My Letter From Joe Biden
Author’s note: The 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition will go down in history as one of the greatest geopolitical disasters in modern history. Then-Sen. Joe Biden was in a unique position to prevent this war from happening. That he chose not to speaks volumes about the man who now seeks to become the next president of the United States. My personal experiences with Biden from 1998 to 2002 provide a window into the character of the man that Americans should familiarize themselves with before considering whether to give him their support.
“I envy your position. I sincerely do. I envy the ability to have such clarity on this issue.”
Listening to those words, coming as they were from Sen. Joe Biden, one of the most vociferous defenders of the policies of Bill Clinton’s administration, I knew I was in for a grilling. It was Sept. 15, 1998. I was seated, alone, at a table reserved for witnesses, giving testimony to a joint session of the Senate foreign relations and armed services committees about the reasons behind my resignation as a chief weapons inspector with the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), charged with overseeing the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. Arrayed before me were some of the most powerful people in the United States, if not the world. The combined membership of these two committees totaled 36 senators, a little over a third of the entire membership of that esteemed body. More than 20 were present at the hearing and, over the course of the next hour and a half, I was questioned in detail by 17 of them, none of whom seemed to object to my presence more than Biden.
“Let me ask you a question,” Biden continued. “Do you think you should be the one to be able to decide when to pull the trigger?”
I have reflected on that question numerous times over the years. Part of me rankles at the notion of someone like Biden, who assiduously avoided military service, asking such a question to someone like me, who not only volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps, but did so during wartime, when more than 500,000 other U.S. servicemen and women were doing the trigger-pulling, figuratively and otherwise, based upon the decisions made by others.
I had served on the staff of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. I was involved in liaison, planning and operational work with various special forces units and organizations, and it was in that capacity that I was decorated by Schwarzkopf for possessing “unparalleled technical and tactical knowledge during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm” in developing “a CENTCOM [Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters responsible for the Middle East] program and courses of action to counter the SCUD missile [a Russian-made surface-to-surface missile modified by Iraq for longer range] threat to CENTCOM and coalition forces.” I am proud of my wartime service, which allowed me to work closely with some of the most elite fighting forces in the world, including Navy SEAL(s), Delta Force and the British Special Air Service.
Desert Storm began on Jan. 15, 1991. Only three days prior, Congress voted to authorize then-President George H.W. Bush to go to war—the first time since World War II that the American legislative body operated within the four corners of its constitutionally mandated role regarding war powers authority. The vote was close—the Senate voted 52-47 in favor, while the House of Representatives passed identical legislation by a vote of 250-183.
Biden voted “no.” War, he believed, should be waged only as a last resort. From his perspective, the U.S. and its allies should have waited as long as it took—months, even years—to see if economic sanctions could achieve peaceably what was being sought through use of force. Biden was also concerned by the fact that the U.S. was shouldering an undue burden when it came to the actual fighting. He criticized the U.S.-led coalition, derisively referring to it as “a coalition that has allowed us to take on 95% of the sacrifice across the board.”
As one of those called upon to assume that risk, I was appreciative of the sentiment behind the “no” vote of Biden and others who opposed the 1991 Gulf War. War, I fervently believed, was a measure of last resort, to be undertaken only after all other options for resolving the underlying issues had been exhausted. I would have preferred that economic sanctions be given a chance to succeed before sending American forces into combat. But I didn’t have a vote.
After the Gulf War, I left active service with the Marines, and in September 1991 I was recruited by UNSCOM to serve as an inspector in Iraq. My responsibilities expanded over time, and by 1995 I was running a specialized unit responsible for investigating how Iraq concealed WMD from U.N. inspectors. My work was often at the center of some of the most serious confrontations between UNSCOM and Iraq, as my investigations focused on Iraqi security and intelligence services linked to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. While UNSCOM was able to achieve impressive results over the seven-plus years of its work, accounting for approximately 95% of Iraq’s WMD capability, the standard set by the Security Council was 100%, and as the chief weapons inspector responsible for tracking down Iraq’s unaccounted-for proscribed arsenal, this meant I had no option but to press forward. In the end, the confrontations that resulted from my work proved too much for both the U.N. secretary-general and the U.S. government, and I saw my work impeded not only by the Iraqis, which I expected, but also those for whom I was ostensibly working.
