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UNSCOM released this photo showing the destruction of a biological weapons site in February. (Reuters)
Page Three

Change of Commanders
Continued from preceding page

When Ekeus left the commission on July 1, 1997, the political and operational questions around UNSCOM's use of intelligence were beginning to come to a head. The man who inherited them was a voluble Australian of large charms but blunt affect, little loved among the guardians of U.N. protocol.

Richard Butler, Ekeus's replacement, is the subject of several unadmiring stories told by confidants of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. One has it that Butler attended a dinner party hosted by then-U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson, packed with ambassadors and international civil servants. The pleasant buzz of conversation ground to a halt at Butler's loud interjection: "Are you out of your bloody mind?" After an awkward silence, Annan's confidant recounted, someone piped in: "That's Australian for diplomacy."

But the real source of unease about Butler within the U.N. secretariat and Security Council was UNSCOM's provocative probing of Iraqi secret services. Annan – his special envoy to Iraq, Prakash Shah, told Butler – wants "peace at any cost."

On Aug. 4, barely a month after taking office as executive chairman, Butler called a 90-minute meeting to put his stamp on the commission's most sensitive work. Three others attended: Charles Duelfer, the deputy chairman; Rachel Davies, who leads the Information Assessment Unit, UNSCOM's euphemism for intelligence; and Ritter.

Butler knew there was nothing more controversial for UNSCOM than Ritter's efforts to probe Iraq's special security organs. But those organs were the center, he said, of "the defeat UNSCOM industry." The commission was entitled to "take a lively interest" in any activity aimed at thwarting its work. He put Ritter in charge of a new Special Investigations Unit, repackaging the team Ritter already ran, and gave his blessing to continued use of the Shake the Tree channels from London and Tel Aviv.

The Clinton administration was more and more worried about Ritter, and about Israel. During a polygraph examination in late 1996, taken as part of his application for a job at the CIA, Ritter was asked about his overseas work. "They ask, 'Have you ever had contact with a foreign intelligence agency?'" said one U.S. official. "You say yes and it sends these guys . . . into orbit. Scott came in with a list."

Ritter's answers were referred to the FBI, which began a counterintelligence investigation. Among the concerns was his August 1991 marriage to Marina Khatiashvili, a former Soviet Georgian interpreter for the American team that had monitored an arms control pact in Votkinsk. Ritter had been married when they met, and he and colleagues insist that his romance with Khatiashvili began after he left Votkinsk. But her job had required her to report to the KGB, and Ritter knew he was imperiling his security clearance by marrying her, even afterward. "I was in love with Marina," Ritter said.

A Troublesome Link

The bigger problem for Clinton administration policymakers was Ritter's connection to Israel. Present and former officials at UNSCOM insisted that Ritter had authority for all he did there, and several U.S. officials agreed. But they said the mere fact of an FBI investigation involving Ritter and Israel raised unacceptable diplomatic risks if exposed.

"What you don't want is what the Iraqis are doing now, which is charging UNSCOM with having a secret Israeli connection," said one high-ranking official.

Twice this year, as Shake the Tree progressed, the Clinton administration asked Butler to remove Ritter from the spotlight. On Jan. 15, as a crisis over access to suspected weapons sites began to swell, and the administration oversaw a military buildup in the gulf, Washington asked Butler to withdraw Ritter from Baghdad and abort his planned search of the SSO headquarters the next day. And in March, when it came time to test an inspections deal by Annan that had narrowly averted massive U.S. airstrikes a month earlier, Albright and Berger pushed for UNSCOM to send anyone but Ritter for the job.

One U.S. official, explaining the efforts, said, "it could be in the national interest, to make UNSCOM work, but not in Scott Ritter's personal interest."

Richardson, who generally supported UNSCOM's arguments that Ritter was uniquely qualified, successfully outflanked efforts by Albright in the first days of March to persuade Butler otherwise. Butler had wrestled with the decision, finally permitting Ritter to fly to Baghdad for the inspections that would bring him face to face with the marriage registrars. But on March 3, as the inspectors assembled, Butler telephoned to relieve Ritter of command.

At the Baghdad Monitoring and Verification Center, UNSCOM's forward headquarters, the remaining leaders of the team revolted. Cobb-Smith, Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack, Cees Wolterbeek and Bill McLaughlin sent a "chairman's eyes only" fax back to Butler urging him to call off the whole inspection because, without Ritter, it would be a failure. They argued that Iraq, which had loudly accused Ritter of being a spy, would also see his removal as a victory for its approach of launching propaganda attacks on individual inspectors.

Richardson, in New York, got wind of the rebellion and set out frantically to find Butler at Time magazine's 75th anniversary dinner. He was determined to speak to him before Albright did, according to witnesses, and rushed through Radio City Music Hall past such celebrities as Mikhail Gorbachev and Lauren Bacall. Finally he found Butler and urged him to let Ritter keep the job. Then he flagged down President Clinton, who knew nothing about the dispute, and arranged for a congratulatory compliment for Butler on UNSCOM's work.

