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CNN Sunday Morning

Interview With Clifford May

Aired September 08, 2002 - 10:05   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: There is a new voice opposing U.S. military action against Iraq, former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter. He went to Baghdad and addressed the Iraqi Parliament as you were sleeping. Afterward, he told CNN that Iraq is not a threat, and that weapons inspections should be the next step.

SCOTT RITTER, FORMER U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: I think the Iraqi government understands that if they do not allow unconditional return of inspectors with unfettered access that war is all but inevitable, that there will be nothing that can stay the hand that President Bush and Tony Blair seem prepared to unleash on Iraq.

And so, that's why I proposed that a mechanism be put forward that provides, you know, a confidence-building measure for the Iraqi government so they can allow these inspectors to return unconditionally and give them unfettered access.


O'BRIEN: One man's point of view. Scott Ritter in Baghdad as a private citizen; some of that trip paid for by donations from supporters.

Let's get the opposing point of view. Clifford May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Among other things on his resume, he's a former Middle East reporter for "The New York Times."

Cliff, good to see you.


O'BRIEN: Seems to me that before the military gets involved, I've always heard there has to be a clear and present danger. Let's start with clear. What's clear about the danger here?

MAY: What is clear about the danger is that Saddam Hussein is a man who has killed thousands of his fellow countrymen, tried to wipe Kuwait off -- a neighboring country -- off the face of the earth, has attempted to assassinate an American president, and at the end of the Gulf War, he promised at the very least not to develop weapons of mass destruction and to allow inspectors unfettered access to make sure that was not the case. For the past four years, he has not been allowing inspections and we know he has been developing weapons of mass destruction. What we most concerned about are the nuclear weapons that he may have, and that is a clear and unmistakable danger.

O'BRIEN: Cliff, how do we know, though?

MAY: How do we know about the weapons of mass destruction?

O'BRIEN: Yeah. How do we know? We haven't been in there.

MAY: No, we haven't, which makes it difficult. Some of it is from intelligence reports, construction at nuclear facilities. Some of it is from defectors who talk about what he is trying to buy. And intelligence reports can tell you what he is trying to buy on various markets overseas, and we know that these things are not intended to be used for water desalination, or something like that.

O'BRIEN: Let's help people navigate through this, because you've been talking in shorthand here. First of all, you're talking about this construction of nuclear facilities. That came out of a "New York Times" reports, from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA, as it is called, is now discrediting that whole "New York Times" piece and saying that there is no such report by that organization indicating that there is an active program under way right now to build nukes in Iraq.

MAY: Miles, what they are actually saying is that there is not a report, but there are photographers, there are commercial photographs, and intelligence analysts say what you are seeing there is not the construction of a new McDonald's around Iraq, but rather the construction of nuclear facilities.

Don't forget, the Iraqis -- Saddam Hussein was very close to developing nuclear weapons, a nuclear facility in 1981. The Israelis, acting alone, destroyed that facility. They were condemned by the world. As a result of that, Saddam Hussein did not have nuclear weapons by the Gulf War in 1991.

Now, again, according to intelligence reports that we have going way back, after 1981, what happened was that Saddam Hussein began to reconstruction his nuclear facilities in 400 different locations so it wouldn't be so easy for the Israelis to bomb one. And at the time of the Gulf War, our intelligence estimates of when he would have nuclear weapons were actually too conservative. He was closer.

We stopped him with that war. We had inspectors go in. Based mainly on Iraqi defectors, we were able to knock out quite a few of them. For the past four years, we haven't been able to do a thing to stop him, and all intelligence reports suggest -- Tony Blair has them, the U.S. has them -- that he is accelerating his development of nuclear weapons right now.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's talk about these -- help people who haven't read "The New York Times" this morning -- tell about these tubes. The evidence so far that we have seen to date is, what you've been saying, which is fairly compelling. I mean, after all, in 1981, the Israelis took down a nuclear plant where they were doing just what we are talking about here. But the evidence that we are seeing today is aluminum tubes. That's it. Aluminum tubes. Is that enough for the American people, you think?

MAY: Again, that's what we have -- what has been released now, because "The New York Times" did -- they are taking it from these commercial photographs. Everything that American intelligence has has not been released. I'm going to predict to you that in the next couple of weeks, you're going to hear more. But you're not going to hear about everything that the U.S. has, because there are sources and methods that can't be compromised.

I think everyone knows -- I hope everyone knows that this guy is a dangerous guy who wishes us ill. And who still has the same ambitions he's always had. If not, why doesn't he just say, hey, I have no beef with the U.S., bring the weapons inspectors in, let them go anywhere they want to go. What's the problem? I'm not doing this.

