Regime change, not disarmament, was always the driving factor behind U.S. policy towards Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
By Scott Ritter
Special to Consortium News
The Establishment has still not reckoned with the essential lie behind the invasion of Iraq that began 20 years ago today, March 19, 2003.
As an example, a New York Times Magazine’s puff piece in July 2020, purportedly to come clean on Iraq, instead soft-peddles former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s role in selling a war on Iraq to the U.N. Security Council using what turned out to be bad intelligence. “Colin Powell Still Wants Answers” is the title of the article, written by Robert Draper. “The analysts who provided the intelligence,” a sub-header to the article declares, “now say it was doubted inside the C.I.A. at the time.”
Draper’s article is an extract from his book, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq. In the interest of full disclosure, I was approached by Draper in 2018 about his interest in writing this book, and I agreed to be interviewed as part of his research. My words apparently carried little weight.
Regime Change, Not WMD
I spent some time articulating to Draper my contention that the issue with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was never about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but rather regime change, and that everything had to be viewed in the light of this reality—including Powell’s Feb. 5, 2003 presentation before the U.N. Security Council. Based upon the content of his article, I might as well have been talking to a brick wall.
Powell’s 2003 presentation before the council did not take place in a policy vacuum. In many ways, the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq was a continuation of the 1991 Gulf War, which Powell helped orchestrate. Its fumbled aftermath was again, something that transpired on Powell’s watch as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the administration of George H. W. Bush.
Powell was part of the policy team that crafted the post-Gulf War response to the fact that Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, survived a conflict he was not meant to. After being labeled the Middle East equivalent of Adolf Hitler whose crimes required Nuremburg-like retribution in a speech delivered by President Bush in October 1990, the Iraqi President’s post-conflict hold on power had become a political problem for Bush 41.
Powell was aware of the C.I.A.’s post-war assessment on the vulnerability of Saddam’s rule to continued economic sanctions, and helped craft the policy that led to the passage of Security Council resolution 687 in April 1991. That linked Iraq’s obligation to be disarmed of its WMD prior to any lifting of sanctions and the reality that it was U.S. policy not to lift these sanctions, regardless of Iraq’s disarmament status, until which time Saddam was removed from power.
Regime change, not disarmament, was always the driving factor behind U.S. policy towards Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Powell knew this because he helped craft the original policy.
I bore witness to the reality of this policy as a weapons inspector working for the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), created under the mandate of U.N. Security Council resolution 687 to oversee the disarming of Iraq’s WMD. Brought in to create an intelligence capability for the inspection team, my remit soon expanded to operations and, more specifically, how Iraq was hiding retained weapons and capability from the inspectors.
One of my first tasks was addressing discrepancies in Iraq’s accounting of its modified SCUD missile arsenal; in December 1991 I wrote an assessment that Iraq was likely retaining approximately 100 missiles. By March 1992 Iraq, under pressure, admitted it had retained a force of 89 missiles (that number later grew to 97).
After extensive investigations, I was able to corroborate the Iraqi declarations, and in November 1992 issued an assessment that UNSCOM could account for the totality of Iraq’s SCUD missile force. This, of course, was an unacceptable conclusion, given that a compliant Iraq meant sanctions would need to be lifted and Saddam would survive.
The U.S. intelligence community rejected my findings without providing any fact-based evidence to refute it, and the C.I.A. later briefed the Senate that it assessed Iraq to be retaining a force of some 200 covert SCUD missiles. This all took place under Powell’s watch as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
I challenged the C.I.A.’s assessment, and organized the largest, most complex inspection in UNSCOM’s history to investigate the intelligence behind the 200-missile assessment. In the end, the intelligence was shown to be wrong, and in November 1993 I briefed the C.I.A. director’s senior staff on UNSCOM’s conclusion that all SCUD missiles were accounted for.
Moving the Goalposts
The C.I.A.’s response was to assert that Iraq had a force of 12-20 covert SCUD missiles, and that this number would never change, regardless of what UNSCOM did. This same assessment was in play at the time of Powell’s Security Council presentation, a blatant lie born of the willful manufacture of lies by an entity—the C.I.A.—whose task was regime change, not disarmament.
Powell knew all of this, and yet he still delivered his speech to the U.N. Security Council.
In October 2002, in a briefing designed to undermine the credibility of U.N. inspectors preparing to return to Iraq, the Defense Intelligence Agency trotted out Dr. John Yurechko, the defense intelligence officer for information operations and denial and deception, to provide a briefing detailing U.S. claims that Iraq was engaged in a systematic process of concealment regarding its WMD programs.
