The former U.N. weapons inspector, who was scorned for saying there were no WMD in Iraq, speaks with Robert Scheer about American ignorance, the lies that led us to war, Iran’s nuclear program and more.
Special thanks to the City of Santa Monica and the Santa Monica Public Library for hosting the event.
Click here for Transcript
Part I: Hillary Clinton, Saddam Hussein and Iraq
Part II: Can we get out of Iraq?
Part III: Korea, Iran and why there aren’t more Scott Ritters
Part IV: Nuclear weapons and the war on terror
Part V: A question from the audience
Videography by Troy Witt, Editing by George Edelman
Robert Scheer: I want to get to the book. But before that, some general questions. We’ll go back and forth. Maybe for an hour, or something like that, and then ask questions, if that’s all right. Even if it’s not all right, that’s the way we’re going to do it. [Audience laughs.] I want to begin—-and I don’t want to single out any candidate. But ... Hillary Clinton last week .... [Audience laughs.] ... said that when she voted for the Iraq war, it was based on false intelligence. Others have made that claim—not necessarily candidates. What is your response to that?
Scott Ritter: First of all, it’s a pleasure to be here tonight and to have an opportunity to talk with you and be in the company of Mr. Scheer.
Hillary wants us to believe that the vote she made was a vote made in good faith. She wants us to believe that she was a victim of misleading intelligence. She wants us to believe that she is an individual of strong character and that we can trust her to do the right thing when it comes to leading our nation should she be elected to the highest office in the land. The most powerful office, by the way, in the entire world. She asks too much.
For us to say that Hillary was misled is for us to believe that there wasn’t ... that we need to erase eight years of Bill Clinton presidency. I know that Bill and Hillary didn’t have the closest of relationships during this period of time. I’m not being facetious here. It’s very possible that she could have been doing her thing and he was doing his thing: running the country. But even Hillary had to be aware that it was Bill Clinton that initiated the policy of regime change when it comes to Saddam Hussein. It was Bill Clinton that initiated the policy of economic sanctions, base containment and destabilization to achieve regime change. It was under Bill Clinton’s tenure that the CIA undermined the weapons inspectors, creating the perception of a noncompliant Iraq when the facts spoke other.
Never forget that the CIA today commits to the reality that Iraq was disarmed in the summer of 1991. The CIA today says, “Yes, this was true.” As a weapons inspector, we were reporting these facts to the CIA in the fall of 1993, right in the beginning of Bill Clinton’s tenure. It was the Clinton administration that refused to accept the findings of the weapons inspectors, instead maintaining the perception of a noncomplying Saddam in order to continue United Nations-based economic sanctions for the purpose of undermining Saddam’s regime, leading to regime change. Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, authorizing $100 million of U.S. taxpayers’ funds to go into overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The Iraq Liberation, which made it public law-of-the-land policy to change the regime in Baghdad.
And now Hillary is saying, “Oops”? She got it wrong? No. Hillary and the other politicians who voted in favor of war in 2002 took the route of political expediency. She, like John Kerry before her and others, were examining, weighing the costs/benefits of this vote. She and others knew that, should she vote against this war, she would be subjected to immediate and harsh criticism that would undermine her viability as a national political leader. With all due respect to Hillary Clinton and her current posturing, she is—frankly speaking—a damn liar and should be treated as such, and never be given the opportunity to lead the United States of America. [Audience applauds.]
Scheer: I didn’t expect it to be quite so partisan. [Audience laughs.] Let’s change the mood a little bit. I didn’t want this to be so much Hillary bashing, but, how can we learn? Bill Clinton—let’s take it away from Hillary and put it on Bill—he did resist the call to go to war in a number of different ways. He did try, for instance, to work out an arrangement with North Korea. He did resist a lot of this. What would have been the reason for going for regime change? What was the idea? That Saddam Hussein was a destabilizing force?
Ritter: Again, I give Bill Clinton the benefit of the doubt here. I think it’s only fair to note that the initiator of regime-change policy in regards to American-Iraqi relations was George Herbert Walker Bush. And the reason George Herbert Walker Bush chose to eliminate Saddam Hussein from power was that Saddam Hussein had become a political embarrassment to the first Bush administration. Because Saddam Hussein’s existence reminded everybody of the reality of the Reagan administration and the George Herbert Walker Bush administration’s very close ties with Saddam Hussein.