On Aug. 26, 1998, I resigned from UNSCOM, which quickly became headline news. “Inspector Quits UN Team, Says Council Bowing to Defiant Iraq,” The Washington Post proclaimed from its front page. Another headline read, “US Tried to Halt Several Searches.” The opinion page featured a column by Jim Hoagland that presciently predicted that “Ritter’s resignation will resonate in Washington. Congressional committees will probe next month the administration’s failure since last winter’s war scare to provide effective diplomatic and military support for Ritter and other UN Special Commission inspectors.”
My resignation made the front page of The New York Times as well. “American Inspector on Iraq Quits, Accusing UN and US of Cave-In.” Abe Rosenthal, the former editor-turned-columnist, added his own thoughts on my act in a column titled “Scott Ritter’s Decision”: “In seven years as a key UN inspector searching out Saddam Hussein’s concealed capabilities to make weapons of mass destruction,” he wrote, “Scott Ritter had to call on all the physical courage in him. Then on Wednesday he summoned up all his moral and intellectual courage, and resigned. In his letter of resignation … he gave the world his reasons, with candor we have almost forgotten … letting the world know arms control in Iraq was an ‘illusion, more dangerous than no arms control at all.’ ”
By Aug. 28, I had received a call from the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee, requesting my presence on Sept. 3 before a joint session of that committee and the Committee on Foreign Relations.
I was concerned about the optics of such testimony. The chairman of the Armed Services Committee was a Republican, and I didn’t want any potential testimony to become embroiled in partisan politics. I was no fan of the Clinton administration and, as a registered Republican, I was more than sympathetic to those who had an agenda that countered that of the White House. But my purpose was to effect a change in policy regarding support to the UNSCOM inspection process, not to politically undermine the Clinton administration. My message would have no credibility if it were seen as being anything other than politically neutral and fact-based. In the days prior to the hearing, I tried to line up meetings with Republican and Democratic senators alike so I could make that point in person.
Washington, D.C., has always been a strange place for me. The politics involved in literally every aspect of its being makes it as foreign to most Americans as any distant corner of the earth. Of the six senators I reached out to for pre-hearing meetings, only three responded—including John McCain and Trent Lott, both Republicans. The Democrats—Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, John Kerry (Armed Services Committee) and Biden (Foreign Relations Committee)—all refused to meet. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had walked into the middle of a major political spat between Democrats and Republicans over my testimony. The Clinton administration did not want me to testify at all and had put pressure on the Senate to cancel the hearings. When this failed, the Democrats asked that the hearing be delayed, since they viewed it as inappropriate to have hearings of this nature while the president and secretary of state were out of the country.
The Republicans, who controlled the Senate, refused. The Democrats then refrained from providing the unanimous consent required for the rare joint hearing to go forward. The Republicans responded to this parliamentarian tactic with one of their own—Majority Leader Trent Lott, in a maneuver unprecedented in the history of the Senate, put the body into recess, allowing the hearing to proceed without the consent of all present. All of this was happening, unbeknownst to me, while I was meeting with the Republican senators. My final meeting was with Lott, who surprised me by escorting me out of his office and to a waiting sedan, which we rode to the hearing. He then escorted me into the hearing room, introduced me to several Republican senators, and shook my hand, wishing me luck. The Democratic senators looked on at the spectacle, glaring. My nonpartisan hearing had just become very, very partisan.
