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Interrogating Saddam

January 1, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Though President Bush has promised Saddam Hussein will be subjected to a public trial, the U.S. wants to interrogate him first. That’s going on right now at an undisclosed location believed to be in Iraq. Army interrogators started the job before the lead role was turned over to the CIA.

What do interrogators want to know from the deposed Iraqi dictator, and how should they go about getting the information out of him?

For that, we turn to retired Army Col. W. Patrick Lang, former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, he was involved in interrogating captured Iraqi military officers after the ’91 Gulf War; and Amatzia Baram, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa, Israel, he’s written several books on Saddam Hussein and in February of this year co-authored a psychological profile of Saddam for the U.S. military. He’s now a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Welcome to you both.

First, Pat Lang, what is it the United States wants to know from Saddam Hussein?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, what they should want to know is — are several different categories of information. The first thing, which they’ve been working on since his capture, is the immediate tactical information needed to support the army’s operations in the field in Iraq. And they’re well suited to do that, and so they’ve been working at that steadily.

The other two categories of information I think they need to know about is, first of all, whatever it is that really connects Saddam Hussein and his government to the larger world of Islamic terrorism. That needs to be proven or disproven. And if it can be proven, then what he would know about this would be very useful indeed.

And the third thing, which isn’t getting discussed very much lately, is what I would call his ability to inform us of the strategic context of the actions we have undertaken in Iraq and other ones that we might choose to do. Because his government existed for a long, long time, and contrary to the descriptions of him sometimes, he was really quite a bit “hands on” kind of manager; that’s how he survived in office for all these years, the kind of person who kept close track of what was going on, insisted on being informed, so in my opinion he has a great resource of information about his government’s relations with the surrounding countries, with companies in Europe, with various movement across the world, and he’s a kind of resource that could be exploited for many years, indeed, it’s kind of like keeping Hannibal Lectur in a cage somewhere and going and asking him questions every once in a while.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that? What about weapons of mass destruction?

AMATZIA BARAM: I would agree with everything. I try to just go into detail. WMD — weapons of mass destruction — where, what, how much, something left — they’re important because it maybe privatized if it is still there, may be used by his people against opposition — against people you are caring for and so on. Ring leaders. Again, what Pat said is exactly that, but in practice it means finding the ring leaders, those who conduct the operation against you. Third of all, finances, who has the money, still a few hundred million dollars are missing, and of course, weapons caches, where you have those caches which will be used by your people. And again I agree – again with the contacts between him and al-Qaida, bin Laden or other Islamic groups.

MARGARET WARNER: Or, for that matter, other governments in the world. Now, Pat Lang, what was behind — initially Army interrogators were doing the job and in fact, the Pentagon was quite public about it. Every day they’d say we had another session with him. Then sort of mid-week, that first week, Rumsfeld announced the CIA was taking over. Why? Was that a good idea?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: One thing about this whole thing that surprises me is that it’s been obvious that Saddam Hussein was number one on the list of people you want to capture in Iraq. And they had seven or eight months to think about this, and you would have thought that they would have had a task force set up and ready to take charge of him as soon as he was captured, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. Instead, the local force of Army intelligence officers, interrogators, took charge of him and of course began interrogating him to get what they needed in order to support the forces in the field.

MARGARET WARNER: Namely about the –

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: The operation, the leaders, the local — and the caches of weapons, all that kind of stuff. But then it became clear after a while that in fact there were some problems with continuing to interrogate this fellow with these people because army interrogators are typically rather junior, fairly young people. You’re talking about junior commissioned officers, warrant officers, sergeants, people like that, who are well trained to do what they’re supposed to do, which is interrogate prisoners of war.

But when you’re dealing with a head of state and someone who thinks so grandly of himself, if you don’t put him in that situation in complete isolation, and face him with sophisticated people of real international level substance for whom he feels after a while he has to be responsive — then, in fact, you risk the fact that he begins to take charge of the situation psychologically. And there were a good many mistakes taken in that they were overly familiar I would say with this guy. There was even one instance in which a group of soldiers found it amusing to stand behind him while another of their comrades took their picture with him sitting in the middle. And it makes a great souvenir but it doesn’t contribute to his treating you in a serious way.

MARGARET WARNER: From your study of Saddam, what would you say are the important qualities in an interrogator now that the CIA is in, but still it’s going to be all kinds of people.

AMATZIA BARAM: I would say interrogator and circumstances into which you are thrusting a man. I would start at least with great respect, no more than respect, but with good conditions, even a swimming pool if I could have one, good food. I would keep him in good condition, giving, you know, not everything, but a lot, and the interrogators should be two different kinds of people: that is the good cop version, because the bad cop is a totally different circumstance. Either a man in his late 50s or early 60s, respectable, senior — he should think it is someone who is someone very senior — may be an Army general, may be a CIA very senior interrogator, who would show respect to him and who he could see him as his equal, or — or together with a very attractive and very bright woman that would play to his fantasies. I have read three books he wrote recently, two out of which –

MARGARET WARNER: That Saddam wrote.

