The Survival of Saddam
an interview with frank anderson
home
secrets
interviews
photos
video
readings
the kurds

Frank Anderson was the CIA's Near East Division Chief from 1991-94.
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?

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 involved.

photo of frank anderson 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 acceptable success.

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 containment.

I continue to believe the activities that can  be applied  covertly to get rid of Saddam Hussein, were--and will continue to be--inadequate to get rid of him.  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 factors?

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 invulnerable?

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 solution."

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 him.

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 practical terms?

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 getting?

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 regime.

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 done so.

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 that?

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 one.

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.

home · secrets of his life and leadership · interviews · photo album · readings · the kurds' story
join the discussion · synopsis · tapes & transcripts · press
FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbs online

Some Photographs Copyright FRONTLINE/Iraqi News Agency
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS