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saddam's life
interview: elaine sciolino

What was the purpose of the September 15 Camp David meetings? Who was there? What was the purpose of the meeting?

The first weekend after the attacks of September 11, George W. Bush had a meeting at Camp David with his top advisors, including Colin Powell, the secretary of state. And there was a lively debate about Iraq policy, in which some people from the Pentagon were arguing that the war against terrorism should include Saddam Hussein. ... At the moment, there are two sides to the Iraq debate [about] what the U.S. should do about Iraq. In simple terms, it's Secretary of State Colin Powell on one side, and a group in the Pentagon, basically led by the Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, on the other side.

Colin Powell has said over the years that Saddam Hussein is like a toothache. It recurs from time to time, and you just have to live with it. At other times, he's compared Saddam Hussein to a kidney stone that will eventually pass. But he has never said, "You have to operate and take out the kidney stone."

Paul Wolfowitz, on the other hand, has been very forceful for many years in saying that Saddam had to go; and he not only had to go, but he had to go by means of military force. And the United States had to take the lead in ousting him.

How far back has this belief, this philosophy, gone?

To understand the debate that we have today in this country about Iraq, I think you have to go back to 1991 and the Persian Gulf War. ... When the United States-led coalition was pushing Iraq back from Kuwait, there was a debate about whether or not the U.S. should go to Baghdad and actually get Saddam Hussein. The decision was made by the president, by Dick Cheney, who was then secretary of defense, by Colin Powell, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, [that] no, our mission is to oust Iraq from Kuwait; not to get Saddam, not to overthrow the government. If it happened, that would be nice, but the U.S. was not at that point willing to send ground troops to Baghdad.

About a year later -- and it was only about a year later -- Paul Wolfowitz, who's now the deputy secretary of defense, began to argue that that should have been -- that the United States actually should have taken out Saddam Hussein, and that a great opportunity was missed. But at the time of the actual prosecution of the war, I have never seen that Mr. Wolfowitz ever articulated that view in such a transparent global way.

Three years ago, a number of leading military and policymakers in the United States wrote a letter basically arguing that Saddam Hussein had to be overthrown even if military force had to be used, and that the approach of the Clinton administration wasn't tough enough. Paul Wolfowitz was one of the signatories; the current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed the letter.

John Bolton, who is now an undersecretary of state, signed the letter. Jean Kirkpatrick, a leading conservative figure, our former ambassador to the United Nations, signed the letter. ... The leading lights of the conservative wing of the Republican Party signed the letter.

Elaine Sciolino is a senior correspondent for The New York Times and the author of The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein's Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis (1991) and, most recently, Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran.

And what were they asking for?

... President Clinton whacked Iraq, but it wasn't as robust as everyone expected. ... There was a perception that the United States was going to go for it now, and actually oust Saddam Hussein. It didn't happen. There was a lot of criticism of the Clinton administration, that it had used its political capital, used its goodwill with the allies, but hadn't gone all the way. So this prompted a number of people, national security experts in the country, to say, "Why did we do this, and shouldn't we be doing more?"

In the last couple of years, people- -- real defense intellectuals, like Paul Wolfowitz, when he was at Johns Hopkins and Richard Perle -- have articulated an even more robust policy, which is a scenario by which the United States would actually use robust air strikes, seize the southern part of Iraq, put in American ground troops, and install an opposition government in the south. Squeeze the center, because we have a lot of control over the north. And that eventually Saddam would fall. ...

In your point of view, and what you had known from folks in the administration that, before September 11, there was a rethinking about what to do about Iraq, and trying to figure out how to deal more forcefully with Iraq?

Yes. Even before September 11, there was a debate in the administration about whether or not military force should be used to oust Saddam Hussein. You're not going to find one person in the top echelons of the foreign policy and national security establishment in the U.S. government who's going to say that Saddam Hussein should not be out of power. There's consensus that Saddam should go, and Iraq would be a lot better off, and the region would be a lot better off with a different leadership. The question is how to do it. And that's where there is not agreement. ...

How does September 11 change the debate?

September 11 changes the debates because the president says, "We are fighting terrorism. We are going to eradicate terrorism. This is a war. And Al Qaeda is only the first step." So the logical question after that is, who's next? And who's next? Iraq is next. Iraq may or may not be next because of September 11, but it provides an opportunity to use September 11 to finish the business that wasn't finished ten years ago.

