By Judith MillerThe New York Times August 27, 1998
The longest-serving U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq resigned Wednesday, charging that the U.N. secretary-general, the Security Council and the Clinton administration had stymied the inspectors on "the doorstep" of uncovering Iraq's hidden weapons programs. The inspector, William S. Ritter Jr., said in his resignation letter that the failure to push aggressively ahead with the inspections was ``a surrender to Iraqi leadership'' that made a ``farce'' of the commission's efforts to prove that Iraq was concealing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
Ritter, 37, asserted that the lack of will stemmed from a policy shift by the Security Council and the Secretary General that was backed "at least implicitly by the United States." He asserted that between last November and this August, the Administration had made at least seven efforts to delay or stop an investigation or block a line of inquiry. He made his resignation letter public in an effort to force the United States and the United Nations to return to a tougher stance.
The Administration heatedly denied Ritter's conclusions, saying it had faithfully backed the inspections in Iraq. An Administration official insisted that the United States was ``keeping up the pressure on Iraq in ways that really affect'' President Saddam Hussein. Within the last week, for instance, the United States and its allies have quietly moved ships into waters near Iraq to keep him from smuggling out oil by sea. A spokesman for the secretary-general, Kofi Annan, said he "does nothing at the behest of Iraq." Richard Butler, chairman of the inspection team, declined to comment.
In an interview, Ritter asserted that the administration had been secretly trying since late last year to find a diplomatic solution for its confrontation with Saddam and in doing so had abandoned a policy -- in effect since the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991 -- to use sanctions and the threat of military force to compel the Iraqi leader's cooperation. The administration has publicly backed the inspectors, who have insisted on full and unfettered access to sites in Iraqi suspected of being used to conceal weapons or the expertise needed to make them. Twice in the last year the United States has threatened military action against Iraq for obstructing the inspections, and in February, U.S. warships were moved within striking distance.
But last week, U.S. officials acknowledged that the United States and Britain had privately urged Butler to stop trying to hold surprise inspections of sites in Baghdad. The officials said they wanted to avoid an open confrontation with Iraq after Hussein said he would no longer cooperate with the inspections. "The illusion of arms control is more dangerous than no arms control at all," Ritter wrote Wednesday. "What is being propagated by the Security Council today is such an illusion, one which in all good faith I cannot, and will not, be a party to." Ritter, a former Marine intelligence officer, joined the commission in September 1991, soon after its creation, and was assigned to help the inspectors ferret out whether Iraq was hiding information and material relating to its programs to build weapons of mass destruction, and if so, how. The Iraqis moved to block many of the inspections led by him and accused Ritter of being a U.S. intelligence officer, a charge Washington emphatically denied.
Ritter said that the "beginning of a slow death" for the inspection team began in earnest last October after Iraq blocked inspectors and provoked a crisis that led Clinton administration officials to predict that military action would be necessary if Iraq did not back down. Ritter said administration officials told the inspectors then that "there was not enough military power in the region" to provoke a confrontation with Iraq, even though the inspectors had had considerable hard evidence that the effort to hide information relating to Iraq's weapons programs was "run by the presidency of Iraq and protected by the presidential security forces."
The administration repeated its assessment in late November, he said, warning the inspectors again not to conduct more inspections aimed at revealing how Iraq was concealing the information -- what Ritter called "concealment inspections." In addition, Ritter said, administration officials told the inspectors that military action over the Christmas holidays was "domestically unsustainable," which he took to mean that it would be politically unpopular. Ritter declined to discuss which administration officials gave him and the other inspectors this advice.
Seeking to defuse the crisis in February, Annan and Saddam signed an agreement establishing new rules for the inspections. Ritter said that while he and other inspection officials were deeply worried about the agreement's impact, he decided not to resign, but rather to test Iraq's willingness to comply with the agreement. He was encouraged, he added, by the fact that the Security Council warned Iraq of "severest consequences" if it blocked the inspectors -- language that suggested the United States might carry out military strikes on Iraq if Baghdad reneged on its word.
Ritter, in fact, returned to lead a controversial inspection in early March. But in April, he said, the Clinton administration informed Unscom that it would no longer support intrusive inspections solely for the purpose of gaining access to sensitive sites, inspections that Ritter characterized as crucial to the inspectors' mission. In meetings at the State Department and the Pentagon, he said, he sensed a lack of support for what he called "concealment inspections," and felt that such inspections were becoming in the administration's view a "political liability" in the administration's view.
In August the inspectors received what Ritter called "two of the best pieces of intelligence
information we've had in a long time" about Iraqi weapons activities. Ritter declined to disclose the
nature of the information. But he said that he had advised Butler, the chairman of Unscom, that the
time had come to press aggressive inspections, and that Butler agreed.
Ritter refused to discuss the nature or target of the inspections that he claimed the Administration helped to stop. But he said they were aimed at Hussein's principal secretary, Abed Hamid Mahmud, who he said is responsible for orchestrating Iraq's effort to conceal information and material, and at the Special Security Organization, which carries out Mahmud's orders.
Ritter said he had gone to London to ask the British Government to supply personnel and material for the inspection. He said the British were enthusiastic about the inspection and agreed. But later, after consultations with Washington, he added, Derek Plumbly, the director of the British Foreign Office's Middle East command, said the British would not help. Ritter accused the Administration of what he called a ``cowardly act,'' namely, putting pressure on the British not to cooperate with the inspection. Ritter would not identify the administration officials he says put pressure on London. On Wednesday night, the administration heatedly denied that any such pressure had been exerted and repeated a denial earlier this month that it had softened its policy.
The administration, said a spokesman for the National Security Council, "regrets Ritter's resignation and has the highest regard for Ritter and his work." But the spokesman added, "Any suggestion that senior administration officials had conversations with the Brits about canceling inspections is a total fabrication." Meanwhile, CBS News reported Wednesday night that Ritter is being investigated by the FBI for reportedly sharing classified intelligence with Israel. Ritter, who is known as Scott, his middle name, confirmed the existence of an investigation but said he had done nothing wrong and would be exhonerated. reached for comment. An inspection official said, ``Scott Ritter is on very firm ground.'' Ritter had even harsher criticism of Annan. In his letter, he accused Annan of becoming "a sounding board for Iraqi grievances, real or imagined."