What was the U.S. policy towards Iraq, as far as it related to your job,
when you took over? What, if any, sorts of new developments were facing your
desk in that year?
was the CIA's Near East Division Chief from 1991-94.|
In the spring of 1991, we had just begun to understand that the collective
hunch the U.S. government had, that the entire world had--that Saddam would
fall in the wake of the disastrous Kuwait invasion--was not being realized.
The United States government had determined to adopt and carry out a policy of
across-the-board pressure on the Iraqi regime. The objective of this policy was
to bring him down with sufficient political, economic, and military pressure
added to the disaster that he had brought upon his own country. With
hindsight, it's easy to see now that there was an awful lot of wishful thinking
And we ignored the history of tyrants. Look what it took to get rid of Adolf
Hitler. Look at the fact that Joseph Stalin died in his bed. With the
exception of the leaders of Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union collapsed,
it's generally been the case that somebody on top of the totalitarian system
stays there until he dies. We underestimated the resilience of Saddam and his
regime. From that point, the United States adopted the policy of dual
containment, and it's been a magnificent success, or at least, certainly, an
It's easy to be frustrated by Saddam's survival and persistence, and to lose
sight of the fact that, for nine years, at remarkably low cost to the United
States, we've kept him in the box.
He has not been a threat to his neighbors. He's certainly been an unfortunate
fact for the people of Iraq, but the region has prospered. The peace process
was started. It stalled for a while, largely due to Israeli political
developments, not from pressures by radical elements in the region. Some
remarkably positive things have happened. There's been a transition in Jordan
that is more positive and was smoother than anyone had any right to hope.
There've been peaceful transitions in Bahrain and in Qatar. The Gulf
Cooperation Commission has become a more effective organization. I think that
the strategic interests of the United States are quite adequately protected
right now. There's been a price been paid for this, but that price has been
paid by the Iraqi people, and secondarily by our friends in the region, the
Jordanians, the Turks and a few others. But it's been a pretty low price for
the United States.
How does Saddam compare to other threats that the U.S. faces, for example,
North Korea? How important, really, is Saddam Hussein?
It's interesting that you ask the question comparing Iraq to North Korea,
because in 1990, there were an amazing number of parallels between North Korea
and Iraq. Those were the two most militarized societies on the face of the
earth. They were both totalitarian regimes sitting on top of impoverished
people, whom they had further impoverished by militarizing. The difference
between North Korea and Iraq is that Saddam made the decision to invade his
neighbors by himself, where the North Korean decision in 1950 was almost
certainly made in conjunction with the Soviet Union and others. North Korea's
decision was part of a much bigger strategic plan, but the consequences are
remarkably similar. There was an invasion. The Free World, led by the United
States, responded to that invasion. The invaders much more quickly in Kuwait
than in South Korea, pushed back beyond the line that they had crossed at the
time of the invasion. In the Korean experience, and, I believe, in the Iraqi
experience, the United States had to accept and settle in for a long period of
Now, this isn't something that's going to go away quickly. We might get lucky,
because Saddam Hussein is certainly vulnerable to persons, groups, or
developments that might take place in Iraq. However, he's remarkably
invulnerable to things that we can control. He's certainly a manageable threat
for us, and for our friends in the region right now.
To what extent has American policy been boxed in by pursuing this policy
relentlessly? Has America reduced its room to maneuver and to look at new
It's very attractive to talk about the demonization of Saddam Hussein. But, in
fact, no external power demonized Saddam Hussein--it was his own demonic
behavior. We've made statements very publicly that we're prepared to deal with
an Iraqi government that includes Saddam if it is willing to comply with all
the rules that the international community defined as requirements for him to
rejoin the community of nations. As I said earlier, complying with those rules
would so change the nature of the despotism that he exercises in Iraq that it's
unacceptable to him.
What is it about the nature of his system that makes him
This is a totalitarian regime that sustains itself and survives on an internal
terror. It virtually requires him to be aggressive towards his neighbors,
making it the sort of regime with which coexistence or cooperation is just
simply not a practical option.
