In the first of a two-part series about the controversy surrounding his "turnaround" on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Scott Ritter recounts his background and experience. In the second installment, he'll address the specifics of his evolving analysis in light of US military assistance provided to Ukraine.
Ritter has probably been the most outspoken proponent of the ‘Russia is winning’ theory, a hypothesis that runs counter to everything we read in the legacy media or see on the cable news channels. Unfortunately, Ritter’s views on the matter have changed dramatically, and that’s due almost entirely to developments on the ground. As Ritter candidly admits, ‘The military aid the west is providing to Ukraine is changing the dynamic and if Russia doesn’t find a way to address this meaningfully…the conflict will never end.’
The above passage is taken from an article, “Scott Ritter's Switcheroo: ‘Why I Radically Changed My Overall Assessment’”, published on May 18 of this year. It was written by Michael Whitney, a self-described “geopolitical and social analyst” based in Washington State. Mr. Whitney has had a 20-year career as “an independent citizen-journalist” during which time he purports to have committed himself to “honest journalism, social justice and world peace.”
I have no reason to doubt any of Mr. Whitney’s biographical data. I do, however, take umbrage at someone who claims a two-decade-long career in journalism to have written an article where I factor in as the central character without contacting me during the article's preparation for comment. I think Mr. Whitney and I have a difference of opinion on what constitutes “honest journalism.”
Had he done so, he might have been able to provide an adequate answer to the question he poses at the end of the above-quoted passage: “So, what changed? What are the so-called developments that led to Ritter’s volte-face?”
Moreover—and perhaps more importantly—he might have been better-positioned to find out who I was, what aspects of my résumé might be conducive to the problem at hand, and what my motivations were and are. To better respond to Mr. Whitney’s article, therefore, I will take it upon myself to do his job for him and proceed with a process I’ll call “getting to know you.”
Whenever I am asked to appear on a podcast or to be the subject of an interview, I am asked what title I would like attached to my name. While I am perhaps best known for my role as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991-1998 (and invariably this biographical highlight finds its way into my description), the label that I promote is that of “former Marine Corps Intelligence Officer.” The reality is that it was my time in the Marine Corps which defines me more than any other (my UN weapons inspector experience was little more than a continuation of my Marine Corps experience.)
I’d like to think the “value added” aspect of any take I might have on the ongoing Russian “special military operation” comes from the four words that follow the term “former”: Marine Corps Intelligence Officer. Take the first two words--Marine Corps. This means that I was a member of one of the most elite fraternities of war fighters the world has ever seen. Don’t take my word for it—just ask anyone who has stood toe-to-toe with Marines of the battlefield and survived. Whether German, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Afghan, or Iraqi, the outcome is always the same—in a stand-up fight with an armed opponent, the Marines always come out on top.
I was affiliated with the Marine Corps during a time of transition away from the tactics and operational methodologies which had been prevalent in World War Two, Korea, and Vietnam—a tradition built upon a willingness to charge into hell to close with and destroy the enemy. This tradition rewarded the Marines with impressive—indeed historical—victories in places like Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Pusan, Inchon, Chosin, Khe San and Hue City. It also resulted in many thousands of dead and wounded, because charging into hell is a bloody business.
I’ve spent plenty of time with esteemed academics, journalists and professionals who are among the best and brightest minds in the world today. However, I can say with all sincerity that the most intellectually-rewarding conversations I have ever participated in were those sitting among my fellow Marine Corps officers during the halcyon years of the mid- to late-1980’s when we were all challenged to adapt to a new way of thinking known as “maneuver warfare.”
revolutionary analytical process based upon “observe, orient, decide, and act”) were drilled into our heads, not through rote memory, but rather via free-wheeling exercises which began with extensive research into the history of maneuver warfare, and finished with us applying these lessons in the field.
