Earlier this month, weapons inspector Scott Ritter testified before a Senate committee hearing about why he resigned his job as part of the United Nations inspection team in Iraq. Because of the manner in which I questioned him at the hearing, it has been suggested {"The Betrayal of Scott Ritter," op-ed, Sept. 6} that I was disrespectful. I meant no disrespect.

As I said several times at the hearing, Ritter provided a very valuable service to his country. He came forward and forced us to face a stark choice in our policy toward Iraq: diplomacy or confrontation.

Ritter advocates a policy that he described as "inspection-driven confrontation." He said the Security Council decided to seek diplomatic alternatives to confrontation, and some planned inspections were canceled after the United States raised questions. He stepped down in protest. I believe that was a courageous move.

As I pointed out at the hearing, the Security Council's alternative diplomatic policy is not without logic. It is based on a strategy of keeping sanctions in place to deny Iraq the billions of dollars that could otherwise be used to restart the program of weapons of mass destruction. Your paper may not agree with that policy, but it has some merits.

I also acknowledged that a policy based on sanctions does not guarantee that Saddam Hussein's weapons program will be curtailed. Ultimately, as long as Saddam Hussein is at the helm, no inspectors can guarantee that they have rooted out the entirety of Saddam Hussein's weapons program. And I said the only way to remove Saddam is a massive military effort, led by the United States.

That's the stark policy choice Ritter has brought before the American people, and I commended him for it.

The questions I raised at the hearing had to do with the implications of Ritter's confrontation-based policy. Ritter acknowledged that, under his option, if Iraq denied access to inspectors, the United Nations, or the United States acting alone, would have to use force to guarantee access.

I stated, "You have indicated your job is to disarm, and the only way to disarm is to have access, and the only way you can have access is either with permission or, if denied, forced access, right?"

Ritter answered, "Compelled access, yes, sir."

In my view, that means that an inspector, by forcing an inspection, can be taking the first steps that might lead the United States to war. I told Ritter -- and I still believe -- that a decision with those implications is "above his pay grade." I meant no disrespect and so stated at the hearing. I meant only that such a decision can only be made by the president, advised by the secretaries of defense and state.

As Fred Hiatt stated in his column, "Whether to use force, how to marshal support for it at home and abroad for its use -- these are tough questions that, as Albright suggests, are beyond Ritter's responsibility." I agree. -- Joseph R. Biden Jr. The writer, a Democratic senator from Delaware, is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.