â€œUnfettered accessâ€ and â€œmaterial breach.â€ On the surface, it all seems so clear and straight forward. If Iraq does not give weapons inspectors â€œunfettered access,â€ they will yet again be in â€œmaterial breachâ€ of the U.N.â€™s weapons of mass destruction disarmament mandate.
But what does the actual inspections record tell us? We pick up the story in September 1997. UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler had only been on the job for a month, having replaced Rolf Ekeus who served in that post from 1991 until 1997.
Because it had become evident that Iraq was still concealing its mostly defanged weapons of mass destruction program, UNSCOM chief weapons inspector Scott Ritter was given a new angle: assume Saddam could not be trusted and find out, by clandestine scientific means, what he was hiding.
Hence, the formation of the Capable Site Concealment Investigations team (CISI) â€“ an entity designed to stimulate concealment activities.
Hidden in the back of CISI vehicles were â€œcovert communication interceptorsâ€ â€“ a network of 10 radio receivers, each specifically tuned to a unique frequency. The receivers were linked to digital tape recorders hidden in the inspectorsâ€™ personal back packs, making them walking microphones.
The idea was to initiate confrontations at presidential security organizations to get senior Iraqi officials yakking on their radios. That way, secret and sensitive information could be gathered by UNSCOM.
Oct. 1, 1997: UNSCOM 207 â€“ a surprise inspection of a secret biological unit inside Iraqâ€™s Special Security Organization headquarters in Baghdad. But with guns pointed at them, the inspectors were denied access to the SSOâ€™s Al-Hyatt building.
Iraq cried foul, aware that UNSCOM was being manipulated by U.S. intelligence sources and that the inspection protocol was being violated, according to a Security Council-approved agreement set up by Ekeus in 1997.
The agreement declared certain sites off limits â€“ presidential palaces, for example. (Imagine the U.S. granting â€œunfettered accessâ€ to all of its weapons facilities but reasonably denying access to CIA headquarters, Camp David, or the presidentâ€™s private residence).
Dismissing concerns about sovereignty, which the U.N. Charter promises not to violate except when approving self-defensive military action, CISI was being pushed by U.S. planners to go on wild goose chases.
â€œA lot of information we were given was provided to us by the Americans,â€ explains former UNSCOM inspector Roger Hill. â€œIt was either out of date, incorrect or it was completely false and designed to take us down the wrong path.â€
It soon became evident to the inspectors that the United States didnâ€™t want the inspections to end. They wanted â€œcontainment.â€ As long as the inspections were unfinished, the United States could keep Iraq under its control with â€œSaddam in his box.â€
Saddam was playing games and the Clinton administration was too. CISI team leader Chris Cobb-Smith became convinced the inspections had become politicized by a U.S. effort to purposely provoke confrontations of â€œaccess.â€
Ritter was instructed to come up with a plan that he later presented to senior staff in the White House situation room. Ritterâ€™s plan was approved with one addition: â€œinspectâ€ Iraqâ€™s Defense Ministry.
During the meeting, Butler drew a timeline on a chalkboard. According to Ritter, Butler instructed him to provoke a confrontation by early December 1998 because the United States planned to launch a military strike in mid-December.
As planned, Iraq denied access. But U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan convinced Iraq to relent. The Defense Ministry was inspected. Nothing was found. Then, confirming inspectorsâ€™ suspicions, Butler shut down CISI and â€œdecidedâ€ that its function would be turned over to U.S. intelligence officials, which effectively gave the United States cover to move the disarmament goal posts by simply asserting it had weapons â€œintelligenceâ€ about some site.
Ritter resigned in frustration. Hill replaced him and carried out UNSCOM 258 in violation of the agreement. As Butler was meeting with the Security Council to discuss the matter, Clinton gave the green light for Operation Desert Fox.
What assurances are being taken this time to protect the integrity of the internationally supported inspections and whatâ€™s to stop U.S. hawks from arbitrarily moving the disarmament goal posts indefinitely as a pretext for unilateral action?
None of these questions are being debated in public as if they arenâ€™t of the utmost importance. That should make anyone concerned about peace and honesty quite nervous.
Indeed, â€œthe time for denying, deceiving and delaying (ought to) come to an end.â€ And that goes for U.S. war hawks, too. Saddam has been cast as the demon but, as the clichÃ© has it, the devil is in the details.
ZNet commentator Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. E-mail him at [email protected]