I was privileged to spend my first tour in the Fleet Marine Force assigned to the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in 29 Palms, California. Here the concepts of maneuver warfare were turned into actual doctrine. Our enemy was the Soviet Union, and we all immersed ourselves in their doctrine, history, culture, mindset and capabilities. I was assigned to a field artillery unit, and we spent much of the year in the field conducting live-fire training geared toward perfecting the art of “shoot, move, communicate” in as realistic circumstances possible.
I was an intelligence officer (more on this in a moment), and under the old way of business I would have been relegated to the battalion staff as the junior officer, condemned to play a minor supporting role in the unit’s primary mission of putting steel on target. But this was the new Marine Corps, grounded in maneuver warfare concepts, and I was liberated to do some transformation of my own, reinventing the intelligence billet as more than just a conduit of information, but rather as a force multiplier.
I was trained as a forward observer and a fire direction control officer, so that I could play a hands-on role in directing the fires of the battalion. Recognizing the importance of airpower, I was trained as an aerial observer, flying in the backseat of OV-10 Bronco observation aircraft to coordinate artillery and air strikes on the battlefield. I incorporated counter-battery radars and remotely piloted vehicles into the battalion target acquisition plan and scheme of maneuver. With my active participation, the artillery battalion I was assigned to—5th Battalion, 11th Marines—changed from a unit that simply hit the targets it was told to hit, to one that was trained to prowl the battlefield, hunting Soviet artillery and neutralizing its impact on the operations of any Marine units we would have been tasked with supporting.
That I was able to do this as an Intelligence Officer—and a junior one at that—reflects well on the moment in history I occupied, a period of genuine “revolution in military affairs” that saw the US Marine Corps transform into one of the world’s leading practitioners of combined arms warfare (the art of combining ground forces, artillery and close air support into a singular, synergistic expression of combat power) within the framework of maneuver warfare.
When I was commissioned, in 1984, the only way you could become an intelligence officer was by spending at least three years in the combat arms (infantry, artillery, armor), and then requesting a lateral move. The Marine Corps was structured to absorb experienced officers who understood the role played by combat arms in the mission, and as such would be positioned to provide tailored intelligence support based upon their personal experiences.
Because of my Russian history degree, and the fact that I had recently published an article on Soviet military history in the prestigious journal, Soviet Studies, the Marine Corps granted my request for a waiver of the three-year combat arms requirement, and I was directly accessed into the intelligence military occupational specialty. The Marine Corps didn’t know what to do with a brand-new Second Lieutenant, so they initially assigned me to the G-2 (intelligence) section of the 7th Marine Amphibious Brigade, which functioned as the Marine Corps component of the Rapid Reaction Force, America’s expeditionary force created by President Carter after the Iranian Revolution, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iran-Iraq War, all of which took place between 1979-1980. I was given the task of monitoring the Soviet actions in Afghanistan, tracking developments in the Iran-Iraq War, and updating the Critical Intelligence Parameters (CIPS) documents for the various operational contingency plans the Brigade was tasked with supporting.
That I received such exposure to real-world intelligence issues at such an early stage in my career, when coupled with the fact that I did this without any formal training (I attended the intelligence officer’s course before being transferred to the artillery), meant that I approached the intelligence profession from a unique perspective of having learned the practical real-world realities of the intelligence business before I was schooled regarding the underlying theory.
This caused some problems at the schoolhouse, when I would audaciously inform the instructor that “this wasn’t how it was done in the Fleet Marine Force,” only to be told to sit down, shut up and focus on the school solution. But the “school solution” was, literally, written for a different era. The Marine way of warfare was changing, and with it the way intelligence would be employed in support of the warfighters. Eventually, the instructors realized that they needed to adapt with the times, and we reached a compromise which sought to find a happy medium between theory and reality while accomplishing the mission of training neophytes on the fundamentals of the intelligence profession.
