In seven months of secret debriefings, Saddam Hussein admitted that he faked having weapons of mass destruction but planned on developing a weapons of mass destruction program with nuclear capability within a year.
Saddam made the admissions in videotaped interviews with George L. Piro, an FBI agent who was assigned by the FBI with the CIA’s approval to try to develop his cooperation.
For my book "The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to the Next Attack" — being published this week — Piro described the debriefings, which have never been previously revealed. [To get Ronald Kessler's new book, go here now.]
The book is being excerpted exclusively in the December issue of Newsmax magazine.
“You’ve got to talk to George Piro,” John Miller, the assistant FBI director for public affairs, was telling me over lunch at Brasserie Les Halles in downtown Washington as we discussed plans for the book in August 2006. “That’ll be your best interview.”
Miller should know. Before taking the FBI job, he was an anchor for ABC’s "20/20," and he is one of the few journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden.
“Nobody’s ever heard of Piro,” Miller said. “And if you ever mention his name in public, I’ll have to have you killed,” said Miller, who, coincidentally, like all FBI agents, was armed.
Miller explained that Piro is an Arabic-speaking FBI agent who debriefed Saddam Hussein after his capture. Just before his 13th birthday, Piro moved with his family from Beirut to the United States. The young boy could not speak English. The family settled in California, and Piro eventually served in the military and became a police detective. He joined the FBI in 1999.
“For seven months, every single day, he interviewed Saddam,” Miller said. “He spent every waking day with Saddam Hussein from the time he was captured to just about a year ago. It’s like 'Tuesdays with Morrie.' Every day, you sit down with Saddam Hussein and say, ‘Let’s pick up where we left off yesterday.’”
Almost exactly a year later, I finally sat down with Piro to learn what Saddam told him.
In the interim, I had interviewed most of the key players in the war on terror, from CIA Director Michael Hayden and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to Fran Townsend, chief of counterterrorism in the White House. The book presents the chilling story of terrorists’ relentless efforts to mount another devastating attack on the United States and of the heroic efforts being made to stop those plots.
It demonstrates how the media and some politicians have undermined those efforts.
In October 2006, Miller arranged for me to interview Piro about how he gets his subjects to cooperate and how he evaluates whether they are telling the truth. But what Saddam told him was off limits.
Near the end of June, Mueller asked Piro to give him a briefing on his encounters with Saddam. He wanted to know what Piro — who was not eager to be in the limelight in the first place — would be telling me. It was the first time Piro, who heads the international terrorism component of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Washington, had met the director.
Miller reported that Mueller and other senior FBI executives who were at the 20-minute briefing were transfixed as they listened to Piro relate his experiences with the former leader of Iraq and his impressions of him. Saddam had opened up to Piro about everything from WMD to his feelings about America and George W Bush.
Still, Mueller was hesitant about approving the interview for the book. Mueller did not want the FBI to be perceived as having injected itself into the politics surrounding the Iraq war.
On July 27, I wrote a letter to Mueller with a copy to Miller and sent it through a personal channel. I quoted a blurb for the upcoming book from Robert Grenier, the former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, saying "The Terrorist Watch" tells the “unvarnished truth about what it will take to protect America from the next major terrorist attack. This is a book which every informed and responsible American should read.”
Miller said the letter helped. He re-pitched the idea to Mueller, emphasizing that it would show how the FBI obtains cooperation. This time, Mueller signed off on the interview.
On Aug. 31, a year and a day after Miller first mentioned the idea to me, I spent three hours interviewing Piro about Saddam at the FBI’s Washington Field Office. My wife Pam, a former Washington Post reporter who wrote a book about the spy sites of Washington, came along to help describe Piro and to ask additional questions.
When he arrived in Baghdad during the first week of 2004, Piro told me, he had no idea if Saddam would even say hello to him much less reveal his thinking about the invasion of Iraq, his role in ordering 300,000 people killed, and whether he he’d had weapons of mass destruction.
Piro found that Saddam had a fondness for baby wipes, the disposable moist cloths used when changing a baby’s diaper. If Saddam had enough baby wipes, he would use them to clean food like apples before he ate them. Piro realized that, as a way of manipulating him, he could control how many baby wipes Saddam received.
Saddam confided to Piro why he had no weapons of mass destruction but pretended he did. Saddam said that because of the war of attrition he had with Iran, Iran always remained a threat to him. And if Iran thought he had serious WMD, it would be reluctant to engage him again. On the other hand, if he said he had them, Iran would never listen. But if the U.S. said that he had them, Iran would believe it.
