spying on saddam
richard haass: interview
During the Bush administration he served on the National Security Council advising the President on Near East foreign policy. He currently is the director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.
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What was the feeling inside the Bush Administration at the end of the Gulf War?

richard haassWhen the war ended at the end of February, 1991, there was a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. We had gone in and done what we said we were going to do. We had liberated Kuwait. American casualties were far, far less than all of us predicted and feared. So there was a tremendous sense that, yes, this was going extremely well. And we were all very comfortable with what we had done.

Clearly, in the aftermath, over the last eight or nine years, not everything's worked out the way we had hoped. And that was also part of it. It was our expectation at that point that in the aftermath of the war, Saddam Hussein would not be able to survive politically, that more than anything else, the returning Iraqi forces would overwhelm him and overthrow him, and that one way or another, he was going to be made to pay a price for this strategic fiasco.

So, there was that hope, and then as the years went by, a feeling of frustration.

Oh yeah. Let me put it another way. You never really solve problems in international affairs. But we thought we would basically put this problem in a box with the Gulf War. And then in March 1991, when you had the revolts, clearly things got very messy. A lot of good people lost their lives. It then became clear a few months later that Saddam Hussein was going to stay--we didn't know how long--but clearly he was not going to be swept aside in defeat, as many of us had expected.

Was there some fear on the Administration's part [that]..., if Saddam goes, who replaces him?

There was always some concern that if Saddam went you could have Saddamism without Saddam. You could have somebody 98 percent as bad, but the world would breathe this collective sigh of relief, and that would have been dangerous.

Another worrisome scenario was the idea that Iraq would come apart, and you'd have a civil war in Iraq. You'd have all the neighbors coming in. It could look like Beirut looked a decade before, and it could be really awful. But I've got to tell you, when I was sitting at the White House, that was the sort of problem I looked forward to, the idea that one day that would come into my in-box. While I didn't underestimate the problem, it's still a hell of a lot better than having to deal with Saddam Hussein.

So, Saddam is in power still. Weakened, in his box. This organization is then created called UNSCOM. What was the Bush Administration's feeling about that?

I think at the beginning, there was a certain degree of skepticism. The idea that some U.N.-like organization was going to actually accomplish a great deal-- A lot of us had watched things like the International Atomic Energy Agency for decades, and it had always worked on a voluntarily or consensual basis. And quite honestly, I didn't have a lot of faith in the I.A.E.A. It was only allowed to look where government said it could look. So the idea that UNSCOM, the U.N. Special Commission, was going to come along and do something very different--possible, but quite honestly, I admit to being skeptical at the time. Glad I was proved wrong.

...What was the evolution of your feeling about them at that point?

Well, two things were happening. On one hand, the Iraqis were clearly hanging tough. And the idea that Saddam would go or the Iraqis would be supine, was not happening. They were resisting every inch of the way. So very clearly, they still had stuff they wanted to hide. That became obvious.

With UNSCOM...people were thinking in terms of months... People did not realize they were being asked to sign on to a decade or longer policy.  So  the fatigue that set in was predictable. The good news though, is that UNSCOM was not rolling over and playing dead, that UNSCOM was proving to be extraordinarily tough, and Rolf Ekeus, the person who was running it, turned out to be a hero. Here was somebody who was actually opposite what most Americans would say is an international civil servant. Here's a guy who spoke the truth, who was tough, was direct, and said, "Look, I've got a job to do. I'm going to do it." He was so unexpectedly direct, and you almost might say, politically incorrect for someone out of an international organization that we were just as pleased as could be. And also, the team members were hanging tough, people like David Kay and others. What they did was heroic. ...

So is it fair to say then that you had some hope that maybe this group, UNSCOM, however strange its origin, and however low the expectations at the start, might actually be able to accomplish something?

We had some hope because of them, and also we were determined to back them up. We understood that, you know, UNSCOM doesn't have an Army. UNSCOM doesn't have an Air Force. UNSCOM is a bunch of people with binoculars and test tubes and the rest. So UNSCOM could be determined, but then all they could do was really tee the ball up. If the Iraqis then didn't give them the access, UNSCOM had to appeal to the international community to basically say, "Back us up. Help us force the Iraqis to open the door." We were prepared to do that, so we felt pretty good about the whole situation.

