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richard butler: interview
He became Executive Chairman of UNSCOM in July 1997, succeeding Rolf Ekeus. His term will end in June, 1999.  Prior to this appointment, he was Australian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
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Why did you take this assignment? Clearly it was going to be a difficult job.

richard butlerI've spent all my life working on disarmament issues, mainly at the level of negotiating treaties, agreements, commitments, and twisting arms, going to some 40 countries, when I was Australian ambassador for disarmament, trying to persuade them to, say, join the Nuclear Arm Proliferation treaty, for example.

This was a job where it would get beyond paper, beyond treaties...would get hands on weapons, because Iraq had this awesome array of weapons of mass destruction, and UNSCOM's job was to put their hands on those weapons and destroy them. And so it was easy to say yes, and stop talking and start acting.

UNSCOM is really an unprecedented kind of disarmament and inspection effort?

Absolutely unique, never happened before, in this way and in these terms. And it's why we mustn't lose the Iraq case, because what is at issue here is not just getting rid of the hideous, illegal weapons that Saddam Hussein had put together, but in proving to the world, that we can put together an inspectorate, a team of scientists, to go out into the field and destroy weapons where they need to be destroyed. This is a bigger experiment than just dealing with the awful problems that were posed by Iraq.

It's hard to predict the future but Scott Ritter, and others, say UNSCOM is dead. Is UNSCOM dead?

UNSCOM's not doing its work in Iraq now, because Iraq threw us out. Is it dead? I don't believe that. The Security Council is in charge here, and they are committed to getting this job finished. Now, whether it will be on the basis of this UNSCOM or a renewed UNSCOM is the issue that is under debate now, but I'm very sick and tired, I have to tell you, of hearing, from Scott and from others, that UNSCOM is dead. His UNSCOM has gone, but his mistake is that he keeps telling the world that he was UNSCOM, and that is dramatically untrue.

Scott's attempt to say that politics is out there and dirty, and it shouldn't have been interfering with clean inspection stuff, is to describe a world that doesn't exist ... I said no to some of the operations he'd thought up.  Had to, because they wouldn't have worked,  would have harmed us politically.  We've got to live to fight the next day, if we're going to get this job done. UNSCOM has always been far more than the small bit of it that Scott Ritter was responsible for, and it will be back to do the whole job, because the Security Council want it to.

The Security Council, at some point, is going to have to make a decision about what happens now. What do you want to happen?

I want us to get back into Iraq to finish getting an account of its past illegal weapons and to maintain and develop further the long-term monitoring system that we had already started, to ensure that they don't reconstitute, make those weapons again in the future. Now, whether that will be exactly this organization or UNSCOM No. 2 is one of the things that the Security Council is now considering.

But I hear no one in the Council saying that we should walk away from this task, that we shouldn't do it anymore.

But don't you have a fractured Security Council and perhaps a lack of will, on their part, to go forward?

The politics of this have changed and it is true that there are different approaches amongst members of the Council on how to get this job done with Iraq. The extent to which those different approaches have shown up in different votes on resolutions or been, in other ways, more evident rather than suppressed, varies from occasion to occasion. At the moment, there is a division in the Council about how to get back into Iraq, exactly what the new UNSCOM would look like.

But I don't hear any division about the basic need to get this job done. So, in that sense, I think there is an underlying unity. The main point I'd make about the role of the Council here is that it is in charge, it is unique, it must be so, and when it divides, the only beneficiary of that is actually those that would seek to break the law, in this case Iraq. Iraq has benefitted from divisions in the Council and I think many members of the Council are aware of that.

UNSCOM, despite all the problems, seems to have done a very good job in in limiting Saddam Hussein's ability to develop these weapons. What's the situation now? You haven't had inspectors there for several months.

I'm glad to hear you recognize the job that UNSCOM has done. That can't be overstated. It's why what Scott Ritter is saying now is just so deeply wrong. UNSCOM did a fantastic job. You have to understand that when the Gulf War was ended there was revealed an awesome array of weapons of mass destruction: almost a nuclear bomb, long-range missiles, chemical, biological, all of the weapons of mass destruction. And we, with Iraq, got hold of most of it, got an account of it or got rid of it.

