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Seymour Hersh and Scott Ritter on Iraq, WMDs and the Role of the Clinton Administration in the 1990s

StoryOctober 21, 2005
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Scott Ritter, the former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, and Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh discuss the role of the Democrats and the Clinton administration in Iraq during the 1990s. [includes rush transcript]

Former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, Scott Ritter, and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh held a public discussion October 19th, in New York City titled “Iraq Confidential: How We Got Into Iraq and How to Get Out.”

Hersh is the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the New Yorker who first exposed the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq and is author of the book “Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.”

We play an excerpt of the discussion between Ritter and Hersh focusing on the role of the Democrats and the Clinton administration in Iraq during the 1990s.

  • Scott Ritter, was the United Nations’ top weapons inspector in Iraq between 1991 and 1998. He is author of “Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein.”
  • Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist for The New Yorker.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Ritter, you participated with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Seymour Hersh, who also wrote the introduction to Iraq Confidential, your book, at an event on Wednesday night here in New York City at the Ethical Culture Society, called “Iraq Confidential: How We Got Into Iraq and How We Get Out.” I wanted to play an excerpt of that conversation between you and Seymour Hersh and then come back to you.

SEYMOUR HERSH: One of the things about the book that’s amazing is that it’s not about the Bush administration, and if there are any villains in this book — I’m talking about Scott’s new book. If there are any villains, they include Sandy Berger, the National Security Advisor and Madeleine Albright and basically what this book does — and there’s been so much talk, I know we’re going to have to deal with it eventually, with the New York Times and all their problems there, but one of the things that’s breathtaking about this book in terms of — as me, as a newspaper — I’ve always been a newspaper guy, is the amount of new stories and new information Scott’s describing, in more detail and with named sources, basically a two or three year run of the American government undercutting the inspection process, and essentially, I think it’s fair to say — the question I would ask is: In your view, all during those years, 1991 to 1998, particularly the last three years, when everything got so intense, was the United States interested in disarming Iraq?

SCOTT RITTER: Well, the fact of the matter is the United States was never interested in disarming Iraq. The whole Security Council resolution was geared — that created the U.N. weapons inspectors and called upon Iraq to disarm, was focused on one thing and one thing only, and that is a vehicle for the maintenance of economic sanctions that were imposed in August 1990, linked to the liberation of Kuwait. We liberated Kuwait. I participated in that conflict, and one would think, therefore, the sanctions should be lifted.

The United States needed to find a vehicle to continue to contain Saddam, because the C.I.A. said, “All we have to do is wait six months, and Saddam’s going to collapse on his own volition.” That vehicle is sanctions. They needed a justification. The justification was disarmament, but understand that a Chapter 7 Resolution of the United Nations Security Council, calling for the disarmament of Iraq and saying in Paragraph 14 that if Iraq complies, sanctions will be lifted.

Within months of this resolution being passed — and the United States was a drafter and voted in favor of this resolution — within months, the President, George Herbert Walker Bush, and his Secretary of State, James Baker, are saying publicly — not privately, publicly — that even if Iraq complies with its obligation to disarm, economic sanctions will be maintained until which time Saddam Hussein is removed from power. That is proof positive that disarmament was only useful insofar as it contained, through the maintenance of sanctions, and facilitated regime change.

It was never about disarmament. It was never about getting rid of weapons of mass destruction. It started with George Herbert Walker Bush and it was a policy continued through eight years of the Clinton presidency and then brought us to this current disastrous course of action under the current Bush administration.

SEYMOUR HERSH: One of the things that’s overwhelming to me as a journalist was the notion that everybody believed before March of '03 that Saddam had weapons. This is just an urban myth. The fact of the matter is that — and my personal experience — and this, I ran into Scott when? In about 1998, 1999? And in talking to people who worked on the UNSCOM and also on the International Atomic Energy Agency, which did a lot of very first-rate reporting. And you know some of the people who wrote some of the reports, former intelligence agents from Britain, among others, they were pretty much clear by 1997 that there was very little likelihood that Saddam had weapons, and there were many people in our State Department, our Department of Energy, in the C.I.A., who didn't believe there were weapons. And I think history is going to judge the — what I can almost call almost mass hysteria we had about Saddam and weapons. And one of the questions that keeps on coming up now is: Why didn’t Saddam tell us? Did he tell us?

SCOTT RITTER: Well, of course, he told. Look, let’s be honest. The Iraqis were obligated in 1991 to submit a full declaration listing the totality of their holdings of W.M.D., and they didn’t do this. They lied. They failed to declare a nuclear weapons program. They failed to declare a biological weapons program, and they under-declared their chemical and ballistic missile capabilities.

Saddam Hussein intended to retain a strategic deterrent capability, not only to take care of Iran, but also to focus on Israel. What he didn’t count on was the tenacity of the inspectors. And very rapidly by June 1991 we had compelled him into acknowledging that he had a nuclear weapons program, and we pushed him so hard that by the summer of 1991, in the same way that a drug dealer who has police knocking at his door flushes drugs down a toilet to get rid of his stash so that he can tell the cops, “I don’t have any drugs,” the Iraqis, not wanting to admit that they lied, flushed their stash down the toilet. They blew up all of their weapons and buried it in the desert, and then tried to maintain the fiction that they had told the truth.

And by 1992 they were compelled again because of the tenacity of inspectors to come clean. People say why didn’t Saddam Hussein admit being disarmed? In 1992 they submitted a declaration that said everything’s been destroyed, we have nothing left. In 1995 they turned over the totality of their document cache. Again, not willingly, it took years of inspections to pressure them. But the bottom line is by 1995 there were no more weapons in Iraq, there were no more documents in Iraq, there was no more production capability in Iraq, because we were monitoring the totality of Iraq’s industrial infrastructure with the most technologically advanced, the most intrusive arms control regime in the history of arms control.

And we knew that while we couldn’t account for everything that the Iraqis said they had destroyed, we could only account for ninety to ninety-five percent, we knew that: (a) we had no evidence of a retained capability and, (b) no evidence that Iraq was reconstituting. And furthermore, the C.I.A. knew this. The British intelligence knew this; Israeli intelligence knew this; German intelligence. The whole world knew this. They weren’t going to say that Iraq was disarmed, because nobody could say that. But they definitely knew that the Iraqi capability regarding W.M.D. had been reduced to as near to zero as you could bring it and that Iraq represented a threat to no one when it came to weapons of mass destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Ritter, a U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector in Iraq in 1991 and 1998, went back in 2002. He’s speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh. This is Democracy Now!

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