Former U.N. Iraqi Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter discusses how he was personally involved in the MI6’s "Operation Mass Appeal" in the late 1990s to "shake up public opinion" by passing dubious intelligence on Iraq to the media. [includes transcript]
President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blairs’ justification for the invasion of Iraq has run up against what appears to be unintended scrutiny from an unlikely source — Paul Bremer, head of the occupation forces in Baghdad.
In an interview with London’s ITV-1, Bremer dismissed Blair’s allegation that British and American weapons hunters had unearthed "massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories" in Iraq. The supposed danger from Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMD was central to the case for war in Iraq, but despite months of work, the Iraq Survey Group, headed by David Kay, has all but given up hope of finding them. Blair has remained undaunted, insisting that the evidence would eventually turn up, and told British troops in his Christmas message that the information on laboratories showed Saddam had attempted to "conceal weapons".
But when the claim was put to Bremer, he said it was not true. Unaware that it had been made by Mr Blair, the American proconsul said it sounded like a "red herring" put about by someone opposed to military action to undermine the coalition. He said "I don’t know where those words come from, but that is not what David Kay has said. I have read his report, so I don’t know who said that ... It sounds like someone who doesn’t agree with the policy sets up a red herring, then knocks it down."
But when the interviewer told Bremer the statement was actually made by Tony Blair, he changed his tune, saying "There is actually a lot of evidence that had been made public,", adding that the group had found "clear evidence of biological and chemical programs ongoing ... and clear evidence of violation of UN Security Council resolutions relating to rockets".
This comes amid allegations from a former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, that MI6 — the British intelligence agency — ran a campaign designed to exaggerate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Ritter told reporters in the British House of Commons that he was involved personally with Operation Mass Appeal between the summer of 1997 until August 1998 when he resigned from the UN. Ritter said the MI6 operation was designed to "shake up public opinion" by passing dubious intelligence on Iraq to the media. A spokesman for MI6 said the allegations were "unfounded".
- Scott Ritter, former U.N. weapons inspector
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Ritter joins us now, the former UN weapons inspector.
SCOTT RITTER: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: First of all, can you talk about what you were doing with the British spy agency?
SCOTT RITTER: First of all, let’s clarify a couple of things. It’s not an allegation. The British Government did say it was unfounded when I first came forward with the specifics of Operation Mass Appeal, but according to the Sunday Times this past weekend, the British Government has now changed its tune and acknowledged that indeed there was Operation Mass Appeal, and that it was an MI-6 operation, and that it was designed to help shape public opinion. So, you know, let’s just understand from the start that what we’re talking about is not a mere allegation. It’s a statement of fact.
Why was I involved with the British intelligence service? Look, I ran intelligence operations for the United Nations in regards to the disarmament of Iraq. That was my job. Part of this job in 1997 and 1998 took on a propaganda aspect, given the fact that we had launched a series of controversial and confrontational inspections in Iraq, which although successful from a disarmament standpoint in exposing aspects of the Iraqi account which were not accurate, were causing problems for the United Nations in the Security Council. The Security Council as a whole was not backing these tactics that we were using. They were becoming more and more sympathetic to the Iraqi angle, which was that the inspectors were simply coming into Iraq and deliberately causing trouble, were serving the purposes of the unilateral objectives — policy objectives of the United States and Great Britain to target Saddam Hussein, not to target weapons of mass destruction, et cetera.
We made a decision. We, being Richard Butler, the Executive Chairman who ran UNSCOM, and his senior staff members, of which I was one, that we needed to clean up our public image, and we did a number of things. For instance, in the fall and winter of 1997, we worked with CNN to put together a very high profile one-hour special on CNN about the weapons inspectors, about the Iraqi concealment program, et cetera. This is something that caused the Iraqis and their Security Council allies great consternation. They condemned UNSCOM for getting involved in this kind of media game. Of course, it was the same media game the Iraqis were playing, in taking journalists on guided tours of areas in Iraq that weapons inspectors were trying to gain access to, saying these are nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction.
I was approached by the British intelligence service, which I had, again, a long relationship with, of an official nature, to see if there was any information in the archives of UNSCOM that could be handed to the British, so that they could in turn work it over, determine its veracity, and then seek to plant it in media outlets around the world, in an effort to try to shape the public opinion of those countries, and then indirectly, through, for instance, a report showing up in the Polish press, shape public opinion in Great Britain and the United States.
I went to Richard Butler with the request from the British. He said that he supported this, and we initiated a cooperation that was very short-lived. The British came to me, not in the summer of 1997, but December 1997. The first reports were passed to the British sometime in February of 1998. There was a detailed planning meeting in June of 1998, and I resigned in August of 1998. So it wasn’t as though UNSCOM’s participation in this was significant. This is an operation — Operation Mass Appeal, that had been going on prior to UNSCOM being asked to be the source of particular data, and it’s an operation that continued after my resignation.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Scott Ritter, who is a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, who says that in 1997, 1998, he worked with the MI-6, with Operation Mass Appeal. A spokesperson speaking on behalf of the British spy agency told BBC News Online: "The allegation that Ritter was using MI-6 material is unfounded." Your response to that?