Now, our being thrown out of Iraq before we could get the job done is terribly wrong, because there's still more that needs to be accounted for, and, of course, now, to the second part of your question, our not being there is most deeply worrying ... in all honesty, if you look at their track record, there's every reason to assume that they are taking advantage of this time to make new chemical warfare agent, new biological warfare agent, and that's a matter of grave concern.

What about the United States, a powerful player in all this? Madeleine Albright made a famous speech, at Georgetown, where she said we would not lift economic sanctions against Iraq until Saddam Hussein was gone. Now, with UNSCOM, the deal has always been the carrot on the stick--you get rid of these weapons, then we'll lift sanctions. Didn't that speech undercut your work?

It's not my job to speak for or seek to interpret Madeleine Albright. I'm aware of the statement that she made, but I would call attention to this, that in this period of crisis with Iraq, and that was after the speech to which you refer, the United States has joined consensus with the whole council in saying to Iraq, if you fulfill your obligations, we'll fulfill ours, meaning that if, as it says in the legislation, Iraq is properly disarmed, then the oil embargo will be lifted. And the United States has joined consensus in that promise to keep both sides of the bargain.

It's a difficult issue. It sounds like two policies. I mean, a statement here and a statement there.

The problem we've had isn't on the side of United States policy or any other member of the Security Council. The gut problem we've had is that, from day one, Saddam Hussein tried to cheat on this law; from day one, he divided his missile force into two bits: the bits that they would show us and say, here you are, take that away, but the bit that they tried to conceal and retain. This job of disarmament of Iraq was supposed to take one year. It's still not over, after eight years. And there is a single, central reason for that, which is, Saddam Hussein has made it so by seeking to avoid their obligations, to conceal, to lie and to cheat.

You know that in the first four of those eight years, they robustly told the world that they had no biological weapons program. When we proved to them that that was not true, they said, Oops, sorry, we lied. Now, how can you get the job done under circumstances like that? And the answer is, with great difficulty. It makes all the more credible what we have been able to achieve.

So, the problem hasn't been on the side of the sanctions decision, policies of individual members of the Security Council; the gut problem has been on the side of the state that is supposed to do the right thing here refusing to do so, from the beginning.

Rolf Ekeus said that you were ambitious in this program, not for your own career, but ambitious to push this --

I welcome that distinction. If I were ambitious for my career I would never have behaved in the way that I have. Ambitious to get disarmament done, I confess, absolutely. And I'm deeply honored to have followed in the footsteps of Rolf Ekeus. He set this up. He did it outstandingly.

The bit of the show that I've inherited has its peculiar kind of aspects: the post-defection by Hussein Kamel period, the period in which concealment was more dramatically revealed, the period in which we were getting to the end of this and Iraq decided to dig in and say, we're not going to let these guys take away what remains of our weapons capability.

This started to get to be the take-no-prisoners time and it fell me to me to do it. Sure, I've wanted to do that firmly and well, but, above all, to see that the work that the women and men of UNSCOM have done over eight years, fabulous people, the best in the world, got its correct reward. It's not about me, it's about them. And I feel very determined about that.

One of the things that changed, and you had to go after, was that you began to find out, from the defector Hussien Kamel and others, that the same elite military units in Iraq who were guarding Saddam Hussein were the people guarding the weapons. So, you were getting closer to some very sensitive sites, politically.

Exactly right. And I think, too, that explains some of Iraq's great resistance and hostility to our work: because we were right in identifying that exactly the same military units that whisked away weapons or weapons-related materials when we were getting close to them, were the same guys who protect the president.

So, that's rough water for us to get into. We don't want to do anything about president Saddam Hussein, that's for other people to take care of. Our job is to find the weapons. But by going for the weapons, we were getting closer and closer to his elite guard, and I think that got us into some hot water.

One of the biggest controversies with UNSCOM now has been to what extent it involved western intelligence agencies. It's pretty obvious, from the beginning, these were people recruited to work on this program; the question is who they were working for, correct?