"I've talked to the president himself, and you're on," Ritter remembers hearing Butler say by telephone not long afterward.

The March exercise of Shake the Tree proved the richest haul yet of evidence on the manner in which Iraq moved its contraband, according to knowledgeable officials. Soon afterward, for reasons that remain hard to assess, the United States resumed its principal role in support of Shake the Tree and Israel and the United Kingdom withdrew.

Four people with knowledge of those events gave four different accounts of the reasons – attributing the change, variously, to Butler's anxieties about the previous arrangement, the unwillingness of London and Tel Aviv to continue, American wishes to remove the risk of an Israeli role, and mere substitution of a superior technical approach.

Washington got much the control it wanted in 1994: An operation supported under U.S. classification rules. Duelfer, the deputy chairman, has American security clearances. Butler is cleared through CANUKAUS, the intelligence-sharing arrangement among Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. One result of the change, intended or not, is that Ritter was left out of the information loop.

In the shell within a shell that UNSCOM had become, Ritter had no way to be sure who had cut off his information supply. Some American officials said it was Butler. Butler, in an interview, said: "It was not my decision. It's an American one. I never lost confidence in Scott."

A Hero, to Some

In Ritter's celebrity since his resignation, he has been heralded as a hero and mocked as "Scotty boy," trying to make decisions "above your pay grade," as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) put it last month. Biden apologized afterward in private, but critics continue to doubt Ritter's motives and speculate about what drives the former Marine in his public campaign.

"Unfortunately, if UNSCOM is to succeed, it must, among other things both be and be perceived to be independent," Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk testified last month. "It is ironic that Scott Ritter and Saddam Hussein both argue that UNSCOM's independence is being compromised by the United States."

Ritter knows he is speaking aloud of things UNSCOM has long kept unspoken. He said he decided to do so because the commission was "terminal if something was not done," and "to go public you have to go all the way.

"I feel very strongly about the concealment mechanism," he said. "You can't find the weapons without defeating the concealment mechanism. One reason I feel comfortable talking about these [intelligence] liaisons is that it legitimizes the concealment investigation. If UNSCOM survives this, and I think they can, then it will add credibility to the charges and put the focus back on Iraq."

Those who know Ritter best, in and out of UNSCOM, are fiercely loyal, even if they are discomfited by impolitic talk of the commission's inner workings. Others, who like his stand in principle, see hubris. "Wouldn't you hate to share an office with him, though?" asked one pro-Ritter congressional staff member. "He's totally driven, he's self-righteous, and his way is the only way."

David Underwood, a retired Air Force colonel who was chief of the State Department's UNSCOM support office, said Ritter is simply "red, white and blue, and it's his culture. . . . His agenda, if I could speak for him, is that Saddam Hussein lives up to that [Security Council resolution], and that's it."

At the state dinner for Czech leader Vaclav Havel on Sept. 16, Albright had another view in a conversation with former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, according to someone at the dinner.

"Is he going to run for office?" Brzezinski asked.

"I assume so. It certainly looks that way. It's another Ollie North," Albright replied.

North, ironically, has left a number of unanswered phone messages for Ritter at the office of his lawyer, New York's Matthew Lifflander. He wants Ritter on his radio show. Ritter was reluctant to explain why he will not appear.

"I won't go on his radio show because I don't identify with his politics," he said finally, when pressed. "The man was a Marine Corps officer, testified in front of the Congress wearing his uniform, and pleaded the Fifth Amendment. And I just find something very wrong with that."

A New Strategy

In the policy review that came last spring, the Clinton administration concluded that a loss of diplomatic support left little room to back intrusive searches by threat of U.S. force. The best the government believed it could do for now is to maintain a broad consensus for economic sanctions. Without saying so much, Indyk acknowledged in his Sept. 9 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. policy in Iraq cannot be effective without the Security Council and "this fact has an influence on the tactical decisions we have to make."

A high-ranking U.S. official said the "conscious policy decision" in April was to "take the trigger out of Butler's hands for going to war," by slowing the pace of the commission's most controversial work. "It wasn't Ritter. Ritter thinks it was him. It was more Butler."

With inspections stopped since Aug. 3 and no prospect in view for their resumption, the administration now downplays their significance.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen praised the inspectors in Senate testimony last Tuesday but counseled "not to overstate what their role is": "If you take a group of 20 or 30 people, and you put them in a country the size of all of New England, plus New York, plus Pennsylvania, plus New Jersey, and say, 'Go find evidence of chemical weapons,' you are asking a great deal of those inspectors."

One American official said as long as UNSCOM continues to function at all, "and as long as [the inspectors] don't report positively" that their work is done, "that's all we need" to keep the sanctions in place. In New York, one inspector said Iraq might yet overreach enough to swing world opinion back in UNSCOM's favor, perhaps by tearing down cameras or by expelling the last passive monitoring teams.

"I still think there's a beat in this body," the inspector said. "The Iraqis could save us, depending on what they do."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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