There was a finding that President Bush signed. What was expected from the
CIA, as part of the plan? What was your reaction to that?
Frequently, the CIA is asked to develop some kind of covert action program in
response to intractable and maybe even unsolvable problems that confront the
government. It is unfortunately awfully easy for the U.S. system to cough up
covert reaction as a politically acceptable activity, which we can hold up to
say, "We're not doing nothing about this problem for which there is no
After Desert Storm, the idea of a covert action program aimed at the Iraqi
regime was conceived and generally carried out as a very small part of this
overall U.S. effort towards containment and protection of the neighbors. It's
kind of like chicken soup--it won't solve the problem, and it's probably not a
cure-- but it probably doesn't hurt. It's arguable that there have been
mistakes in the past nine years, but none of them have been strategically
damaging to our interests. There's still no overt solution to the problem of
Saddam Hussein involving an acceptable cost. And there's no available covert
solution that can bring Saddam Hussein down--either a lack of political will,
or skill, keeps us from doing it. There isn't any secret way to get rid of
Let's go through some history of when you were there. When this finding
came across your desk, what was your reaction? What did your reaction mean in
It's long been public that, when the Iraqi co-reaction finding was returned
from being signed, that I had scribbled on it, "I don't like this." Like any
bureaucrat, I was reluctant to be responsible for bringing about an objective
for which the means were not at hand. There are a number of philosophical
objections to the almost-inevitable dishonesty of telling your subordinates and
superiors that you're engaged in an activity likely to contribute to the
objective they seek, when in fact, you believe that it's not likely. But my
objection to the policy wasn't that I thought it was an unlaudable goal, or
that containing Saddam Hussein was an impossibility. I believed then, and
continue to believe, that the activities or resources that can be applied
clandestinely or covertly to get rid of Saddam Hussein were then, have
continued to be, and will continue to be inadequate to get rid of him.
But at that time, there had been an internal revolt by the Kurds in the
north. You have to implement this policy as part of your job. How important
did you think the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north might be to
achieving your objective?
Despite some remarkably heroic stories in our history, and in other histories
of small groups of outnumbered brave people defeating superior enemies, the
reality is that you need an overwhelming force to defeat an enemy. Neither the
Shias in the south, nor the Kurds in the north, nor any combination of them
without really significant outside military assistance had the means to defeat
even what was left of Saddam's army. That hasn't changed.
So given that, what did you then do? What was your strategy then?
Our strategy and our tactics are to implement an effort again. Remember, that
effort is a small part of an overall effort. There are a number of things you
can do to make life more uncomfortable for the Saddam regime than it might
otherwise be, and you make life for his opponents, inside and outside the
country, better than it might otherwise be. You can provide funds and
propaganda outlets. You can participate in the diplomacy of keeping the
neighbors on their side. It's an oversimplification; but the real strategy is
to do everything you can, all the time, probably forever.
What about the Iraqi National Congress?
The Iraqi National Congress, as a practical matter is, was not, and probably
will not be able to replace Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, it shouldn't be
dismissed as being devoid of value. In the first place, it's an irritation.
The fact that there appeared to be, for all practical purposes, an exile
government on his own territory, daily flaunting itself, was a daily assault on
Saddam's hype. Its value cannot be dismissed. It's a focus around which
resistance could coalesce. It was a mechanism that could bring together people
who might not otherwise cooperate. It could be useful that way in the future.
Although I don't get silly all that lightly, it's sort of like chicken soup--it
won't cure the disease, but it probably won't hurt the patient.
How was the decision reached to have the INC turn from a possibly effective
propaganda campaign to planning for a military operation, either in conjunction
with the U.S., or on their own? What actually happened there?
Unfortunately, for your purposes, it all happened after I was gone. I really
can't say with any authority what happened. My guess, after years of
experience, is that wishful thinking probably paid a substantial role.
And what was the wish?