SCOTT RITTER: Well, it’s absurd in the extreme. The allegation that I was using MI-6 material. First of all: what allegation that I was using MI-6? In regards to Mass Appeal, the statement of fact that I put forward is that UNSCOM provided data to MI-6, which then MI-6 used in the press. That’s no longer unfounded. The British Government has acknowledged this. They have acknowledged the existence of Operation Mass Appeal and its role in, you know, serving as a conduit of propaganda information to the media.
So, I believe that what we’re talking about here is that the British Government needs to be careful here, because, remember, there was an inquiry by Lord Hutton into the death of David Kelly, the former British scientist, who tragically took his own life after he was exposed by the British Government as a source of information to the BBC. During this inquiry, MI-6 was called to testify, and MI-6 stated on record that it played no role in shaping public opinion, that all it did was provide, you know, intelligence assessment to the British Government, and that was all its job was: collecting intelligence data and then providing assessments on this data and giving it to the British Government. Now, you know, after being summoned to testify under oath for an official committee, the British Government has to acknowledge that: "No, wait a minute, there was an intelligence operation run by MI-6, which did involve, you know, passing intelligence to media outlets for propaganda purposes." The revelation of Mass Appeal has totally contradicted, you know, sworn testimony of British intelligence services, and this should cause great consternation not only for Lord Hutton and his inquiry, which it appears now they were misled or lied to, but also the British Parliament, which needs to take a closer look, in my opinion, at how public opinion was shaped by the British Government in regards to, you know, alleged threats coming from Iraq in the form of weapons of mass destruction. Let’s keep this all in focus, by noting that Tony Blair said that there were massive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. His government published a dossier which backed up these unfounded allegations.
Now, we are almost ten months into an occupation of Iraq, and no such weaponry has been found. That should be everyone’s focus. Where are the weapons? Why did the British Government say these weapons existed before the war, and if the British Government didn’t have the data necessary to sustain these allegations, were they lying when they made their assessments or were they simply manipulating the public? This is something that should be looked into. The existence of operations like Mass Appeal run by British intelligence services designed to manipulate public opinion should be examined in great detail.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Ritter, why didn’t you say this before the invasion?
SCOTT RITTER: Well, before the invasion, I have said many things. I have gone on record saying that the British Government has manipulated data. I have gone on record challenging the assessments of the British Government and the United States Government. I have said straight up that they don’t have this data to back up these allegations. I have said straight up they are misinforming the public, misrepresenting data. I have said straight up that their intelligence services cannot back up the claims being made. What I didn’t say, was Operation Mass Appeal. Should I have said that before? Look, Amy — I’m sitting on a wealth of data. You could interview me for a year, and I would come up with something new and dramatic every time you talked to me. Why didn’t I pick that particular piece of data? Which piece of data do you want me to pick out of my seven-year experiences of weapons inspector which was very detailed and involved, multifaceted operations around world?
I did mention Mass Appeal to journalists in the spring of 2003, the summer of 2003. And some journalists chose not to do anything with it. Other journalists like Seymour Hersh ran major articles. Seymour Hersh ran an article in the New Yorker, although he didn’t mention Operation Mass Appeal by name, he did talk about MI-6’s information operations division and how they passed information to the media. He talked about the similar operation undertaken by the CIA, but nobody seemed to take notice. So, when I’m at the House of Commons in November of this year, in a meeting with British parliamentarians, and it becomes clear that the British parliamentarians are willing to rest on the laurels of the Hutton report that they were comfortable with the statements made by MI-6 and British intelligence, about their role with the media, I said, "Oh, look, it’s time you guys big a little bit deeper. I’m going to give you some assistance, by putting — by sharing this data with you." And I gave them the name of the operation, I gave them the name of the intelligence service, and I gave them the name of the people involved. I gave the name people involved off the record because they are serving intelligence officers, and the publication of their names would represent a threat to them and their families. So, hopefully no one is ever going to mention those names, but by providing those names to specific sources, they were able to pin down as the Sunday Times did this past weekend, the British Government caught them in a lie and compelled them to acknowledge Mass Appeal.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you give specific examples of disinformation that you gave to the MI-6?
SCOTT RITTER: First of all, I didn’t give disinformation to MI-6. I provided, as I clearly stated, intelligence data that was unverifiable. I provided intelligence data that was unactionable. UNSCOM had a number of files of data pertaining to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program that lacked the specificity necessary for to us take action. So, these files were sitting in our cabinet doing nothing, gathering dust. What the British wanted were these files to be transferred to them, so that they could then work these files over using their own information, seeing if they could determine the veracity of this information, and then make an effort, if the information was accurate, and this is according to the agreement that we had, if this information was accurate, they would then seek to plant it in the media abroad. So, it wasn’t a disinformation campaign that I was involved in. It was a propaganda campaign, one that we felt was politically necessary, given the political events of 1997, 1998.