AMATZIA BARAM: Saddam wrote — one of them is really an autobiography, another one is a different kind of a psychological — his fantasy world, and that my conclusion is the man is eager to have this kind of very attractive, very bright young woman who is very admiring, and I’m not talking about any sexual — just this kind of –

MARGARET WARNER: Hero worship.

AMATZIA BARAM: Yes, hero worshipping, and I believe that that could also do a lot of good. If this fails and it may fail, then I’d switch to the opposite — make his conditions bad — there is a limit to which we can go because you are not Saddam Hussein — but very uncomfortable, he must be very uncomfortable and not abuse him, and then the good cops will be coming and telling him we are trying to secure for you the best conditions that you deserve; you’re the head of state. But if you don’t cooperate, we can’t compete because there is a tug of war between us and the other guy, the bad guy.

MARGARET WARNER: You’ve done this before.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I agree. I think this is the right approach, especially the first part. It’s very necessary with a man like this of this stature, at least an imagined stature on his part, to make him believe that you are taking him in a serious way, you are in fact respectful of him and you have to establish yourself in such a way as the interviewer or interrogator so that after a while he believes he has to justify himself to you, so that once you’ve reached that point, you start to disagree with him in subtle ways, to challenge him, to question him, whether his knowledge was correct, and perhaps he’d been taken advantage of and he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was, and then he’ll feel that he has to prove himself to you to maintain this relationship because you’re all that he has. He’s isolated from everything else, and his relationship to you and the other interrogators is all he has left.

MARGARET WARNER: So that’s very important, to create a system set up in which he feels completely dependent.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Absolutely, that there’s nothing left except him and you.

AMATZIA BARAM: And play to his ego.

MARGARET WARNER: But, now but he is a smart man. He doesn’t have to say anything. Why would he even talk?

AMATZIA BARAM: Because he gets dependent on you, because you are playing to his ego. He loves, he loves to tell people how successful he was, and how good he was for his people. If you play to this, you might say to him, for example, “Yes, you are president, you did a lot for your people, wonderful and so on, but look at it this way. Your weapons of mass destruction, what went wrong? It seems to us — some of our people are saying that your own subordinates cheated you, they cheated you. How could you possibly.” And play both on his ego and on his wish to prove that nobody cheated him and that he was absolutely perfect; that could help.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: You become his universe and he has to exist and the only existence he has in this universe in this sphere of isolation is the relationship he has with you.

MARGARET WARNER: How far, what kind of coercion can be used? I know there’s a Geneva Convention against torture and the U.S. says it doesn’t engage in torture, but how uncomfortable can he be made if that is the M.O. after a while?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, you could make him uncomfortable, as was just said, but in fact –

MARGARET WARNER: How?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, you can leave the lights on in his cell. You know, you can play music in his cell. You can deprive him of sleep. You can make him stand up for long periods of time. You can do all these kinds of things, but these are really just kind of things you might do to keep him off balance, but the real essence of the thing is the part in which you essentially seduce him into cooperation with you through his ego. Just as we have both said here, that’s the way to do that, and he’ll talk to you in the end if you persist in that and you make him believe enough, he’ll tell you just about everything.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Brief final subject, latest subject, he also of course is going to trial. Now how does that complicate the job of the intelligence interrogators?

AMATZIA BARAM: I would say it makes it very difficult because he knows that all he needs to do is to hold on until the trial; then they can’t touch him anymore, and so you have a limited time, it’s a window of opportunity. You have to take advantage of it. I would suggest the change of condition. If you move him from very good circumstances into very uncomfortable, that could help, and I would say one more thing. He is very, very — he’s frightened and panicky whenever there is a sign of illness, of losing a limb or something — if you can induce something that looks like gangrene, just an idea, that looks like gangrene –

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: He’s a hypochondriac.

MARGARET WARNER: Really?

AMATZIA BARAM: And he’s absolutely a hygiene freak. When that happens, he gets so worried that in order to treat it, “We don’t have to treat you. We don’t have to. You know, if you die of gangrene, you die” — that, to my mind — of course it shouldn’t be gangrene obviously; it should look like it.

MARGARET WARNER: The complications of the trial.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: The problem is, is he’s being treated as though he were a prisoner of war. Now, in other words, he’s not entitled to a lawyer. Well, prisoners of war are not normally charged with anything. He doesn’t have any ability to refuse to talk to you because he’s not defended yet. When you make him into a defendant, if he is in front of anything besides an Iraqi internal court if there are any real international jurists, they’re going to start questioning whether or not the statements he’s made previously are admissible in evidence, and that could be a big problem.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We’ll have to leave it there. Thank you both very much. Fascinating.