Instead, he has been saying for four years, no weapons inspectors. He has been hiding all of his chemical weapons, which we know he has, his biological bombs, disease bombs, which we know he has in various locations under mosques and schools and palaces and mobile facilities. I mean, I don't think we can argue over whether or not this guy is dangerous.

O'BRIEN: No, no, no, that's not the point. I've set this up, let's talk clear and present. Now, let's talk present danger. If, in fact, Saddam Hussein is importing these tubes for a centrifuge which would enrich uranium, which, of course, is the main event for a nuclear bomb, it would take him years to accomplish this, I'm told by my read of what the experts are saying. Why now?

MAY: Listen, this is an important question and maybe the important question, how imminent is the possibility that he will have nuclear weapons that he can deliver against us or against one of our allies.

You're right, if the intelligence estimates are, hey, he's years away, then we have got plenty of time to figure this out. If, on the other hand, the intelligence estimates are, no, we don't have that kind of time, and what we have been hearing from President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney is that we don't have quite that much time.

But you're right, the question is, do we benefit from waiting or do we benefit from going sooner, which doesn't necessarily mean tomorrow or next month; it could mean early next year. There is question, though, Miles, you've got to ask, why wait too long? By the time you get a smoking gun, you could have a mushroom cloud. Do you want to do that? Do you want to let him hit us again, and then punish him for that? Is the point to prevent the next 9-11? I think a lot of people are thinking today that our strategic goal has to be to prevent future 9/11.

O'BRIEN: All right, and no one wants to see another 9-11, no one wants to see a mushroom cloud. But by the same token, no one wants to see something where American blood is spilled for something that is, after all, contained, at least for now. How -- isn't there a way, given all of our capabilities, to just contain this threat before actually sending troops into Baghdad?

MAY: And again, it gets back to whether our intelligence estimates are that as we wait, he is getting stronger and getting closer to having nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction capability, or whether he is being stalemated and stymied as we do this.

What we want is to remove his weapons of mass destruction. A lot of people feel the only way to do that and be sure you've done it is to secure regime change, which is remove him. But listen, if he were to say tomorrow, hey, I'm done, I'm stepping down, I'm retiring, I'm going to have a TV show here in Baghdad, that would be fine. If he were to say, bring in the weapons inspectors, they can go anywhere they want, any mosque, any school, any one of my palaces, that would be interesting too. So far we don't have that.

O'BRIEN: A final point. If, in fact, there's enough evidence out there, the satellite or what other, that there are certain facilities where nukes are being produced, wouldn't it be wiser and safer to bomb those facilities, as opposed to going for the ultimate goal here that the Bush administration has been pushing, which is regime change?

MAY: And, Miles, believe me, there are people working hard in the Pentagon coming up with just those kinds of contingency plans. The question may be, can you locate them all, do you know where they are? If there are hundreds of them, can you hit them all? And if they are very, very deeply buried, can you hit them all in a way that knocks them out?

These things are being worked on. Every contingency plan we have is not necessarily going to be published on the front page of "The New York Times," we should hope, and yes, there are other possibilities.

In the meantime, I would hope the people who are so advising us not to talk threateningly about Saddam Hussein would tell him, the Americans mean business. You better understand that and you better show them that you are going to get rid of your weapons of mass destruction, and you have no more ambitions or hostile intentions. That's what I'd like to see happen.

O'BRIEN: Final point. Is Scott Ritter disloyal?

MAY: Scott Ritter -- I don't think Scott Ritter is disloyal. I think he's tremendously misguided. He has become an apologist for and a defender of Saddam Hussein. And I don't quite understand his motivations in all of this. I also don't understand the basis on which he says -- he talks about historical mistakes. He's not a historian. He was part of a weapons inspection team. They did a good, credible job. But most of the time, they did that job well when they had Iraqi defectors coming up and saying, I know where Saddam Hussein is developing these weapons of mass destruction. I know what he said to his nuclear scientists, which is also part of the intelligence reports, by the way, Miles, about the good work they are doing in his campaign against the West by developing nuclear weapons.

I just think Scott Ritter is tremendously, tremendously misguided. I'm not against dissension. We should all welcome dissension and welcome a real big debate on this thing. We need that kind of thing. But I don't understand why Scott Ritter has decided to defend Saddam Hussein as he has.

O'BRIEN: Cliff May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, thanks for shedding light on these subjects with us. We appreciate it.

MAY: Thanks, Miles.