Now, early on, there were a couple of very famous confrontations. ... One of them, [David Kay] is a hostage in a parking lot for four days.

... Well, we were concerned on lots of levels. We were concerned on a human level. We knew some of these people. By then we had gotten to know Ekeus and David Kay and others.

We were also concerned for two other reasons. One was simply the stakes. We were dealing with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but we were also dealing with the whole integrity of the post-Gulf War regime. And the whole idea was to basically say, no one like Iraq or Saddam Hussein, could get away with this sort of thing. So there was a lot at stake, given the investment of the international community up to that point. So we were determined to make this work.

Had that hostage situation or any similar situation gone on longer, is that the kind of situation where the United States would have been prepared to bomb Iraq, intervene militarily?

We stepped right up to the plate. It was the summer of 1992, and it was the eve of the Republican convention. And this was one of the several parking lot incidents, between the UNSCOM people and the Iraqis. And we were essentially as close as you get to launching a military operation over Iraqi defiance, when the story leaked here. And it was really unfortunate, because the fact that it leaked beforehand created questions about UNSCOM's independence, about what was going on here.

People then questioned our motives, questioned President Bush's motives--which was outrageous. People actually said that what he was doing was trying to create a diversion and look tough before the Republican Convention, when in fact the truth was just the opposite. He wanted to bomb Iraq over UNSCOM because it was the right thing, but he actually feared doing so simply because he thought there might be people who were going to question his motive. But all the same, he was determined to go ahead if need be.

And so, more than once, we were ready to bomb Iraq in order to force them--to coerce them--to allow UNSCOM to do its job properly.

Rolf Ekeus and David Kay have told us that at the time ... they were able to be effective when there was always the threat in the mind of the Iraqi government, that if they did something to harm the UNSCOM people or violated the accords of the U.N., that there would be U.S. military retaliation.

There was clear coordination between the U.S. and UNSCOM, not at a tactical level. It wasn't as though we were the steering wheel and they were the wheels. But there was coordination at a strategic level, that we knew that if the Iraqis complied with UNSCOM it wasn't because Saddam Hussein suddenly had a change of heart and began to believe in international law. The only reason Saddam Hussein was going to comply with UNSCOM was because he feared the American-led military reaction. And UNSCOM knew this as well. They knew that we would not leave them in the lurch.

So I think there was quite a lot of confidence between ourselves and UNSCOM. We knew that they had integrity and they would not whitewash the Iraqis, so we were prepared to back them up. And they were willing to be tough, in part, because they knew we would back them up. So it was actually a very close relationship in a strategic sense, and the Iraqis knew this. And to the extent we got any Iraqi cooperation, it was because of that.

... When did you begin to sense that U.S. policy [and] U.N. policy, were going to begin to diverge on this?

It wasn't any particular event. Time takes its toll. I think a degree of fatigue entered into this entire relationship: fatigue, in part, because of sanctions, economic burdens. Also some sympathy for the Iraqi people. I think it was misplaced, because the sanctions weren't at fault. It was Saddam's manipulation of supplies that was at fault. But all the same, the international community got tired of this sense of confrontation.

... I think, also, the French and the Russians began to worry about the long term economic and commercial consequences of this process going on. And you've got to remember, when Resolution 687, which was the father of UNSCOM or the mother of all resolutions, if you prefer, was written after the Gulf War, in the back of people's minds, this was not a ten year resolution, in the sense of something that was going to play out over a decade or longer. People were thinking in terms of months. It was very telescoped. And I think the willingness, almost the psychological preparation of the international community, was fairly short term. People did not realize they were being asked to sign on to a decade or longer policy. So, the erosion that we've seen, the fatigue that set in, was predictable. It's just that none of us at the time realized that this was going to be such a drawn out operation.

