“Shopping with Saddam Hussein” – Letters from Readers in Commentary Magazine

Commentary Magazine
October 2001, pp. 3-6


In their much-publicized article, “Shopping with Saddam Hussein” [July-August], Gary Milhollin and Kelly Motz display a remarkably simplistic and somewhat disingenuous approach to the ongoing efforts to circumvent UN economic sanctions. There is no doubt that these sanctions are violated almost at will by Iraq in order to obtain material that would otherwise be denied under the existing embargo. Yet it is a somewhat fantastic leap to say, as the authors do, that any UN inspection regime, including the recently collapsed “smart sanctions” advanced by the United States and Great Britain, would have “little hope of stopping the Iraqis from sneaking in what they need to rebuild their weapons sites and sneaking out the oil to pay for it.”

To justify this bold assessment, the authors claim that “even when the UNinspection regime was in place, the Iraqis had already figured out how to do just that.” But the fact is that the inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) had implemented an extremely effective mechanism for tracking and monitoring Iraq’s clandestine procurement efforts.

The critical fact is that none of the numerous transactions cited by the authors was conducted in violation of relevant UN resolutions. With the exception of the foiled endeavor by Wi’am Gharbiah to bring in Russian ballistic-missile components in 1995 (and even in that case the evidence points to a rogue operation rather than one orchestrated by the Iraqi government), Iraq was not prohibited from possessing any of the material in question, so long as it had been disclosed under the provisions of Resolution 715 (ongoing monitoring and verification) or 1051 (export-import control) prior to arrival in the country. And all items were indeed declared to UNSCOM within the required reporting period.

From 1995 through 1998, as a weapons inspector for UNSCOM, I ran a series of counterproliferation operations known collectively as Operation Tea Cup. The interception of Gharbiah’s shipment in Jordan was the first, and most public, manifestation of this operation, and only UNSCOM, with its strong intelligence relationship with friendly governments, could have pulled it off. For nearly three years, Operation Tea Cup yielded similarly impressive gains, terminating a contract for a glass-lined reactor suitable for both civilian and military activity and tracking down other equipment useful in chemical production processes.

In September 1997, in cooperation with Israeli intelligence, I traveled to Kiev to meet with the head of the Joint Intelligence Center/National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine for the express purpose of investigating the activities of Yuri Orshansky, a figure mentioned by the authors. Although they contend, without any supporting evidence, that Orshansky delivered goods to Iraq subsequent to a series of protocols signed in 1995-1996, my investigation showed the exact opposite: no material brokered by Orshansky or anybody else was delivered to Iraq from Ukraine. I put more faith in my factually supported findings than in the speculative musings of Gary Milhollin and Kelly Motz.

But creative interpretation seems to be their modus operandi. Take the following passage:

Before being forced out in 1998, the UN inspectors compiled a series of confidential reports detailing what they knew about Iraq’s foreign suppliers. . . . What they recount is an ongoing effort to build weapons of mass destruction.

These reports, in truth, recount no such thing. While the many inspections exposed the leakage of the sanctions regime, nothing was discovered that could point to an effort to rebuild Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

My reading of these documents provides a much more realistic assessment. Take, for instance, the report of the combined Missile/Export-Import team inspecting the Karama State Establishment (Iraq’s major ballistic-missile facility) on May 27, 1997. During this inspection, Dr. Hamid Khalil Ibrahim, a leading Iraqi missile scientist, told the team that no foreign goods had been received since May 1996. The team then asked Dr. Hamid (as he was known familiarly) about precision machine tools that Iraq had declared to UNSCOM in December 1996. These tools, of Italian manufacture, did not fall under the technical specifications set forth in Resolution 1051, and so were deemed legitimate (despite having been brought into Iraq in violation of sanctions). The same held true for seven boxes of production tools (of Romanian origin) for gyroscopes, and a British-made grinding machine.

The inspection was conducted in a very thorough manner, and concluded as follows: “No proscribed activity or details were observed.” This phrase is repeated throughout the documents UNSCOM produced concerning Iraq’s compliance with its obligations under the Ongoing Monitoring and Verification (OMV) plan. In fact, since the implementation of Resolution 1051, the inspectors uncovered not a single example of proscribed export-import activity. How Gary Milhollin and Kelly Motz can assert the contrary escapes me.

None of this is to deny today’s harsh reality that goods are pouring through the defunct, and discredited, regime of economic sanctions. Is Iraq using the oil-for-food program to support such activity? Of course it is. One of the last major operations I carried out under Tea Cup was aimed at disrupting efforts to obtain ballistic-missile technology and production capabilities from Aerofina, a Romanian military-industrial company. In the end, none of the activity turned out to be of a proscribed nature, but intercepted conversations between the Iraqi team, headed by Dr. Hamid, and his Romanian intermediary pointedly referred to the oil-for-food program as a means of facilitating the transfer of goods from Romania. He said: “We would use the oil-for-food agreement. The Jordanians don’t ask why, so we could call it ‘electrical parts for sewage system,’ ‘pumps for irrigation,’ ‘coolers for water pumps,’ ‘machine tools,’ ‘instrumentation for pipelines,’ or ‘raw materials.’”

Clearly, then, the Iraqis were, and probably still are, violating the economic sanctions by misrepresenting goods as part of the so-called humanitarian relief effort. But such violations do not automatically translate into schemes for acquiring weapons of mass destruction; in linking the two, Gary Milhollin and Kelly Motz are mixing apples and oranges. Nor does the failure of one program (sanctions) automatically translate into the failure of another (inspections). In fact, the history of UNSCOM’s work shows just the opposite: despite the failure of the sanctions regime, inspectors were able to keep a tight lid on Iraq’s ability to rebuild its past prohibited programs.

