SHELL GAMES: The Hunt for Iraq's Forbidden Weapons
Foiled by Saddam's Concealment Strategy
By Barton Gellman
He planned to remove the drive and smash the storage platters beyond repair. But that would amount, he decided, to unlawful destruction of government property. Like so much equipment in use by United Nations arms inspectors, the Dell machine belonged to the U.S. Defense Department. Ritter settled for erasing it with a large industrial magnet.
It was nearly 9 p.m. on Aug. 25. The following morning, Ritter planned to resign his post with the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, where he had helped lead the hunt for Iraq's forbidden weapons since 1991. Alone in the commission's nerve center on the 30th floor of the United Nations tower, crouching over files beneath a pin-studded street map of Baghdad, he made a final sweep for the most sensitive secrets of a job no person had held before: United Nations intelligence operative.
Ritter meant to take some of those secrets with him. He had kept U.N. superiors apprised, as best anyone knew, of everything he did. Still, much of his work was improvised and his most sensitive relationships built on personal trust. He did not feel free to share all his leads or sources with any one government, including his own, and certainly not with every member of the world body on whose behalf they had been collected.
The 37-year-old reserve Marine had cause to worry about the security of any records he left behind. The FBI had warned of Iraqi agents on the U.N. janitorial staff, and the panel's leaders routinely left the building for their most confidential talks. Some of Ritter's ostensible colleagues reported covertly to home capitals that were ambivalent at best about his work. In his heart of hearts, as he cleared his desk, Ritter did not believe the intricate system he had devised amid all this could long survive without him.
No international arms control agency had ever tried to disarm a country against its will, but that is what the U.N. Security Council created UNSCOM to do under the terms that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Other such bodies, like the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, worked on the basis of treaties and consent.
From the start, the inspectors a tightknit group of chemists and rocket scientists, computer sleuths and biologists, trade experts and soldiers borrowed from contributing states were hated and harassed by the Iraqi government. But they made progress. They examined and verified Iraqi disclosures, on paper and in field expeditions that took them through bombed-out chemical bunkers in 120-degree desert heat. They demolished forbidden weapons with dynamite, or by cutting them to pieces with acetylene torches, or by burying them in pits of hardened concrete. They rid Iraq of far more unconventional weapons, as Western officials often recounted, than the allies had managed to destroy by ground or air in the war itself.
But UNSCOM soon discovered that Iraq ran shell games within shell games to hide the most deadly and sensitive weapons it was obliged to surrender. By 1994, the panel's active leads dried up with enormous gaps still remaining in its investigation. If the commission was to complete the work of the war, ridding a regional hegemonist of a biological and chemical arsenal and a nuclear program on the brink of success, its leaders concluded they would have to pierce what Ritter dubbed "the concealment mechanism" of the Baghdad regime.
Ekeus's decision meant UNSCOM was to play at a game of spy versus spy inspector versus spy, in legal terms that is normally the province of governments.
Ritter became the main figure in this risky enterprise, which he would call by a code name, "Shake the Tree." Its conception reflected his own outsized personality, skills and values. His own long journey into Iraq, which began before UNSCOM even existed and deepened as he rose from a junior UNSCOM hire to chief of its anti-concealment team, therefore became deeply entwined with the commission's.
Ritter brought skills to the job he had refined as a Marine "0202," an intelligence officer. Born in Gainesville, Fla., and schooled in Turkey and Germany during his father's Air Force career, he had helped police one of the last Cold War pacts as a 27-year-old lieutenant assigned to monitor intermediate-range nuclear forces in the former Soviet Union. According to Marine Corps records, Ritter received a classified commendation from the Central Intelligence Agency for his work in Votkinsk, the kind of letter that is presented to a young officer for perusal and returned to a vault at Langley.
Largely on the strength of that experience, government sources said, the CIA twice recruited him for employment, in 1991 and 1996. The agency rebuffed him in the end each time when questions arose about his marriage to a former Soviet interpreter.
Yet a Marine who once had and then lost the highest U.S. security clearances became entangled, at UNSCOM, in some of the more sensitive work of the U.S. intelligence community. And as much as he and UNSCOM came to rely on national governments above all the United States, Israel, United Kingdom and Netherlands they also struggled with some of those governments to maintain control of the information they needed to act.
Reliance on secret services, made inevitable by Iraq's resistance to full disclosure, held the keys to some of UNSCOM's success but also to its undoing. It raised in the end a subtle question that had gone largely unexplored save in unsubtle Iraqi propaganda over the years: Who was really running the commission, and with what aims?
The diplomatic ripples from that question, and the effectiveness of Iraqi spy craft in holding inspectors at bay, combined by this summer to bring UNSCOM's remaining program to the brink of defeat. On Aug. 3, Iraq announced the end of its cooperation with the inspectors. More than two months later, despite protests by the Security Council and warnings from Washington, there is no prospect in view of the unrestricted access for inspectors that the council demanded of Iraq, on pain of "the gravest consequences," as recently as March.
The Clinton administration saw itself as fighting valiantly, and with skill, to stave off UNSCOM's defeat. Ritter, disillusioned, read acquiescence in Washington's policy choices. His angry departure from the job made him a celebrity, wooed by congressional Republicans and talk show hosts and a speaker's bureau now trying to market his public appearances.
To others, his behavior harmed his reputation and his cause. Stung by criticism she thought unjust, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright charged that Ritter "doesn't have a clue" about the broader horizons of American policy, and she speculated privately that he must be planning to run for office, like Oliver North. His former boss, Richard Butler, accused him of unspecified errors of fact and of breaking the law by revealing confidential UNSCOM data.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company