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The Making of an Activist, Final Chapter: [The] Butler Did It
In this fourth and final installment of the “Making of an Activist” series, the author describes the betrayal of the United Nations weapons inspection process by the US government and the weapons inspectors themselves.
By the end of September, the lack of a paying job was starting to impact my personal finances. I was doing a lot of travelling, and while many of the “big ticket” expenses associated with such travel—air fare and hotel, for example—were covered by the people who invited me (the major exception being my trips to Washington, DC to appear before Congress—neither the Senate nor the House paid for any of the considerable expenses incurred because of this travel.) Ancillary expenses such as taxis, food, and phone calls were not, and these expenses added up quickly. I soon found that my last paycheck from UNSCOM was exhausted, and I had major bills coming due with little or no money in the bank to pay them. Finding paying work became a number one priority.
Fortunately, Matt Lifflander continued to provide stellar support, and before the month let out, I was signed by a speaker’s bureau—Greater Talent Network—which immediately set out on the task of finding me paying speaking opportunities. My primary agent, Lisa Bransdorf, was brilliant, and the first contract she got me was with her alma mater, Drew University, where I spoke before a capacity crowd to good reviews. Lisa had accompanied me to provide guidance on how to make myself a more marketable speaker. When I finished, she simply said “Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t change a thing.”
What I was “doing” was telling the truth about what was really going on vis-à-vis Iraq, inspections, and U.S. policy. There was a ready and willing audience for this message—it seemed that everywhere I went the people in attendance were thirsty for what I had to say. But with this attention came increased scrutiny—for there to be a message, there has to be a messenger, and if people are having a hard time dealing with the message, the logical target for their attacks will be the messenger.
I was learning the hard way that once you turn on the media machine, it is not yours to turn off. Bart Gellman at the Washington Post was working on a major series which would provide the world with never-before-revealed information about how UNSCOM did its job—or, more specifically, how I did my job—inside Iraq. Another journalist—Peter Boyer, from The New Yorker—was provided unprecedented access to the details of my life and career, from myself and the people who shared it with me. From the perspective of people like Lisa Bransdorf and her boss, Don Epstein, this kind of coverage was a godsend—free public relations. And they were right—paid speaking engagements were coming in at a steady rate.
But there was a cost as well. As Gellman noted in his series, which was published in two parts on October 11 and 12, 1998, “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.” And Peter Boyer’s article portrayed me with a cartoonish simplicity that was far from flattering. My motives for speaking out were being called into question, which created a viscous circle where I felt compelled to respond with more details about the nature of UNSCOM’s work, prompting even more attacks. According to some, this behavior was harmful to my reputation. Some, like Richard Butler, even went so far as to suggest that I was making things up and, where I wasn’t, was breaking the law in releasing the information.
On the eve of the publication of Gellman’s exposé, I was travelling to Munich, Germany, where I had been invited to speak on leadership with a gathering of Siemens executives. The event was set up by Greater Talent Network. Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who had brokered the Dayton peace accords between Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, was originally scheduled to speak, but had been called away by the State Department for some emergency consultations. Don Epstein had suggested my name to Siemens as a replacement speaker, and they agreed. The fee was $30,000, for me an unheard-of amount (the fee GTN normally charged for my speaking was less than a quarter of that). I was in desperate need of the money to pay the rent and utility bills, and put food on the table of my family, so I jumped at the chance.
By all accounts, the event went well. At a reception afterwards, I was approached by a senior Siemens executive, who had read the initial Gellman article. “You should come work with us,” he said. “We could use someone with your skills. This ride you’re on can’t last forever, and while the crowds love you today, they will turn on you in a second if the political winds change. You don’t need that.” He gave me his card. “Think about my offer. Right now, you’re a passing fancy. But soon they will label you, and once that happens, companies like ours won’t touch you. You’ll become too political.” It was a great offer, one which in retrospect I probably should have taken. But I was in the middle of a mission to tell the truth about Iraq, and making more money than I had ever seen before. I thanked the executive, pocketed his card, and returned home to New York, richer but none the wiser about the ways of the world.
Scott Ritter will discuss this article and answer audience questions on Episode 62 of Ask the Inspector.
While I continued to speak out about Iraq, the situation inside Iraq continued to deteriorate. The back and forth between Iraq and the Security Council over the issue of inspections came to a head on October 31, 1998, when Iraq announced that it was suspending all cooperation with UNSCOM. (It had been allowing monitoring missions to continue despite refusing to allow “disarmament” inspections since August 5.) Baghdad declared that it would not resume cooperation until economic sanctions were lifted, UNSCOM restructured to reduce the influence of the United States and Great Britain, and Richard Butler removed as Executive Chairman.
The Security Council rejected the Iraqi demands, and American and British military forces were rushed into the region. On November 10 the Deputy Ambassador to the U.S. Mission, Peter Burleigh, summoned Richard Butler to his office and advised him to evacuate all UNSCOM staff from Iraq. Butler complied with this suggestion the next day, November 11. The stage was set for a major military confrontation between Iraq and the United States.
