I present the story that follows with less than complete confidence for the simple reason that its author is a man of uncertain character – former weapons inspector turned Iraq war critic, Scott Ritter.
The fact that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh wrote the introduction to the book in which the story is told, Ritter’s “Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of America’s Intelligence Conspiracy,” does not reassure me in the least.
I present the story for two reasons. The first is that it fleshes out a story first told by the reliable Kenneth Timmerman on these pages seven years ago. The second is that it makes sense.
What adds to its credibility is that Ritter told the story to an audience that did not really want to hear it, namely his newfound friends in the major media. True to form, they ignored the book when it was published in Britain in late 2005.
As Ritter’s story goes, with the 1996 election approaching, the Clinton White House “was under political pressure to be seen to be doing something about Iraq.”
This much rings true. As I have documented in “Mega Fix” and elsewhere, the pressure generated by the 1995-1996 Clinton campaign deformed the very course of American history.
As Ritter tells it, the CIA exploited the access gained by the United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM, weapons inspectors to plant the seeds for a coup against Saddam.
Wary of a too obvious “October Surprise,” National Security Adviser Tony Lake ordered CIA director John Deutch to wrap up the coup by early summer.
The expedited coup, alas, did not go as planned. Many of the defectors employed by the CIA were actually agents of Saddam’s intelligence arm, the Mukhabarat.
Worse, the French economic liaison in Baghdad helped Iraqi intelligence break UNSCOM’s encryption system, which allowed Saddam’s agents to monitor the allegedly secure calls between Baghdad and New York.
On June 26, the CIA station in Amman, Jordan, got a call on one its own satellite phones from the Mukhabarat. The CIA was rudely informed that the jig was up. According to Ritter, the CIA team high tailed it out of Amman and erased all traces of its involvement with the attempted coup.
The Iraqis involved were less fortunate. Saddam’s security services seized more than 800 suspects, most of whom were tortured and executed. Claims Ritter, “The U.S. had witnessed a covert action fiasco of a kind not seen since the Bay of Pigs in 1961.”
As Ritter admits, both Deutch and Lake have denied that an order to expedite the coup was given. As his source, Ritter cites the “many CIA insiders” who vouch for the order’s authenticity.
Beyond dispute is that at the end of that troubled year, 1996, Deutch was discovered to have loaded classified documents onto to his personal computer and taken them home. President Clinton would pardon him on his last day in office. What, if anything, Deutch purged from those files remains unknown.
What intrigues me about the story is the timing. Although Ritter makes no note of it, the call to the CIA station in Amman came a day after the lethal bombing of America’s Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia and three weeks before the downing of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island on July 17.
July 17 was National Liberation Day in Saddam’s Iraq. On July 17, 1996, Saddam gave what terrorism expert Laurie Mylroie calls “the most angry, vengeful speech of his entire life.”
If Ritter’s story is true, the coup attempt may explain Saddam’s pique. It might also help account for the small fleet of ships and subs, some perhaps NATO, that were cruising locked and loaded off the coast of Long Island on the night of July 17.
That morning, two days before the start of the Atlanta Olympics, the U.S, had received a highly credible threat whose distinctive salutation matched that of the Mukhabarat.
There are reasons, however, to distrust Ritter beyond his very real arrest for the “attempted endangerment of the welfare of a child” as a result of an Internet sting. This took place in June 2001, a rare lull in recent history when Ritter was a threat to no one but 14-year-old girls in upstate New York.
On his book tour with Seymour Hersh in November 2005, Ritter sat mutely and listened as Hersh claimed of UNSCOM inspectors, “They were pretty much clear by ’97 that there was very little likelihood that Saddam had weapons [of mass destruction].”
Ritter obviously knew better and so should have Hersh. Ritter first went public in the summer of 1998. At the time, he was an outspoken critic of America’s failure to back UNSCOM with a credible threat of force against Iraq if it did not comply with U.N. resolutions.
In an August 1998 PBS interview, Ritter told Elizabeth Farnsworth that Saddam had likely disassembled WMDs into various components and hidden these components throughout Iraq.
Ritter believed that “without effective monitoring” Saddam could “reconstitute chemical biological weapons, long-range ballistic missiles to deliver these weapons, and even certain aspects of their nuclear weaponization program.” Ritter insisted that Saddam could re-arm within “months.”
Two years later, UNSCOM director Richard Butler, an Australian, wrote a book whose very title affirms Ritter’s 1998 thesis, “The Greatest Threat: Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the Growing Crisis of Global Security.”
After being booted from Iraq in late 1998, Butler considered Iraq’s ongoing plea of innocence “the blackest lie.” He does not mince words. “It would be foolish in the extreme,” he writes of Saddam, “not to assume that he is developing long-range missile capabilities, at work again on building nuclear weapons, and adding to the chemical and biological warfare weapons he concealed during the UNSCOM inspection period.”
Butler shared Ritter’s disgust with the Clinton administration’s failure to back up UNSCOM. Unfortunately, the major media’s stubborn refusal to probe the Clinton years leaves us in the shadows even about events of major consequence.
The failed Iraqi coup of 1996 – President Clinton’s own Bay of Pigs – might be one of them.
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