Many people find the ongoing debate over weapons of mass destruction so confusing that they despair of ever understanding what’s going on. That’s why Iraq Confidential, by Scott Ritter, an American who helped lead the United Nations effort to get to the bottom of the mess, is so helpful. A major player in the search for WMDs, Ritter lays out the tale of what actually took place. Ever since the Gulf War, the U.S. had been seeking regime change in Iraq, under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. To that end it sought to use the U.N. weapons inspections as a facade behind which the different American intelligence agencies tried to run covert operations aimed at toppling Saddam. When those efforts failed, and it began to look like the U.N. inspections might not find any WMDs, the U.S. intelligence community set out to sabotage the U.N. program.
Because of American intransigence, especially within the CIA, the U.N. inspection group turned to intelligence agencies in other countries—in particular the British and, after some hard persuading, the Israelis. The British intelligence was especially helpful, passing Ritter secret reports the CIA was withholding from the U.N. The key to inspections were images taken by American U2 overflights; the trick was to interpret them. Here Ritter persuaded the Israelis to lend a hand. They didn’t want to get involved, but he eventually worked out a circuitous arrangement in which he brought film taken by the U2 flights to Tel Aviv, where he met with an Israeli photographic interpreter. The Israeli unit helped point out the probable sites where Saddam was storing or about to move WMDs. Taking that information back to New York, Ritter put together international teams of inspectors who quietly traveled to Baghdad, and inspected suspected hiding places—finding nothing.
In addition, Ritter ran his own covert operation, masking listening devices in radio antennae atop Baghdad buildings, and eavesdropping on calls among Saddam’s lieutenants in the hopes of picking up leads on WMDs. It was during this operation that the CIA reneged on its promise to provide the U.N. with up-to-date listening gear. Under Clinton the CIA fell all over itself trying to topple Saddam. Consider but one wacko operation Ritter describes in detail: In 1994 an Iraqi defector, who had originally worked for MI6 (British Intelligence) as a double agent, told the British he had well-placed contacts within Iraq who could remove Saddam from power. The British in turn passed this along to the CIA’s London station, and eventually it found its way to Langley. The CIA briefed the White House and got permission to run what came to be called the Silver Bullet Coup.
With Saddam’s government growing in power, the White House was under pressure to do something, and hoped the coup effort could be launched before the 1996 election. It was set to take place the third week in June. However, various coup participants turned out to be double agents working for Iraqi intelligence. Saddam discovered the plot well before it was carried out. Amid the plotting, the Iraqis gained control of one of the CIA’s secret satellite communications units that formed one end of a supposedly secure communications system between the plotters in Baghdad and their support units, made up of other defectors and the CIA. So Saddam listened to conversations in which the CIA revealed it would use a U.N. inspection team’s visit to set off a crisis with Iraq, justifying a U.S. air attack—itself a cover for the plotters to take over. But as coup time approached, and the CIA worked furiously to set up the final stage of the plot, the agency’s Baghdad network of plotters suddenly stopped functioning, and then mysteriously disappeared altogether. Iraqi intelligence had done such a good job of infiltration that every plotter had been arrested, leaving the CIA without any assets in the country—and the coup a big flop.
What makes Iraq Confidential such an important and fascinating book is that Ritter himself was a key figure in the espionage maneuvers before the Iraq war began. He is not another journalist writing a book based on undisclosed sources or a former spy extolling his own career, but an American working for the U.N. who found himself plunged into a fight—not with Saddam, but with competing units of the American intelligence community. The book makes an utter ass of the CIA, and explains why the U.S. government has been relentlessly trying to smear Ritter. But Ritter is relentless himself, plodding along, determined to tell the truth about the creeps who run our intelligence system.