We were just talking at dinner about the fact that Saddam Hussein—the two crimes he was being tried for before he was executed, were crimes that took place prior to Donald Rumsfeld’s visit, when Donald Rumsfeld embraced Saddam, passed on a message that said, “You are a friend of the American people.” George Herbert Walker Bush sent Sen. Bob Dole to Iraq in March of 1990 with the same message. “You are a true friend of the American people.” It’s only in August 1990, when Saddam invades Kuwait, that he suddenly becomes the personification of evil. And it’s the requirement to get the American public from going from viewing Saddam as a true friend to the personification of evil worthy of military intervention that we had to change the mind-set. Saddam Hussein became the Middle East equivalent—and this is where Bush made his fatal mistake—the Middle East equivalent of Adolf Hitler, requiring Nuremberg-like retribution. These are direct quotes from a speech made by George Herbert Walker Bush in October of 1990. Now, when you call someone the Middle East equivalent of Adolf Hitler, requiring Nuremberg-like retribution, that means at the end of the day he has to be gone, in prison, held to account.
At the end of the Gulf War in 1999, Saddam Hussein was still in power. We didn’t go into Baghdad. We were never supposed to go into Baghdad; we were supposed to simply liberate Kuwait, which we did. Now Saddam Hussein is still in power and George Herbert Walker Bush has a political problem. And this is the point that I’ve made from day one. Why is regime change so important? It’s not about national security. Saddam Hussein never posed a threat to the national security of the United States that warranted American military intervention, whether it be in 1991 or 2003 or any time in between.
Scheer: But it’s kind of a depressing thought that you don’t have adults watching the store. Because I can go back way before George Walker Bush and ask, why did Jimmy Carter declare the mujahedeen in Afghanistan freedom fighters and challenge the seculars who were in Kabul? And that’s where 9/11 comes from. Why did Eisenhower overthrow Mossadegh in Iran? And that’s why we have the bloody madness in Iran right now. We can go through a whole history of the last 50 years where, in the name of making things better, we make things worse. You’re a guy who’s been out there in the field, sort of left holding the bag. You’re not nave about Saddam Hussein. You know he was a bad guy. You describe in one of your books—I forget which one—being at the Baghdad airport looking for weapons of mass destruction, and so forth. You understand. Yet, in retrospect, as I understand your writing, you don’t think Saddam Hussein was really the worst thing that could have happened.
Ritter: I was driving down the California coast a couple of days ago, went past Camp Pendleton, watched the Marines out there doing their thing, almost deviated off course, shaved my head and rejoined because I really love the Marine Corps. I miss that time. I appreciate their service to country, etc. But one of the things that’s imperative before we ask our men and women who honor us by serving in the military to make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country, is that it’s a cause worthy of the sacrifice. That means we have to study the cause and know the cause, understand the cause.
While I was driving there I was listening to the radio and there was a song—we talked about it—a Green Day song. One of the lyrics is “calling on idiot America.” [Editor’s note: Actually, “calling out to idiot America.”] And it just became so obvious to me that the American public doesn’t know squat about the world we live in. Here we are, we’re having a national debate about Iraq. “Where do we go with Iraq? What do we do in Iraq?” How can you debate something you don’t know? How can you solve a problem you haven’t defined?
And here we are talking about Saddam…. How easily we, the people of the United States of America—and I use that term because it is derived from the preamble of the Constitution, a document which defines who we are and what we are as a nation—how easily we, the people, are deceived. How easily we, the people, are manipulated. How easily we are pushed in one direction or the other. How quickly we bought into Saddam Hussein being the personification of evil. And while we were calling him the Middle East equivalent of Adolf Hitler, how little we knew of Iraq. How many people here truly know the difference between a Shia and a Sunni? Don’t feel bad if you don’t; the head of the Intelligence Committee of the United States Congress certainly doesn’t. How many people here know whether al-Qaida is a Sunni-based organization or a Shia-based organization? Don’t be upset if you don’t because the head of the Intelligence Committee certainly doesn’t. Do you know where Wahhabism ... do you know what Wahhabism ... ?
The point is, I throw out a lot of these terms, which are very relevant about modern-day Iraq, and you have complete ignorance about it. Not maybe you in the audience, because you’re here trying to make an effort to try and learn. But Los Angeles, last time I checked, has a population greater than 400 people. The vast majority of the people walking and driving the streets of L.A. today, or any city and town in America, know nothing about Iraq, and yet they feel free to have opinions about Iraq.