The unfolding crisis with Iraq brought with it a need for the media to cover it. While the ideal situation for televised media is to have activity take place within the viewfinder of a camera, this rarely happens. This means that there is a lot of airtime that needs to be filled, and the formula adopted by televised media is to do so with on-air “experts” and “analysts” who can pontificate ad nauseam about what is, or isn’t, going on about regarding their area or issue of concern. I was approached by NBC News to become such an expert, and on November 7, 1998, signed a three-month contract to provide exclusive on-air analysis to NBC News and its affiliates, MSNBC and CNBC.
This new exposure, when combined with the crisis evolving around Iraq and weapons inspections, compelled me to harden my “line” on the issue of military strikes against Iraq. Up until this time, I had pretty much echoed the stance I took when answering a question from Senator Levin during my Senate testimony about the need for the use of force to respond to Iraqi obstruction: “The issue of enforcing Security Council resolutions belongs to the Security Council and its collective member states. I am a weapons inspector. I have been tasked with carrying out Security Council resolutions which call for the disarmament of Iraq. The Security Council has established the law. We have been told to implement the law. And if blocked, the Security Council has promised to enforce the law. How they choose to enforce it is their business.”
I took this stand to protect my integrity as a weapons inspector whose task was disarmament, not promoting armed conflict. But I was now an on-air analyst working for NBC, and I was being called upon to offer my own opinion. While I remained committed to preserving the integrity of the inspection process—there had to be a legitimate disarmament purpose behind everything we as inspectors did—I also personally believed that should Iraq fail to comply, then the ceasefire that came into effect at the end of Operation Desert Storm was over, and the United States should go in and finish the job. I agreed with those, like former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who said occupying Iraq was a fool’s game. I was more inclined to support a massive, sustained bombing campaign of four to six weeks that destroyed the security apparatus surrounding the Iraqi President, making him vulnerable to a coup d’état from within.
This was the position I took in my one-on-one with Senator Biden back in September, and it was a position I started to articulate publicly. For instance, on November 15 I appeared on “Meet the Press,” NBC’s Sunday morning talk show, where Tim Russert, the host, asked me: “If Scott Ritter could advise the president of the United States this morning, he would say, ‘Tell the Iraqis they must come forward and acknowledge all the [WMD] programs…and unless you do that, we will not send inspectors back in and we will bomb Iraq?’”
“Absolutely,” I replied. “Look, the United States said back in August one reason they wouldn’t support the Scott Ritter inspection team that was in Baghdad…is that it would lead to confrontation…that could lead to military action they weren’t prepared to undertake. Let’s take care of the problem now. We’ve brought it to a head; let’s make sure we finish it.”
I made the same point, but even stronger, in a short perspective piece published in the Los Angeles Times that same day. “A return to the status quo will no longer suffice,” I wrote about the objectives of any military action against Iraq. “The U.S. must encourage Saddam’s victims—the people of Iraq—to get rid of him as soon as the Republican Guard around him is destroyed.”
Following my appearance on “Meet the Press,” I flew to Boston, where I gave a presentation at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, followed by a dinner at the Harvard Club, both hosted by Graham Allison. I elaborated on the same basic concept—either Iraq must get serious about disarming, or Saddam must go. There was no room for half-measures any longer. Now that inspectors were out of Iraq, the U.S. should go for the jugular—total disarmament or regime change. It turned out, I said, that weapons inspections were, in fact, worth fighting for. My presentations at both the seminar and dinner were well received. “You won a number of supporters,” Mr. Allison wrote in a letter following my talks, “who now insist to others that the views you express be given serious consideration in policy formation.”
But then Iraq blinked. While B-52 bombers armed with air-launch cruise missiles were in the air heading toward Iraq, Baghdad sent a pair of letters to the Secretary General that, after some tense back and forth between Washington, DC, and Baghdad, created an opening for a diplomatic solution. Iraq capitulated to the demands of the Security Council and agreed to allow UNSCOM inspectors to “immediately resume all their activities according to relevant resolutions of the Security Council.” While President Clinton, in addressing the Iraqi reversal of policy, proclaimed that the inspectors would “go back to work without restrictions or conditions,” the reality wasn’t that simple. “Iraq has unconditionally resumed cooperation with weapons inspections,” Clinton said. “What does that mean?” The President listed five conditions in answering that question, including one that would prove to be problematic down the road: “[Iraq] must give inspectors unfettered access to inspect and to monitor all sites they choose with no restrictions or qualifications, consistent with the memorandum of understanding [MOU] Iraq itself signed with Secretary General Annan in February.”
This theme was repeated by Iraq’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Nizar Hamdoon, who noted in comments made to reporters after the announcement of renewed inspections was made that certain “modalities” applied to the work of the inspectors per the MOU Iraq entered with Kofi Annan. Russia’s UN Ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, likewise insisted that “UNSCOM also has to be guided by certain principles, including the respect for sovereignty of Iraq and respect for dignity of Iraq,” language taken from the Annan MOU cited by both President Clinton and Ambassador Hamdoon. The issue of inspection modalities was to prove to be critical in the weeks ahead as UNSCOM resumed its work.
