Accuracy in Media

The U.S. is engaged in a bloody war in Iraq for the purpose of eliminating the remnants of a terrorist regime, foreign terrorists, and bringing democracy to Iraq and the region. It is a big gamble that has put radical Islam on the defensive around the world. But shocking evidence demonstrates that controversial former U.S. Marine and former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who now writes for the anti-American Arab “news” organization Al Jazeera, was involved in a controversial effort to stop the war by enlisting prominent personalities in a “peace” campaign.

If Ritter had been successful, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein could still be in power threatening his neighbors and the U.S. and rebuilding his capability for producing weapons of mass destruction with money stolen from the corrupt U.N. oil-for-food program.

Ritter’s latest “contribution” to the debate over Iraq is an article for the Al Jazeera website warning that “the United States cannot win” in Iraq. Ritter, now identified as “an independent consultant,” has a checkered past that includes a second marriage to a young woman from the Republic of Georgia, who had served Ritter as a Russian-supplied “escort” and translator; being caught in an Internet sex sting by law enforcement; and the acceptance of $400,000 from an Iraqi-born American businessman, Shakir Alkafajii, to produce an anti-American film about Iraq. Alkafajii has since been exposed for having taken oil vouchers from Saddam as part of the corrupt U.N.-run oil-for-food program. 

While Ritter has been discredited, the evidence about his last-minute ploy to stop the Iraq war bears scrutiny because of his high-level contacts, and media acquiescence to the scheme at the time. And we still don’t know how much money was stolen from the oil-for-food program and how much of that was used to influence U.S. politics.

The Plan Unfolds

The evidence shows some interest in the Ritter plan by former President Jimmy Carter and former Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev?and support by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But were the media secretly supporting the ploy? Ritter says famed investigative journalist Seymour Hersh kept it confidential.

Another key question: Was the leak of an Internet sex sting involving Ritter an effort to sabotage Ritter’s plan?

These are some of the intriguing questions about the plan that were not raised?or answered?in the critical weeks before the Iraq war was launched.

On January 19, 2003, New York reporters broke a graphic sex-scandal story involving Ritter, who was a U.S. Marine before he became a U.N. weapons inspector. Ritter was accused of soliciting sex over the Internet from an underage girl. At the same time, however, Ritter was involved in secret negotiations for a “peace plan” that had the approval of both Jimmy Carter and Saddam Hussein, and a major media event was planned to cap it all off in Iraq. If successful, the ploy would have derailed the push for war.

The media, however, seemed content to solely focus on the scoop broken by the Schenectady Daily Gazette and the New York Daily News about how Ritter was secretly prosecuted in Albany County in 2001 after he was snared in an Internet sex sting operation. The stories cited anonymous “law enforcement authorities.” It was reported that Ritter was arrested by Colonie (New York) Police in June 2001 on a misdemeanor charge after he allegedly had a sexual discussion on the Internet with an undercover investigator he thought was a 16-year old girl. The case was sealed, and Colonie officials declined to release the arrest records, explaining the matter was adjourned in local court in contemplation of dismissal. Albany District Attorney Paul Clyne said he had no knowledge of the case and fired veteran Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Preiser for failing to inform him of the case. The story spread from print media to cable news, culminating in a CNN interview of Ritter by Aaron Brown.

NBC television affiliate WNYT in Albany turned up a mug shot of Ritter. The station’s news director, Paul Conti, said the “16-year-old girl” had been lured by Ritter to meet him at the Burger King in Menands, N.Y., in order “to have her watch him have sex with himself.”

Ritter, who lives in the Albany, New York, suburb of Delmar, was at the time a high-profile critic of President Bush’s war preparations, and had set a personal goal of preventing the war. A former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, Ritter quit in 1998 in protest over lack of sufficient progress in inspections and alleged U.S. administration interference with UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission) activities. 

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees on Sept. 3, 1998, Ritter affirmed that UNSCOM had intelligence suggesting Iraq had assembled the components for three nuclear weapons. All Baghdad lacked, Ritter said, was the fissile material. Ritter also said then that if Iraq were to reconstruct its old program for producing fissile material, it could have a bomb in several years.

However, Ritter opposed the war against Iraq, arguing that there was no proof Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Now he was saying that the regime had no nuclear weapons capability and any remaining chemical weapons stocks would likely be so degraded as to be useless. Ritter maintains that he never “flip-flopped” on the issue, but that his positions were misreported by journalists.

He now emphasizes that “potential” reconstitution of weapons programs did not mean verified reconstitution. He cited alleged manipulation of the UNSCOM inspection process by the United States, as when they ordered inspectors out prior to Operation Desert Fox, a 72-hour bombing campaign executed by the United States and Great Britain in 1998. Ritter was critical of the bombing campaign, complaining that it “lacked Security Council authority.”

The Secret Contacts

Ritter says he was contacted in December 2002, by Roger Norman, the director of the Center for Economic and Social Responsibility (CESR), about the idea of sending a high-level delegation to Iraq. Ritter says that the plan was “conceptually designed around the figures of Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter.” The plan died and Ritter decided to take the initiative.