Saddam Hussein was a product of Iraq’s modern history. Saddam Hussein was a product of a nationalist movement that had its roots with Nasser in Egypt, that recognized that in modern Arab society you have tendencies to rip this society apart, called religion, that schism between Shia and Sunni. So you better damn well know the difference between those two if you want to talk about coming up with a solution, Mr. [Silvestre] Reyes, congressman from Texas, head of the House Intelligence Committee! But we might want to remind Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, who appointed this man. I bet you she couldn’t pass the pop quiz, either. None of them can. You better know that there’s not just the difference between Sunni and Shia, but a difference between Kurd and Arab, a difference between a Turkmen and a Kurd. You better know the difference between Wahhabism and those who embrace the following of Saddam Hussein. You better know the different religious holidays. You better know all of this. Saddam Hussein did. You better know that tribes have a tendency to rip society apart, too. That’s why Baathism, modern Baathism—and I’m not here condoning Baathism, I’m just stating reality—rejected tribalism, rejected ethnicity, rejected religion, and spoke of a unified secular Iraqi state. In order to achieve that vision, Saddam Hussein had to suppress the very tendencies that rise up and tear modern Iraq apart. And we condemned him for this? We called him a war criminal for this? Yet now we’re in Iraq, we took away the glue that held together, and we’re doing the same damn thing, but even worse. We’ve accused Saddam Hussein over the course of 30 years of killing 400,000 Iraqi people. Hell, it’s taken us four years and we’ve killed 600,000.
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Scheer: Your story, your analysis, has held up splendidly. The analysis of the people that you are disagreeing with has fallen apart. Whatever one thinks, history has vindicated you. What do they say to you now?
Ritter: They don’t say anything at all.
You see, the worst mistake they could make at this point in time would be to engage in a debate. I would love to have a debate with the formulators of policy. I challenge any one of them at any time. “Let’s talk about this. Let’s do it in a public forum. Let’s have winner-takes-all so that if you lose the debate, you jump off the cliff. And I can guarantee you: At the end of the debate, the entire neocon community will be in a heap at the bottom of the cliff and I’ll be standing at the top. [Audience laughs, applauds.] But they don’t want to engage in that debate. All they want to do is ignore me and continue to push forward with their….
Scheer: You interest me because you won’t toe any line and you’re still a Republican, right?
Ritter: I’m an American, first and foremost, but I will say this: I’m a registered Republican and I’m not going to leave the Republican Party. I believe that in order to cure it, good people have to stay in it.
Scheer: My point in bringing that up was not to make you…. You were telling me in the restaurant—your three goals, sort of three obligations you feel, and I find that interesting. Maybe you should repeat that, if you can.
Ritter: I was asked what motivates me, what drives me. The first thing is good citizenship. As a citizen, you have to invest yourself into your country. You have to give something; it’s not just about take. As a Republican, I’ll quote a Democrat. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That’s what makes a citizen great, it’s giving something to your country. I am able to give in a certain area. I served in the military, I served, as you know, as a weapons inspector. And I am positioned—unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view—when government is not telling the truth about certain issues. As a citizen, I have a duty and responsibility to speak out. Bad citizenship would be to take the path of least resistance and sit back and say, “Well, I’m just not going to get involved.” No. You jump in and you say, “Wrong!” because America is about doing the right thing. So it’s about telling the truth, it’s about being a good citizen, about investing yourself.
I believe in how America interfaces with the rest of the world. We live in this giant globe. We are 300 million people and there are 6.8 billion others out there? And we’re dictating the codes, the coexistence? One of the problems is—and I come back—ignorance. The American people are some of the most ignorant people you’re going to meet on the face of the Earth about the world we live in. That’s the bottom line. We can’t pass basic tests about global geography, let alone American geography. And as an American citizen I have a duty and responsibility to participate in the process of informing and educating the American public so it can rise above its ignorance so it won’t be intimidated by fear derived from that ignorance and they’ll make the right decision. These are the things that motivate me. Trust me: It’s not about making money, because if it was I’ve certainly taken the wrong path.
Scheer: But now that you’ve signed up with Truthdig, that’s going to change overnight. [Audience laughs.] I just want to set the record straight so we aren’t tormented by this by someone writing an article somewhere. You did loathe Saddam Hussein, right?
Ritter: Loathe is a strong word.
Scheer: I’ve read your books. You thought this guy was a bloody dictator.