The inspection modalities in question had been in place since June 1996, part of an agreement between Rolf Ekéus and Tariq Aziz designed to resolve repeated standoffs between Iraq and inspectors over the issue of inspector access to certain military and intelligence facilities teams I helped lead. The modalities allowed for an inspection to be conducted, without delay, by a team of four inspectors of any site declared “sensitive” by Iraq. As a Chief Inspector, I had implemented the sensitive site modalities on numerous occasions, and while the modalities themselves were not set forth in a formal Security Council document, all parties recognized them as a binding agreement between Iraq and UNSCOM based upon the precedent created by these inspections.
But the sensitive site modalities were not a panacea to inspection-based confrontations that had been hoped when they were first agreed to. Between July 1996 and October 1997, there were numerous standoffs between UNSCOM inspectors and the Iraqi government that tested the viability of the inspection modalities. These confrontations led to a renewed crisis between UNSCOM and Iraq that erupted in late September 1997, after I tried to lead a team on an inspection of a building deemed by Iraq to be within a “Presidential area.”
In December 1997 Richard Butler travelled to Baghdad to resolve a variety of issues between UNSCOM and Iraq, including inspector access to sensitive sites, and the new wrinkle presented by these newly designated “Presidential sites.” He was put on notice by both Washington, DC and London prior to his departure from New York that they both wanted the sensitive site modalities to go away. Iraq was either to grant the inspectors unconditional access to all sites designated for inspection, or there would be consequences.
Butler wasn’t up to the task. He was unable to gain any concessions from Tariq Aziz on the issue of Presidential site access. He fared little better when it came to the matter of sensitive sites. “One basic document,” he said to Tariq Aziz during a meeting on December 15, 1997 “is that which was done a little over a year ago, entitled modalities for the inspection of sensitive sites, a document issued by the then-Executive Chairman following certain consultations in Iraq, in Baghdad, in June of last year. From the standpoint of the Commission,” Butler said, “these modalities have not worked satisfactorily…from the point of view of the credibility of our work, they do not work.”
According to the minutes of that meeting, Butler and Tariq Aziz entered a tense back-and-forth dialogue over the issue of sensitive site inspections. The Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister indicated Iraq might be willing to budge a little on the issue of the numbers of inspectors that would be permitted to enter a site deemed sensitive by Iraq. The desires of the U.S. and U.K. governments notwithstanding, Butler accepted this compromise, if only because he had made no progress on any of the other issues.
“Mr. Deputy Prime Minister,” Butler said, “our preference is not at this stage to amend the past document…I am prepared to accept the sort of assurances that you gave and that we test it by experience for a month or so...in that context, I would say to the Council that you indicated to me that, with respect to the size of the team, Chief Inspectors could discuss that with senior Iraqi officials and that you would be willing to see an expansion in the size of the team depending on the size and characteristics of the site. A reasonable proposal would be responded to reasonably.”
Tariq Aziz nodded his agreement. “Yes.”
Butler returned to New York and made his report to the Security Council, which in turn endorsed Butler’s findings, and called upon Iraq to cooperate accordingly. The Council, in effect, gave its stamp of approval for the new sensitive site modalities that Butler and Tariq Aziz had crafted. While Iraq did adhere to the sensitive site modalities during an inspection I led in December 1997, following Butler’s departure from Baghdad, it wasn’t a true test given the fact that Madeleine Albright prevailed upon Butler to cancel the most provocative of the inspection targets. The Iraqis failed to comply with the modalities altogether in January 1998, when they stopped cooperating with UNSCOM inspectors altogether (again, a team led by me).
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Despite the Iraqi refusal to abide by the terms of the sensitive site modalities, when Butler tried to argue for their termination in February 1998, during the height of the crisis over inspector access to so-called “Presidential Sites,” the Russians, French and Chinese reacted harshly, with the Russian Ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, noting that “[w]e cannot accept the idea of abandoning the modalities for sensitive sites…we consider any attempt to renege on the existing modalities as entirely unwarranted and totally counterproductive.”
The will of the Russians, French and Chinese prevailed. On February 23, 1998, Secretary General Kofi Annan concluded a “Memorandum of Understanding,” or MOU, with Tariq Aziz that, in addition to creating additional modalities for the inspection of Presidential sites, noted that “the United Nations and the Government of Iraq further agree that all other areas, facilities, equipment, records and means of transportation shall be subject to UNSCOM procedures hitherto established.” As Butler noted in his book, The Greatest Threat, “This meant that our strenuous efforts to eliminate the invidious and now frequently violated sensitive site modalities had been to no avail.”
In March 1998 I conducted a series of inspections that served as the first test of the Annan MOU. I led a team to a number of so-called “national security sites”—the quintessential “sensitive sites” Butler and Aziz had discussed back in December 1997—that included the Ministry of Defense, which I was able to inspect with an expanded team of 18 inspectors, as well as facilities belonging to organizations linked to the security of the Iraqi President. The sites had been heavily sanitized prior to our arrival, but we gained access, nonetheless.
The new modalities were viewed a success by the Russians, French and Chinese, since they helped prevent a potential military strike on Iraq by the United States. But they continued to be denigrated by the U.S. government, which viewed the March inspection exercise (and the follow-on inspection, in April, of Presidential sites) as being the equivalent of inspectors being led around by their nose.
