Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Scott Ritter Claims State Department Seized His Passport

State of the Union: If true, the story indicates an unprecedented attack on a citizen’s freedom of movement.
Scott Ritter Speaking
Credit: Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

Scott Ritter, a retired intelligence officer and UN weapons inspector best known for his correct assertion ahead of the Iraq War that Iraq lacked weapons of mass destruction, as well as for his conviction for sex offenses in 2011 and the lengthy subsequent appeal, has asserted that his passport was seized on the orders of the State Department. 

Ritter’s assertion, made during an interview with Andrew Napolitano on the latter’s YouTube show, included the claim that his passport had been seized by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers while he was boarding a plane at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport. Ritter, who has written for The American Conservative in the past, was traveling to Russia for the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). According to Ritter, the CBP agents never showed him a warrant and never gave him a receipt for the seized passport. 


If Ritter’s claim that the State Department ordered the seizure of his passport is true, it is unclear which law or regulation sanctioned it. The United States has no prohibitions on sex offenders traveling abroad. On the other end, while Russia can request visa applicants to undergo a background check in case of criminal record, it would be strange for a denied visa to be dealt with at the gate for a departing plane. Further, Ritter’s conviction has not stopped him from visiting Russia in the past, including earlier this year when he visited the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Nor does the seizure of Ritter’s passport appear to have happened because of his status as a former intelligence officer. According to publicly available information from the CIA and the Retired Military Almanac, “Retired military personnel are not generally restricted from traveling or residing overseas,” though “certain individuals who have had travel restrictions imposed while on active duty because their duties involved special security information, may be restricted from travel to overseas areas until the period of their restrictions is completed.” As Ritter has visited Russia many times without impediment or penalty, it seems unlikely that any such travel restriction existed on him. Lastly, the same Retired Military Almanac list “prosecution, fine, and imprisonment” as the penalty for retired service members violating regulations on classification, rather than seizure of a passport. 

Reactions to the incident have varied. TASS, a Russian government-controlled news source, stated that Ritter’s passport was seized due to his past as an intelligence officer, as “in almost all countries” there are limits on former intelligence officers traveling abroad. TASS also quoted a Kremlin official stating that, if it were not so, then it was part of a “rabid campaign to prevent U.S. citizens from interacting with the Russian Federation.” On the other hand, the American Daily Beast, one of the few sources to cover the incident, jubilantly ran the headline “Moscow throws Putin Fanboy Scott Ritter under the bus” for the lack of Russian reaction. Yet the report has received little attention, and information on the incident itself, apart from Ritter’s statements on Napolitano’s show, is sparse.

As Napolitano and Ritter discussed during their interview, Napolitano had been dissuaded by Ritter from going to the airport the morning of the alleged incident, as both were initially scheduled to attend the SPIEF. Ritter became worried after their sponsor at the conference, Alexander Zyryanov, was briefly detained by Russian authorities. This detail suggests that Ritter himself may have decided not to attend the conference and made up the story of his passport being taken post hoc.When queried about the matter by The American Conservative, the State Department declined to comment, responding “We cannot comment on the status of the passport of a private U.S. citizen.”