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“Where Are the Weapons of Mass Destruction?”
Posted on Aug 11, 2008
By Scott Ritter
In the past two decades I have had the opportunity to participate in certain experiences pertaining to my work that fall into the category of “no one will ever believe this.” I usually file these away, calling on them only when events transpire that breathe new life into these extraordinary memories. Ron Suskind, a noted and accomplished journalist, has written a new book, “The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism,” in which he claims that the “White House had concocted a fake letter from Habbush [Tahir Jalil Habbush, the director of the Mukhabarat], to Saddam [Hussein], backdated to July 1, 2001.” According to Suskind, the letter said that “9/11 ringleader Mohammad Atta had actually trained for his mission in Iraq—thus showing, finally, that there was an operational link between Saddam and al Qaeda, something the Vice President’s Office had been pressing CIA to prove since 9/11 as a justification to invade Iraq.”
This is an extraordinary charge, which both the White House and the CIA vehemently deny. Suskind outlines a scenario which dates to the summer and fall of 2003, troubled times for the Bush administration as its case for invading Iraq was unraveling. I cannot independently confirm Suskind’s findings, but I, too, heard a similar story, from a source I trust implicitly. In my former line of work, intelligence, it was understood that establishing patterns of behavior was important. Past patterns of behavior tend to repeat themselves, and are thus of interest when assessing a set of seemingly separate circumstances around the same source. Of course, given the nature of the story line, it is better if I introduce this information within its proper context.
In the summer of 2003 I was approached by Harper’s Magazine to do a story on the work of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), a CIA-sponsored operation investigating Saddam’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs in the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. David Kay, a former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector who served briefly in Iraq in 1991 and 1992, was at that time the head of the ISG. By October 2003 the group had prepared a so-called interim report, which claimed to have eyewitness evidence of Iraqi WMD-related activities prior to the invasion in March. The key to the ISG’s interim report was the testimony of “cooperative sources,” Iraqis of unstated pedigree purportedly providing the ISG with unverifiable information. With one exception—an Iraqi nuclear scientist who had been killed by coalition forces—David Kay failed to provide the name or WMD association of any of the sources he used for his report, making any effort to verify their assertions impossible. Many of the senior Iraqis who had openly contradicted Kay’s report were, and still are to this day, muzzled behind the walls of an American prison in Baghdad. But there was another group of Iraqis, the former scientists and technicians involved in Iraq’s WMD programs who were known to have been interviewed by the ISG, and who were released back into Iraqi society. These scientists held the key to deciphering the vague pronouncements of the ISG interim report, and could help to distinguish between fact and fiction.
Many of these scientists remained intimidated by their ISG experience, which often involved lengthy imprisonment and harsh interrogation. Loath to run afoul of their American occupiers, and tethered financially to a monthly stipend designed to keep them from exporting their WMD know-how out of Iraq (and, it has been suggested, from talking too freely with the media), these Iraqi scientists possessed a wealth of data which was difficult to tap into. In my own effort to research the veracity of David Kay’s assertions, I made use of my connections within the community of former Iraqi WMD scientists to try to gain access to what they knew. One in particular, who, because of ongoing security concerns, will be identified only as Mohammed, worked to facilitate my visit, arranging for meetings with Iraqis who possessed firsthand knowledge about not only the past WMD programs but also the ongoing efforts of the ISG.
“You are welcome to Baghdad,” Mohammed wrote me in mid-October 2003, after I had informed him of my intent to travel there and what my purpose was. “You can have my full support.” After a back-and-forth exchange of e-mails with Mohammed on the subject of my visit, I finalized my agenda and reconfirmed the interviews I wanted arranged. I followed my e-mail to Mohammed on Nov. 5 with a detailed communication to the Coalition Provisional Authority, outlining both my proposed schedule in Iraq and requests for interviews with CPA and ISG officials and tours of related facilities.
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“I request that you adjourn your scheduled trip to Baghdad,” Mohammed pleaded. “If you decide to continue with your intention, then I am very sorry to tell you that taking the overall environment in my country I am not able to support your mission. The main reason would be to preserve my life during or after it is concluded.”
One does not view such a communication lightly. I immediately contacted Lewis Lapham at Harper’s Magazine, as well as some trusted colleagues with experience in journalism and intelligence affairs. All agreed that in this case, discretion was the better part of valor. My trip to Baghdad was called off, but not the pursuit of the fate of Iraq’s WMD. The journey of discovery had simply been re-routed, and instead of going to Mohammed, I brought Mohammed to me. Mohammed made his way to Amman, Jordan, where we met over a period of five days in December 2003 to discuss Iraq’s past proscribed weapons programs. Before we could move forward on that complex topic, however, I needed to clear up the canceled Baghdad trip and, in particular, Mohammed’s e-mail regarding a threat to his, and my, life.
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