Ritter was approached again in January 2003 about the idea of making a trip to Iraq with American political figures. This time the idea was being floated by his friend Shakir Alkafajii, the Iraqi-American businessman who funded the production of Ritter’s documentary “In Shifting Sands.” To accomplish his goal of stopping the war, Ritter prepared a 6-point peace plan that eventually was approved by Saddam Hussein, after being ferried to and fro by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

It’s interesting to recall that in September of 2002, Aziz, upon conclusion of a 30-minute meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan at a U.N. conference in Johannesburg, had said: “If anybody can have a magic solution, so that all these issues are being dealt with together, equitably and reasonably, we are ready to find such a solution and we are ready to co-operate with the United Nations.” Aziz, as it turns out, was ready to cooperate with Scott Ritter in the furtherance of the secret initiative.

Ritter’s overall plan, which was set to unfold in January, was for several other high-profile persons to travel to Iraq around January 23, with discussions involving the Iraqi government extending through January 26. Iraq would publicly endorse the peace plan, and a joint statement would be crafted. A press conference would follow where the prepared statement would be read. The press conference would be timed to allow European and U.S. media outlets to run coverage the day before Hans Blix was due to report to the Security Council on January 27, 2003.

The effect, Ritter had hoped, would be “dramatic,” with widespread media coverage, and the public perceiving that there was “no justification for the war.”

Ritter told AIM he contacted former U.S. president Jimmy Carter about the plan, both directly and through former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s office.  (Gorbachev currently heads the Gorbachev Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank.) Ritter said, “When Carter first heard of it he indicated support. Then he decided as a former president he could not make the trip.” However, once the plan became public, Carter planned on announcing his support of it, Ritter said. 

Carter told AIM via a spokesman, “No such trip was planned,” and cited travel and schedule considerations as reason to decline further comment.

South African leader Nelson Mandela was also tapped for the trip, and was supportive of the plan but could not make it due to health considerations, Ritter said, and Gorbachev’s participation was also ruled out. Mandela, Carter and Gorbachev are all recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ritter told AIM that he briefed members of the Canadian Parliament thoroughly on his plan in a secret session, and that the details were known “around the world at very high levels.” He was hoping to “get the Canadians off the fence,” adding, “They claim to be great pacifists, but they ended up supporting the war because of their passivity.”

The briefing was successfully kept secret and no media reports followed.

So who else knew besides the Canadian government? “The South Africans knew, the?Belgians, the French, the Italians knew,” Ritter said. “This was a serious effort. We were dead serious about this. The details were hammered out in private.”

Sherrie Gossett of AIM became aware of the plan for a trip to include Carter and Mandela in January of 2003, but was told by a close friend of Ritter’s strictly on an “off-the-record” basis. Ritter spoke to her about it in February of 2004.

It’s hard to imagine that no other reporter had his or her “ear to the ground” and could not figure out what was happening.  How could so much political activity between so many high-profile figures be completely off the media’s “radar screen?”

Did any other reporter in fact, know about the plan? “Seymour Hersh,” Ritter replied. “He was aware of it but there wasn’t much he could do.” Ritter explained, “There was an absolute requirement to maintain a semblance of secrecy around it, to not let the cat out of the bag. Seymour Hersh didn’t run with it at the time,” Ritter said, adding, that out of “respect” Hersh kept the plan confidential. “It wasn’t about getting press at that time,” Ritter said. “When we had the press conference [in Iraq] that’s when we’d get the press in.”

Following the sex-sting report, all bets were off, though, and Ritter canceled the Baghdad trip. Ritter sympathizer Justin Raimondo of called Ritter a “victim” of what “may be the sleaziest set-up job in recent history, a smearing so foul that it makes the Clinton crowd look like a bunch of amateurs.”

In fact, it looks like Ritter set himself up. He actually had two run-ins with police, according to a January 21, 2003 report by the Albany Times-Union.

The first occurred in April 2001, as the former Marine reportedly drove to a meeting with what he thought was a 14-year-old girl with whom he had chatted online. Instead, he reportedly was met by officers, who questioned and released him without a charge.

Ritter denounced the “corporate-controlled media” that had been “played like a fine-tuned fiddle by those who had leaked the story.” However, on January 26, 2003, the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz raised the issue of why so many in the media were not reporting Ritter’s arrest.

The story had jumped from the local Albany sources to Fox News and eventually CNN, but Kurtz noted it had not been covered by most of mainstream media or newspapers. Addressing Fred Dicker, state editor for the New York Post, Kurtz commented, “Your newspaper had a front page story the other day, furor over U.N. kiddie sex prober. Why haven’t The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, CBS, NBC, ABC carried anything on this arrest?”

Noting that the story had only hit the local and state AP wire in New York, Dicker said he didn’t know why that alone took four days. Suggestions were made that it took a while for AP to verify the story, since they couldn’t determine who the anonymous sources were. Or, Dicker said, the weekend editor maybe wasn’t quite sure who Scott Ritter was, “but the excuse for the national networks, for the New York Times, I can’t fathom. It’s a significant story, and I don’t know why they haven’t picked it up.”