Unfortunately, on-site inspections have been tossed into the garbage heap by those U.S. policy-makers who seek not the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction but rather the removal of Iraq’s president. It was the mixing of these two disparate objectives that ultimately condemned UNSCOM, and their continued mixing ensures that the United Nations Monitoring and Verification Inspection Commission, UNSCOM’s predecessor, will never be allowed back on the job. Yet the fact is that inspections did, and can, work.

If the authors were sincere, they would try to help formulate a policy that might result in a resumption of inspection activity. That they chose instead to denigrate the process by distorting facts shows that they are motivated by concerns other than nonproliferation. This is a shame, and does a grave disservice to a cause they purport to champion.

Delmar, New York


Scott Ritter both misunderstands our article and makes a series of claims that are patently false.

Mr. Ritter begins by stating that none of the secret missile deals we described was “in violation of relevant UN resolutions.” He also contends that “Iraq was not prohibited from possessing any of the material in question” as long as it was declared to the United Nations.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. UN Security Council Resolution 661 barred the sale to Iraq by any nation of “any commodities or products,” with only two exceptions: “supplies intended strictly for medical purposes, and . . . foodstuffs.” Resolution 661 was passed in 1990 and was in force when the deals we described were carried out. Does Mr. Ritter believe that gyroscopes and other missile-guidance components are food? Or medicine? Does he think that Saddam Hussein bought them to make sandwiches or bandages?

Missile parts are also munitions—that is, arms. As such, they are also barred from sale to Iraq by UN Security Council Resolution 687, adopted in 1991 and in force during the period we discussed. Resolution 687 not only bans the sale of “arms and related . . . components” to Iraq, it bans even the “promotion or facilitation” of such sales. There is no question that both Resolution 661 and Resolution 687 expressly forbade the deals we described. As a former UN inspector, Mr. Ritter must know that.

That Iraq was not prohibited from possessing any of the imported material is also false: the illegal status of the import followed the goods into the country. Mr. Ritter tries to obscure this point by claiming that Iraq “declared” all the items it illegally imported. He is misleading the reader: in fact, Iraq declared its secret imports only after the UN inspectors had discovered them independently. Seized Iraqi documents make it clear that Iraq intentionally did not declare illegally imported items, “in order to avoid problems.” This, too, Mr. Ritter should know perfectly well.

Citing secret missile contracts with the Romanian company Aerofina, Mr. Ritter claims that none of Aerofina’s deals with Iraq “turned out to be of a proscribed nature.” Yet Aerofina agreed to supply missile-engine parts, gyroscopes for missile guidance, the tools and equipment needed to produce these items, and the equipment needed to test them. Iraq claimed that these purchases were made for short-range missiles, which it is permitted to develop on its own. The crucial fact, however, is that a total arms embargo under Resolution 687 is still in effect on the sale of any missile parts to Iraq—whether for short- or long- range missiles. Thus Mr. Ritter is wrong again: the Aerofina deals were indeed “proscribed.” They were proscribed when they occurred, and they are proscribed today.

In his letter, Mr. Ritter himself admits that Iraq violated the UN sanctions “almost at will.” How he can say that and simultaneously assert that no UN resolutions were being violated is something only he understands.

Mr. Ritter takes considerable pains to argue that none of the goods brokered by Yuri Orshansky, a Ukrainian middleman, was actually delivered. As a criticism of our article, this is disingenuous. We ourselves pointed out that the UN inspectors were “unable to find any of the equipment” they suspected Orshansky of brokering. What we did say was that, in interviews with us, the inspectors offered two possible explanations for this outcome: either Iraq bought the equipment and hid it for future use, or Iraq may have been only shopping and comparing prices. We deemed the latter possibility unlikely after so many trips, so much consultation, and so many contracts for specific items. We think it more likely that secret imports from Ukraine are helping Iraq rearm today.

Perhaps Mr. Ritter’s most surprising assertion is that “nothing was discovered [by the UN inspectors] that could point to an effort to rebuild Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.” Mr. Ritter himself, while a UN inspector, went to great lengths to penetrate Iraq’s elaborate system of concealment and deception, which employed thousands of persons with no other purpose than to hide Iraq’s efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. His present claim is contradicted by his own experience.

There is little doubt that Iraq is still concealing its weapon programs. The strongest evidence is its refusal to admit UN inspectors. This refusal is causing the continuation of the trade embargo, which in turn is costing billions in lost oil revenue. Saddam Hussein obviously thinks that concealing his weapons is more important than feeding his population.

It is untrue that we “denigrate” the inspection process, as Mr. Ritter accuses us of doing. We think the best outcome in Iraq would be to have fully empowered inspectors return and complete the job of disarmament. Unfortunately, the UN’s effort to monitor Iraq’s imports was never intended to stop illegal sales, and was never effective in doing so. Instead, it was established to allow Iraq to import dual-use goods and to insure that they were used for legitimate purposes. Now that the inspectors are gone, Iraq is free to use its imports, legal or illegal, for any purpose it wishes.

Finally, Mr. Ritter seems to be confused about which government is responsible for getting UN inspections—in his words—“tossed into the garbage heap.” By attacking the U.S., he is fingering the wrong culprit; the Iraqi government is solely responsible for prohibiting the return of inspectors. Worse, by blaming the U.S., Mr. Ritter is implicitly condoning Iraq’s continued flouting of UN resolutions. This curious stance, when added to his other invalid claims, leads one to wonder whose side he is really on.