The wish was that this irritation to Saddam could become a force that would
bring him down. But it just doesn't add up. There are a certain number of
people in the north of Iraq, and there's a certain amount of territory from
which they can operate. There's a certain size to the logistical pipeline
through which you can push assistance to them, and there's a certain limit on
the degree to which you can provide strategic assistance or heavy tactical
assistance, such as air cover. When you look at all of those limits, they all
add up to an inadequate force to bring down Saddam.
Before you left, some CIA agents were involved. People aren't really
familiar with how others operate. It can be mysterious and seductive to think
about CIA agents and their work. When you decide to send some of these
people in, what's the idea behind that? What was their mission when
they went in there?
There was, in fact, an intense internal debate within the agency about whether
or not it was a good idea to have an agency presence in northern Iraq. As I
was leaving the government, the debate had come down on the side that there
were probably limited, but not insignificant benefits that you could get from
the ground presence--you can see what was going on, rather than have to rely on
what people were telling you. The not-insignificant addition to the morale and
comfort of the people with whom we were working had to be considered. Against
that, you balance the risks--political risks and, just with the agency being
there, physical risks. There's the possibility that one of them could have
been hurt or captured. The risks were real, but the balance of thinking in
late 1994 was slightly on the side of putting them in. So we put them in.
People in your agency, and in the government, believed that you had
penetrated Saddam's inner circle, that you had made contacts within the
government itself. What the reality of that information you were
The human spy business is constantly plagued by wondering if you believe the
human being who is either a spy, a covert action agent, or your would-be friend
in any activity where that person's personal interest or national interests are
not necessarily in line with those of the United States or those of the agency.
And this is a particularly difficult part of the world. You can never trust a
single individual if you have a penetration of a government such as Saddam's.
There's always the possibility that your penetration is individually acting
dishonestly with you, or that he's being directed. It's something you
constantly must check against. I don't think it would be a violation of my
secrecy agreement to say that, in general, I was never satisfied with the
degree of confidence that we had in a sufficient combination of individuals
with whom we were working in Iraq, that we could say we were in a position to
affect events there.
How good was Saddam Hussein in the spying game?
It's really tough to try and grade Saddam's security and intelligence. In
terms of the quality of operations, they are not very good. They were almost
comical in their attempts at terrorism in and around Desert Storm and Desert
Shield, and it speaks volumes of how inept they were in international dealings.
Nevertheless, if you've got hundreds of thousands of policemen inside a
country, and if you've adopted the practice of killing anybody whom you
suspect, and all the members of their family, that terror tends to certainly
limit the motivation of people who will take risks to oppose you. It's a lot
tougher for any foreign intelligence service to operate. Iraq is what the
intelligence game calls a "denied area," so it is a monumental task just to
communicate with anybody inside the country who is cooperating. Frankly, the
cards are all stacked on Saddam's side when it comes to protecting his
What do you know about the opposition?
Frankly, I don't remember, and if I did, I probably wouldn't share the details
of what I knew. But we can talk about this generally. The opposition is
composed of Iraqis, all of whom have ties with other Iraqis, such as having
families or other things of value that are within reach of the regime. They
all have to look backward to the history, and then forward to a long-term view
of how they're going to survive and look out for the interests of their
organizations, their families, or themselves personally. Usually, one of the
options they have to consider is some form of cooperation with the regime.
Basically, all of the organizations that have been involved in our position
moved into and out of some kind of cooperation with Saddam Hussein. You have
to assume that since the Iraqi regime has a very strong motive to penetrate the
opposition, and they certainly have the means and opportunity, they would have
There's a report about a meeting at the White House shortly before you left
the agency. A chart was presented, showing all the agency connections and the
contacts inside the government, and you said that you didn't think that they
were as secure as others would like to believe. Can you tell us about
I didn't criticize somebody else's view. I simply gave my own view, which was
that, yes, we had these links, and you could call them relationships or
communication channels. But I was careful not to, in any way, add them up so
that they would appear to be an organization or a complex capability to act
against Saddam inside Iraq. I suppose that that was a great disappointment to
some people in the room.
Is that another case of wishful thinking?