Ritter: I’m a realist.
Ritter: And I’m somebody who believed in a policy of regime change. I believe that we should’ve strived to change the policy of the regime of Saddam Hussein. But there’s a big difference between changing a regime through a pattern of interface with Iraq that promotes growth of democratic institutions within Iraq so that Saddam Hussein is done away with without any loss of American life, and a policy of regime change that has us invading, occupying and destroying a nation. I’ve always committed to a policy of regime change. In fact, in February of 2003, right before the war, I was supposed to go to Iraq with a delegation of people including Nelson Mandela and others. We had a six-point peace plan that the Iraqi had agreed to. And, basically, these six points would have led to regime change. Not necessarily Saddam Hussein being dragged out and hung, but the embrace of democratic institutions, U.N.-sponsored elections, things like that that change the character of the nation for the better.
Scheer: Yeah. The policy that George W. Bush is now following towards North Korea and Cheney has embraced—they will now be taken off the terrorist list, [Ritter laughs] they will become good actors, democracy will flower—could have applied to Saddam Hussein. Let me ask you a question…. That we’re there now, and most people—certainly in this room, but most ... actually, most people in the country—know it was a big mistake and very costly. But then they say you just can’t get out. And we were in—talking again in that restaurant and we had that argument about—Vietnam for about 15 years, or something. You can’t just get out. And then when we got out, under the most ignominious circumstances, lifting people off the embassy and everything, quite the opposite happened than we expected. And now we have George W. Bush actually visit Vietnam and sit under a statue of the same Ho Chi Minh, and so forth. So what do you say to the argument, “Can we get out now?” and “How would we get out?” And so forth.
Ritter: Not only can we get out, we must get out. There is no positive thing that will come from the continued presence of American troops inside Iraq. We’re not contributing anything, anything positive. All these lunatics in Fox News and others can talk about building schools, painting schools ... whatever you want, and that’s just absurd in the extreme. I don’t even think anyone’s selling that poison anymore. They’re talking about the potential of doing good, but no one’s talking about us actually doing good because we’re not doing good. So, can we get out? Absolutely. Six months and we can have everybody out of Iraq. It’s a piece of cake. It’s not hard to do that.
“Should we get out?” is the question. Do we have a moral responsibility, having gone into Iraq and broken it so bad—you know the old Pottery Barn rule: you broke it, you own it?—should we stay and try and fix it? And, again, I believe this is fair debate to have. It’s a very legitimate debate to have. I would, first of all, say that it’s a debate that all Americans must be participants in, because to stay in Iraq…. I believe you don’t talk about solving a problem unless you’ve properly defined the problem. If we’re going to say the problem revolves around saving Iraq, rebuilding it, we’re talking about decades-long involvement that’s going to cost trillions of dollars—not billions: trillions of dollars—and will cost us significantly more lives. And it may not work. Some people say it’s a gamble worth taking. Fine. I’d just ask the American people to pass a pop quiz. Tell me about the city of Karbala. Tell me about the city of Baghdad. Tell me about the city of Kirkuk. Explain to me the significance of these three cities both in terms of Iraqi history past, current and future. And if you’re sitting there shaking your head, going, “What the hell is he talking about?” ladies and gentlemen, we need to get out of Iraq right now! Because if you can’t answer that question right now, you are not even equipped to weigh in intelligently about a policy decision that has America committed to several decades of involvement in this nation.
Karbala is the birthplace of Shiism. That’s where Hussein [in the seventh century] was wiped out by Sunni apostates, creating not only the Shia faith but creating the schism between the Shia and the Sunni.
Baghdad was sacked in the 12th century by the Mongols. As a result of the sack of Baghdad, the Sunnis said, “We got defeated because we lost pure Islamic faith.” It’s the birth of Wahhabism. Wahhabism, Osama bin Laden’s version of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism, was derived by foreign occupation of Baghdad. Huh? We’re at war with al-Qaida and the Wahhabists. And we just empowered them by occupying Baghdad. If it isn’t sinking into your head yet, it never will.
Kirkuk. Oil. Kurds. Turkmen. Shia. Kirkuk. If you’re going to have any hope of a unified Iraq, you have to tell me how Kirkuk is going to emerge from any post-Saddam environment, a unified city. Kirkuk is where the formal civil war in Iraq will start. Not Baghdad, not Karbala: Kirkuk.