Yeah, that is the question. And it goes like this: Iraq erected a wall of deception. They tried to prevent us from doing our job. And you have to deeply internalize that what that meant was a fundamental decision, by them, to disobey the law, to disobey the Security Council. That was their call, their decision. Now, what we did when we hit this wall of deception was that we had to find ways to penetrate it, in order to do our job.

Now, the next point is that the states who assisted us, member states of the UN, are all obliged to do so. The law of the Council calls upon all states to give all possible assistance to UNSCOM. Some 40 or 50 countries gave us such assistance. Some of them, what I would call technical assistance, electronic and other means, to penetrate that wall of deception and to get our job done. The United States was not alone in that. A number of countries gave us such assistance.

I assume many of those people come from the military or come from intelligence.

Yeah. As I said, member states of the UN are obliged to give us assistance wherever they can. The process was really simple. We would contact a whole range of member states and say, we need a biologist, or we need two chemists, or whatever, can you help us? And they would make us that offer. We would select the people that we needed, provided they had the required skills; we would try to get a geographic balance, where we could. And it's not been bad. Some 40 or 50 different countries have helped us, and, clearly, those people, in many instances, would come from the national defense or scientific or intelligence agencies of that country.

Obviously, that's where you get weapons experts. You don't get weapons experts from the public health or social security ministry. When these experts with those skills would come to us, we would have them sign an agreement saying that they worked for us and they wouldn't divulge information, again, while working for us, to unauthorized sources, to unauthorized recipients.

Now, do I believe that, in no case, when those officers went back to their sending government that they would have debriefed that government? Of course not, of course they would, whether I'm talking about a Russian, a Frenchman, an American, whatever -- of course they would.

What is really important is that that material be maintained in a sensitive way. And, on the whole, our track record has been outstanding. We've leaked less than most sending governments themselves leaked. On the whole, our people have behaved the rules and behaved honorably.

One of the biggest critics, certainly, in this country has been Scott Ritter. First of all, just, your first impressions of Scott Ritter.

Well, I've got a real problem with Scott right now, and it's a problem of his making, but I want to be scrupulously fair about this. I worked for some time with Scott, as a senior inspector in our organization. The book he's got out there now describes him, on the cover, as the chief inspector of UNSCOM. Well, there's the first lie. He wasn't. But he was a senior inspector, doing a very important part of our work. But by no means the whole range of our work, which is what he's now suggesting to the world, that he was UNSCOM.

Now, I found Scott a person of extraordinary skill and tremendous courage and determination, and credit must be given where it is due, and I freely give that. And that's why we worked with him, and that's why we persisted with him. He made a real contribution to our work. My first impressions of him were filled, largely, with that kind of picture.

Now, his present stance is something that I lament and regret. He grew up as a Marine, the motto of which is semper fidelis -- always faithful. I'm very sorry to say that most of the people in UNSCOM now feel that he's broken faith with them, by putting into the public arena materials that he shouldn't have done, and, above all, by claiming that things happened which actually never did. And I deeply regret that. But I will not refrain from thanking him and praising him for the good work he did for us when he was on board.

I must say, he is full of praise for you, in the beginning of your relationship, as well, and said that to us yesterday. What went wrong? What happened here?

I'm not absolutely sure; I'm not sure that Scott himself exactly knows, because he keeps changing his story. My guess is that he felt that when I prevented him from doing some of the inspections that he'd recommended to me, that somehow his world was crumbling, that he would be able to do the things that he most passionately believed in, and I guess a certain disappointment set in, which he now calls "political interference."

Now, I have to dispute that. We don't live in a world that is like an operating theatre, sanitary, clean, and so on. We live in a political world. We are an organ of the security council. The Council is nothing but political. All of our operational activities have to be conducted in a political environment.

Scott's attempt to divide those two, to say that politics is out there, and dirty, and it shouldn't have been interfering, in our mind, with clean inspection stuff, is to describe a world that I don't know, a world that doesn't exist. And I think he was disappointed that he couldn't do some of the things that he wanted to do, that I said no to some of the operations he'd thought up. I had to, because they wouldn't have worked, they would have harmed us politically. We've got to live to fight the next day, if we're going to get this job done. And he'd had enough of that, and walked.