This compromise paid dividends when, shortly after graduating from intelligence school, I was summoned to the Commanding General’s office, where he asked me about my assessment regarding an ongoing Iranian offensive near the Iraqi city of Basra. It was a holiday weekend, and the General needed to decide whether to let the Marines under his command get a “96”—a four-day pass which most Marines used to go home and visit family. If the Iranians broke through, the 7th Brigade would be ordered to deploy to Kuwait to prevent the Iranians from threatening strategic oil fields. The higher headquarters had not issued a warning order about the situation in the Persian Gulf, but Marines being Marines, the General wanted to make sure no stone was left unturned.
I was tasked with pulling together a briefing which assessed three possible battlefield outcomes, and then to list them from most likely to least likely—basically, a repeat of the final test at the intelligence school, except for real. The General and his Chief of Staff hammered me with questions, challenging my facts and analysis more thoroughly than any instructor ever did at the schoolhouse. But in the end, they accepted my conclusion that the Iraqi defenses would hold through the holiday weekend. The Marines got their “96.”
I left 29 Palms well-versed in combined arms warfare and the complex blend of art and science that governed the tasks of intelligence collection and assessment that operated in support. My next assignment, however, failed to make use of any of these skills. I was ordered to join the On-Site Inspection Agency, tasked with implementing the provisions of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. I was eventually assigned as a Deputy Site Commander at the Portal Monitoring Inspection Facility established outside the gates of a Soviet ballistic missile assembly facility in Votkinsk, some 750 miles east of Moscow, in the foothills of the Ural Mountains.
I knew nothing about either arms control or Soviet missile manufacturing. However, the experience as a newly- minted intelligence officer in 29 Palms prepared me to adapt to this new mission. Long story short, after a few months of work in the Soviet Union, I produced an analysis on Soviet missile production that challenged the official Defense Intelligence Agency estimates. I was confronted by a panel of senior officers, led by a Brigadier General, who not only challenged my assessments and conclusions, but also my ability to be seen as credible, given my overall lack of experience.
I held firm to my analysis, and, in the end, my assessments were shown to be accurate (I was given a classified commendation by the Director of the CIA, William Webster, for this work.) Later, I adapted this analysis to provide extremely accurate predictions about the timing of the departure of missiles from the Votkinsk factory, earning me a second classified CIA commendation. The Votkinsk experience was invaluable from an intelligence perspective, as I learned and perfected techniques for “connecting the dots”—evaluating incomplete data sets to ascertain the larger picture.
After Votkinsk I was returned to the Marine Corps. This coincided with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, in August 1990. By September, in large part due to my experience in assessing the Iran-Iraq War and the reputation I had acquired while working in the Soviet Union, I found myself attached to a special ad hoc planning cell reporting directly to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray. General Gray was concerned that the commander of US forces in the Middle east, Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, would not employ the two Marine Divisions under his command according to doctrine, and tasked the ad hoc cell to come up with operational concepts that could be taken to General Schwarzkopf for his consideration.
I was the junior officer in the cell (a Captain surrounded by Lieutenant Colonels, Colonels, and a Major General), and yet I was tasked with developing two such concepts—a Corps-sized amphibious assault on the Faw Peninsula, and a battalion-size raid against Iraqi logistics in Kuwait—that were approved to be briefed to General Gray and his command staff. It was a heady experience for a young Captain to be briefing advanced military concepts to the most senior officers of the Marine Corps. While my concepts were well-received by General Gray, they were ultimately rejected by General Schwarzkopf, who employed the Marines under his command as he would two Army divisions, failing to fully exploit their unique combat capabilities.
Despite this rejection by General Schwarzkopf, the quality of my work impressed General Gray enough to have me dispatched to the Middle East, ostensibly to serve on the staff of General Walt Boomer, the Marine component commander in the Middle East. The military being the military, my orders were lost, and I ended up, ironically, on the staff of General Schwarzkopf. I was assigned as a Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) officer and, because of my experience in Votkinsk, given responsibility for tracking Iraqi SCUD missile-related targets.