And if you don’t know this, if you can’t tell me why, if you can’t tell me who the players are, ladies and gentlemen, you’re ill equipped to enter into a debate about the long-term presence of Americans in Iraq. So that’s where I come down to. Can we get out of Iraq? Absolutely. Should we get out of Iraq? If we, the people of the United States of America, don’t know enough about a country where we’re asking our armed services to give the ultimate sacrifice for, then we have no business being in that country
Scheer: All right.
Scheer: George W. Bush, reluctantly, or what have you, has followed a different model now with North Korea. It’s no longer unilateral. We defer to the South Koreans, to the Chinese, to the Russians, to the Japanese. Right? We take seriously the notion of multiparty actors who know more about the region than we do, who know more about what’s happening. We are now going to take Korea—not only will we give them aid and comfort, we’re going to take them off the terrorism list. Their guy is coming to New York. They’ve invited the U.N., and so forth. Why is that not a model that should be followed or would be followed with Iran?
Ritter: First of all, here’s the problem with Bush’s policy on North Korea. The people who made this policy are the same people who said they could never buy into this. These are the people who condemned Bill Clinton for what he did. I have to be questioning their motives. It’s not as though Bush came in and did what a CO does when a division [is] just failing abysmally. “You’re all fired, here’s the new team in, and here’s the new way forward.” So why would we go down this path with North Korea, which everybody who made this policy rejects? Because we have no intention of following through. There are so many caveats built into this that—. Trust me on this one: This North Korean policy will collapse inside of a year. But, what he’s done with the timing right now is to take North Korea off the map as far as the American people are concerned. We no longer have to worry about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in North Korea because Bush has just solved it magically, overnight, by a wave of a magic wand. Now we can focus solely on Iran and not have to worry about the North Korea problem.
Scheer: So we’re going to ignore North Korea, that’s actually exploded such a weapon.
Scheer: And we’re going to focus on Iran, that seems to be—what?—10 years away from having any.
Ritter: The funny thing about 10 years is, when someone says someone is 10 years away from having a nuclear weapon, ladies and gentlemen, if that’s the standard you use, every nation is 10 years away from having a nuclear weapon. Being 10 years away from having a nuclear weapon means you don’t have anything. Nothing. You’re starting from scratch. Yeah, you know, you can sit there. But what the CIA is saying—when they say they’re 10 years away—is: “We don’t have any hard data on Iran. We’re just making this stuff up as we go along.” The most current one is that Iran is one year away from having it. You heard the talk. They can have fissile material in one year. That’s derived from the premise that they will get 3,000 centrifuges to be up and running tomorrow and to run, nonstop, for a year—a year of nonstop operation, at the end of which you’re going to get 20 kilograms of 85 percent enriched, highly enriched uranium. Theoretically, that’s possible. Right now the Iranians can only get 164 centrifuges up and running; they have another 164 cascade-ready, but they’re testing it. And they have bits and pieces of the total 3,000, but they can’t assemble them. Here’s the other, unknown secret, ladies and gentlemen: They can’t do it. They can’t do it. Centrifuges are complex. They’re about yea big. Cylindrical tube. They have to spin around at 70,000 rpm. Did you ever play with a gyroscope as a kid? Spin it up and hold it in your hand and just doing this? That’s mass. It’s moving you because the mass is shifting around. That’s only a couple of hundred rpm. Seventy-thousand rpm. If it’s not perfectly balanced, it blows up, falls apart. To be perfectly balanced, not only do you have to have precision machining throughout, you have to have ball bearings, magnets. The Iranians don’t have enough ball bearings and magnets that work, so when they spin these things up, they tend to pop, and when you pop open in a centrifuge, it shuts down. They can’t get them running for a day, let alone a year. Then, there’s the problem of feeding in the gas, the uranium hexafluoride. It’s contaminated with a substance called molybdenum. Molybdenum—even if you’re just talking about a few, microscopic pieces of it—when it spins up at 70,000 rpm, develops a mass the equivalent of several kilograms. And what happens when you have something spinning with several thousand kilograms moving around inside? It pops. It blows up. The Iranians can’t do it. Everybody knows this. Except we, the people of the United States of America, who continue to believe anything we’re told by a media that repeats without question the assertions put forward by an administration that doesn’t give a damn about disarming Iran and is only focused on regime change using the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran as an excuse. [Audience applauds.]
Scheer: I do think applause is in order. The question I have, sitting here, I’m thinking, if you’re so smart, why aren’t you president? [Audience laughs.] Where did you learn all that stuff? In the Marines?