The American attitude didn’t improve when faced with the problem of supporting UNSCOM inspections of sensitive sites in July and August 1998, and dealing with the inevitable Iraqi noncompliance. When Iraq agreed in mid-November 1998 to allow UNSCOM to resume its work “on an immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted basis,” the Clinton administration decided that the time had come, once and for all, to bring matters to a head—despite the public assurances given by President Clinton that the Annan MOU would be respected, the United States would, behind the scenes, actively seek to do away with it altogether.
The Security Council called for a month-long test of Iraq’s commitment to cooperate with the inspectors, with Butler scheduled to provide a final report to the Council on December 15. In his book, Butler provides a detailed account of the period between November 15 and December 15, 1998. However, he references but a single meeting between himself and national security advisor Sandy Berger at the U.S. Mission in New York on December 11.
Butler conveniently fails to make any mention of a crucial meeting that took place between himself and Berger on November 30, 1998, when the National Security Advisor flew to New York to coordinate UNSCOM’s upcoming inspections with U.S. contingency planning for military strikes on Iraq. At that meeting, Berger prevailed on Butler to kill the sensitive site modalities, despite President Clinton’s public pronouncement two weeks prior that the February 1998 Memorandum of Understanding between Iraq and Kofi Annan, which codified the sensitive site modalities in its paragraph 5, was very much valid and in operation.
I was, of course, ignorant of the behind-the-scenes machinations of Richard Butler and Sandy Berger while they were taking place. Like everyone else monitoring the situation vis-à-vis UNSCOM and Iraq, I was confused and frustrated with the seeming acquiescence of the Clinton administration to the ongoing Iraqi game of “cheat and retreat.” In July and August, the United States seemed averse to risking military action in support of confrontational inspections. Now they seemed to be daring Iraq to challenge the inspectors once they returned to Iraq. But, as the Washington Post noted in an editorial published on November 17, 1998, Sandy Berger’s current commitment to use force if Iraq reneged on its promise to cooperate with the inspectors sounded an awful lot “like what he said eight months ago: ‘Failure to allow the inspectors to go where they want, when they want will result in the use of serious force.’”
What was unfolding in Iraq was a scenario that virtually wrote itself. “Sometime in the second week of December, inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) will once again assemble in Iraq to carry out surprise inspections of so-called ‘sensitive sites,’ I observed in an article for The New Republic. “[T]his exercise is a sham that will almost certainly play right into Saddam Hussein’s hands,” I noted, adding that the targets for the inspections “would most likely be drawn from a list of suspicious sites dating to last summer.”
When inspected, I wrote, “those facilities will be empty, their contents having been moved to secret locations elsewhere.” It was, I said, a win-win for Saddam, who will have prevented the inspectors from finding anything of value while appearing to be totally compliant when it comes to the issue of sensitive site inspections.
In the article, I laid out four options for dealing with the inevitable sham inspections. The first was to restructure UNSCOM and its mandate so that Iraq could be found to be compliant with its disarmament obligation and economic sanctions lifted. This was the approach favored by Russia, France, China, and Kofi Annan. The second was a continuation of the policy pursued by the U.S. and U.K. since the summer of 1998: allowing a weakened UNSCOM to go through the motions of inspection while containing Iraq through the continuation of economic sanctions.
The third option seemed to be the one the United States appeared to be pursuing prior to the Iraqi reversal in mid-November: accept the inevitable demise of UNSCOM while punishing Iraq through air strikes and the continuation of economic sanctions. None of these options would work, I wrote. The first ignored the need for the verifiable disarmament of Iraq, the second ignored the reality of sanctions fatigue among much of the world, and the third ignored both.
I proposed a fourth option—support for a “robust inspection regime and total Iraqi compliance,” and a willingness to “compel Iraq, through military force if necessary,” should Iraq not comply. “Military strikes carried out for the purpose of enabling a vigorous UNSCOM” were wholly justifiable, I wrote. “Without an UNSCOM carrying out the full range of its disarmament and monitoring activities unfettered by Iraqi obstruction, the only winner to emerge from this situation will be Saddam Hussein.”
The article in The New Republic was my “Biden Plan” updated with the need to conduct inspections based upon the November 1998 decision by Iraq to resume its cooperation with UNSCOM. I believed it was critical to maintain the integrity of the inspection process and was not inclined to support a resumption of inspections until which time Iraq was prepared to fully cooperate with the inspectors. I didn’t believe that the December inspection being planned by UNSCOM could constitute a fair test of Iraq’s commitment to cooperate and felt that the new robust commitment for inspections articulated by the Clinton administration needed to be extended beyond any short-term test, and instead endure throughout the entire period of UNSCOM’s disarmament work in Iraq.
I articulated this position to college audiences (including an event at Brown University on December 2, 1998, where I had to deal with a student group opposing U.S. policy in Iraq who had designs of disrupting my talk) and foreign policy wonks (during a luncheon discussion, moderated by Judith Miller, that was hosted by the Council for Foreign Relations on December 8, 1998). I received positive receptions at both forums.