After the first week of the war, it became clear that US forces had claimed to have killed three times as many SCUD launchers as Iraq had in their inventory. My duties were expanded to include working with the Air Force and coalition special operations forces to devise a plan to target Iraqi SCUD missiles more accurately. This effort was delayed for a few days when I was relieved from my duties as a BDA officer under the orders of General Schwarzkopf for the “crime” of challenging analysis that claimed the US Air Force had destroyed several SCUD missiles. My assessment was that the items destroyed were oil tankers, not SCUDs. I was proven to be correct and given my job back, only to be once again pulled off-task for challenging assumptions made by US special operations forces about Iraqi SCUD tactics and operations. Again, I was eventually proven right, but by that time the war had ended, and the coalition had destroyed no Iraqi SCUDs.
I left active duty in June 1991. In August, I was asked by the United Nations to help a new organization, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), create an intelligence unit designed to support inspections intended to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. The CIA had envisioned that this new UN intelligence unit would be limited to simply receiving and filing intelligence reports provided to the UN. I had other plans, and with the permission of my UN superiors, proceeded to build a classic intelligence operation which took control of every aspect of the intelligence collection cycle—direction, collection, assessment, and dissemination. Building on my Marine Corps, INF weapons inspector and SCUD hunting experiences, I helped build a unique capability which put UNSCOM in charge of every aspect of the intelligence and inspection mission.
My experience with UNSCOM allowed me to work with the highest levels of the international intelligence community, including the intelligence services of the US, UK, Russia, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Israel and Jordan. I served as a liaison with these services and participated in the planning and implementation of more than 50 inspections in Iraq over the course of seven years, including the design and implementation of detailed intelligence collection plans involving imagery, signals intelligence and human intelligence. Some of these intelligence collection plans were in support of a single inspection, while others involved a campaign-approach involving numerous inspections spread out over the course of several months.
In support of these inspections, I was often called upon to brief senior officials in the White House and Foggy Bottom (US), White Hall and the Old War Office (UK), the Hotel de Brienne and Quai d'Orsay (France), and the HaKirya (Israel), among others. During these briefings I was often called upon to provide unique intelligence assessments that shaped national and international security policy. I am proud to say that my assessments were unfailingly accurate, and withstood the test of time, despite being frequently challenged at the moment of their presentation.
It was from the UNSCOM experience that I was first confronted with widespread accusations about a so-called “switcheroo.” Shortly after I resigned from UNSCOM in August 1998, citing US interference in the work of the inspectors, I was asked to testify before a joint session of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. The central theme of my testimony hinged on the absolute necessity for UNSCOM inspectors to be allowed to do their work in Iraq free from any impediment, whether from Iraq or the US or any other party. I pointed out that while UNSCOM had accounted for a significant percentage of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, it was mandated to eliminate them--the standard set by the Security Council was 100%--which meant even if we could ascertain a level of around 95% disarmament, the mission would not be considered completed until which time the final 5% was accounted for.
At the time of my resignation, I was charged with leading an inspection into Iraq that relied on extremely sensitive intelligence provided by the United Kingdom about a delivery of missile guidance and control equipment into Iraq. This came at a time when UNSCOM was involved in several separate investigations regarding Iraqi efforts to acquire missile guidance components that could be used in missiles possessing a range greater than 150 kilometers—the threshold established by the Security Council used to distinguish permitted missile systems from prohibited.
After my team had deployed to Iraq and was ready to begin the inspection, the US pressured the UNSCOM leadership to pull the plug, citing the potential for confrontation with Iraq. When I protested, I was ignored. I resigned, declaring that the “perception of arms control is more dangerous than no arms control at all.” I likened my task in Iraq to that of a forensic detective charged with solving a crime. I had numerous leads, some better than others, that could empower me to determine if a crime had been committed (i.e., Iraq still had undeclared WMD), or if the investigation had no merit (all WMD had been accounted for.) City Hall (the US) claimed they wanted this crime solved, but every time I began to look into the most obvious clues, the Mayor would intervene, preferring the perception of an investigation that allowed City Hall to continue to be able to label the suspect as guilty over any final finding of fact-based truth one way or the other.
