Rehabilitating Scott Ritter

The New York Times' too-generous portrait of a conspiracy theorist and sex offender.

If you followed the more fevered antiwar commentary during of the Iraq war years, you might have encountered the byline of Scott Ritter. A former U.N. weapons inspector who supported Saddam Hussein’s ouster in the 1990s, even reproaching the Clinton White House for failing to use the threat of invasion as leverage against the Iraqi dictator, Ritter later became convinced that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that regime change was not only unjustified but was the product of a deliberate “intelligence conspiracy” by the Bush administration.

For a time, that explosive claim earned Ritter high-profile media appearances and the adoration of the anti-war left, whose darkest imaginings Ritter confirmed. Then Ritter faded from view, a casualty of his own increasingly outlandish claims and a child sex sting in which Ritter was caught trying to solicit lewd meetings with minors online.

Ritter’s tarnished reputation has now received a partial laundering from the New York Times. While not shying away from Ritter’s disturbing sexual deviancy, the Times nonetheless attempts to cast him as a flawed but prescient prophet who was right about Iraq while the Bush administration and much of the foreign policy establishment was wrong. For a man desperate to salvage some measure of public dignity, it’s understandable that Ritter would cling to this self-serving version of recent history. Unfortunately, and as with so much of what Ritter has contributed to the public record, it’s also false.

Conveniently omitted by the Times is that Ritter did not simply claim that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He claimed that the Bush administration knew this to be case before the war started and then “fabricated intelligence to back up its decision to go to war.” The claim became the centerpiece of the anti-war left and Democrats' attacks on the Bush administration, which they charged had "lied" the country into war using manipulated intelligence assessments. Yet that claim was provably untrue. For instance, a 2004 report on prewar intelligence by the bipartisan Senate intelligence committee "found no evidence that the [intelligence community's] mischaracterization or exaggeration of the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities was the result of political pressure." Ritter, so far from heroic whistleblower, was just plain wrong.

And not just about Iraq. Even as the Times repeatedly cites Ritter’s vindication on WMDs, it ignores his far more numerous collection of failed and evidence-free predictions and pronouncements. In June 2005, for example, Ritter announced that the Bush administration was readying for an attack on Iran. He even wrote a book, Target Iran: The Truth About the White House's Plans for Regime Change, fleshing out assertion. The left-wing blogosphere lapped it up. But it was, of course, baseless.

For all his professed concern for evidence, Ritter showed a consistent willingness to ignore it when it suited his anti-war biases. Following Israel’s bombing of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear facility in September 2007, Ritter immediately denounced the attack as unjustified. “There is no evidence that Syria had made any effort to introduce nuclear material to the facility under construction,” Ritter insisted. But American intelligence agencies disagreed.  Former CIA Director Michael Hayden confirmed that “al-Kibar was part of a nuclear weapons program.” Had al-Kibar been allowed to become fully operational, according to Hayden, it would have produced enough plutonium for one or two nuclear bombs within a year. Ritter was thus repeatedly guilty of the very charge he leveled against the Bush administration: suppressing evidence that did not fit into his preconceived assessment.

Yet the main reason for Ritter’s fall from media prominence was not his less-than-impressive record on intelligence matters, which his supporters on the left were happy to ignore. Rather it was Ritter’s exposure as a sexual predator. In 2001, Ritter was arrested in a child sex sting operation. No stranger to conspiracy theories, Ritter blamed his arrest on a campaign to silence his criticism of the Iraq war.  In 2010, Ritter was arrested a second time, this time for engaging in a sexually explicit online chat with an undercover police officer posing as a 15-year old girl. It’s a measure of Ritter’s twisted mind that he even came up with a self-justifying theory for his predations, suggesting that he knew he was talking with undercover police all along in the hopes of getting caught and getting help for his depression. As the Times helpfully points out, this does not square with the fact that he tried to flee the scene upon discovering that the minors he thought he was meeting turned out to be police.

It’s hard to see why a man who is prepared to make up a false identity in order to seek out underage children should be treated as a heroic truth teller. Yes, the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a serious and damaging national security blunder, but there is no apparent reason why Ritter, with his contempt for inconvenient facts and his penchant for conspiracy theories, should be hailed for getting that right when he go so much else wrong.

Notwithstanding its attempt to rehabilitate the disgraced Ritter, the portrait that emerges in the Times is of a professional crank, a man so lost to his own delusions that he cannot distinguish fact from fiction. Ritter clearly remains driven, but his drive is not for truth but for vindication. It's vindication that he does not deserve and it's a shame that the Times, even if only in a small way, felt compelled to give it to him.

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