The Clinton Administration has not had that kind of ... clear resolve, to use military response when something happens to UNSCOM. Are they at fault for that or are they just a victim of this erosion and fatigue that you've described?

I think the passage of time made the challenge to Mr. Clinton somewhat more difficult, but I think the Clinton Administration has made it far, far worse than it ever needed to be. In part, they simply didn't invest in the maintenance of international opposition to Saddam. It's not enough to pick up the phone when Saddam does something and the crisis is at hand. You've got to invest in these relationships so if and when Saddam does something, people are prepared to push back. The Clinton Administration tended not to do that.

They've also either been unwilling to use force in a serious way-- It's been often feckless. At times they've threatened to use force, then haven't followed through. So we've had the worst of all worlds--a lot of pin pricks. But every time you use military force, you draw down on your political capital. You draw down on the resolve of this international consensus to confront Saddam. But we weren't getting enough for it.

So it seems to me the Administration has often gotten it exactly wrong. They did some things--enough to anger or at least alienate a lot of the international community--but not really enough to either help UNSCOM or to really change what Saddam could and could not do. So I think we've paid a price for our policy.

Do you think that at this point UNSCOM is dead?

I think UNSCOM in its current form is just about dead. I think that the revelations that have come out, true or not, about the so-called espionage angle, about its relationship with U.S. intelligence services, have really hurt UNSCOM. And I think it's given Saddam Hussein something to grab onto when he tells the world, "I'm not going to let UNSCOM in. They're simply a pawn of the Americans. They're simply spies." It's given this just enough of the flavor or appearance of truth that it's discredited UNSCOM. So I think at the end of the day, probably something called UNSCOM, headed by Richard Butler, is probably dead. Something called UNSCOM, headed by somebody else, may be possible.

Probably there is something else other than UNSCOM. But what matters to me is less those six initials. You know, I don't care if you call it The Good Humor Man. What matters to me is that whatever goes in there has the same tenacity and the same integrity and the same capability as UNSCOM. The worst thing in the world is to have UNSCOM lite. The worst thing in the world is to have a bunch of inspectors who go in there, the Iraqis show them a couple of places-- baby milk factories--and they say, "Great. Clean bill of health. Time to lift sanctions, Security Council." That's the thing we've got to avoid. So I don't much care if you call it UNSCOM or not, but it's really got to be the kind of organization that Ekeus created, which has that kind of determination and that kind of courage.

Do you think there's the political will within the U.N. to do that?

It will be tough. And again, we're seeing not simply the consequences of time here, but we're seeing a fracturing of the coalition. The French clearly have some different ideas. The Russians and the Chinese are way off the reservation on this one. I think there is some fatigue in the Arab world. It will be tough. But we have a piece of leverage here. There's no way you can lift sanctions under Resolution 687, without UNSCOM or its equivalent one day, basically giving the Iraqis a clean bill of health. That's the leverage we have. So if Saddam Hussein ever wants to get out from under the bulk of the sanctions, he has got to meet our requirements on weapons of mass destruction.

So, eight years after the end of the Gulf War, we want to maintain some kind of tough inspection program. We want to maintain the economic sanctions. What other elements of U.S. policy?

Well, I think those are the keys to what you might call containment. The idea is to prevent Saddam Hussein from regenerating weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological, nuclear, and missiles; to prevent him from importing even conventional military arms. We want to make sure that any money that goes to Saddam Hussein does not go to him directly, but goes into some sort of an international escrow account so we make sure he can't start spreading it around for his purposes, and that also we force him to pay compensation for the many victims of Iraqi aggression. That's half the policy.

The other half of the policy is obviously to put greater weight on getting rid of Saddam Hussein; to try to promote a coup in Iraq; to basically get some Colonel or General to lead his division and take Saddam out; or conceivably, to strengthen the Iraqi opposition, politically, as well as one day, militarily, if it comes to that. So I think you've really got a two-dimensional policy now to try to recreate the box. At the same time, within that, to try to find a way to get rid of Saddam.

You mentioned the fact that UNSCOM's become controversial lately with these spy charges--"infiltrated and undermined by the west." What do you think of those charges? ...