Despite a page devoted to the sweet-potato queen that week, Newsweek’s Washington Bureau Chief Daniel Klaidman indicated there would be no coverage in their upcoming issue, because of space constraints and news judgment.

“Does the incident make it more difficult for the media to use him as an anti-war spokesman?” Kurtz asked.

Klaidman said Ritter was a “marginalized voice” prior to the sex scandal and not a “particularly credible figure.” Said Kurtz, “You keep saying he is not credible. You keep saying he is not credible, but television keeps putting him on. Newspapers keep quoting him.”

While Ritter said that he canceled the trip to Baghdad due to the disruptive nature of the sex scandal, few details were reported. The Associated Press reported on January 22, 2003, that Ritter had “changed his mind about the trip [to Baghdad]” and that he “planned to leave yesterday to offer Baghdad advice on how to avoid a war with the United States.” 

Murky Details

On the same day, the UPI reported that Ritter was “scheduled to be in Baghdad, Iraq to advise the Iraqis on how to avert war.” On January 24, 2003, the BBC simply reported that “publicity had forced [Ritter] to cancel a planned trip to Baghdad this week.” On January 23, 2003, the London Guardian offered the most detail, when they quoted Ritter as saying he “was supposed to fly to Baghdad on a personal initiative that could have had great ramifications in regards issues of war and peace.”

In July 2003, after the war had begun, Ritter’s book “Frontier Justice: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Bushwhacking of America” was released. Chapter seven, “The Ugly Politics of Character Assassination” took up the victim theme, calling the leak of the arrest record “timely” and “extremely suspicious,” implying the FBI orchestrated the leak to derail Ritter’s secret plan. Ritter says the arrest record was leaked “hours” after he met with the FBI at their behest. (The story broke January 18th and 19th.)

An FBI Role?

FBI spokesman Joe Parrish confirmed to AIM that Special Agent Beth Gallagher, senior investigator for the FBI’s National Security Division in New York, had called Ritter on Thursday, January 16, requesting a meeting. They met the next morning along with agent Nick Panagakos. Ritter was questioned about his finances, how his trips were funded, his motivations, contacts and his upcoming plans.

Parrish’s account differs from Ritter’s only in a minute detail: Ritter was asked to sign a copy of his book “Endgame,” not for a “few” other FBI agents who couldn’t attend, but for a single friend of an agent not present. 

The FBI called the implicit allegation that they were involved in the leak, “Preposterous.” “We would never, and could never, get involved in something like that,” Parrish said.

So who were the “anonymous law enforcement sources” that were tapped by veteran crime reporter Joe Mahoney of the New York Daily News? 

“This story was not about documents being leaked,” Mahoney told AIM. “It was about [Scott Ritter] trying to line up a minor child.”

Mahoney, the Albany bureau chief for the New York Daily News, concurs with the FBI. “Yes, it’s preposterous for Ritter to suggest this was orchestrated at the federal level.” The veteran crime reporter related his many years spent on that beat, including previously at the Albany Times-Union, explaining, “I have extensive local contacts in crime, law enforcement and I work them.”

In another unreported twist, Mahoney said that Ritter’s attorney Norah Murphy warned the paper against publishing their findings. “Norah Murphy threatened legal action against us if we went ahead with the story,” he said. “She claimed we would face severe repercussions. I was not about to let her succeed in stymieing the country finding out about this, especially since Ritter was so involved in international issues, and was lent credibility by the U.S. and international media. ”

Ritter’s book contains details about the contents of the “peace” plan and Ritter’s thinking on the situation.  So, six months after the media event was supposed to go down in Iraq, the public caught its first wind of the scheme Ritter had crafted.

Media Silence

If there were reporters who in fact had not missed the many details about Ritter’s Baghdad plans and the involvement of Jimmy Carter and other luminaries, and if they were not constrained by having become privy to the information on an off-the-record basis, then it would appear some in the media intentionally withheld the story in order to allow for the plan to develop and/or to allow for maximum impact once it happened. Obviously the element of surprise seems to have been a critical part of the plan.

“Once the plan died,” Ritter said, “there was no media interest. In general it comes down to editors. If they don’t view something as a story, then it won’t be published.” And does Ritter think that the previously secret plan was worthy of media coverage even after it was botched? “One would think so,” he said. He’s right?it is important to understand how this plan was hatched and by whom.

Prosecute Ritter?

While Ritter complains about the FBI supposedly derailing his “peace” plan, it appears that his secret negotiations were a violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits private communications with foreign governments.

The law declares that “Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”

What You Can Do

Send cards and letters to David Sloan of “20/20,” Rupert Murdoch, and Ken Paulson of USA Today.

Mr. David Sloan
“20/20” Executive Producer
ABC News
77 West 66th St.
New York, N.Y. 10023    

Mr. Rupert Murdoch
Chairman and Chief  Executive Officer
News Corporation
8th Floor
1211 Avenue of the Americas
New York, N.Y. 10036     

Mr. Ken Paulson
USA Today
7950 Jones Branch Dr.
McLean, VA 22108

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