Scott Ritter, the former United Nations weapons inspector, spent the last several years telling anyone who would listen that Iraq probably did not possess any significant quantities of banned weapons. We now know that Ritter was most likely correct; U.S. forces occupying Iraq since late March have failed to find any weapons of mass destruction. Iraqi scientists interviewed since the war ended have almost unanimously agreed that all such weapons were destroyed years ago. In late July (7/24/03), former CIA Director John Deutsch told a Senate intelligence panel that it “seems increasingly likely” that “after 1991 in the Gulf War, Iraq did not continue to develop chemical and biological weapons as the intelligence community estimated.”
But in the months leading up to war, Ritter was virtually alone in publicly and emphatically expressing this view. At the time, the media’s tone in discussing the possibility that Iraq harbored illegal weapons was one of almost belligerent assuredness, perhaps best summed up by this line in a pre-war editorial in the Washington Post (2/6/03): “It is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” Yet Ritter, an experienced senior weapons inspector, indeed doubted it, loudly and often, and he seems so far to have been right, and the Washington press corps wrong.
What’s especially noteworthy is how the media dealt with Ritter during those months of intense debate over Iraq. Rather than treating him as a knowledgeable analyst, focusing on the details of his critique of the Bush administration, the press largely walled him off from its day-to-day news coverage of the weapons debate. Unlike other ex-inspectors who were routinely quoted as expert sources—and whose assessments of key weapons issues have turned out to be wrong—Ritter was handled as little more than a sort of human-interest story, an unpredictable eccentric on the fringes of the debate.
A lengthy New York Times Magazine cover story on Ritter (11/24/02) by reporter Barry Bearak that ran shortly before inspectors returned to Iraq glossed over Ritter’s nuanced interpretation of the U.N. inspections process. Instead, the piece, titled “Scott Ritter’s Iraq Complex,” turned the story into a kind of psychodrama playing out inside the inspector’s head. “More than a life story, he has a personal mythology,” Bearak wrote. Ritter is prone to answer questions “with harangues, loosing a stream-of-consciousness flow that churns and circles.” In sum, “he is hard to fathom.” Absent from the 4,800-word article was any serious discussion of why Ritter believed Iraq had already been disarmed.
A Washington Post profile in the paper’s soft-news “Style” section (10/21/02) was even more dismissive. “Scott Ritter Says Iraq Is ‘Not a Threat.’ But His Critics See a Loose Cannon,” the headline read. The piece depicts Ritter “jazzed up on three cans of Diet Coke,” thumping the cushions of a green-room couch for effect “like a one-handed conga player.” “The Ritter affair swirls with its own mysteries,” reporter Richard Leiby wrote. For example, Ritter had catalogued the contents of Iraq’s alleged WMD stockpile in his 1999 book Endgame. When he later explained that this material is simply unaccounted for and there is no proof it actually exists, Leiby sneered: “Where’d it all go? Another mystery.”
Flip-flop or evolution?
Much of the coverage of Ritter centered on the allegation that he had flip- flopped on the WMD question since his 1998 resignation from the U.N. weapons inspections team. To be sure, the focus of Ritter’s arguments has undergone an evolution. When he first resigned, he complained that the Clinton administration had sometimes reined the inspectors in from conducting aggressive searches in Iraq. And he stressed that the U.N.’s disarmament mission, at least as spelled out in Security Council resolutions, was far from finished.
Over the next two years, however, he began emphasizing how much progress inspections had already accomplished in Iraq. Ritter’s fullest explanation of his new thinking appeared in a detailed and heavily documented June 2000 article in Arms Control Today, the main disarmament professional journal.
The absolute nature of the disarmament obligation set forth in Resolution 687 meant that anything less than 100 percent disarmament precluded a finding of compliance. There was no latitude for qualitative judgments. As such, the world found itself in a situation where the considerable accomplishments of the UNSCOM weapons inspectors—the elimination of entire categories of WMD and their means of production— were ignored in light of UNSCOM’s inability to verify that every aspect of these programs was fully accounted for.
Ritter’s earlier testimony, he said, was based on the “quantitative” disarmament standard set out in Resolution 687: 100 percent verified disarmament. He now advocated changing the standard used to measure Iraq’s disarmament to a “qualitative” one. By that measure, he argued, Iraq had already been largely disarmed, and he backed up this assertion with numerous citations from internal UNSCOM documents and assessments.
Yet few journalists took the time to learn the intricacies of Ritter’s WMD critique. Instead, most seemed to agree with Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, Daniel Klaidman, who explained on CNN’s Reliable Sources (1/26/03): “My view is that he is already not a particularly credible figure on this subject. He’s had this weird conversion.” And CNN‘s Paula Zahn told Ritter when he appeared on her show (9/13/02), “People out there are accusing you of drinking Saddam Hussein’s Kool-Aid.”
But the last laugh was on them; in the end, it was outlets like Newsweek that had to reverse their stories. “Saddam has clearly shown he’s trying to build WMD,” one Newsweek article explained a month before the war (2/10/03). By the time the war was over, though, the magazine was singing a different tune on the elusive weapons: “So Where Are They?” a postwar headline asked (6/9/03).