Well, I'm not going to question anyone's motives, but all I can say is these charges have done-- UNSCOM and the United States, and indeed, I would think most of the civilized world--a great disservice. They have made a difficult job infinitely more difficult. The result is that right now, we do not have inspectors in Iraq, and there's very little international support for getting anything like an muscular inspection effort back in Iraq.

For Mr. Ritter and other critics of this process who have come out with all these charges have clearly contributed to the discrediting of UNSCOM. I think that's tragic, because it has left Saddam Hussein with a freer hand to go ahead and conceal weapons or develop new ones. So whatever the motives of people, it has clearly come at a great price to us all.

... No one could have the slightest objection to any intelligence agency anywhere in the world funneling information to UNSCOM to help UNSCOM do its job. There's no UNSCOM satellites; there's no UNSCOM U2 planes. UNSCOM is not an intelligence agency. It's an inspection agency. So the United States and every other country in the world was invited to provide information to UNSCOM to help them do their job. And we would have been derelict had we not done that. We then clearly went about it fairly aggressively. And I think so long as the information that was then gathered by UNSCOM or by Americans for the purpose of helping UNSCOM do its job, I think that was 100 percent legitimate.

... A much more questionable thing, which I haven't seen supported, would be that we used UNSCOM to get people into Iraq to collect intelligence for other purposes. If that was indeed what it was that we did, then I would say that was an unwise risk, because we would have risked discrediting UNSCOM for other purposes, and I would say probably not worth it. But I have not seen evidence that we've done that.

... Were you surprised by everything that [Hussein Kamel when he defected] was revealing to you about the extent of what they were up to?

I wasn't surprised by the fact that Hussein Kamel came out and gave us a lot of information of the sort he did. The dimensions of it, though, yeah. That was surprising. Just like early on after the Gulf War we were shocked at the dimensions of the nuclear program--we just had no idea of how many different avenues the Iraqis were pursuing to enrich uranium and the like. So when Hussein Kamel came out with his information, again, it was on a scale that was, quite honestly, larger than people like me thought. But the idea that the Iraqis were up to something? Oh no, that we knew. Clearly, Saddam was hiding something. It was the only explanation for why Saddam Hussein was paying the enormous price he was of sanctions. Clearly he decided there was something worth guarding here, and he was willing to pay, as it turned out, over a hundred billion dollars for the privilege of hiding or concealing something. So that didn't surprise me.

It also gave UNSCOM a real lease on life. See, before this defection, there were those who were saying, "There's no reason to do this. You're looking in dry holes," and the rest. And when this came out, people who supported UNSCOM could go, "Look, we told you. More than ever, we now need an intrusive inspection regime. These guys will not fess up voluntarily." So it actually became a very important legitimizing development for UNSCOM.

... One of the main charges that Ritter has made recently is that the targeting for Desert Fox--a lot of that, he says, came from places that only he and UNSCOM could have identified.

Let's distinguish between some important types of information. Imagine UNSCOM picked up some information about where the Iraqis were doing something for weapons of mass destruction--say, biological weapons--and they couldn't get in there? The fact that we would then pass that information to a pilot--an American or a British pilot--for taking it out, seems to me to be perfectly legitimate. Because, essentially, what we were doing was telling the Iraqis, "Look, you either let us inspect these things and reassure ourselves, or we're going to take them out and reassure ourselves." So to me that's not an issue.

Also, intelligence works a little bit like your vacuum cleaner. When you collect intelligence, you collect a lot of information. Now I'm not going to tell you that UNSCOM, in the process of picking up information for its purposes, didn't perhaps hand over to U.S. intelligence--who had to in any case analyze everything, because they were the recipients--some extra information. And perhaps, indeed, probably, some of that information was going to be used for other purposes. But that wasn't the expressed purpose they were sent in there for. I would actually see that as something of a byproduct, or, to be blunt, a dividend. But we were not using UNSCOM for unrelated purposes. If it turned out in a few cases we got some byproducts or dividends, so be it. We would have been insane not to have taken advantage of it. But that was not what this was about.