But my position was predicated on the assumption that the Clinton administration was serious about letting UNSCOM fulfill its mandate of disarmament in Iraq. As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth. What made this situation worse was the fact that Richard Butler, UNSCOM’s troubled Executive Chairman, was actively conspiring with the U.S. to undermine his own organization.
Butler tried to hide his talks with Sandy Berger about the future viability of UNSCOM inspections from the other members of the Security Council. For instance, while visiting Moscow, on December 4, 1998, Butler told the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, that he had given Roger Hill, the Australian Chief Inspector of the UNSCOM 258 inspection team, clear instructions “to avoid any action that might be seen as a provocation.”
But this was a bald-faced lie. One of the last orders given to Roger by Butler prior to his departure from New York to Bahrain was to scrap the so-called “sensitive site modalities,” and instead to insist on the original inspection protocol calling for immediate and unrestricted access to sites designated by the Executive Chairman with teams comprising as many inspectors as the Chief Inspector deems necessary. Butler, at the instigation of the United States, unilaterally declared the “sensitive site” modalities null and void, without first going to the Security Council. Rather than avoiding any “unnecessary provocation,” Butler had ordered the UNSCOM inspection team led by Roger Hill team to deliberately create just that.
The Iraqis were put on notice about UNSCOM’s intent regarding the “sensitive site” modalities during a meeting with Roger Hill on December 8 at the Iraqi National Monitoring Directorate in Baghdad (ironically about the same time as I was answering questions about the viability of the “sensitive site modalities” at the Council for Foreign Relations luncheon). “As far as the Executive Chairman is concerned…those [‘sensitive site’] modalities are not in force at the moment,” Roger told his Iraqi counterpart, Major General Hossam Amin.
Hossam Amin was clearly taken aback by this announcement. “I think…I want to ask you, please…directly…if you agree that these modalities are not in force? You agree like that?” he asked Roger.
“That’s absolutely correct,” Roger replied.
Hossam Amin would have none of it. “This is not the case.”
Roger Hill was, if anything, a good soldier, and he had his orders. The next morning, he led UNSCOM 258 to the gates of the Aadhamiyyah Ba’ath Party Headquarters, where they were met by Hossam Amin. The Iraqis agreed to let the inspectors enter the site, but only under the “sensitive site” modalities.
“Well, you understand our position on sensitive site inspections,” Hossam Amin explained to Roger. “I ask of you…that you understand our position. We think that the modalities for inspecting sensitive sites are still valid, ok? There are some mitigations which Mr. Butler asked for [in December 1997, during his meeting with Tariq Aziz], and it was agreed upon, for example, the number of inspectors could be increased to more than four, ok? And if there is a necessity for…any measures could be discussed between both sides. We have no objection to enter now…you and three or four of your inspectors…to start inspecting.”
Roger would not be drawn into a debate. “Your position is that sensitive site modalities are in force. My position at the moment, the instruction given to me, is that that is not the case. Now, in order to get on with my work for today, what I want to do is go in, have a look around, and maybe we can…we used this term the other day, ‘be flexible about this site,’ so we can get the job done. And we can worry about the issue, in a political sense, whether you call this site sensitive, whether the Chairman agrees with that position later on, I just want to go and do the job.”
Hossam Amin wouldn’t budge. “We do the job, but according to the sensitive site modalities,” the Iraqi said. “It is an agreement between the Iraqi government and the Special Commission. I think you want to touch…you want to destroy these modalities…this step is political. When you are saying that ‘I want to go inside with a number of my inspectors’, this means that you want to…make it [the sensitive site modalities] practically invalid. I sense this, Mr. Roger.”
“We’re trying to make a practical accommodation…” Roger started to speak, before being cut off.
“And you are trying to create a problem in the situation between Iraq and the United States of America, and the threat of military aggression,” Hossam Amin interrupted. “But we are strict on the legal interpretation of the agreement between the Iraqi government and the Special Commission.”
Faced with this hardening of the Iraqi position, Roger withdrew the team from the site. Two days later Butler attended the December 11 meeting with Berger that he acknowledges in his book. What Butler failed to admit, and that people privy to the details of this meeting have acknowledged, was that he and Berger spoke at length about the aborted inspection of the Aadhamiyyah Ba’ath Party Headquarters during this meeting. Berger and Butler both agreed that this blockage alone was enough justification to deem Iraq to be in noncompliance.
They were also concerned about the future actions of Roger Hill’s team. In the days following the stand-off at the Aadhamiyyah site, the UNSCOM 258 team had carried out a series of inspections of buildings near the Republican Palace in downtown Baghdad that defectors had said were being used to hide WMD-related documents and material. These sites all proved to be empty, and in some cases were private residences, which caused no small amount of embarrassment for the inspectors. Video tapes of these inspections amply documented the results of the inspection effort, and the frustration on the part of the inspectors.
UNSCOM 258 was scheduled to inspect the Special Security Organization Headquarters, responsible for Saddam Hussein’s security, and the office of Saddam’s Personal Secretary, Abid Hamid Mahmud, during the next day (these were both targets originally selected for the August 1998 inspection that was to be led by me, but subsequently cancelled on the orders of Madelleine Albright). Butler and Berger felt that to continue along this vein would only dilute the impact of the Aadimiyah “blockage,” and Roger’s team was ordered to terminate all inspection operations and depart Iraq.