According to Yurechko, the briefing was compiled from several sources, including “inspector memoirs” and Iraqi defectors. The briefing was farcical, a deliberate effort to propagate misinformation by the administration of Bush 43. I know—starting in 1994, I led a concerted UNSCOM effort involving the intelligence services of eight nations to get to the bottom of Iraq’s so-called “concealment mechanism.”
Using innovative imagery intelligence techniques, defector debriefs, agent networks and communications intercepts, combined with extremely aggressive on-site inspections, I was able, by March 1998, to conclude that Iraqi concealment efforts were largely centered on protecting Saddam Hussein from assassination, and had nothing to do with hiding WMD. This, too, was an inconvenient finding, and led to the U.S. dismantling the apparatus of investigation I had so carefully assembled over the course of four years.
It was never about the WMD—Powell knew this. It was always about regime change.
Using U.N. as Cover for Coup Attempt
In 1991, Powell signed off on the incorporation of elite U.S. military commandos into the C.I.A.’s Special Activities Staff for the purpose of using UNSCOM as a front to collect intelligence that could facilitate the removal of Saddam Hussein. I worked with this special cell from 1991 until 1996, on the mistaken opinion that the unique intelligence, logistics and communications capability they provided were useful to planning and executing the complex inspections I was helping lead in Iraq.
This program resulted in the failed coup attempt in June 1996 that used UNSCOM as its operational cover—the coup failed, the Special Activities Staff ceased all cooperation with UNSCOM, and we inspectors were left holding the bag. The Iraqis had every right to be concerned that UNSCOM inspections were being used to target their president because, the truth be told, they were.
Nowhere in Powell’s presentation to the Security Council, or in any of his efforts to recast that presentation as a good intention led astray by bad intelligence, does the reality of regime change factor in. Regime change was the only policy objective of three successive U.S. presidential administrations—Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43.
Powell was a key player in two of these. He knew. He knew about the existence of the C.I.A.’s Iraq Operations Group. He knew of the successive string of covert “findings” issued by U.S. presidents authorizing the C.I.A. to remove Saddam Hussein from power using lethal force. He knew that the die had been cast for war long before Bush 43 decided to engage the United Nations in the fall of 2002.
Powell knew all of this, and yet he still allowed himself to be used as a front to sell this conflict to the international community, and by extension the American people, using intelligence that was demonstrably false. If, simply by drawing on my experience as an UNSCOM inspector, I knew every word he uttered before the Security Council was a lie the moment he spoke, Powell should have as well, because every aspect of my work as an UNSCOM inspector was known to, and documented by, the C.I.A..
It is not that I was unknown to Powell in the context of the WMD narrative. Indeed, my name came up during an interview Powell gave to Fox News on Sept. 8, 2002, when he was asked to comment on a quote from my speech to the Iraqi Parliament earlier that month in which I stated:
“The rhetoric of fear that is disseminated by my government and others has not to date been backed up by hard facts that substantiate any allegations that Iraq is today in possession of weapons of mass destruction or has links to terror groups responsible for attacking the United States. Void of such facts, all we have is speculation.”
Powell responded by declaring,
“We have facts, not speculation. Scott is certainly entitled to his opinion but I’m afraid that I would not place the security of my nation and the security of our friends in the region on that kind of an assertion by somebody who’s not in the intelligence chain any longer… If Scott is right, then why are they keeping the inspectors out? If Scott is right, why don’t they say, ‘Anytime, any place, anywhere, bring ‘em in, everybody come in—we are clean?’ The reason is they are not clean. And we have to find out what they have and what we’re going to do about it. And that’s why it’s been the policy of this government to insist that Iraq be disarmed in accordance with the terms of the relevant U.N. resolutions.”
Of course, in November 2002, Iraq did just what Powell said they would never do—they let the U.N. inspectors return without preconditions. The inspectors quickly exposed the fact that the “high quality” U.S. intelligence they had been tasked with investigating was pure bunk. Left to their own devices, the new round of U.N. weapons inspections would soon be able to give Iraq a clean bill of health, paving the way for the lifting of sanctions and the continued survival of Saddam Hussein.
Powell knew this was not an option. And thus he allowed himself to be used as a vehicle for disseminating more lies—lies that would take the U.S. to war, cost thousands of U.S. service members their lives, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, all in the name of regime change.