Most observers took away from my testimony the two most politically-charged issues, namely that Iraq was still a threat due to the lack of 100% certainty over its disarmed status, and that the US was interfering with the work of the inspectors as they tried to complete their task of verifiably disarming Iraq. Hardly anyone focused on the foundational element of what I was saying—that the best way to disarm Iraq was through the work of weapons inspectors unencumbered by interference from either Iraq or the US.
In December 1998 the US and UK undertook a 72-hour bombing campaign of Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) predicated on US claims that Iraq had evicted UNSCOM inspectors and, as such, were unconstrained in their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Missing from this narrative was the fact that the US had insisted that UNSCOM conduct an inspection of a Ba’ath Party headquarters in Baghdad where outdated intelligence suggested Iraq was hiding ballistic missile guidance and control components (the intelligence dated back to June 1998, and at the time was stated by the originator—MI-6—to have a window of viability of 30-40 days, given the fact that the underlying premise of the intelligence in question was that Iraq was continuously moving these components to avoid detection by UNSCOM inspectors).
The truth about Desert Fox was that the US wanted to use UNSCOM inspectors to create a deliberate provocation, namely the inspection of a location they knew the Iraqis would deny them access to, after which the UNSCOM inspectors would be withdrawn and military action taken designed, among other things, to remove Saddam Hussein from power. A key element of the military action was the existence of targets where the US believed Saddam would be located at the time of the attacks. The main reason the US believed this to be the case was because of intelligence information collected by UNSCOM during their work. In short, the US used UNSCOM to help them try to assassinate Saddam Hussein.
The US, as usual, failed. Rather than refuse UNSCOM inspectors’ access to the Ba’ath Party headquarters, Iraq agreed to allow the inspectors to enter, using modalities previously agreed upon for inspections of politically sensitive sites. Following US instructions, UNSCOM unilaterally declared that the modalities no longer applied. When Iraq agreed to modify the modalities, the US ordered the inspectors to depart Iraq, and then claimed Iraq was in noncompliance with its disarmament obligation. Desert Fox followed.
I viewed the developments as a game-changer. Not only did the US fail to take out Saddam, but the entire US effort was uncovered by Iraq, which deemed that the UNSCOM inspectors could no longer be trusted, and permanently banned then from entering Iraq. The US then proceeded to say that Iraq was a threat to international peace and security, and backed this claim up with wildly-exaggerated claims about Iraqi WMD capability which could no longer be tested by UNSCOM inspections.
Given that UNSCOM inspections had been terminated by the conduct of the US, and not Iraq, I conducted a reassessment of Iraq’s disarmament obligation from the standpoint of how the intent of the Security Council mandate (i.e., disarmament) could be achieved without the politicized requirement for 100% verification. I came up with an analytical framework I called “qualitative disarmament,” where one looked at the reality of Iraq’s disarmament based upon a combination of factors, including what had actually been verified, what remained unaccounted for, the actual threat posed by the unaccounted material, the viability of the unaccounted material due to degradation over time, and the ability of Iraq to reconstitute its WMD programs while the totality of their industrial sector was being monitored by UNSCOM inspectors.
I then contrasted this reality with the narrative produced by assiduously adhering (as I had been required to do as an inspector) to the 100% standard imposed by the Security Council (what I called “quantitative disarmament,” or accounting for every last nut, bolt, and screw, regardless of its real contribution to a viable WMD effort). The conclusion I made from this analysis was that Iraq had been “qualitatively” disarmed, and no longer posed a threat to the international community that justified either the continuation of economic sanctions or military action.
I wrote this up in an article that was published in Arms Control Today. Almost immediately my critics began accusing me of “flip-flopping” on the issue of Iraqi WMD. I, of course, had done no such thing. The parameters that drove the assessments as an inspector and, by extension, when I testified before the US Senate, had been fundamentally altered by Operation Desert Fox. The facts I used to make my assessments had not changed, only the conclusions derived from their assessment due to a fundamental alteration of the reality surrounding these facts.
