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Was Ritter right?

From CNN's Brian Todd in Washington

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- At first, he was a thorn in Saddam Hussein's side, as evidenced by this exchange with an Iraqi captured on tape:

Ritter: "You're denying me access to the site."

Iraqi: "I am not denying you."

Ritter: "So let me go."

Iraqi: "You are not allowed to go."

That was in the mid-1990s when former U.S. Marine Scott Ritter was such a bulldog as a U.N. weapons inspector that Iraqi officials accused him of being an American spy.

He later quit the inspection team, accusing the United Nations and the Clinton administration of being too soft on Saddam's regime.

By late 2002 and early 2003 -- as U.S. forces prepared to invade Iraq -- President Bush's national security team fanned out on TV: to pound the message.

"Based on what we've seen, we are fairly confident that he [Saddam Hussein] is again moving forward to develop a nuclear weapon," Vice President Cheney said in September 2002.

But by that period, Scott Ritter had emphatically changed his tune.

"We have inspectors on the ground. They're getting compliance. They're doing their job and they're not finding anything that warrants a threat worthy of war," Ritter told Wolf Blitzer in January 2003.

Ritter became a punching bag, pummeled by some of the most powerful figures in the Iraq debate -- from his former boss at the U.N. to the then vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"He is now misleading the world's public, and I find that sad, wrong and frankly, a touch dangerous," said former UNSCOM Chairman Richard Butler of Ritter in September 2002.

And Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Richard Shelby said, "I have met Scott Ritter before and I think he's an idealist. I think he wants to believe that everybody's good and the world's going to be safe. But I don't believe there's any real credence to his statements. It looks to me like he's over there courting Saddam Hussein at the wrong time at the wrong place."

Ritter had gone to Baghdad in September 2002, to address the Iraqi parliament. He told them the Bush administration had no proof that Iraq had reconstituted its weapons program.

At the time, Charles Duelfer, another of Ritter's former U.N. bosses, had this to say:

"I think that it's an exercise that supports the Iraq government, him showing up in Baghdad. I wish that Iraqis could come to the United States with equal freedom and speak their minds equally."

This was Charles Duelfer on Wednesday in his role as chief author of a new CIA report on Iraq's weapons program:

"I think the prospects of finding militarily significant -- I sound like I'm trying to create jargon here -- but a significant stockpile is, I don't know, less than five percent."

Those prewar attacks on Ritter's credibility were not entirely baseless.

Ritter had, by his own admission, accepted $400,000 from an Iraqi-American businessman said to be sympathetic to Saddam to produce a documentary critical of U.N. sanctions against Iraq.

And at the time he leveled those prewar assertions that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, one intelligence analyst points out, Ritter hadn't been an inspector for years. He had to have been guessing, on at least some of it.

Guessing or not, most accounts now support much what Scott Ritter said then.


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