Back to Robert Draper. I spent a considerable amount of time impressing upon him the reality of regime change as a policy, and the fact that the WMD disarmament issue existed for the sole purpose of facilitating regime change. Apparently, my words had little impact, as all Draper has done in his article is continue the false narrative that America went to war on the weight of false and misleading intelligence.
Draper is wrong—America went to war because it was our policy as a nation, sustained over three successive presidential administrations, to remove Saddam Hussein from power. By 2002 the WMD narrative that had been used to support and sustain this regime change policy was weakening.
Powell’s speech was a last-gasp effort to use the story of Iraqi WMD for the purpose it was always intended—to facilitate the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. In this light, Colin Powell’s speech was one of the greatest successes in C.I.A. history. That is not the story, however, Draper chose to tell, and the world is worse off for that failed opportunity.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
Reference to NATO members’ obligations under the treaty often refer to Articles 5 and 6, dealing with collective defence – all members coming to the aid of an attacked member.
Rarely do I see reference to Article 7: “This Treaty does not affect, and shall not be interpreted as affecting in any way the rights and obligations under the Charter of the Parties which are members of the United Nations, or the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security.”
An important declaration by the UN General Assembly is that “A war of aggression constitutes a crime against the peace, for which there is responsibility under international law.” This is immediately followed by: “In accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations, states have the duty to refrain from propaganda for wars of aggression.” It seems clear to me that the lies described by Scott Ritter qualify as propaganda for war.
If a war needs to be based on lies, one has to ask why are the lies needed? A strong possibility is that if the truth were known the people would find the war unjust or unwise and would not support it. Maybe they would be wrong, but it is a feature of democratic liberty that the people have their informed say.
There is a certain hubris among power-holders who feel so certain of their rightness that they resort to suppression, deceit, torture and other vile behaviour to maintain that certainty. The whistle-blower sees something wrong with that and puts his or her well-being at great risk by exposing the reality. But it helps to restore to the people the ability to make their own collective choice. You could call that democracy.
The thought occurred to me that the UN General Assembly should vote on the following declaration: “Any war, or military action against another state, entered into on the basis of lies, deceptions or other forms of misrepresentation shall be deemed to be a war of aggression.”
This might be better drafted, but the idea should be clear.
I agree with Scott, it was intended as a regime change operation – that is one of the specialties of the US.
But I think there is an another, underlying motive – control of resources. If a country’s “regime” allows or invites US Corp in to “develop” – read plunder – its resources, on the Corps’ terms, it stays, if it wants to retain control of its own resources, on its own terms, it goes – this pattern is seen over and over on just about every continent – and the World Bank and IMF help to facilitate such Corp control with their “structural adjustment” terms for granting loans …
We are even extending that desire for control – to the Moon, for Pete’s sake – why, after all these years of neglect, do we suddenly mount a big push to go back there – because China has shown interest in doing so …
It is interesting to see how many layers of apologia are involved in historical accounts of these evident crimes.
Naturally enough, the motives of a large group are compound and divergent–“some quick to arm / some for adventure / some for fear of weakness / some for fear of censure/ . . . “.
But none of that constitutes an excuse; within the ruling classes and commanding ranks, are all criminal and crimes by people too plunged into the world of crime and usually of largesse to deal with any of it effectively–some for love of profit, some for love of power, some for fear or blackmail, and so forth.
It’s a poor accounting that does not go into the shared venality of motive in the ruling class. A thousand vermin share an odor.
I would disagree with Scott on this point. The Iraq war was not about regime change; It was about transferring tax payers money to MIC, enriching the crooked bankers and ensuring our oil industries get fat on stolen resources. If they could have accomplished all that without removing Saddam, they would have done so. For all those “media” pundits glorifying ICC for charging Putin with war crimes, should first ask ICC to charge every US president from Lyndon Johnson to Obama. After that, we can talk about Putin, if he is a war criminal or if Zelensky is.
Hello AA from MD.
I agree within your disagreement.
The Military Industrial Complex can only make their billions when the US is fighting a war.
Eisenhower warned about this in his farewell speech.
The CIA was supposed to collect information only. Instead under Allen Dulles, it became a secret arm of the government in spying, regime changes and assassinations. Except for Truman, every president has used and expanded the power of the CIA.
SECRET TEAM by Fletcher Prouty goes into detail in how the CIA works out of site. They answer to no one.
I disagree. I think Scott’s assessment is the more logical one. One should not mistake an effect for a cause. Sure, the ‘defense’ contractors make tons of money on our foreign policy – and they do have significant sway over policy. That’s true in every single war. Yet, is defense industry profit the sole or primary reason for the wars? I tend to doubt it. The bigger picture is that the U.S. Empire (which includes and represents MANY powerful industries and sectors) seeks both to maintain its hegemony and to expand it. This is not only military hegemony, but economic: assuring of the hegemony of the petro-dollar, and control over all resources and markets is part of that.
