Dinner With Ahmed
Posted on Mar 17, 2008
By Scott Ritter
Editor’s note: Five years after the invasion of Iraq, Scott Ritter reconstructs from his memories and notes one of the seminal events in the march to war.
As we approach the fifth anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, I find myself thinking back on how we got ourselves into this predicament. Like many who played a direct role in the issues surrounding Iraq in the years leading up to the decision to invade, I have wrestled with the demons of history, wondering about the specific impact my actions (or inaction) may have had on the course of human affairs. I’ve also wondered whether or not I have been witness to any events that, if more fully reported, might enable others to have a better understanding of the events that shape our world today, for better or for worse. As I examine where we are today and contemplate our future and those who are positioning themselves to play a role in Iraq, it seems to me that there is at least one such incident, a dinner party I attended at the home of Ahmed Chalabi in June 1998 that is worthy of a more public illumination.
During my time as a weapons inspector for the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), I frequently traveled to Washington, D.C., for liaison purposes. The usual customers, so to speak, included the State Department, the CIA and the Department of Defense. All such meetings were conducted in accordance with instructions I had received from the executive chairman of UNSCOM (from 1991 until July 1997 this post was held by a Swede named Rolf Ekéus and after July by an Australian, Richard Butler) and as such were considered “official business.”
I strayed from the umbrella of “official business” only once during my tenure as an inspector, when, in June 1998, during a scheduled official trip to Washington, D.C., I ventured out into the shadows of back-bench domestic American politics. Bill Clinton was president then, and there was a growing undercurrent of neoconservative ideology that was gripping the nation’s capitol as the right wing of the Republican Party, frustrated by its inability to outmaneuver the president on the domestic front, chose to instead do battle on matters pertaining to foreign policy and national security. Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein was deeply entrenched in Baghdad. Economic sanctions, which served as the primary vehicle for containing the Iraqi dictator by denying him markets for his oil-based economy, were collapsing amid international concern for the humanitarian toll that such sanctions took on the people of Iraq, and in the face of old-fashioned greed. U.N. weapons inspections were floundering and the Clinton administration seemed to lack any coherent plan on how to bring order from the foreign policy chaos that was Iraq.
In early June 1998, UNSCOM weapons inspectors received a technical report from a U.S. military laboratory in Aberdeen, Md., which specialized in chemical and biological agent analysis. In March 1998, UNSCOM had retrieved from Iraq several fragments of ballistic missile warheads from a site that had been used by the Iraqis in their program of unilateral destruction of WMD in the summer of 1991. The Iraqis, in an effort to clarify glaring discrepancies in the accounting of their weapons-of-mass-destruction stockpiles, had admitted that a certain number of these warheads had been filled with chemical and biological agent, in particular nerve agent, and anthrax and botulinum toxin biological agent. In an effort to verify the Iraqi claims, UNSCOM had excavated warhead fragments from the declared destruction sites and sent them to the U.S. military laboratory in Aberdeen for analysis.
By early June 1998 the results were back, and they were, on the surface, stunning: Rather than finding evidence of the declared chemical or biological agent that the Iraqis had admitted placing in the warheads, the Aberdeen lab results showed trace evidence of the chemical degradation byproduct of stabilized VX nerve agent, one of the most deadly substances known to man. The Iraqis had admitted trying to produce VX nerve agent in the past, but denied that they had ever succeeded in stabilizing the volatile chemical (i.e., preventing the agent from deteriorating over time and becoming useless as a weapon), let alone filling any warhead with VX. The lab results from Aberdeen, if correct, dramatically contradicted the Iraqi claims and potentially turned the entire disarmament effort of UNSCOM in Iraq on its head.
Butler, the Australian diplomat who headed UNSCOM at the time, was arriving in Baghdad when the Aberdeen lab results were released. Inspectors in New York were able to transmit a copy of the report to Baghdad, and the senior UNSCOM chemical inspector in Iraq at the time was able to meet Butler at plane-side to personally brief him on the dramatic news. Butler was in Baghdad to undertake a delicate negotiation with the Iraqi government on a so-called road map that would serve as the basis upon which UNSCOM and Iraq would seek to work together to clarify outstanding issues, and seek verification for declarations made by Iraq, such as its stance on VX nerve agent, which UNSCOM was unwilling to take at face value. The Aberdeen lab report threw a monkey wrench into Butler’s tightly scripted plan, and he decided to keep the report under wraps for the time being in order to let diplomacy take its course.
The UNSCOM chemical inspectors were furious. Over the years they had uncovered one lie after another about Iraq’s VX nerve agent program. Initially, the inspectors proved that a VX program existed when Iraq claimed it did not (in order to prove that point, inspectors had to burrow down inside bombed-out buildings to recover buried documents the Iraqis thought lost). Later, the inspectors were able to force the Iraqis to admit that the VX nerve agent effort was in fact larger than the laboratory-scale research and development program they tried to peddle once their denials had been proved false. The chemists had already contradicted the Iraqis on the issue of stabilized VX, by finding traces of VX stabilizer in VX agent recovered from containers the Iraqis had thought had been thoroughly sanitized. This discovery forced the Iraqis to admit having attempted VX stabilization. But in the end, the Iraqis maintained that all of their efforts had failed, and that VX agent had never been “weaponized,” or loaded into a warhead or shell. Now, with the Aberdeen lab report, this last lie seemed to have been uncovered.
Over lunch in the U.N. cafeteria, I listened while the UNSCOM chemical weapons inspectors vented their anger and frustration. Butler was selling out, they speculated. Why else wouldn’t he make use of this material? I asked the chemists how certain they were of the lab results. One hundred percent, they said. The lab results had discovered incontrovertible proof of the existence of specific chemicals on the warhead fragments, which could be explained only as the result of the degradation over time of VX stabilizer. “What would be the ideal situation vis-à-vis this information?” I asked. Everyone at the table believed that Butler was being pressured by the Clinton administration not to provoke a major crisis with Iraq over the issue of disarmament, so as not to break the existing Security Council consensus on maintaining economic sanctions. As such, the best scenario would be to have this information made public, published in the press so that neither Butler nor the Clinton administration could ignore it. Several of the inspectors around the table had served as background sources for some of the world’s leading journalists. “Why not slip a copy of the report to one of these press contacts?” I asked. The lab report, they responded, was tightly held. If it was leaked out of New York, suspicion would automatically gravitate toward them, a situation none of the inspectors wanted to deal with. “What if,” I asked, “I could get the lab report released in Washington, D.C., with no UNSCOM fingerprints?” The chemists liked this idea, and slipped me a copy of the lab results.
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