Ritter, 41, who says his goal in going to Baghdad was to "wage peace," makes an unlikely anti war activist. He grew up in a military family and became an intelligence officer after college, where he studied Soviet history. Even early in his career, Ritter courted controversy. In 1991, after his first marriage to his college sweetheart ended, he married a Russian woman he met while posted in the former U.S.S.R. Despite initial suspicions that the translating service she worked for was being used by the Soviets to gather intelligence through "attempted sexual compromise," he satisfied himself that "this did not appear to be the case." He dismisses as "a form of harassment" what he says is an ongoing FBI probe of his wife based on allegations that she was a KGB spy.
Ritter's role as a ballistic missile expert on General Norman Schwarzkopf's staff during the Gulf War gave him the expertise needed for his job with unscom. He took part in more than 30 inspection missions during the '90s and earned the enmity of the Iraqis, who accused him of being a spy, with his allegations that they were hiding their true weapons capability. Ritter's many critics including his former unscom boss Richard Butler, who has called his current notions "crap" charge that he has inexplicably gone soft on Saddam. The fbi, Ritter claims, is even investigating him on suspicion of being an Iraqi agent. "I've never given Iraq a clean bill of health," he says angrily, noting that although he accepted the use of a car and driver during the recent trip to Baghdad, the Iraqis picked up no other expenses. "I've said that no one has backed up any allegations that Iraq has constituted weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capability with anything that remotely resembles substantive fact."
Perhaps most awkward for the U.S. is Ritter's concession that Iraq had legitimate complaints about unscom inspectors being used as spies. "The U.S. had a track record of putting pressure on the weapons inspections program during my entire seven years there," he says. "Everyone has focused on the struggle of the inspectors versus Iraq, but not too many people speak of the struggle between the inspectors and the U.S. to beat back U.S. intelligence seeking to infiltrate the inspections program." So is Ritter's current outspokenness bad faith? Not at all, insists the ex Marine. By encouraging public debate at what he calls "a critical moment in American history," he's just being true to his duty.
TIME: Why couldn't Saddam have obtained capacity for producing WMD after 1998, when the inspectors left?
Ritter: I'm more aware than any U.N. official that Iraq has set up covert procurement funds to violate sanctions. The question is, has someone found that what Iraq has done goes beyond simple sanctions violations? We have tremendous capabilities, and the fact that no one has shown that he has acquired that capability doesn't necessarily translate into incompetence on the part of the intelligence community. It may mean he hasn't done anything.
TIME: Clinton or Bush whose Iraq policy is worse?
Ritter: Bush, because of its ramifications. It threatens a war that probably lacks any basis in law or substantive fact. It has a real chance of putting thousands of American lives at risk and seeks to dictate American will on the world.
TIME: What would it mean for Israel or other neighbors of Iraq if Saddam did acquire nuclear weapons?
Ritter: If Iraq today seeks to acquire any prohibited weaponry, then clearly we must presume ill intent on the part of Iraq. We must treat Saddam Hussein as a pariah leader and we must treat Iraq as a rogue nation, and they must be dealt with harshly, up to and including military force that leads to regime removal. If Iraq acquired a nuclear weapon today, it would be a huge risk to Israel, to all its neighbors and to the entire world.