Now, when he walked, at first he's sort of welcomed as a hero, especially by the Republican party in this country, gets very political very quickly, and he basically says the United States is not strong enough. And then Clinton, in fact, does bomb Iraq, in December, and then Scott begins to say, the real problem was that the C.I.A. infiltrated and undermined UNSCOM's activities.

I mean this, in all friendliness towards Scott--he really ought to sort out his thinking. In all objectivity, if you were to lay those materials out on the table and do a textural analysis and say, what is this guy saying? What caused what? The CIA? The U.S.A? Richard Butler? The wicked Security Council? You will find four or five different chains of reasoning, all of which are contradictory. He doesn't even know which one to choose, at any given time.

And the main point I will make is that key chains of reasoning actually rest on things that are not true. Now, I'll give you one example. He, in his book, talks about a mission called UNSCOM 255, which got canceled, and that was a turning point, a seminal point for him, that he walked, because he could then see that political interference was going to prevent him from doing his proper job. This is one chain of reasoning, the political interference chain.

Now, in his book, the key piece of evidence he presents for that is where he records, as fact, that I flew from Baghdad to Bahrain, where I had a meeting with Secretary Albright and thereafter canceled UNSCOM 255. Steve, you want me to tell you the central issue? I never did, I never met Madeleine Albright in Bahrain. How, his story rests like on a foundation stone on this, and it never happened.

So, there are my two points. He has to make up his mind about which chain of events he thinks caused what, because he's got four or five out there, and they're mutually contradictory.

One of the biggest charges Ritter makes--he says that the United States used sites in Iraq that he identified as an UNSCOM inspector, to target for bombing during Desert Fox. True?

I don't know...I strongly doubt it, because the U.S. has got a vast array of information at its disposal. I'd be a bit surprised if the Pentagon, which is an extraordinarily professional organization, would rely on any one or particular source of information for something as serious as targeting. So, I don't know, and I doubt that he does, either.

Do you feel that the balance shifted in the last year or so this agreement that was working? That in the last year or two, the CIA overstepped its bounds?

I don't know. You can't know what you don't know. I know what I approved of. I approved of gifts to us, of persons and technology, to help us crack that role of Iraqi deceit. And it worked, in some cases. Even in the last few months, we found VX, for example, on chemical munitions, that Iraq had lied to us about. So, we cracked that wall sometimes.

I know what I disapproved of: some ideas, some from Scott Ritter and from some other people were put to me, that why don't you go do this or do that, and I know, as a fact, in some cases I said, No, I don't want to do that, because that might edge towards a line that we shouldn't cross, or be misinterpreted or misrepresented.

But, finally, can I know that others were piggy-backing on us without telling us? No, I can't know that, because I can't know what I don't know. I've now read the reports that you refer to, that this may have happened, and I've said, in public, if that happened, that would have been wrong, because it puts in jeopardy our ability to say to the world beyond Iraq that our business is disarmament and we will do it fairly. But I can't know what I don't know.

Did you feel, in this last year, under pressure from the United States government to remove Ritter? In other words, had Ritter become a problem?

Again, I want to be fair to Scott. The answer is, broadly, yes. Well, the nature of the work that I and Rolf Ekeus assigned to him was tough, pretty much kind of take-no-prisoners work, and that meant that he got more attention than some other inspectors did, even though what others were doing was of extreme importance and sometimes dangerous.

But, yeah, he was the guy that attracted some limelight, and there were concerns expressed to me about Ritter, not just by the United States by the way, but others as well. I mean, I discussed the "Ritter factor", not his memo but that notion, with Kofi Anan and the 60 generals of the United Nations. There were concerns about this.

I sought to manage them in a way that served our work and interests best, and in a way that would be fair to him. I said to Scott, sometimes, that he should keep his head down a bit. On other occasions I stood up for him and said this "Ritter factor" stuff is the stick that you're being beaten up with for simply trying to do your job, and I won't have it.