I observed this all from my desk at NBC Headquarters in 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where I spent my days commenting on the ongoing drama involving Iraq. To me, Butler had long ago foregone any sense of objectivity and credibility when it came to the issue of Iraq and Iraq’s disarmament obligation. His almost slavish adherence to instruction from Washington, DC made him a most unworthy representative of the United Nations, especially given the fact that the unilateral American policy of containing, destabilizing, and removing the regime of Saddam Hussein made their every intervention in regard to the work of UNSCOM immediately suspect.
It would have been one thing if Butler had been ignorant or indifferent of the American manipulations. But after I personally witnessed his efforts to use the inspection I led in March, 1998 (which included a target, the Ministry of Defense, that Iraq had already declared to be a “red line” and that any attempt to inspect this site would mean war) as a trigger for US military action against Iraq, there was no question in my mind that, by inspecting the Aadhamiyyah site, Butler had sold out, lock, stock and barrel, to an American plan to use inspections as a trigger for military action.
The role of Charles Duelfer throughout this affair was not a minor one. He had the unenviable job of trying to balance the needs of UNSCOM with the policies of the US government. UNSCOM’s mission was disarmament, but this was only useful to the Americans in so far as disarmament helped further the cause of regime change in Iraq. In the end, the demands of his government won out. “While at UNSCOM,” Duelfer admitted in his book, Hide and Seek, “I had been the conduit for both the regional office [Near East Division, Directorate of Operations] and the nonproliferation office on the analytic side” of the CIA. Within the CIA’s Near East Division was an office known as the Iraq Operations Group, or IOG, whose mission was, simply put, regime change in Baghdad. Duelfer acknowledges “being in touch with the group for years,” including during his time at UNSCOM.
It was IOG that facilitated the trip by Duelfer and two UNSCOM inspectors into northern Iraq in 1995 to debrief Major General Wafiq Sammarai, the head of Iraqi Military Intelligence, after Sammarai’s defection. General Sammarai had defected in early November 1994, fleeing to northern Iraq, where he sought refuge with Achmed Chalabi and the CIA-funded Iraqi National Congress. Sammarai was part of a plot by Iraqi army officers to overthrow Saddam, and he sought out Chalabi to help put him in contact with the CIA. A CIA officer, Robert Baer, met Sammarai in January 1995, and passed the Iraqi general’s proposal onto the IOG, which eventually rejected it.
Charles Duelfer and the other inspectors were granted access to Sammarai in February 1995, at a time when the IOG was actively considering his coup plan. Later, in May 1996, Duelfer again coordinated with the IOG for UNSCOM to gain access to Iraqi defectors the IOG was using to facilitate a June 1996 coup attempt in Iraq. The IOG refused to help, but I was able to gain access to these defectors by coordinating with Jordanian intelligence, a fact the IOG resented greatly.
Duelfer’s hand-in-glove relationship with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (or DO, responsible for covert intelligence operations) was well known to me. When, in late 1995, I wanted to initiate covert communications intercept operations targeting elements within Saddam’s personal security we believed were responsible for concealing documents and material from UNSCOM inspectors, it was Duelfer who travelled to CIA Headquarters to meet with Dave Cohen, the head of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, and Frank Anderson, the departing chief of the Near East Division, the office responsible for overseeing the IOG.
Based upon this meeting, Duelfer had me write a formal planning document which he passed on to Cohen and Anderson, and shortly after that the CIA signed off on the operation. The IOG supported this operation because UNSCOM, in its search for WMD in Iraq, was able to accomplish what the IOG could not—the interception of encrypted communications involving Saddam Hussein’s personal security. While I wrote the plan based upon a legitimate inspection-based need, Duelfer knew full well how the IOG would use the intelligence gathered from this effort.
The CIA agreed to the operation only on the condition that it make use of commercially available technology, and that the operators were non-US citizens. I was able to recruit specialists from the United Kingdom for the task, and the CIA provided the intercept equipment. No one in the CIA thought our intercept operation would amount to much. Once it became clear that the UNSCOM effort was able to get inside Saddam’s security, the IOG moved to have the effort removed from UNSCOM control.
It was Duelfer who got Richard Butler to go along with the US plans in March, 1998, to use my inspection team as the trigger for a military strike that was designed to facilitate yet another IOG coup plan, and it was Duelfer who sat next to me in the office of Bill Richardson, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, as Butler drew the timeline for military action on a white board, instructing me to initiate an inspection-based confrontation by March 8 so that a planned U.S. bombing campaign could be terminated by March 15, prior to Ramadan. Of course, neither Butler nor Duelfer were with me during the inspection itself, where I convinced the Iraqis to allow me and my team to inspect the Iraqi Ministry of Defense Headquarters, an act that the Iraqis had previously said was a “red line” that could never be crossed. This is why Duelfer and the IOG picked that site to be inspected, and why the US government hated me when I failed to give them the crisis they craved.