The US invaded Iraq in March 2003, justifying its actions on a threat model of Iraq derived from a quantitative analysis of its WMD programs. Two years later, the US was compelled to admit they had “gotten it all wrong” on Iraq. A subsequent CIA re-assessment of the threat posed by Iraq’s WMD was a near-perfect factual match for the case I made in my Arms Control Today article. Rather than “flip-flopping” as my detractors claimed, I did the job that the erstwhile professionals in the US intelligence community failed to do—continuously challenge and update fact sets by reexamining them considering new realities. I was right, the CIA was wrong.
One advantage I had when assessing Iraq’s disarmament status was that, because of my seven-year experience as an UNSCOM inspector who had been involved in every aspect of the international effort to disarm Iraq, I was uniquely-positioned to make extremely accurate assessments which combined a virtually complete fact set with time-tested methodology.
Over the years I have been called upon to conduct analysis of a wide variety of complex situations, ranging from the status of Iran’s nuclear program to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. While the analytical methodologies I employ today are little-changed from those that made me a successful intelligence analyst during my time in the Marine Corps and UNSCOM, the degree to which I enjoy access to a fact set as complete and reliable as those which I drew upon in my previous lives has changed considerably.
In the past I was tasked with finding the pieces to a gigantic puzzle, and then putting those pieces together to create as clear a picture of what constituted ground truth as possible. Because I was involved with the collection of intelligence (i.e., the puzzle pieces), and not just analysis (i.e., putting the pieces together), I had a major role in making sure that I acquired as many of the puzzle pieces as possible before attempting to discern what they showed.
Today, I—like most observers and outside analysts—am a prisoner of the puzzle pieces which are publicly available. However, many of these pieces are distorted by bias, or subjected to manipulation so that they depict something other than reality. The result is the construction of a puzzle that is full of gaps, and the image that is available may not reflect reality.
The task of an outside observer such as myself is to be able to sort out the good puzzle pieces from the bad, and then to connect these pieces into a framework which is then further-developed using analysis, not fact. Now, if someone is skilled in the art of connecting the dots, so to speak, and grounds his or her analysis on a foundation of knowledge which permits speculation to be further refined as “informed speculation,” then odds are the product produced will be a rough reflection of reality.
However, like any analysis done against a moving target—for instance, the ongoing Special Military Operation in Ukraine—if the gaps in the puzzle aren’t continuously reassessed based upon the examination of updated puzzle pieces, then prior assessments which may have been accurate in the past no longer reflect the present reality. This was the case regarding Iraqi WMD. And it is the case today, when assessing Russia’s military operations in Ukraine.
The interview which Mr. Whitcomb uses to underpin his article, a conversation I had with former CIA analyst Ray McGovern that was moderated by Garland Nixon, was triggered by significant new developments regarding Russia’s ongoing military campaign—namely, the approval by US President Joe Biden of a $40 billion military assistance package for Ukraine—which, from my perspective, more than justified a re-examination of assumptions and conclusions that had been made prior to these developments taking place. In short, the puzzle had been altered.
There was no “volte-face” or “switcheroo.” Rather, an experienced intelligence analyst with a history of getting it right on some of the world’s most pressing intelligence questions sought to apply time-tested analytical methodologies to a changing fact set in order to draw out the most up-to-date, accurate picture of current events possible under the circumstances.
I could have explained this to Michael Whitney if he had extended the professional courtesy of contacting me with his concerns prior to putting them in writing and subsequently publishing them. He failed to do so, and as such, in the interests of completeness, I have done his job for him prior to addressing the specifics of the case he has so unartfully assembled.
But that’s a discussion for Part Two of the saga that has become “The Ritter ‘Switcheroo’ Imbroglio.” Stay tuned.
Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. His new book is Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika: Arms Control and the End of the Soviet Union.