The Osmonds, Saddam Hussein and the CIA — my search for the truth

Was Saddam Hussein — one of the most feared dictators of the last century — an Osmonds fanboy?

It is a journalist’s duty, and dare I say pleasure, to uncover the lesser-known facts about the world’s most powerful figures, whether it's Kim Jong-un’s love of Disney or Mohammed bin Salman watching “Game of Thrones” to unwind.

So my curiosity was piqued when a little tittle-tattle landed on my news desk. A co-worker’s relative, who had sat next to Merrill Osmond on a plane, relayed a strange story — Saddam Hussein, one of the most feared dictators of the last century, was (allegedly) an Osmonds fanboy.

I set about the formidable task of determining if this rumor held any water.

The Osmonds are, of course, a wholesome family musical group from Ogden, Utah. They got their start as a barbershop quartet in Disneyland and went on to become a world-famous pop-rock group with 47 gold and platinum records to their name. Saddam, on the other hand, was the former dictator of Iraq, known for killing his own citizens.

Surely a story like this would be documented on the internet, I naively thought, but was able to find only a brief mention in an old interview from The Guardian.

Merrill Osmond, the lead vocalist/bassist in the group, gave a one-sentence account: “When the military caught Saddam Hussein,” he said, “they discovered he had a complete collection of Osmonds records.”

I needed more details. I wanted the truth.

The first to respond to my inquiries about the story was Donny Osmond’s publicist. Donny performed with his brothers before going solo and earning his own place in the echelons of celebrity (featured in “Start the Par-dee” with rapper Lil Yachty).

His publicist’s response was cryptic: “We can confirm that this is something we/Team Donny have been told to be true.” But when pressed for source details, the publicist said, “No one is sure of the origin. It might be factual but there is no reliable source that we’re aware of.”

There are many wild myths that have swirled around the Osmonds. People say they were friends with Elvis, the Jackson 5, Frank Sinatra and the Bee Gees. Chuck Norris supposedly taught them Tang Soo Do (a Korean martial art) which they used in much of their choreography afterward. 

“When the military caught Saddam Hussein, they discovered he had a complete collection of Osmonds records.”

The Osmonds were allegedly deputized and moved into the Riveria apartments in Provo, Utah, after the Symbionese Liberation Army, a domestic terrorist group from Berkeley, California, threatened to kill off every band member individually.

I spoke with Merrill Osmond about all these stories, and he stood by every last one of them.

“We had to seriously discuss whether we would continue to do what we were doing,” he said, talking about the threats to his family.

When asked whether or not Saddam really owned Osmonds records, Merrill chuckled and said, “The CIA told our attorneys at the time, that they had found our records in a vault underneath one of (Saddam’s) palaces.”

So there it was, straight from an Osmond’s mouth. But two levels of separation remained between me and the truth — Merrill’s attorneys and the CIA. There was much work to be done.

Saddam is one of the more notorious figures in history. According to the U.S. State Department, his regime “systematically executed, tortured, imprisoned, raped, terrorized and repressed Iraqi people.” He was the first leader to use chemical weapons on his own, killing 30,000 citizens with mustard gas and nerve agents. 

Former President George W. Bush addressed the nation after Saddam was captured in December 2003, pulled from a hole in the ground near a farmhouse outside the city of Tikrit — “I have a message for the Iraqi people: You will not have to fear the rule of Saddam Hussein ever again.”

He was taken into U.S. Army custody, had a very public trial and was sentenced to death by hanging, which took place three years after his capture, per CNN. Despite the horror of his regime, persistent rumors circulate about the more human moments of his life — his family dynamics, his tastes in poetry and literature, his beverage of choice and his lavish palaces that dot the landscape from Tikrit to Bahgdad.

Approaching the Osmond rumor from the outside, one must first ask if this leader was a fan of Western music generally, and more specifically, Osmondmania

I did not have to look very hard to learn a few surprising facts about Saddam Hussein:

  1. He was a published romance author. (Review: “poorly structured and dull ... it is at least coherent, so kudos to Saddam for that.”)
  2. His favorite movies were “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Old Man and the Sea” (1958).
  3. He forced a great Islamic calligrapher to transcribe the Qur’an, using 27 liters of his own blood.