Ritter: A lot of people mock the Marine Corps, and sometimes it deserves to be mocked. Because we shave our heads they call us jarheads, and blockheads, and other terms of endearment. The most intellectual, philosophical conversations I’ve ever had—and I’ve been to Harvard, I’ve been to Yale, I’ve been to Columbia, I’ve been to Berkeley, etc.—are at a bar on a Friday night in a Marine Corps officer club with my fellow officers. Because—you know what?—unlike your Harvard and Yale and Columbia and Berkeley students, we understand what life and death is about. We understand what we are being committed to. We have philosophical discussions. We study the art of war. We study philosophy. And we challenge everything. And that’s the big thing: challenge everything. We take nothing at face value. Battalion commander puts out a new policy. We sit there and we tear it apart. “What the hell is the old man talking about? That won’t work. This won’t work.” We challenge because our lives depend upon it. As an intelligence officer I was told: “Never tell your boss what he or she wants to hear. That’s not your job. Your job is to tell them what the facts are. That’s your job.”
Scheer: So what do people say to you now, privately, when you run into your old buddies. Do they say, “You’ve got it right but we can’t speak out”? Why isn’t there more dissent?
Ritter: It depends who they are. I’ll tell you, inspectors more and more are sending me e-mails, calling me up saying, “Wow, Ritter, you were right, we were wrong. We apologize. We’re on your side. Da-da-da.” Military guys, they’ve always been on my side—the ones that I know. Again, I don’t mean to be insulting of anybody, but there’s three circles of people I care about: my family, my friends, and my colleagues. And I will tell you, without exception, the people who fall into those three categories, the people who know me, the only people who know me, have been on my side 100 percent. When you get outside of that, people who don’t know me, they seek to project any sort of personality trait on me that they want to. I’m a disgruntled employee. I’m this, I’m that, I’m the other thing. I don’t care about what they think. What I care about are the people who know me. And I’ll tell you, my colleagues in the Marine Corps, United States Army and the armed forces of the United States of America have been behind me 100 percent. Because they knew me before I challenged the United States on Iraq. They knew me when I was challenging the United States on the Iran-Iraq war. They knew me when I was challenging the United States on the Soviet ballistic missile production rates. They knew me when I was challenging the United States on claims of killing Scud missiles during the first Gulf War. They knew that, as an intelligence officer, I brought the highest degree of integrity possible to the game. I wasn’t always right, but I never deliberately misled anybody.
Scheer: Really, what you’re talking about is you’re someone who’s asked to pay the price for our folly. That it’s not a game, it’s not a talk show thing, right? It’s not a way of winning elections. And yet most of the foreign policy issues that you discuss in your book and we talk about have been used as part of a game, a political game. Hillary, for example. I didn’t mean to single out Hillary. She’s not alone. Biden takes a similar position. There are others. Kerry certainly took that position before he changed, and so forth. What I get from you in reading your books, rereading some of them, is a sense of outrage. I can only think of Kevin Tillman, Pat Tillman’s brother, who wrote a marvelous piece before the election and truthfully said the same thing. We put people in harm’s way, not because we really think there’s a national security objective, but because it’s important to some other agenda. I just want to know why there aren’t more Scott Ritters. Why doesn’t it drive more people crazy? Why aren’t more people speaking out about that?
Ritter: I can’t answer that question. I’m very honest about who I am and what I am. And I’ll tell you this: I am somebody who is a true believer. I joined the Marine Corps, I love my country, I was black-and-white about the world we lived in, I was a Reagan Republican. I didn’t even know what being a Reagan Republican meant. I just knew that that sounded good and that’s what I wanted to do. I registered Republican. I voted Republican. I didn’t study the candidates; I just went into the booth and went [making stamping motion] Republican, Republican, Republican, Republican, Republican, Republican. Because I thought that’s what good Republicans did. I went out and did my job. I did what I was told to do. I did it very well. But then I found that—as you said—you think you’re doing something that’s part of the greater good only to find that you’re actually serving as a front for somebody’s political ambition, that has nothing to do with the national security of the United States of America. That you’re asked to make sacrifices, or worse, if you’re a leader, you’re asking people who are trusting you by following you to make sacrifices. That these guys back there aren’t willing to write the check.
