unkindest challenge to President Bush's plans to take out Saddam Hussein this week came from erstwhile true-blue American hero Scott Ritter. Familiar to Americans as the rock-jawed Marine intelligence officer who stood up to Saddam's bullies in 1998 while serving with the UN inspection team, and got himself singled out for expulsion even before UNSCOM was withdrawn, Ritter was back on America's TV screens this week, but with a dramatically different message: President Bush had no proof of any new weapons of mass destruction threat emanating from Iraq, Ritter says, and he was lying to the American people to get them to go to war. Once a favorite guest of hawkish Republicans who regularly invited him to testify at congressional committees about the dangers of turning a blind eye to Iraq's weapons programs, this week Ritter was instead addressing the Iraqi legislature, decrying his own country's claims — and warning that readmitting inspectors was the only way to avoid a war.

War on Iraq's ongoing coverage of the U.S.-Iraq conflict

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Questioned about Ritter's assertion that the White House has no basis for its warnings about Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell politely pointed out that Ritter had been out of the intelligence chain for quite some time. What Powell didn't say, though, was that four years ago, when Ritter was on the ground, he appeared to be saying something a lot closer to what the Bush administration claims today: "I think the danger right now is that without effective inspections, without effective monitoring, Iraq can in a very short period of time measured in months, reconstitute chemical and biological weapons, long-range ballistic missiles to deliver these weapons, and even certain aspects of their nuclear weaponization program," he told PBS's Newshour in August 1998, shortly after his expulsion. He went on to argue that the only effective way to ensure Iraqi compliance with inspections was to threaten military action.

But Ritter's assessment of Iraqi capability appears to have changed dramatically in the years since his departure. In a recent op ed in the Boston Globe, for example, Ritter claims that most of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons would have degraded over the past decade and that "effective monitoring inspections, fully implemented from 1994-1998 without any significant obstruction from Iraq, never once detected any evidence of retained proscribed activity or effort by Iraq to reconstitute that capability which had been eliminated through inspections."

So what's up with Scott Ritter? How did he go from the very personification of U.S. determination to hold Saddam Hussein to the agreements signed at the end of the Gulf War to a vocal and committed critic of the U.S. government's efforts to oust the Iraqi leader? There are no clear answers. Ritter has never lacked for personal courage, nor for outrage. First he directed that outrage and courage against the Iraqi officials sandbagging his inspection efforts in Iraq; then, on his return the focus of his ire became the Clinton administration which he accused of betraying UNSCOM and ignoring the dangers of failure to force Saddam to comply with the letter of the law. But soon, he was also accusing the U.S. of manipulating the inspection regime for espionage purposes — a charge often made by the Iraqis — and it emerged Ritter had also been the subject of an FBI investigation over accusations that he may, in the course of his UNSCOM work, had unauthorized contact with foreign intelligence agencies, such as Israel's. (Ritter insists that liaison with international intelligence agencies was part of his job, and that all such contacts were authorized.) The full story of the inner workings of UNSCOM and its relationship to the world of espionage clearly has yet to be told.

In 2000, Ritter made a documentary film harshly critical of UN sanctions against Iraq — a film in which he sought to demonstrate that Iraq no longer represented a threat to its neighbors or anyone else. An increasingly activist critic of U.S. Iraq policy, the Bush administration's move to prepare America for war with Iraq prompted Ritter to fly to Baghdad and attack Washington's plans.

Ritter maintains he's been consistent all along, simply demanding strict adherence to the facts and the law, whether that be in demanding that Iraq submit to inspections or in challenging the case being made by the Bush administration for "regime change." But having taken to his new role as a peace activist with the same rock-jawed vehemence as he brought to his previous role as Saddam's accuser, he's likely to find himself in the coming weeks forced to deploy it once again in defense of his claims of consistency.