WASHINGTON -- This could have been Scott Ritter's season of vindication.
Before the Iraq war, the former United Nations weapons inspector argued relentlessly that an invasion to disarm Saddam Hussein was not justified because there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
In one speech at Clarkson University in upstate New York, he said his nearly eight years as a top weapons hunter in Iraq convinced him that the Bush administration was selling "a whole bunch of oversimplified horse manure. None of what you are being told remotely resembles the truth."
For that and other comments, Ritter became a virtual outcast in the international circles in which he worked, condemned by colleagues in government, the military, and even among some UN inspectors.
Now, in the absence of any weapons discoveries, growing numbers of people are agreeing with what Ritter was saying before the invasion.
Yet the 42-year-old Marine still attracts sometimes heated and personal criticism. And some Iraqis apparently still believe his opposition to the US-led invasion was tantamount to aiding a brutal dictator.
Today, as he works as a security consultant and volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Albany, N.Y., Ritter is a perplexing footnote to a war that has excited great emotions but also great confusion.
"There was nobody who knew more about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs than I did," Ritter said in a lengthy telephone interview last week, stressing repeatedly that he was not bragging, but merely stating the facts. "No non-Iraqi knew more than me."
Still, to some of his fellow inspectors, including David W. Kay, Ritter remains as mysterious as the Iraqi regime that opted for war rather than disclose it did not have weapons of mass destruction. They argue that Ritter moved over the years from hawk to dove, without any visible new information. Rather than wonder what Ritter knew that they didn't, at least some of the other inspectors regard him as just weird -- and quietly resent him for being right about Iraq.
"If you can figure out Scott Ritter, I'd like to know," said Kay, the Bush administration's former senior weapons investigator who recently concluded that nearly every analyst was wrong about Iraq's weapons capabilities. "He used to be a hawk. I could never figure out his alternating statements and he never did a good job of explaining them."
In the Globe interview, Ritter shifted between a calm recounting of his years in Iraq and the kinds of impolitic statements that land him in controversy.
"Iraq is worse off today without Saddam Hussein," he declared, maintaining he has no love for Hussein but believes the US occupation has increased the misery of average Iraqis.
Bush administration officials still fiercely criticize him for handing the Iraq regime a public relations coup in September 2002, when he traveled to Baghdad and told the National Assembly in Baghdad that the United States would be making a "historic" mistake if it invaded the country.
But on his views of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Ritter portrays himself as a good soldier who was merely trying to find the truth. He said he was only trying to accomplish the goal the United Nations had set forth: the peaceful disarmament of Iraq. He said the country was never open enough about its programs to earn a clean bill of health, but that significant progress was being made nonetheless.
However, Ritter said, his superiors were obsessed with removing Hussein from power and molded their attitudes toward the UN inspections process with that in mind. That went for both the Clinton and Bush administrations, he said. He contended that neither administration really wanted UN inspections to succeed because that would require lifting the UN-imposed economic sanctions with Hussein in power.
In 1998, Ritter pointed out, Clinton's secretary of state, Madeline K. Albright, said sanctions would never be lifted with Hussein still in charge. As a result, the Iraqi regime no longer had sufficient incentive to cooperate with inspectors.
"What I knew wasn't politically acceptable," Ritter said. "I wasn't taking it to the extreme and dealing strictly with regime change."
The integrity of the inspections process, meanwhile, was corrupted by the United States, which he said planted numerous CIA spies on the UN teams. The UN Security Council, in his view, also failed to support its inspectors' work. That, he said, is why he abruptly, and very publicly, resigned in 1998. Inspectors did not return until the fall of 2002.
The 12-year Marine veteran and son of career Air Force officers should carry unusual credibility. In interviews, former colleagues and Iraq specialists often describe Ritter as a hard-nosed, courageous, and even brilliant intelligence officer who frequently clashed with superiors but was often proved right.
He was recruited to be an inspector in September 1991 because of his performance as an analyst during the Persian Gulf War earlier that year. As a chief inspector in Iraq he painstakingly plied his way through Iraqi deceptions and helped uncover much of what was known about Iraq's weapons activities. He helped oversee the removal of more weapons of mass destruction than were destroyed during the massive 1991 air war.
Ritter critics such as Kay, however, say his seemingly contradictory statements over the years give fodder to those who view with suspicion a maverick who seemed to enjoy getting attention.
Shortly after he left the UN team in 1998 he told the US Senate that "Iraq has positioned itself today [so] that once effective inspection regimes have been terminated, Iraq will be able to reconstitute the entirety of its former nuclear, chemical, and ballistic missile delivery system capabilities within six months."
That 1998 testimony prompted Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, to call Ritter an "American hero." A subsequent memoir by Ritter, "Endgame," outlined the dangers of the Iraqi weapons programs.
But in August 2000, when inspectors had not been on the ground in Iraq for nearly two years, he struck a different chord. "I think it's imperative that people understand that there are no weapons of mass destruction left in Iraq, that there are no production facilities capable of producing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," he told the Australian Broadcasting Company.
Ritter told the Globe last week that he still believes that if given the chance Iraq could have reconstituted its weapons programs in six months, but that the international community would have known it in advance.
"What we did know when we left in 1998 was that [Hussein] did not have the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction," he said. "They would have needed to reconfigure the manufacturing base. Iraq could not have acquired the technology necessary without the knowledge of the international community. It would have been detectable. The United States never once provided information that would back up that that was occurring."
Ritter has finally received some praise for coming closer to the truth than most.
"He deserves some credit," said David Albright, a former UN inspector who is now president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. But like some other former colleagues, Albright remains wary: "He was wrong about some things. I just don't get him."
Those outside the UN inspections process tend to be more supportive.
"He was completely right [about the weapons] and there [are] not many people you can say that about," said Joseph Cirincione, a weapons proliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "Forget what you thought of his trip to Baghdad and forget your preconceptions. This guy nailed it and most other people didn't. I haven't heard one of them apologize."
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.