It's hard to get into other people's minds. But my own experience would say
there's a combination of wishful thinking, and the desire to be responsive to
one's superiors when they ask for solutions to a difficult problem. It sets up
an enormous psychological pressure to tell a good story rather than a bad
From what you saw when you were at the agency, why have no coup attempts
succeeded, either with or without U.S. help?
The answer to the two questions--why are there repeated coup attempts, and why
do they fail--is the same. It's the nature of the regime, which is vicious and
violent. Brave or desperate people will repeatedly be motivated to act against
it. But because it is a vicious, violent system of oppression, the regime
generally has the means to act--to either know about it in advance, or to
quickly find out who the perpetrators were after the first move--and can then
either act against them ahead of time, or afterwards. Either way, what you get
is in the vast majority of cases, and all of them to date, is failure. Sooner
or later, one might succeed.
Some people on the operation say that the CIA's policy caused the Iraq
situation in the 1990s, that it's been disastrous, one of the worst disasters
since the Bay of Pigs. Does the agency feel that it's being scapegoated? Is
there a lack of political resolve to deal with some of this?
At the operations officer level, they're like soldiers in a war. When we
didn't do well in the Vietnam war, military officers were frustrated, and were
inclined to blame a lack of political will. I'm certain that a number of
people in the agency and in the U.S. government have similar emotions. But if
you study the situations, the problem usually isn't the lack of political
will--it's the lack of reasonable possibilities to accomplish taking over a
government like that. A journalist won't have any trouble finding somebody who
will complain about a lack of will. But it's not a lack of will. It's just a
lack of capability.
There's a great quote: "If you wish to change the system of government in
another country, you must conquer it." That, in fact, has been our experience.
You might point out or exaggerate the role that we may or may have had in
changes of government in the post-World War II era. But history does show us
that, if you want to change a form of government in another country, you must
conquer it. We conquered Germany, we conquered Japan, and we changed the form
of government therein. The cost was enormous; both in lives lost, and in the
necessity of supporting Joseph Stalin in order to defeat Adolf Hitler.
Frankly, look at all the costs it would take to conquer Iraq and change its
form of government. There's a very high likelihood that we would end up having
at least as many problems afterwards as we had before we started.
So is the upcoming discussion with the Iraqi sopposition and Congress more
of what you call "chicken soup?"
Yes. The issue is whether or not continued support for the opposition is more
chicken soup. I don't mean to denigrate it, but it is. It's worth doing, but
we should not believe that it will solve our problems. Life's difficulties
break down into problems that you can solve, and issues with which you must
cope. Saddam's regime is an issue with which we must cope, and probably cope
with for a very long time, similar to North Korea. You have to set up a line
of defense, strengthen your friends and potential victims in the region, and
then you have to cope with it. It's frustrating. But coping is certainly not
beyond our capabilities, and we've done a very good job. American diplomacy
has had a long string of successes in containing Iraq, and that's been the hard
day-to-day diplomatic efforts to keep the votes in the United Nations lined up.
It's been the efforts to strengthen our friends in the region. Sometimes, it's
a frustrating effort to keep friends working on the same programs who may not
like each other. But it's worked, and I think it will continue to work.
In general terms, both the U.S. and Iran have interests regarding Iraq. In
your opinion, how are they working in parallel to try and achieve a future Iraq
that would satisfy the interests of both countries?
The United States, its friends in the region, and Iran share this strategic
concern with the existence of Iraq, which creates two things. It creates a
temptation to engage in balancing--"Let's try and have a relationship with
Iran, and that will balance Iraq," or, "Let's try and have a relationship with
Iraq and that will balance Iran." The other thing it generates is
inexhaustible fodder for conspiracy theorists about how the United States
created the Iraqi regime as a foil to the Iranian regime, and vice versa. But
practically speaking, both countries are problems for the United States, and we
have to deal with them both as problems. If we go back to the analogy of North
Korea, then Iraq will probably be the North Korea of the region, and Iran could
be the China of the region. It's yet to be determined whether we could work
with a China/Iran, or whether a China/Iran would be interested in working with
us. Until there is such a determination, the only sound policy is the
fundamental policy of dual containment.
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