GWEN IFILL: Now, for a report on the Saddam Hussein trial, we turn to John Burns, the Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times. I talked with him earlier this evening.
John Burns, welcome back. So, here was a trial in which the lawyers needed security guards, bodyguards, given what has transpired in the last few weeks. Did that affect the proceedings?
JOHN BURNS: Well, for the time being, it's assured the continuation of the trial. There was a real risk as the result of the murder of those two lawyers and the flight abroad of a third, out of 13 defense lawyers, that the trial would be brought to an abrupt halt. Evidently Saddam Hussein and his associates have decided they're better off to continue with this trial. Certainly I think they've concluded that they're better off to continue with the trial in Iraq than with an international tribunal.
GWEN IFILL: Tell us a little bit about Saddam's demeanor today, what happened with him. We obviously saw his conflict with the judge. What else may have happened in that courtroom?
JOHN BURNS: Well, what I found most fascinating -- and I was not in the courtroom but I'm one of the reporters who receives what we call the pool notes, that's to say of the three American print reporters who were in the court who had their own translators.
And the translators were in a separate gallery and were able to hear during the recess some of the remarks that Saddam made to his lawyers and to other co-defendants when he and the lawyers obviously believed that they were off mike. They weren't; they were miked, something that would be very familiar I'm sure to almost any American politician.
What we heard from that was a lot of hum drum conversation about how Saddam doesn't like his prison food, how he hates the 24-hour-a-day surveillance, how he's been offered family visits and refused them because he doesn't want to see -- his family to see him in his reduced circumstance.
But there was one very, very odd and dark exchange between him and his chief lawyer in which the chief lawyer said -- and I'm paraphrasing here but not a great deal -- that as far as the defense team is concerned, if we have somebody who is weak we'll take him off, take him out, take him off. The translations varied. As far as the prosecution is concerned if they have a weak member, we'll leave him there because that's in our interest. Now, I don't think I need to spell that out. But it leads to all kinds of speculation as to what the chief lawyer might have meant by that.
GWEN IFILL: Well, and at the very least it sounds like Saddam feels that he's very much in control of his own destiny here in a sinister way perhaps but also legally.
JOHN BURNS: Do you know, the man has a thousand moods. I've seen him now on a number of occasions in his different court appearances. There's nervousness; on occasions there has been obvious fear. Then there's the anger that we saw today when he was reproving the judge. Then there's the happy-chat mode when he's bantering with guards -- look I'm no longer the lion of Iraq. You don't need to fear me.
I think man who has been locked up in solitary confinement for two years --you don't need to be a psychologist to know that there would be quite a few mood shifts. But it seems to me the interesting thing is that by bringing their lawyers back to court, by dropping the boycott of the court by the defense team they have in effect cleared the way for this court to proceed.
Now after that it's a matter of speculation but my feeling is that they looked at this pretty hard. And they realized that the alternative to a trial in Iraq is not no trial at all -- it's a trial -- an international trial of the kind that Slobodan Milosevic has faced in The Hague. And I think that they reckon their odds are better here because of the war and the possibility that there could be dramatic turns in the war that could bring the trial to an end, and who knows, if one wants to be fantastical about this, lead to a restoration of Saddam and his associates, than they would be in The Hague where a life sentence would be absolutely inevitable.
GWEN IFILL: You talk about Saddam's defense team. A notable American joined that team or attempted to join that team today, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
JOHN BURNS: Well, Mr. Clark, as you know, has a long and controversial history of involving himself with foreign leaders who are not entirely to the western taste, most recently before Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic.
And, of course, Mr. Clark will tell you that he's here to defend the legal rights of Mr. Hussein, but he gave an interview after the court today, after he had been approved as a member of the legal defense team at which he said something rather interesting. He said he thought that the American command, the American establishment in Iraq, had made a huge mistake by putting Saddam on trial for, in this case, the murder of 148 men and teenaged boys following an assassination attempt on him in a town north of Baghdad, Dujail, in 1982, a mistake said Mr. Clark because Iraq was at war, Iraq was being infiltrated by Iranians agents and didn't Saddam-- and I'm paraphrasing again -- didn't Saddam do what any leader in that circumstance would do? In other words, Mr. Clark came as near as could be to endorsing what happened in Dujail.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Dec. 5 is the next time when this court trial is supposed to resume. Why was it put off until then and what is expected to happen between now and then?
JOHN BURNS: Well, that was a matter of lawyers. And this is something that the defense team is playing very skillfully. They dropped the boycott. They came back to court under threat that the court would appoint lawyers.
Then when the court had been in session about two hours today, three of the defendants, and they included Saddam Hussein's half brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, the former head of the revolutionary court, Awad Ahmad al-Bandar, and the former vice president, Taha Yasin Ramadan, all said that they were dissatisfied with court-appointed lawyers or wanted new lawyers and in the tangle that ensued from this, they asked for protracted postponement.
The judge gave them only one week. But I think this is just the beginning. I think we're going to see every procedural maneuver that they can possibly find to delay this trial again because the end objective is to keep Saddam Hussein and his associates alive whilst the insurgents fight for restoration out on the battlefield.
GWEN IFILL: And, John Burns, we know you will be following every twist and turn. Thanks again for joining us.
JOHN BURNS: It's a pleasure, Gwen.