When I learned from news reports that an UNSCOM team was refused access to the Aadhamiyyah Ba’ath Party Headquarters, alarm bells went off in my head. I viewed the inclusion of the Aadhamiyyah Ba’ath Party Headquarters as an inspection target as clear evidence that the United States, with the connivance of Butler, was seeking to finish that which it had tried to start in March 1998—the death of inspections through ill-conceived military action justified by deliberately provocative inspections.
I was (and am) close personal friends with the person Richard Butler hand-picked to lead this last inspection—Roger Hill, an Australian military officer who had worked on and off with UNSCOM since 1991. After his appointment, Roger travelled to New York for final coordination before flying to Bahrain, and on to Baghdad. We met for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in mid-town Manhattan we both liked and discussed the state of affairs between UNSCOM and Iraq. I warned him that he needed to proceed carefully, that I believed the Americans were once again trying to use UNSCOM to create the conditions for justifying a military strike.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that the FBI had a team following me, and they had recorded Roger’s and my conversation using a directional microphone while seated at a neighboring table. I wouldn’t have known about this except for the fact that shortly after our lunch Roger was summoned to the Australian Mission, where the military attaché confronted him with a verbatim transcript of our lunchtime talk and asked Roger why he was meeting with me. Roger, ever the proper gentleman, told the attaché that it was none of his damned business, and that he shouldn’t be in the business of listening in on private conversations between two friends. The attaché dropped the topic.
My suspicions were more than confirmed when the British government published a summary of the “Top Secret” intelligence reports that the British SIS had shared with me back in June 1998. At that time, the SIS liaison officer who had shared these reports with me, had emphasized the sensitivity of the sources used to compile these reports. “These are the best human intelligence sources we have inside Baghdad,” he told me. “If any specific details from this report are leaked, the sources will become clear, and their lives made forfeit.”
Thanks to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, all of the specific details were now available to the public at large—and the Iraqis. Either the SIS liaison was lying through his teeth (which I doubt), or the British had pulled their best human intelligence sources out of Iraq (more likely.) Either way, the release of this report was a clear sign that the future of UNSCOM was very much in doubt, at least in London.
I phoned Duelfer directly to protest. He took my call but was decidedly cool toward me. “You know that site is empty,” I said. “The British gave that target to us in June, and it had a lifespan of no more than a month. We were pushing the limits of its viability in August. Today it’s useless. You can’t be serious about sending a team there. This inspection is a setup, and you know it.”
Duelfer was hesitant. “Scott, I’m not going to be your source. That’s not how this works.” He was referring to my role as an on-air analyst for NBC News.
“I’m not calling as a reporter,” I replied. “I’m not going to quote you, on or off the record. This is me calling you, inspector to inspector. Man to man. This inspection is bullshit. It’s an excuse for war, plain and simple. And it will kill the inspections. UNSCOM will be dead on arrival if bombs start to fall, and you know it.”
“UNSCOM is already dead,” Duelfer replied. “You helped kill it with your senate testimony and revelations to the press. We’re just giving it a dignified burial.”
“Then be honest about it,” I said. “Don’t play these games. If the Americans want to bomb Saddam, let them. But don’t be a tool. That was never what UNSCOM was about.”
“Things have changed since you left,” Duelfer replied. “There are things you’re not aware of. Information you’re not privy to. Don’t presume to know everything, Scott, because you don’t.”
“I know that the site you’re planning to use as a trigger for war is total crap from an inspection standpoint,” I shot back. “Nothing you say can change that fact. The British said it had a limited shelf-life. You’re four months past its expiration date. This is a set up. I know that much.”
“Good-bye, Scott,” Duelfer said. “I wish you the best of luck.” He hung up. We didn’t speak again until the fall of 2000, after he had left the United Nations.
Richard Butler later said of the Aadhamiyyah Ba’ath Party Headquarters that he had “ordered a concealment-related inspection there because we believed Iraq was storing materials related to its missile program—perhaps including missiles and components.” This is a disingenuous statement on his part. I initially briefed Butler on the existence of this site in June 1998, after the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) informed me of its existence. At that time, the British stated that the information was time sensitive, and that UNSCOM would have to inspect within a month or so because the material was being actively moved from site to site as part of the overall concealment effort.
From conversations with inspectors, I found out that Butler worked with Berger to shape both the content and tone of the UNSCOM report on inspection progress due to be presented to the Security Council on December 15. Later, I was to find out that this cooperation went even further. Butler claims he was still working on the report as of December 14, before forwarding it to the Secretary General that evening. But the fact was that a draft of this report was transmitted to President Clinton on December 13, while he was onboard Air Force One, returning from a visit to Israel. The language contained in the draft report met the American requirements for declaring Iraq to be in non-compliance, and Clinton subsequently issued orders for military strikes against Iraq, to commence on December 16.
After the final report was published to the Security Council on December 15, Butler was called over to the US Mission to meet with the Deputy US Ambassador, Peter Burleigh, who told Butler it would be “prudent” to evacuate UNSCOM from Iraq. The UNSCOM staff had already put all the necessary preparations for this evacuation in place, and within hours all inspectors and support staff were either flown out to Bahrain or driven across the border into Jordan.
