Thursday, January 23, 2003

Silencing an antiwar voice. For the past year or so, former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter has claimed loudly and ceaselessly that Iraq had largely gotten rid of its weapons of mass destruction before kicking out the inspectors in 1998. He hasn't been particularly effective. As the Phoenix's Seth Gitell has pointed out, much of what Ritter now says contradicts his earlier statements, and he has failed to articulate a convincing explanation for his switch.

Richard Butler, who headed the inspection team on which Ritter served and who emphatically does not believe Iraq has disarmed, has been far more persuasive in his joint television appearances with Ritter -- even as he asserts, as he did on MSNBC's Donahue last week, that he agrees with Ritter that the United States has no right to invade Iraq unilaterally.

Still, Ritter has been a visible and articulate spokesman, as well as something of a rallying point for those who oppose George W. Bush's apparent plan to launch a war against Iraq. So it is curious, to say the least, to watch the latest attempt to discredit him unfold.

Last night Ritter appeared on CNN's NewsNight not to talk about Iraq, but to answer questions about a very different matter. It seems that, in June 2001, Ritter was arrested at a Burger King near Albany, New York. I'm not sure why Ritter agreed to go on CNN, since he resolutely refused to answer any questions other than to say the charges had been dropped and the case has been sealed. But, reportedly, Ritter was accused of seeking a rendezvous with an underage girl whom he'd met on the Internet. If news reports are to be believed, he was met not by a teenage girl, but by undercover officers.

Ritter claimed he was barred from discussing the matter, but the host, Aaron Brown, dismissed that. Brown told Ritter that CNN had consulted legal authorities who concluded that though the government was prohibited from talking about a sealed case, Ritter, as the person who was arrested, was not. But Ritter wouldn't budge. At one point Brown told Ritter:

I'm trying to give you an opportunity, if you want to take it, to explain what happened. And here's the point of that. And you know this is true. You are radioactive until this is cleared up. Until people understand what this is about, no one is going to talk to you about the things that you feel passionately about.

Ritter disagree, replying that "the bottom line is, the rule of law must apply here and we must never lose sight of that. I think you hit on something. I was a credible voice. I am a credible voice. And I will be a credible voice in regards to issues pertaining to Iraq." Unfortuntely for Ritter, that's probably wishful thinking.

For days, now, Ritter's year-and-a-half-old arrest has been a cause célèbre among the prowar right. The right-wing website has been all over this, passing along lurid details from local news reports. Ritter's troubles have been the subject of much clucking and chuckling on Rush Limbaugh's radio show as well.

I hold no brief for Ritter. But the fact that sealed police records regarding one of the country's most prominent critics of Bush's policy in Iraq would be leaked -- days or weeks before war may begin -- is absolutely chilling. Rather than snickering at the hapless Ritter, the media could perform a far greater public service by finding out who was behind this sickening attempt to smear a White House foe.

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