AMY GOODMAN: What specifically was planted?
SCOTT RITTER: Again, and this is what I have told the British, and I’ll say it right now. What needs to happen, isn’t for Scott Ritter to pull out one or two examples and give it you to or anyone else. What needs to happen, happened. The British Government acknowledged now that their intelligence service, their secret intelligence service, was involved, contrary to the public statements of the MI-6 Chief to Lord Hutton’s inquiry involved in a propaganda campaign designed to shape public opinion. So what needs to happen is, rather than me continuing to snipe from the edge, now that the government has acknowledged this, there must be an inquiry in which MI-6 is required to put all of its files. Don’t ask me what MI-6 was doing. Ask MI-6. Demand that the files be put before the British Parliament. Demand that the people understand the totality of this propaganda campaign. Was this propaganda campaign disinformation? Did the British intelligence service deliberately plant data which they knew was unsustainable, unverifiable–data which they couldn’t back up with anything else? This is the key of the question. Not to come back to the man who’s trying to do his best to expose the truth by saying, "Give us specific examples." I can do that, and I have told the British Parliament, that if you want to have an inquiry and call me before you, I will testify under oath about this; but right now, the pressure should be put on the British Government to provide the data, not on other individuals.
AMY GOODMAN: Looking at the Sunday Times of London, it says that Mr. Ritter said he obtained approval to cooperate with Richard Butler, then Executive Chair of the UN Special Commission on Iraq Disarmament. Mr. Butler, now Governor of Tasmania, said yesterday he had no recollection of this. He said he would not have approved any operations falling outside of his disarmament mandate. "We have a choice with respect to Scott Ritter," Butler said. "Either he was misleading me when he worked for me, or he has chosen to mislead the public subsequently. He goes on to say, "He robustly advised me that Iraq retained unaccounted-for WMDs. I think his advice, then, was correct." Your response.
SCOTT RITTER: Well, Amy. If you compare my public statements with Richard Butler’s public statements in regards to Iraq weapons of mass destruction programs, I think I have a very good track record. In fact, it’s been 100% in terms of being accurate. I don’t make anything up. Every time I say something, it’s a statement of fact, and you can go to the bank with it. Richard Butler, on the other hand, has been publicly contradicted on any number of occasions about his assessments and about his statements. This is a man who testified before the United States Congress and told them that these weapons existed, that he knew they existed. I called him on this, on television on CNN. I called him a liar in front of everybody. I said, "You’re lying. You cannot make that statement of certainty." I never once told him that Iraq retained unaccounted-for weaponry. I told him, it’s a matter of record in the United Nations, that we cannot account for all of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs and related weaponry. Therefore, we must investigate them as if Iraq was retaining them, that we cannot treat this as a light subject. Our job is complete disarmament. If we have unaccounted for material, we must pursue it and pursue it aggressively. This was my advice to Richard Butler.
In December of 1997, I approached Richard Butler about this issue of Mass Appeal. The British Government through their station chief, the MI-6 station chief in New York, had requested that we do not put this in writing. So I went to Richard Butler and sought verbal permission. Richard Butler gave me this verbal permission. Richard Butler knows that this meeting took place in December of 1998. Richard Butler knows that there are minutes of meetings that we attended together in London in May — excuse me, the first meeting took place in December of 1997, in May of 1998, we attended formal meetings in London in which this issue was raised by the British Government in front of Richard Butler and myself, and Richard Butler again concurred with UNSCOM’s participation.
So, you know, I cannot say that Richard Butler is lying. He says he has no recollection of this. Maybe what I just told you, once he hears it or reads of it, will get his brain to dig deeper, and suddenly he will recall this, in fact, is accurate. I have been very accurate about everything I have said in regards to weapons of mass destruction. I stand by everything that I have ever said. And, you know, I think it’s Richard Butler that is the one that the media should start looking at askance whenever he opens his mouth about his investment in the disarmament effort. Because clearly, he is part of the problem. He is somebody who, you know, didn’t run a very effective ship when he was the Executive Chairman. He is somebody who stated with absolute certainty that these weapons existed. I have never said that. I said we had a job to do, a disarmament task to do, and we needed to finish that job. We needed to account for all of their weaponry. He took it a step further saying that Iraq retained this, and he had evidence of this retention. His statements clearly were cherry-picked by British and American political authorities to help sustain their own allegations of the existence of a massive stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That helped shape congressional opinion and public opinion here in the United States, and parliamentary opinion and public opinion in Great Britain to support a war that we now know was fought under false premises.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Ritter, I want to thank you for joining us. Scott Ritter, former weapons inspector in Iraq. Thank you.
SCOTT RITTER: Thank you.