Butler failed to report the evacuation to either the Secretary General or the Security Council, a deliberate oversight which came back to haunt him when Butler presented his report to the Security Council late in the afternoon of December 16. In the middle of Butler’s presentation, news came from Iraq about the initiation of American and British hostilities—Operation Desert Fox had begun.
The Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Sergei Lavrov, had been lambasting Butler in the Council chambers as a liar who had said one thing during his visit to Moscow earlier in the month, and something totally different in his report to the Council. When word of the attacks on Iraq reached the Council chambers, Lavrov exploded, declaring that Butler and UNSCOM had facilitated the American bombing and, presciently, declared UNSCOM “dead.”
NBC had been on high alert for the possibility of US military action, and I was on-call at their offices at 30 Rockefeller to provide “expert analysis” once the bombs started to fall. NBC—like all major news organizations—strives to be viewed as “objective.” “Expert” opinion is often “balanced” with competing analysis, together with “perspective” offered by the host. The modern news cycle is about instant feedback, not long-term analysis, and often I found my commentary offset by others who, frankly speaking, were in no position to be offering “expert” opinion about Iraq. It was a frustrating experience.
But my time with NBC also had its good moments. I was in studio with Tom Brokow on the first night of Operation Desert Fox, watching the live images of Iraqi air defenses firing into the night sky over Baghdad, when perhaps my finest moment as an NBC on-air analyst occurred. I was listening to a “military expert” explain to Tom Brokaw how ill-disciplined the Iraqi air defenses were.
I signaled to the producer that I wanted to speak. Tom cut to me, and I pointed out that my experience in Iraq showed the exact opposite. “The Iraqis have been hit by cruise missiles before. They know the routes these missiles take when striking targets in Baghdad. They have layered their defenses, creating belts of fire. What we’re looking at here is the Iraqi response to incoming cruise missiles. You can see them throwing up a wall of fire in an attempt to shoot the cruise missiles down. The cruise missiles are coming closer…closer…they should be hitting their target about…now.” At that moment, the screen exploded as a missile struck an Iraqi building that had been framed in the center of the camera shot. Talk about your instant feedback.
That incident led to a handwritten note from Tom Brokow, inviting my wife and me to “a little pre-Christmas gathering” he was hosting at his apartment in New York City. Marina and I showed up, only to find an assemblage of high-profile personalities from every walk of life. Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media mogul, was there, along with other senior media figures.
But the highlight of my evening was an impromptu debate between me and Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat, which was moderated by Robert DeNiro. Holbrooke had introduced himself in a rather abrupt manner, asking me how I liked filling in for him at the Siemens event in Munich. “A pretty good payday, huh?” he said. He then proceeded to lecture me on why my criticism of his friends in the Clinton administration was misplaced.
Mr. DeNiro was listening in, and when Holbrooke finished, the actor (who insisted on being called “Bobby”) turned to me and asked, “So what do you think about that?” I responded, and then DeNiro turned to Holbrooke. “He raised some good points. What do you have to say in reply?” And so it went, until Holbrooke called it off. “You’re young,” he said. “You have a lot to learn about how Washington really works.”
But I already had a good idea. During the drive back to our home in Hastings, while Marina was talking about our brush with the equivalent of American nobility, I was focused on my interaction with Richard Holbrooke. His arrogance and ignorance perfectly captured my overall assessment of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy team. “They know what they’re doing, Scott,” he had lectured me. “There is a plan.”
The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that the US did have a plan—to kill UNSCOM and box Saddam in with economic sanctions. Thanks to Operation Desert Fox, UNSCOM was dead, and it was Richard Butler and the US government who were responsible for its demise.
With this revelation, everything had changed, including my opinion about what needed to be done about the problem of Iraq. I contacted Max Boot at the Wall Street Journal about doing another Op-Ed. He was hesitant about my proposed position, which was critical of the bombing campaign. The Journal had supported the idea of military action against Iraq, and Max was aware of how vociferous I had been in pushing for a major bombing campaign against Iraq. Concerned over the potential for mixed messaging, Max initially gave my submission the cold shoulder. A week later, when the dust settled, and it had become clear that my concerns about the consequences of Operation Desert Fox were valid, Max called me and asked me to re-submit the Op-Ed, updated based upon the latest news. It ran on December 28, 1998, under the title “The U.S. Hands Saddam a Victory.”
“Desert Fox,” I wrote, “highlighted the reality that smart bombs cannot make up for failed policies.”
Of my former boss, Richard Butler, I was scathing. “It’s ironic that Mr. Butler is still talking about the Security Council as his master, when in fact he shares blame with the US for manipulating the events that led to Operation Desert Fox. Mr. Butler’s actions have undermined the impartiality and objectivity required to lead a complex multinational organization such as UNSCOM, and indeed will prove the death knell for UNSCOM.”
“Mr. Butler,” I noted, “is a friend and former colleague, and it pains me to write this, but he should resign now in order for UNSCOM to salvage what it can of its tattered reputation. If this spate of bombing had resulted in anything meaningful in terms of disarming Iraq, perhaps the sacrifice of UNSCOM and its executive chairman would have been worth it. Instead UNSCOM is dead, and Iraq seems stronger than ever and determined to keep its weapons of mass destruction.”
My transformation from government insider to citizen activist was well underway.
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