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President Bush has reportedly authorized the CIA to use all of the means at its disposal -- including U.S. military special operations forces and CIA paramilitary teams -- to eliminate Iraq's Saddam Hussein. According to reports, the CIA is to view any such plan as "preparatory" for a larger military strike.
Congressional leaders from both parties have greeted these reports with enthusiasm. In their rush to be seen as embracing the president's hard-line stance on Iraq, however, almost no one in Congress has questioned why a supposedly covert operation would be made public, thus undermining the very mission it was intended to accomplish.
It is high time that Congress start questioning the hype and rhetoric emanating from the White House regarding Baghdad, because the leaked CIA plan is well timed to undermine the efforts underway in the United Nations to get weapons inspectors back to work in Iraq.
In early July, the U.N. secretary-general will meet with Iraq's foreign minister for a third round of talks on the return of the weapons monitors. A major sticking point is Iraqi concern over the use -- or abuse -- of such inspections by the United States for intelligence collection.
I recall during my time as a chief inspector in Iraq the dozens of extremely fit "missile experts" and "logistics specialists" who frequented my inspection teams and others. Drawn from U.S. units such as Delta Force or from CIA paramilitary teams such as the Special Activities Staff (both of which have an ongoing role in the conflict in Afghanistan), these specialists had a legitimate part to play in the difficult cat-and-mouse effort to disarm Iraq. So did the teams of British radio intercept operators I ran in Iraq from 1996 to 1998 -- which listened in on the conversations of Saddam's inner circle -- and the various other intelligence specialists who were part of the inspection effort.
The presence of such personnel on inspection teams was, and is, viewed by the Iraqi government as an unacceptable risk to its nation's security.
As early as 1992, the Iraqis viewed the teams I led inside Iraq as a threat to the safety of their president. They were concerned that my inspections were nothing more than a front for a larger effort to eliminate their leader.
Those concerns were largely baseless while I was in Iraq. Now that Bush has specifically authorized American covert-operations forces to remove Saddam, however, the Iraqis will never trust an inspection regime that has already shown itself susceptible to infiltration and manipulation by intelligence services hostile to Iraq, regardless of any assurances the U.N. secretary-general might give.
The leaked CIA covert operations plan in effect kills any chance of inspectors returning to Iraq, and it closes the door on the last opportunity for shedding light on the true state of affairs regarding any threat in the form of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Absent any return of weapons inspectors, no one seems willing to challenge the Bush administration's assertions of an Iraqi threat. If Bush has a factual case against Iraq concerning weapons of mass destruction, he hasn't made it yet.
Can the Bush administration substantiate any of its claims that Iraq continues to pursue efforts to reacquire its capability to produce chemical and biological weapons, which was dismantled and destroyed by U.N. weapons inspectors from 1991 to 1998? The same question applies to nuclear weapons. What facts show that Iraq continues to pursue nuclear weapons aspirations?
Bush spoke ominously of an Iraqi ballistic missile threat to Europe. What missile threat is the president talking about? These questions are valid, and if the case for war is to be made, they must be answered with more than speculative rhetoric.
Congress has seemed unwilling to challenge the Bush administration's pursuit of war against Iraq. The one roadblock to an all-out U.S. assault would be weapons inspectors reporting on the facts inside Iraq. Yet without any meaningful discussion and debate by Congress concerning the nature of the threat posed by Baghdad, war seems all but inevitable.
The true target of the supposed CIA plan may not be Saddam but rather the weapons inspection program itself. The real casualty is the last chance to avoid bloody conflict.
Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times. Copyright © Scott Ritter 2002. For fair use only
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