As a veteran watcher of C-SPAN, I had witnessed innumerable congressional hearings—especially those involving either the Senate Armed Services Committee or Foreign Relations Committee, since both of those bodies provided a forum for high-ranking witnesses discussing matters of great importance. I never imagined that I might one day be seated before a joint session of these committees, providing testimony on one of the major issues of our time—Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Yet here I was, a key participant in the grand theater of American politics. The hearing was everything I could have imagined, with distinguished senators asking pointed questions, often accompanied by lengthy statements of their own to highlight this or that point. With one notable exception, the senators were respectful and polite, even when we might have disagreed.
While I am very proud of how I comported myself during the hearing, there were two answers I provided that, I believe, best sum up the points I was trying to make. The first was in response to a question from a fellow former Marine, Charles Robb, a Virginia Democrat (who noted that “I believe it’s the first time that the majority leader of the Senate has actually escorted a witness to a hearing and put the Senate in recess so that this hearing could take place,” my first indication that something was amiss politically). Robb’s question dealt with the issue of perspective—whether the U.N. Security Council, charged with enforcing Iraq’s disarmament obligation, might have a different take on the consequences of Iraq blocking a given inspection.
“The inspection process is about inspections,” I responded. “You cannot have a process of inspections unless you are allowed to carry out individual inspections … you cannot say ‘Don’t do this inspection,’ or ‘Don’t do that inspection’ and expect the inspection process to have any validity. Which inspection would you ask us to stop? The one that leads us to a biological weapons plant? The one that leads us to retained VX [nerve agent]? The one that leads us to the hidden SCUD missiles?” The senator had no response, other than to admire my “single-mindedness of purpose.”
Robb was followed by GOP Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, who pointed out the contradictions between the statements made by President Clinton on April 6, 1998, promising to support the work of the inspectors in Iraq, and the subsequent actions of his administration in stopping the inspections I was charged with leading. Was I really trying, he asked, to dictate policy to the administration in pushing for inspections?
“I’m not presuming to be in a position to make decisions on behalf of [the president] or on behalf of the secretary of state,” I replied. “What I’m doing is holding a mirror up to the Senate, to this administration and to the American people, and I’m asking you to look into it. In 1991, you tasked the special commission to carry out disarmament inspections of Iraq. And you said that Iraq, if they don’t do it, because we passed this resolution under Chapter 7 [of the United Nations Charter], we will enforce this resolution. And in 1998, today, I stand before you to say that a) Iraq is not disarmed; and b) the United States, as a member of the security council which gave us this mission, is doing other than it said it wanted to do.”
Biden, however, had taken umbrage over the fact that the hearing had been allowed to go forward without the presence of either the secretary of state or secretary of defense to offer balance, especially when, as he couched the issue, I was trying to push the United States to war with Iraq. “Isn’t that what this is about?” he demanded. And despite my answers to the contrary, Biden proceeded to lecture me on the limitations of my position as an inspector. “I respectfully suggest that [the secretaries of state and defense] have responsibilities slightly above your pay grade … that’s why they get paid the big bucks. That’s why they get the limos and you don’t.” The issue, Biden said, was more complex than simply a question of “Old Scottie Boy didn’t get in.” It was a decision “above my pay grade,” and the jobs of those charged with making that decision were “a hell of a lot more complicated than yours.” It was about as insulting an experience one could imagine, and it took all my willpower to sit there and take it unflinchingly.
Some of his fellow senators thought Biden’s lecture was too much. McCain noted that “some of us who fought in another conflict wish that the Congress and the American people had listened to someone of your pay grade during that conflict.” He was joined by Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, who said, “We realize, Major Ritter, as far as we know, that you did not have a limousine; you did not make the big bucks … we understand that, like sergeants and junior officers and people who carry the rifles and actually do the fighting and do the inspecting, that you may have a perspective that the big-bucks people don’t.”
Biden’s outburst, as insulting as it was, was perhaps the best thing that could have happened during the hearing. The very incongruity presented by the senior senator from Delaware lecturing me in such a demeaning fashion gave the hearings the kind of newsworthiness they otherwise might have lacked. It certainly resonated with those who witnessed it, and not the way Biden would have wanted.