Now why aren’t there more Scott Ritters? What does it take to cross that line? Americans are inherently trustful. I was at a book-signing the other day in La Quinta in Palm Springs, and one of the guys in the audience stood up, and before he asked his question, he apologized. He said: “In 2003 I thought you were a nut, I thought you were crazy, I thought you were off the reservation. I couldn’t believe a word you said.” And he apologized. And I said: “There’s no reason to apologize. You had every right to believe that.” When everybody else is saying this, and you’ve got this lone-wolf character saying something else, you have a right to be distrustful of that lone-wolf character, especially when he’s talking about a subject that’s not easy for you to investigate independently. You’re dependent upon a media that’s feeding you for the most part disinformation. Today I have the benefit of the doubt because everything I said turned out to be right, so I come in with a little more leverage. But the point is that the only thing that gave me the strength to speak out in 1998 was that I was uniquely positioned by circumstances of history to have total knowledge about a very difficult subject. Even my fellow inspectors, they didn’t have total knowledge; they only had different pieces of the pie, and they were hesitant to commit to confronting the powers that be, because in the back of their minds they were saying, “There’s things I might not know.” And that’s the problem. There will always be questions in the back of the minds of most well-meaning people, that “maybe I don’t know something. Maybe these guys know something more than I do. I don’t want to be the one who seems unpatriotic by stepping forward. I’m going to be trustful of the system.” Ladies and gentlemen, I hope we’ve learned as American citizens that we can no longer be trustful of the system. The system is inherently corrupt because we are not engaged. The only way to reform the system is to invest in the system intellectually, emotionally, morally. And we’re not doing that. There will be more Scott Ritters, Bob Sheers, other people. I believe everybody in this room has it in you to do the same that I did, that you’ve [motioning to Robert Scheer] done, that other people have done, if you empower yourself with knowledge and information. But, void of that, you simply wallow in ignorance.
Scheer: Thinking about nuclear weapons and reading your book, and the whole idea that we scare people with these things—and they are very scary. ... There’s a certain assumption that some people can be trusted with them but others cannot, and your book sort of deals with that issue. Because it’s very disturbing for instance in the Mideast—well, why should Israel have it? And how are you going to tell these Iranians that they can’t have it? India, for example. The majority of people in India think they need one. Majority of people in Pakistan think they need one. And when you talk about this sort of ethnocentric view, it’s actually startling that most Americans seem to be unaware or don’t care that we are actually the only ... that the one nation we think can be most trusted with these weapons is the one nation in the world that actually used these weapons to kill large numbers of people. [Audience member: That’s right.]
Ritter: And more importantly, it’s not that we used them: We’re the only nation out there right now that has embraced a policy of pre-emptively using nuclear weapons in a non-nuclear environment, the current nuclear posture of the Bush administration. We’re the only nation that doesn’t view our nuclear weapons as a deterrence but rather as a viable tool of problem solving. Hence the renaming of certain categories of weapons as usable nuclear weapons that are fully integrated into the initial strike plans of many of our military contingencies that exist today. And what does this say? That old saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely is absolutely true. Nuclear weapons give you a false sense of security. It’s an argument I’ve made over and over again with the Israelis, that the nuclear weapon possessed by Israel only hastens the guarantee of Israel’s demise. That if Israel wants to live long-term and enjoy the fruits of peace and prosperity, they not only need to figure out how to live as co-equals with their Arab partners in the region but they need to get rid of their nuclear weapons. Because if you own a nuclear weapon, those who oppose you will always seek to have the equivalent of it. Iraq, when they were trying to acquire their nuclear weapon, realized it would take many years to get a nuclear weapon, and that’s why they went very rapidly forward with chemical and biological weapons, strategic weapons that gave them equivalency of the Israeli nuclear weapon in terms of deterrence. Look at the tracing. We started with a nuclear bomb; the Russians got it. The Russians got it; the Chinese got it to counter the Russians. The Chinese got it; the Indians got it. The Indians got it; the Pakistanis got it. Where’s it going to stop? It’s never going to stop. The only way to deal with nuclear weapons is to walk that dog all the way backwards to the very beginning, and it ends with nobody having nuclear weapons. That’s it. [Audience applauds.]
Scheer: And just so we understand what these weapons do, if that had been a primitive nuclear weapon of, say, the kind we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Manhattan, there would not be a Manhattan and we wouldn’t be having this discussion because we wouldn’t be having civil liberty. So we shouldn’t underestimate the power of these weapons
Ritter: Both the physical power, but also the psychological power of these weapons.