We don’t always use direct military force (or our own weapons) in that pursuit. The long history of our imperialism includes the use of economic warfare (sanctions, etc.), the buying off of foreign leaders when they’re willing, or instigating coups and interfering in elections when they’re not. When they don’t cooperate with the “Rules” of the “Rules-Based Order” that the Imperium dictates, regime change is undertaken. If coups aren’t successful, assassination is next up. Then, if unsuccessful, then some reason is given for outright war. Nowadays, the U.S. mostly prefers to engineer a proxy war such as in Ukraine. That, after all, is also mostly about trying to get regime change in Russia- to get another U.S. stooge like Yeltsin. (And yes, the defense contractors are massively profiting once again!)
I was watching these events closely (2002, 2003), reading the easily available evidence, pro and con, of Iraq’s involvement WMD and 9/11; no, not as a serious student of world affairs, but as a simple citizen trying to make sense of events. And, I knew, at the time, that Powell was not just an unwitting dupe giving false testimony to the U.N. but rather a clear participant in the movement toward war crimes. The presentation to the U.N. was laughable…the barest knowledge of chemistry and physics made it laughable…were it not for the potential to become what it did become, the destruction of millions of lives and the destabilizing of large regions of the geopolitical globe.
James, it was obvious to many of us, I’m sure. My wife recalls very clearly how loudly I screamed “LIAR!” at the TV as Powell gave his infamous testimony about the proof of WMDs in Iraq. I knew he was lying, because if a nobody like me, with no ‘connections’ already had read the evidence debunking the claims, then Powell (and Rice, et al) also had to know. These people all should be prosecuted- posthumously if necessary.
I believe all those lies had serve one purpose, already back then, Russia containment; Russia at that time had very good relationship with Iraq, and Iraq being a giant in oil production partnering with Putin would constitute a huge threat to western hegemony. Perhaps I am wrong, but i think a million victims was the price US and EU were easily willing to pay to continue decades of “war” against Russia. I included EU, although still too many today believe EU was not part of it; EU has always been part of US wars, an accomplice. But to the rest of the world it has shown at times opposition to US military intervention, that only for economic e political purpose, which would benefit US as well. Mearsheimer was spot on in saying that EU follows NATO expansion.
One should ask what EU has really done to bring US to justice? we all know the answer; and today’s war in Ukraine had exposed who the EU really is, not a victim but an accomplice in all the crimes the US has committed.
Afterall, they say that if a NATO country is being attacked, it is a direct attack to all NATO, what they forgot to mention is that if a NATO country goes to war, all NATO is on that war; one for all, all for one, remember? I don’t know who is worse the US or EU
the U€ is certainly worse off (the ordinary citizens of the U€);
the individual U€ governments are caught in the noose of the U€ government which is strangled by the diktats of U$A-NATO.
U€ citizens are paying (1 year in advance of the outbreak of war) the war in UKRO on the price increases of all energy with a drop on the whole cost of living; it has been calculated that an average Italian family will pay out (for 2023) €9,300 more. retirees and basic workers can’t pay their energy bills and rents.
Bush and Blair often mentioned 9/11 in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.
I remember that at one point a reporter even asked Bush if he was saying that Iraq was behind 9/11. He replied that he was not saying that.
However, it is important to remember what Frank Luntz used to say: “It is not what you say that counts, it is what people hear.”
By mentioning 9/11 in the context of the proposed invasion of Iraq, Bush and Blair presumably thought that people hearing it would make the connection themselves (despite there not being one).
In the USA, that strategy did work rather well at manufacturing consent for the war:
“Mr. Bush has never directly accused the former Iraqi leader of having a hand in the attacks on New York and Washington, but he has repeatedly associated the two in keynote addresses delivered since 11 September. Senior members of his administration have similarly conflated the two.”
“A recent opinion poll suggests that 70% of Americans believe the Iraqi leader was personally involved in the attacks.”
(BBC online news report, exact date uncertain).
Tony: Thanks for highlighting this public rhetorical tactic. Subtle, deniable, and extremely effective, it is seldom pointed to when talking about narrative management.
Hitler stated tell the most outrageous lie, often enough and long enough, it will become the truth.
Bush junior’s sleight of hand was a way of not outright lying.