The first clue that Biden had overreached was when the media took up my cause, calling out Biden by name. The Washington Times offered particularly biting commentary, accusing him of having “slipped his cams completely” by engaging in “a public display of surpassing chutzpah by lecturing Scott Ritter on U.S. Iraq policy,” using a tone that was “condescending and wildly inappropriate to the occasion. [Biden] owes Mr. Ritter an apology.” The Washington Post likewise slammed the administration’s tactics, noting that “turning the dogs loose” on me was “a new low.”
But Biden was used to being called out by the media and politicians from the opposite end of the political spectrum. More painful were the letters he received from the electorate. Apparently, his office was flooded with critical letters, faxes and telephone calls. When constituents talk, politicians listen, and as a result, Biden placed a call to me, asking if I would schedule some time to visit with him when I was next in Washington, D.C.
I met with him on Sept. 15, 1998, in his Senate office. Biden bent over backward to be accommodating, although at no time did he offer anything resembling an apology for his words and actions. He seemed more interested in pinning me down on the issue of military action against Iraq as a way of justifying his point—that I, as an inspector, was trying to pull the trigger of American military power.
I reiterated my stance that this was not the purview of an inspector. “My task and purpose in resigning from UNSCOM, and in testifying before Congress, has been to get the U.S. government to resume its support of the inspection process, so that we might finish the job we had started.” We were close to being able to reach a conclusion regarding the disposition of Iraq’s WMD capability, I told Biden. All that was needed was the resolve to see the mission through. This meant standing firm in the face of Iraqi obstruction, regardless of the consequence. Iraq, I pointed out, had always backed down when confronted by a united Security Council; I firmly believed it would do so again. But this would only happen if Iraq believed that the consequence for failing to cooperate with UNSCOM was its imminent demise.
This was not an impossible task. The use of military force, I told Biden, was not the purview of a weapons inspector. “But,” I noted, “If the senator was asking my opinion as a former Marine intelligence officer who had participated in the planning and execution of an air campaign against Iraq in 1991, then I would say that there probably exists a mix of targets known to the U.S. military because of the work of UNSCOM inspectors that, if subjected to a sustained bombing campaign of between four and six weeks, could probably create the conditions for the weakening of the regime of Saddam Hussein to the point that he could be removed from power. This would be the surest, quickest path to disarming Iraq. Short of this kind of commitment of political and military power,” I noted, “the best option would be to get inspectors back to work in Iraq. Any half-measures would only kill the inspection process without achieving either the disarmament of Iraq or the removal of its regime.”
I think Biden was taken aback by the directness and forcefulness of my position regarding a solution to the Iraq problem. He told me that he understood why I couldn’t have said anything like this during the hearing, and said he would take my words under advice. We shook hands, and that was it—we agreed it would be best not to publicize the fact that we had met, or what we had discussed.
About a week later, I received a letter from Biden that reflected a different attitude toward my thoughts on Iraq than he had exhibited during my Senate testimony.
“Dear Mr. Ritter,” Biden wrote, “Thank you for taking the time to meet with me. Your insight into this complex issue is invaluable and I appreciate your candid thoughts regarding the continuing challenges we confront in Iraq. I hope that I can call on your knowledge and expertise in the future as we move forward in making some difficult choices.
“As I stated during our meeting, I commend you for forcing the American people to deal with the policy choices confronting them. Your actions have led to a spirited debate in our Nation and your courageous decision to resign because of your disagreement with the Administration’s policy has moved this debate forward.
“Once again, thank you for your continued dedication to our Nation and I wish you the best of everything in your future endeavors.”