Clearly he had an eye for the arts. But taking notes from Joseph Stalin (his hero), Saddam weaponized his “refined” tastes by tightly controlling artistic production during his reign.

As a musician, it was apparently a curse to catch Saddam’s ear. Nasrat Al-Bader and many other talented musicians were once locked inside a recording studio, while bombs fell on the city, until they composed a large quota of propagandist songs to be played on national television and radio, according to Vice

“Patriotic music” was always playing on the radio, and according to PBS Frontline, Saddam would broadcast music videos nightly. His son, the infamously unstable Uday, would edit and stream Western music and movies on a second channel, “Youth TV,” reports the Aspen Institute.

So Saddam was undoubtedly aware of music coming out of the U.S., and in some recorded cases he liked it. When he was up for reelection, he used a translated version of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” as his reelection song. Probably the most successful campaign soundtrack in history, as he received 99.96% of the vote per The LA Times

Will Bardenwerper was an Airborne Ranger in the Army and interviewed U.S. soldiers tasked with guarding Saddam after he was captured. He told me “(Saddam) definitely did discuss with some of his guards an interest in some aspects of Western culture that went against the notion of his hostility towards Western culture.”

“When scanning radio channels, Hussein would stop and listen when a Mary J. Blige song came on.”

“Yes he was a monster, and yes he was guilty of crimes against humanity, but he also possessed a very powerful personal magnetism and a curiosity about other places,” said Bardenwerper, though he admitted Saddam’s expressed interest in Western culture could have been a ploy to ingratiate himself with his guards.

The radio station that Hussein and his captors listened to was hosted by the American Forces Network — think Robin Williams in “Good Morning, Vietnam” except in 160 countries, streaming all forms of entertainment via satellite 24/7. When Baghdad fell in 2003, they began their broadcast with “Freedom” by Paul McCartney (coincidentally, an Osmond fan). AFN, according to Public Affairs Officer John Clearwater, is “the world’s largest entertainment network you never heard of.”

Bardenwerper said the imprisoned dictator bonded with one soldier over their love of Western movies, and when scanning AFN radio channels, Hussein would stop and listen when a Mary J. Blige song came on.

According to Tom Arnholt, AFN’s chief of radio, the Osmonds weren’t being played on AFN during the time, so it’s hard to garner any clues from his listening habits while imprisoned.

I also spoke with journalists and photographers who were in Saddam’s palaces when Baghdad fell on the off-chance they saw the vault.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Zucchino was embedded in the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) when they seized Baghdad with a daring run of tanks through the heart of the city. Reporting for the LA Times, he said “for all its claims to Islamic piety, the regime’s elite was Western to its core. Their grand homes hid American computers, whiskey, pornography, videos and pop music.”

When I contacted him, he did not recall finding any record collection, though cassettes of “The Bee Gees Greatest Hits Vol. II,” and “Disco Festival ’85” were found in a palace. Spencer Willardson, a Utah National Guard officer from the 3rd Infantry Division, claims to have found Saddam’s high-end alcohol, clean underwear and tens of thousands of guns — but no Osmonds.

I spoke with a slew of photographers for major news organizations, but none could corroborate the Osmonds story. But that’s not to say the Osmonds greatest hits weren’t at one of Hussein’s properties. According to NBC, Saddam built an estimated 100 palaces, and kept them fully staffed at all times so no one knew where he was at any given moment.

It remains difficult to prove or disprove the Hussein fandom rumor because it’s impossible to know what was in every one of those palaces. If they were found, it would be difficult to know whether the mansion was Saddam’s residence or one of his family members’.

There was one final angle to explore: Merrill said the CIA called his lawyers.

John Nixon, a former senior intelligence analyst responsible for Saddam’s questioning after capture, is a holder of many secrets. He made it no secret how he feels about the rumor. “I can only say that I am not buying what Merrill Osmond’s lawyers are selling.”

Nixon reached out to additional CIA contacts — the head of his analytics team at the time had no recollection of this and neither did Nixon’s successor.

Maybe a rumor like this grabs the public’s attention because it is surprising and ironic. “For some reason, we’ve become this country where people prefer the myth to the truth,” Nixon said, “People don’t know what’s real anymore.”

I guess I’m one of those people. Despite my best efforts I still don’t know, for real, if Saddam was an Osmonds fanboy.