So, it cut both ways. In the end, I did not take action to remove him or clip his wings because of the Ritter factor. I took the decisions I took about whether a given inspection should go ahead or not in terms, 1) of our mandate for disarmament, 2) what I thought we might find there, three, 3) our chances of success, and 4) how I could justify what I was doing in the purely political environment of the Security Council. And those were the factors that motivated my decisions, not a personal factor called "the Ritter factor."

One of the more sensitive areas in this whole issue, is dealing with Israel, but Israel has been very cooperative with UNSCOM, yes?

Yes, it has, and again, let's be clear about that. Some people in this field of work try to throw the word Israel around as a dirty word. I will have no part of that. Israel is a member state of the United Nations. Article 25 of the Charter says that all states must obey the decisions of the Council. The Council has called on all states to give us all possible assistance. If the government of Israel steps forward and says to UNSCOM, here's some information that's come our way about Iraqi missiles, for example, that's merely an example, it may be helpful to you. All they are doing is obeying the law, their obligations, as a member state of the United Nations. They have been helpful to us, but so have 49 other countries, obeying the law.

Now, to mutter darkly about that is something that I won't have a part of, because all they're doing is obeying the law.

One of the problems you had is the Iraqis were trying to spy on UNSCOM, all throughout these eight years.

I like to refer to the existence of the "anti-UNSCOM industry." They have an enormous bureaucracy, established for the purpose of defeating UNSCOM, run by a high government committee, with a government ministry, called the National Monitoring Directorate. I mean, Tariq Aziz directs this. And there's no question that for every person we would put into the field, they would have ten. I mean, I wonder whether it's not the second largest industry in Iraq, after the oil industry. I mean, it's a very big show. They have been extremely active in seeking to defeat our work. That's been a big problem for us.

And I would assume one of the most basic problems is dealing with secure communications.

A very serious problem. We'd always assumed that a significant effort is being made to hear our conversations, to penetrate us, look at our papers, and so on. We've had evidence of it. I don't know the full extent to which they may have succeeded. Of course, that's the nature of that business -- they're not going to come forward and tell you.

But we've made the sensible assumptions about attempts to compromise our materials and hear our conversations. I mean, look, certainly there've been too many instances, in the past, where were heading off on a no-notice inspection, which is a key tool that we have: to tell the Iraqis, in Baghdad, be at our front gate at eight o'clock in the morning to accompany us on an inspection -- they always come with us, which is proper. But we don't tell them where, and they don't find out where until we get in our cars and head off. There've been too many instances where it was perfectly clear, from their body language and conversations and so on, that they knew exactly where we were going. And when we got to that site, everything was ready -- their way, not our way, including sites being cleansed of materials that we needed to see.

So, that suggests that we were penetrated, from time to time, but the full extent of it, I don't know.

Are you willing to stay on, past June, if necessary?

I think that's a very theoretical question. I strongly doubt that will occur. This is a field of work to which I attach great importance. My concern is that UNSCOM gets back into the country, UNSCOM No. 2, if you like, but it gets back in to do that work. The women and men, who are the best in the world, who are waiting to resume that work, are able to do so.

It would appear that part of the political deal that will make that possible will be a new leadership at UNSCOM, and if that's the case I will make that as my last contribution to something that I deeply believe in. I think it's wrong, and in some ways I regret it, but it seems to me, realistically, that that's part of the deal. And if so, as I said, I'll make that as my last constructive contribution.

So if removing yourself from the field, if perhaps even changing the initials of UNSCOM is necessary to keep some sort of serious inspection effort going, you're willing to support that?

Absolutely. What's at issue, and what Saddam Hussein has wanted to do over the years, is far more serious than any individual. Remember, this is a person who has used every weapon he's ever had at his disposal, including, sometimes, within his own country. This is serious. Beyond him, what Iraq has done is a 40 year effort by the international community to build a tapestry of treaties, nuclear, chemical, biological, through which we will ensure that these weapons don't become characteristic features of life in the 21st century. I've given my professional career to that task.

Now, if, to keep that on track, politics requires that UNSCOM's name be changed and it has a new management, a new leader, and so on, so be it. My concern is that it be kept on track. That's what really at issue.

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