My resignation in August had been triggered by a series of events that culminated with Iraq refusing to cooperate with UNSCOM inspectors, effectively killing the inspection process. The fallout produced by the combined impact of my resignation and congressional testimony helped stiffen the resolve of the Clinton administration, and by mid-November of 1998, Iraq, under threat of imminent military attack from the U.S., agreed to allow UNSCOM to resume its work. But rather than allow the inspections to run their course, the Clinton administration instead used the work of UNSCOM to deliberately provoke a confrontation, seeking to inspect a sensitive facility belonging to the Baath Party based upon old intelligence information that had long since expired. The goal was to get the Iraqis to deny inspectors access to the site. When Iraq instead agreed to allow inspectors inside the facility, the Clinton administration immediately ordered all UNSCOM inspectors out of Iraq, before initiating a 72-hour bombing campaign, Operation Desert Fox, which used intelligence information gleaned from UNSCOM inspections to target Hussein and his inner circle. This was the very half measure I had cautioned Biden against, and the results spoke for themselves: Iraq immediately severed all relations with UNSCOM, and an emboldened Hussein remained in power with the issue of the disposition of Iraq’s WMD unresolved.
By the summer of 2000, Washington was caught up in the silly season of American presidential politics. Both the Democratic candidate, Vice President Al Gore, and the Republican challenger, George W. Bush, had singled out Iraq as an issue, hyping up the threat posed by Iraq’s WMD programs and the fact that U.N. weapons inspectors were no longer on the job. I was concerned that both candidates would use the absence of inspectors to overhype the threat posed by Iraqi WMD, and in doing so push the U.S. into a needless war with Iraq. U.S. policy, I believed, should be focused on getting U.N. weapons inspectors back to work in Iraq, not creating a case for war. Having deliberately killed the inspection process, however, the Clinton administration was not keen on overseeing its resurrection. Republicans, for their part, were loath to be seen to be less resolute than the Democrats. War was in the air.
I reached out to three senators in an effort to engender a fact-based discussion about the real threat posed by Iraq’s unaccounted-for WMD—Hagel, Kerry and Biden. Hagel agreed to meet with me, but after a lengthy discussion in which he agreed with much of what I had to say, he noted that “there wouldn’t be any profile-in-courage moments” out of Congress during a presidential election year. “No one wants to get out ahead of their candidate on the issue of Iraq,” Hagel said.
Kerry took my phone call and listened to my pitch. “Put it in writing,” he told me. I did him one better—I wrote an exhaustive article for Arms Control Today, the leading journal on the issue of disarmament, and had the publisher send a copy to every member of Congress. Titled “The Case for the Qualitative Disarmament of Iraq,” the article noted that “Iraq has not fully complied with the provisions of Security Council Resolution 687. On this there is no debate. However, this failure to comply does not automatically translate into a finding that Iraq continues to possess weapons of mass destruction and the means to produce them.” Citing UNSCOM inspection reports and internal memoranda, I broke down Iraq’s WMD programs and demonstrated how UNSCOM, while not able to account for every component or item of interest related to WMD, had in fact accomplished the “qualitative” disarmament of Iraq, destroying its ability to manufacture and sustain weapons of mass destruction which, when coupled with a vigorous inspection-based monitoring of its industrial infrastructure, could provide meaningful assurance that Iraq would not be able to reconstitute a viable WMD capability.
Kerry passed the issue off to Biden, who declined to talk to me directly, instead dispatching a senior member of the minority staff of the Foreign Relations Committee to meet with me. This meeting was a singular disappointment. The staffer began by calling me a traitor for speaking out about Iraq and took umbrage when I backed up my claims with documents. “You are not supposed to have these materials,” he said. “They are classified, and you are a traitor for publicizing the information they contain.”
After reminding the staffer that he was walking a very dangerous line in calling a former officer of Marines a traitor, I pointed out that the information I cited was from my time as an inspector, and was not classified in any way. No U.S. intelligence sources or methods were compromised by my efforts. While U.S. policymakers may have been embarrassed by my revelations, this was only because truth did not comport with the policies they were pursuing. I reminded the staffer of Biden’s stated desire to call on my “knowledge and expertise in the future,” noting that this meeting was supposed to be conducted in keeping with that intent in mind.
“Senator Biden will not be meeting with you,” the staffer declared. “You’re too controversial.”
I slid the Arms Control Today article across the table. “How are facts controversial?” I asked. “Point to one thing in this article that you believe to be false or misleading.”