Scheer: Yes, the psychological power is very real. I remember visiting Chernobyl after that disaster and the absolute fear that gripped the scientists and the military people around there. But going along with that line—. So, we’re concerned about the proliferation of weapons. You mentioned Pakistan. We had sanctions against Pakistan when they developed their weapon. Those sanctions were lifted because Pakistan was needed to be an ally in the war on terror, and then it turns out, of course, as you mention in your book, the case of Khan, and you have a very lively discussion that it was the “father of the Pakistan bomb” who was actually the major person involved in this proliferation of this technology. And then just yesterday, I believe, George W. Bush, President Bush, chided Pakistan for actually abandoning the war on terror in Pakistan. The Taliban is growing, the al-Qaida, the leaders of course have not been captured. So how do you connect this with the war on terror? Do you think that this president has made us any safer? That he’s dealing with this in any serious way?
Ritter: The global war on terror is a misnomer. You can’t have a global war on terror; it’s just impossible to do that. The mistake we made on September 12th, one of many, was invoking war as a response to a criminal act. I’m not here to debate conspiracy theories on 9/11. I’m going to go with my working premise, which is, we were attacked by terrorist criminals who committed a crime by hijacking four airplanes, and then committed mass murder with these weapons. That’s where I start: A crime was committed against America. A crime was committed against the world. And the appropriate response—.
Scheer: Using very primitive weapons, though.
Ritter: In a very sophisticated way.
Ritter: It wasn’t nuclear bombs; it was airplanes.
Scheer: But there were $3 knives.
Ritter: Yeah, using the box cutters and all that.
Scheer: Which now has justified this enormous buildup of sophisticated weaponry. But go on.
Ritter: And also, TSA getting me to take my shoes off tonight at the airport. The bottom line is: A crime was committed. The appropriate response was we turn to the world as the world was willing to receive us and we say, “We must unite in defense of the rule of law.” [Audience applauds.] That lawless elements cannot be tolerated in global society. Instead we declared a war on terror, and what did we do? We became terrorists ourselves. How do you differentiate between somebody flying an airplane into a building, killing 3,000 people, and an American bomber flying at 30,000 feet and dropping a 2,000-pound bomb on an Afghan wedding party because we misidentify the target? Who’s the terrorist? How do we condemn the al-Qaida operatives for sneaking across the border and blowing things up?
Scheer: To play devil’s advocate here, the one was done deliberately, the other was not.
Ritter: Terrorism is terrorism. OK, what about the MEK? What about the CIA funding of Baluchi operatives in Pakistan who crossed the border into Iran, blowing up a car bomb, killing Iranian revolutionary guards? Is that not an act of terror? Or is that an act of freedom fighters expressing their natural desire to do the right thing? The point is, the global war on terrorism is a misnomer. We have created more harm than good. Again, you don’t solve a problem without defining the problem. And what we’ve done by reacting the way we have in Afghanistan is, we have not defeated the Taliban. NATO is getting ready to receive a major spring offensive by the Taliban. Al-Qaida not only was not defeated, al-Qaida has grown larger. When we attacked al-Qaida in 2001 when we responded on their attack on us, they numbered around 8,000 operatives. Today we’re talking 30-40,000 al-Qaida operatives. They have greater bases. We’ve turned Iraq into a recruiting ground of Wahhabist Islamic fundamentalism of a virulent, anti-American nature. The world we live in is a much more dangerous place than you can possibly imagine because of George W. Bush’s global war on terror. The smartest thing we could do is declare victory and say it’s over. “The global war on terror is over. Done. We win. Now let’s talk about bringing to justice criminals who violate the law on a massive scale.” And then we get the world to join us. But by declaring a global war on terror, we’ve empowered ourselves because this is an American, unipolar world, to do things such as the expansion of NATO. ... What does the expansion of NATO have to do with the global war on terror? The Russians want to know that question, because as a response to the global war on terror we’ve not only expanded NATO, but we’re now putting missile defense facilities in Poland and Czechoslovakia, prompting Russia to threaten to pull out of the INF treaty and build a whole new family of short-range and intermediate-range nuclear weapons armed against Europe. So ask the Europeans how safe they feel now, threatened by Soviet nuclear missiles we were supposed to have terminated in 1987. No, the world is a much more dangerous place thanks to George W. Bush.
Truthdig Editor Robert Scheer interviews Scott Ritter.