And what you're saying is, unless I misunderstand, earlier, is that if there were very specific examples in which the CIA intelligence agency did piggy-back, did take advantage of UNSCOM, that that was probably politically not worth the liability of exposure?

Right. If we were using UNSCOM, say, to collect information so we could target certain types of Iraqi military units for political leadership, for other purposes, I would have said, "You had better be real sure that that information is extremely critical and is going to lead to some extremely valuable operations. Because otherwise, you are jeopardizing an awfully valuable enterprise--UNSCOM--for some high risk venture.

And it's not clear to me that that cost/benefit ratio would have been worth it. So if that was the case, I only hope that some people high up in the American intelligence community made their calculations carefully and are comfortable with their decision even if it didn't turn out well.

There was talk of an Iraqi plot to kill President Bush. Remind me of what that was about. ...

Not that long after President Bush became a private citizen, he was invited back to Kuwait to receive a medal and to be generally honored for his role in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. During that time you had an Iraqi suicide bomber, essentially strapped with explosives, who went out, who tried to kill President Bush. Fortunately, he was stopped, and failed. In response, the United States launched some cruise missiles against the Iraqi intelligence headquarters at a time of day when we thought that there was virtually nobody there. That was simply one of many examples where I would say that our response was too modest. If you're going to use military force against the Iraqis, you can't be proportionate. You've got to be disproportionate. There's got to be a degree of menace in it. Your purpose has to be to coerce them, to basically press them. Ultimately, we want to use enough military force so some Iraqi Colonel is going to say, "Look, if I'm going to get killed, I would rather get killed trying to topple Saddam Hussein than get killed from an American cruise missile or bomber."

And that was the whole problem with Operation Desert Fox, more recently. By putting an arbitrary time limit on it, by putting a ceiling on it, we removed any menace from it. We removed any need for that Iraqi soldier to calculate that he had better take the risk of taking on his own regime.

So as a result, all of our military force has been punitive, but it's been so modest it didn't drive anything in Iraq. And the American use of military force has never been, now, allowed to be an engine of political change. And it's simply because we've been too modest, and in the case of Mr. Clinton, too careful and too unwilling to take risks.

... The pattern for years has essentially been "cheat and retreat." The Iraqis cheat. UNSCOM gets frustrated. We ratchet up the pressure. The Iraqis retreat, and they don't pay a price. And that's okay up to that last point. The Iraqis should be made to pay a price for non-compliance, and that's where we've missed the boat. We've been too willing to basically declare victory and simply return to the status quo ante. That should never be good enough. Every time Saddam Hussein steps over a line, he should be made to pay an enormous price.

Just as important, the people he depends upon--his security and military services--they ought to be made to pay an enormous price. That's the way I think we have the best chance of triggering a coup against Saddam Hussein.

What about the argument you hear a lot now--the Iraqis certainly make this--but that the sanctions are hurting because of what Saddam is doing, to civilian populations?

The lie about the sanctions is not simply a lie. It's a big lie. It's the kind of lie the Nazis actually would have understood, because this is big stuff. From the get go, from day one, there's been a humanitarian exception that any amount of food and medicine could go in through Iraq for humanitarian purposes. We then added the extra thing that if the Iraqis needed to export any oil, to do that, we gave them increasing amounts of oil that they could export to raise money to pay for food and medicine. Right now, Iraq can export unlimited amounts of oil to pay for the importation of unlimited amounts of food and medicine. In addition, we've now expanded the category of what it is we mean by humanitarian goods, so even equipment to pump oil is now there. Equipment to move water is now in there. So if there's any humanitarian problem in Iraq, if there's any shortage of food and medicine, it has nothing to do with the sanctions. It has nothing to do with the United States. It has to do with Saddam Hussein's cynical manipulation. And the people who are allowing themselves to be manipulated by this great lie, they ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Why doesn't the United States make that argument more aggressively and more publicly?

To use a technical phrase, "beats me." We should be out there; we should be making that argument. It's outrageous that Saddam should be able to win the battle of public relations. He doesn't have anything but a big lie on his side.

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