The staffer agreed that the article was fact-based, even if he disagreed with its conclusion. “But this isn’t about facts. This is about politics, and Senator Biden will not go against the policies of the Clinton administration, even if those policies are failing.”
I couldn’t think of a more damning indictment of a public official.
By the summer of 2002, it was clear that the administration of George W. Bush was making a push for a war with Iraq designed to resolve the WMD issue by removing Hussein from power. Once again, I began lobbying the Senate to hold hearings on the threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and consider whether this threat justified going to war. A better option, I contended, was to push for getting U.N. weapons inspectors back to work. This time, no senator would meet with me. Hagel sent a staffer, while Kerry and Biden refused to take my calls. I was compelled to take my case to the media, writing a series of op-ed articles making the case for hearings. Under pressure, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee finally relented, scheduling two days of hearings. I was not invited to testify.
“Senator Joe Biden is running a sham hearing,” I noted at the time. “It is clear that Biden and most of the congressional leadership have pre-ordained a conclusion that seeks to remove Saddam Hussein from power regardless of the facts and are using these hearings to provide political cover for a massive military attack on Iraq.” I pointed out that it was important to determine whether a threat existed inside Iraq that justified going to war. I believed no such threat existed. “I bear personal witness,” I noted, “through seven years as a chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the U.N., to both the scope of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs and the effectiveness of the U.N. weapons inspectors in ultimately eliminating them. While we were never able to provide 100 percent certainty regarding the disposition of Iraq’s proscribed weaponry, we did ascertain a 90-95 percent level of verified disarmament. These are the sort of facts that must be included in any hearing that seeks to determine the threat posed by Iraq today. It is clear that Senator Biden and his colleagues have no interest in such facts.”
Biden convened his hearing, which sought the testimony of witnesses hand-picked to sustain the desired conclusion that Iraq was a threat worthy of war. He then went on to vote in support of the use of military force against Iraq—a sharp contrast to the position he took in 1991. The U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, citing the threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as the justification for this action. No such weapons were found; Iraq, it turned out, had in fact been qualitatively disarmed, just as I had pointed out in my Arms Control Today article. Instead, the U.S. found itself embroiled in an unpopular occupation and confronted by a popular insurgency that ended up killing more than 4,400 U.S. service members and wounding some 32,000 others; more than 500,000 Iraqis perished as a result of this insurgency before U.S. combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq in December 2011.
In April 2007, during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Biden was confronted with his decision to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “I want to go back to 2002,” host Tim Russert said, “because it’s important as to what people were saying then and what the American people were hearing. Here’s Joe Biden about Saddam Hussein: ‘He’s a long-term threat and a short-term threat to our national security.’
‘We have no choice but to eliminate the threat. This is a guy who is an extreme danger to the world.’
‘He must be dislodged from his weapons or dislodged from power.’ You were emphatic about that.”
“That’s right,” Biden responded, “and I was correct about that. He must be, in fact—and remember the weapons we were talking about. I also said on your show, that’s part of what I said, but not all of what I meant.” Biden rambled on in typical fashion, before concluding, “But [Saddam] did have these stockpiles everywhere.”
“Where are they?” Russert asked.
“Well, the point is,” Biden stammered, “it turned out they didn’t, but everyone in the world thought he had them. The weapons inspectors said he had them.”
I was watching “Meet the Press” that day as Biden sought to spin his way out of a trap of his own making. Then came the clincher. Russert asked Biden straight up: “Should you have gone or sought out people who had a dissenting view on the level of weapons of mass destruction?”
“Oh, I did,” Biden replied emphatically. “I did.”
On that occasion, and on many others the course of the two decades that have passed since Biden wrote me after our September 1998 meeting, I have taken his letter out and studied the text, looking for some insight into the character of the man who could have stopped a war, if he had only tried. In doing so, my eyes are always drawn to the postscript he penned below his signature:
“PS I hope to speak with you again.”
I wish you had, Joe. I wish you had.