So every time inspectors came, Saddam gave them the runaround, reinforcing for Iran’s consumption the notion that he had WMD. And that explains why, if there were no WMD, he acted as if he did have them.
Saddam aspired to develop a nuclear capability in an incremental fashion. Aided by his payoffs to key officials, he thought that sanctions would be lifted within a year so. He figured he could then recreate Iraq’s WMD capability, which had been essentially destroyed in 1991.
“His goal was to have the sanctions lifted,” Piro told me for a 5,000-word chapter in the book. “And they likely would have been lifted if it were not for 9/11. Even the United Nations changed after 9/11. So Saddam was on the right track. His plan to have sanctions lifted was working. But he told me he recognized that he miscalculated the long-term effects of 9/11. And he miscalculated President Bush.”
Months before the invasion, Saddam came to realize that war was “inevitable,” Piro says. As a delaying tactic, he told Piro, he announced in September 2002 that he would allow weapons inspectors to return but stipulated that eight presidential compounds would be off limits.
When George Tenet, as director of Central Intelligence, told President Bush that a CIA agent in Iraq knew that Saddam Hussein was in a bunker called Dora Farms, Bush gave the order to begin the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003. At 9:33 p.m., two satellite-guided one-ton bombs hit the Dora Farms bunker.
Saddam revealed to Piro that he was in fact at the Dora Farms bunker but had left by the time it was hit. The same thing happened at a second location pinpointed by the CIA — one of Saddam’s compounds in Baghdad’s Mansur neighborhood.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Did Saddam ever consider coming clean with the U.S. and demonstrating that he did not have WMD?
“He didn’t give me the answer to that,” Piro says, “but I can tell you he wouldn’t have done that because that would have weakened him. He was given the opportunity to leave Iraq and go to live in Saudi Arabia and be very wealthy and very happy. The Saudis gave him the option. But what would that have done to his legacy? And if he were to have said ‘I’m bluffing,’ or ‘I’m not as strong as I present myself,’ where would he have then fit in the historical scheme of Iraq?”
Ironically, in view of anti-American feelings overseas and from within the U.S. over the invasion of Iraq, Saddam told Piro that he admired America and especially Americans.
On July 1, 2004, Piro took Saddam to court for his arraignment. Piro prepared a so-called prosecutive memo, which, with exhibits, ran to more than 700 pages. Because the Iraqis wanted the trial of Saddam to be an Iraqi affair, they did not introduce the memo into evidence. However, they used witnesses and evidence cited in the memo that detailing Saddam’s atrocities.
Then it was time to say goodbye. In all, Piro had been with Saddam eight months, including seven months of interviews. At a souq (market), for $6 apiece, Piro bought two Cuban Cohiba cigars, Saddam’s favorite brand.
“We sat outside, smoked a couple of Cuban cigars, had some coffee, and chatted,” Piro says. They said goodbye in the traditional Arab manner: a handshake and then a kiss to the right cheek, a kiss to the left, and a kiss to the right again. That made Piro a little uncomfortable.
Saddam appeared shaken and became teary-eyed.
As Piro watched the noose being placed around Saddam’s neck on Dec. 30, 2006, he realized that Saddam must have rehearsed for this day.
“He appeared proud, courageous,” Piro says. “He refused to wear the mask. He showed no fear. He didn’t need any help to walk up to the trapdoor to the gallows. I would say that after that, his stock in the Arab world went back up a little bit. And that’s what he wanted.”
Piro never forgot what an evil man Saddam was.
“I felt that his conviction and his execution were fair and just,” he says. “However, he was charming, he was charismatic, he was polite, he had a great sense of humor, and yeah, he was likable.”
Comparing Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler and other mass murderers, Piro says, “He had certain traits and abilities that let him to get into that position of power, but there have been many before him, and unfortunately, there will be many after him throughout the world.”
For Saddam’s birthday, Piro had asked his mother to bake Lebanese cookies and send them to him by FedEx. He did not tell her the cookies were for Saddam. After he returned home, Piro told her in August 2004 that the goodies were for Saddam.
Playfully, she gave her son the FBI the agent a hard smack on the back of his head.
“My parents are extremely patriotic and loyal to the United States,” Piro says. “We are very, very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to come and live in the United States. I truly feel that we are living the American dream. I moved here when I was 12. I didn’t speak a word of English when I came here, and in a short amount of time I’m working for the premier law enforcement agency in the world, the FBI. I look at what I’m doing as paying my family’s debt to the U.S. for allowing us to come here.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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