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Misconceptions ensnared Saddam and U.S.

WASHINGTON — Saddam Hussein was convinced he had won the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

And when he destroyed all his weapons of mass destruction after that war, Saddam was sure the CIA knew it.

As a result, he saw 12 years of U.N. resolutions, trade sanctions and threats of war as a charade to humiliate him.

In Saddam's view, Washington and Baghdad should have been close allies. He could have helped curb Iran's nuclear ambitions and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He offered to become America's "best friend in the region bar none." He was certain U.S. forces would never invade.

Saddam's looking-glass view of the world is vividly described in the report by Charles A. Duelfer, the CIA's chief weapons investigator, that was released last week. The document is based on a variety of sources, including interrogations of Saddam himself. A close reading of the report, along with interviews with intelligence officials and outside experts, sheds new light on Saddam's mind-set leading up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Duelfer argues that for Americans to understand Saddam's baffling decision to defy U.N. resolutions and to face disaster they must "see the universe from Saddam's point in space."

Yet the reverse is also true. If Saddam misunderstood the West, it's clear that successive administrations in Washington since 1991 projected their own misconceptions and misjudgments onto Saddam. They also had a looking-glass view.

They saw evidence of banned weapons when none existed. They missed signs that now seem obvious. President Bush, for example, insisted before the 2003 invasion that the failure by U.N. teams to find any evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons despite 731 inspections in the four months prior simply proved that Saddam was hiding them — not that they didn't exist.

"I sometimes wonder, what part of the word 'no' didn't we understand?" mused a Pentagon official who has long studied Saddam's regime. Duelfer clearly wrestled with the conundrum of years of miscommunication between the two foes. Seeking clarity from the alternate realities in Washington and Baghdad, his report sometimes reads like a script from the old TV show "The Twilight Zone."

To understand Saddam, Duelfer writes, one must step back from "reality and time. We would collect the flow of images, sounds, feelings and events that passed into Saddam's mind and project them as with a Zeiss Planetarium projection instrument. . . . Events would flow by the reader as they flowed by Saddam."

Duelfer urges people to forget the images that portrayed Saddam as a buffoon. In the dictator's mind, he was the latest in the line of great Iraqi leaders.

"Saddam saw adulation in a crowd cheering him when he fired a rifle over their heads — not what we Westerners may see as a guy in a funny hat recklessly firing a weapon," Duelfer writes. Imagine the dictator's thoughts, he adds, when he saw Bush on TV "calling him a madman."

Duelfer has spent a decade studying Saddam, first as deputy head of the U.N. weapons-inspections program and then as chief U.S. investigator in Iraq. His 960-page report is based on 16 months' work in Iraq, interviews with Saddam and most of the former dictator's top aides and scientists, and a review of an estimated 40 million pages of documents retrieved from Iraq.

A single FBI agent has conducted all U.S. interrogations of Saddam since he was captured in December and placed in a solitary cell at a U.S. military base outside Baghdad. By all accounts, Saddam has been lucid, rational and deliberate in months of formal and informal sessions.

"It would be easier to understand if he really was loony," said a former senior intelligence official who has read many of the debriefings and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There's nothing that's come through in the interviews that would lead you to believe the guy's got a screw loose."

But the former senior official said the interrogations of Saddam were frustrating for those trying to understand the ousted dictator's motivations and decision-making — as well as the regime's use of torture, assassination and mass murder.

"What you'd hope is he'd lay out why he did what he did, or what he was thinking when he did all these stupid things," he said. "He's not giving us those kinds of insights. He doesn't reveal that much. . . . It's like having Hitler on the couch, but he's not telling you anything about concentration camps."

The former official admitted that the CIA never understood that Saddam was bluffing about his long-abandoned weapons chiefly to deter neighboring Iran, Iraq's longtime enemy. To Saddam, Tehran's alleged push to gain the nuclear arms he was denied posed an unacceptable danger to his country and a challenge to his rightful place in history.

CIA officials heard dire threats in Saddam's bombastic speeches. They assumed banned weapons were in trucks and buildings they could not enter. They believed defectors with codenames such as "Curveball" and "Red River" who told them what they wanted to hear. They reasoned that Saddam would not endure punishing U.N. sanctions and lose an estimated $100 billion in trade if he had nothing to hide.

In the end, Saddam's bluff backfired. And Washington's failure to read the bluff has had a huge impact on both countries.

Saddam's mistake "was one of the more monumental miscalculations of history," the former official said. "Even larger than ours of not understanding what he was doing. . . . We're used to people going out of their way to pretend they don't have bad stuff. But we hadn't before encountered someone who went out of his way to pretend he did. I know he said he didn't (have banned weapons), but all his actions said he did."

In Saddam's view, the U.S. priority in the region was to ensure that Iran's Islamic revolution did not spread to other Arab nations and give radical Shiite clerics a chokehold on global oil supplies. He was convinced that Washington's national interest lay in containing Iran's suspected nuclear-arms program, not in toppling his regime.

Indeed, he depended on that.

David Kay, who preceded Duelfer as the chief U.S. weapons sleuth, said he personally asked Tarik Aziz, Iraq's former deputy prime minister, in an interrogation last year why Saddam didn't keep his illicit weapons if he was so nervous about Iran's effort to build a nuclear bomb.

"He said every time they raised it with Saddam, he said, 'Don't worry about Iran because if it turns out to be what we think, the Israelis or the Americans will take care of them,' " Kay recalled. "In other words, he was relying on us to deal with his enemy."

Saddam's view of America was conflicted. In his view, he was a heroic leader who gained prestige in the Arab world for his defiance of the sole superpower. But Saddam told aides it would be equally prestigious to become a U.S. ally. So he used U.N. diplomats, journalists and others to carry back-channel offers to improve relations with Washington.

All of Saddam's entreaties were rebuffed, and it's impossible to know whether he was serious about cooperating with Washington. But he complained to an interrogator that "he was not given a chance, because the U.S. refused to listen to anything Iraq had to say."

Dr. Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist who profiled Saddam for the CIA, said Saddam was "not psychotic." But he said the dictator had little recent experience outside Iraq and had a distorted worldview.

"He thought the real threats from the West were the kind of hyperbole that one often hears in the Arab world," Post said. "And he was surrounded by sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear, not what he needed to know."

An interrogation of Ali Hasan Al Majid, the senior aide known as "Chemical Ali" for his alleged role in using poison gas to slaughter Iraqi Kurds in 1998, illustrated the point. Asked how Saddam responded to bad news, Ali indicated he "has never known any instance of anybody bringing bad news to Saddam," according to Duelfer's report.

Ironically, Saddam misread U.S. intentions in part because he believed the CIA was far better at spying than it turned out to be. Senior aides told interrogators that Saddam was convinced the U.S. intelligence agency knew he had no illicit weapons.

Saddam assumed that the CIA had penetrated his regime, just as his own intelligence services used wiretaps, secret cameras and informants to spy on U.N. weapons teams.

He was wrong. In July, the Senate Intelligence Committee reported that the CIA had had no informants or spies inside Iraq for at least five years before the war.

"Saddam believed in the myth of the CIA," said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who worked in northern Iraq. "He really thought we knew what was going on inside his regime. He couldn't believe that we didn't have any sources."