Very important insights, first-hand experience. It is the pattern of history that warns where humanity is headed: that all wars are fought for power and all empires ultimately face the conflict they seek to avoid – their own destruction.
A free ebook: The Pattern of History and Fate of Humanity
Well, so much for the comforting thought that at least one of the people primarily responsible for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was not an active war criminal who was just willfully blind and merely following orders from his superiors. I now have no reason to believe that Powell was so abysmally stupid that he didn’t understand what was going on beyond the point where he balked at a couple of transparently obvious lies to try to preserve his own reputation.
This is a time for ripping off such masks to make it clear how many are still wearing them.
Truly a tragic tale. There is no doubt that this invasion also marked the beginning of America’s self-destruction. The mills of God, as they say, grind slowly but grind exceedingly fine.
The tragedy isn’t the destruction of America. It’s about time the U.S. and its warmongering ways went down. It’s the rest of the planet I’m more concerned about.
Me too Btb. We are apparently on our “last warning” now:
“Scientists deliver ‘final warning’ on climate crisis: act now or it’s too late”
“IPCC report says only swift and drastic action can avert irrevocable damage to world”
(Guardian 20 March)
We haven’t really listened to any of the others since the first one in 1992. I don’t hold out much hope we will now.
Tnx Scott 4 mention BushI regime. (CN 4 running)
The 80:s introduced 2 American policies:
1 Minimum wage freeze.
2 Homeless “crisis”.
This commenters intends:
Oh yeah ya don’ wanna work fer nuthin’? Check out dis Nice family TENT!”
The BBC is running a 20th anniversary review of this catastrophe upon catastrophe. Needless to say, Scott Ritter does not get a say or a mention.
They used to say that the winners re-wrote history. Nowadays, it’s the losers.
The government in Washington has never been trustworthy. It still isn’t. Run by grifters, ghouls and and the fools who congregate around them, why does any human believe a word they say?
That was a great rendition of IRAQ — Disarmament.
What can the American people do to stop the lying warmongers from having their way?
Telling on them doesn’t seem to have an effect, criticizing got Dan Rather assigned to the north pole!
I appreciate your journalism Thanks Keep it up.
What can we do? We can stop voting for these clowns – as we have been doing for the past several decades …
Dan Rather had the information right. He should have presented the proof that Bush was in Alaska working in a lumber yard. He washed out of flight school. But he did not want to do other positions in the NG.
The corrupt Bush family is documented FAMILY OF SECRETS by Russ Baker and Roger Stone’s book JEB explains how the family cabal operates.
Thank you. It is still gut wrenching to hear it expressed so clearly. Of course, now we are living through it again and the NYT and MSM are even more despicable and unreliable than before.
The answer? It would expose too much direct truth about America’s past and continuing, and plans for future actions in the world. It really quite undermines the benign hegemonic leader nonsense.
Let us not forget It was Powell who was instrumental in whitewashing the My Lai massacre . Telling the truth has never been his forte.
Correct. A lot of people forget that Powell remained schtum about My Lai. Daniel Ellsberg writes about it as well as otherss.
KILL ANYTHING THAT MOVES by Nick Thurse tells what occurred before My Lai went public.
Not just Powell but from the commander-in-chief down thru the ranks the generals looked the other way.
The foot soldiers were the doing what was ordered for LBJ to build encouragement and support to continue the war.
Thank you, Scott Ritter.
Ditto of the US policy in Ukraine. The intent is the overthrow of president Vladimir Putin, whatever the costs!
In general, the American populace is as entranced as it ever was by their governments lies.
Afterall, ’tis the land of enchantment!
New Mexico state motto is “Land of Enchantment”.
They are not entranced or enchanted whichever you prefer, they are simply stupid
Well yes Jana. But they can’t really put “land of simply stupid” on their motto. LOL
It’s fascinating that on the week of the 20th anniversary of one of the most disgusting crimes against humanity, our powers-that-be are set to perp walk Trump — definitely an imperfect president, no doubt, yet the only one over the past 35 years who did not start a major military conflagration.
This confluence of events being the case, we better also see Cheney, Bush Jr, Clinton, Obama, and Biden behind bars for the rest of their lives for all the buckets of blood they’re drenched in. Throw in their top foreign policy advisors and rabid media lapdogs too. Let’s go, round ’em up.
I agree. The warmongers and war criminals should be in Florence and Julian Assange should be freed from Belmarsh.
Trump – ” …. the only one over the past 35 years who did not start a major military conflagration.”
Maybe that’s why they want to “perp-walk” him ….