What's the argument that Colin Powell makes against targeting Iraq as number two?

Colin Powell is now secretary of state. And what do you do as secretary of state? You try to build coalitions; you try to make friends. And it's not in Colin Powell's interest to make an enemy of the Saudis or the other Gulf Arab states.

The question is, can any kind of coalition be sustained if the United States makes a unilateral decision to use military force to oust Saddam Hussein? Would the French be on the United States' side? Would the Russians be on the United States' side? Both the French and Russians have opposed the U.S. sanction policy vis-à-vis Iraq. Would the Saudis? I don't know; I don't think so. ...

There's universal agreement now that Al Qaeda is the target for now. The president resolved the immediate debate in taking Iraq off the table and basically saying, we are working on Al Qaeda now, and everything else comes next. One of the most visible signs that Iraq is not on the table now, in my estimation, was when Vice President Cheney got on television and when he was asked, "Is there any evidence of Iraqi complicity in September 11?" he said very clearly, "No." He didn't say, "We're looking at all angles." He didn't say, "There will be other targets down the road." He didn't say, "We are leaving our options open." He said, "No." And that was a clear signal.

It doesn't mean that other people in the administration aren't still trying to keep this debate alive -- they are. And that's part of the problem. ...

There are some that say that there could be large problems from the Arab nations if we go to attack Iraq, that it would blow apart the coalition. Why? They've wanted us to go after him before; we didn't succeed to the level that people expected. Now here's another opportunity. Why do we worry? Why do the Saudis and others seem to have a problem now with taking that direction up again?

The Saudis still have a problem, because I don't think they know that the United States can actually get Saddam Hussein. And what happens if you don't? What happens if you go in and use American military power and even occupy southern Iraq with ground troops, and Saddam Hussein is still sitting in his palace? ...

So in the end, they're worried about the fact that the United States does not have the capability of ever finishing the job?

And also, what's next? I remember an op-ed piece that Al Gore wrote years ago that was based on a speech, in which he said that it wasn't enough to just get rid of Saddam Hussein; you had to get rid of the whole Ba'ath Party structure. Saddam Hussein is one person; but there is a whole extraordinary power structure and intelligence structure that has endured in that country for decades.

What happens to that structure? Does the United States overturn that entire structure? Does the United States plan to stay as an occupying power in southern Iraq? Is there an alternative to Saddam Hussein? And is it an alternative that the United States can live with?

There's another point of view. The Iraqi National Congress (INC) sort of states the problem is that the Saudis and others don't want to see a democratic Iraq because then that example is set up and they don't look too good, and it could give them a problem. What's your take on sort of that message being put out?

I don't think Iraq could be transformed overnight into a democracy. How can you take a country that doesn't have any kind of tradition of democracy, where its people have been brutalized and repressed for decades, and suddenly impose Jeffersonian ideals? I just think it's more than wishful thinking to think that suddenly if Saddam Hussein were gone, that the Iraqi National Congress could take over the leadership and turn this country around. ... Democracy takes a long, long time. So I would argue that Iraq is a long way off from getting to that point, no matter who is in power.

And there's also the other question of, can the Iraqi National Congress govern Iraq? There is a lively debate in the administration about whether that is possible. There are many people in the State Department, the White House, even the Pentagon, and increasingly in Congress that have become disillusioned with the Iraq National Congress as a viable alternative. Other people would disagree. People in the Pentagon, the civilians such as Mr. Wolfowitz and some of his aides, believe very strongly that the Iraq National Congress and its leadership is a viable alternative.

In fact, the Iraqi National Congress was invited to the Defense Policy Board meetings. What is the significance of that?

... There are people in the State Department on Capitol Hill that referred to what is going on in the Pentagon as "the cabal," that there is a group in the Pentagon aligned with some people outside of government that is absolutely determined to lay the groundwork for a strategy to get Saddam out with the use of American military troops.

And so how does the INC fit into that scheme?

According to the scenario -- and I'm not the person making this policy or laying out the strategy, but the way it has been explained to me -- the United States would use airstrikes and ground troops to take over the south. It would take over the oilfields. The money from the oil would be used to fund the government in the south, which would be run by the Iraqi National Congress.

It would largely be the same area that the United States occupied during the 1991 war. The autonomous region in the north, where the Kurds are, would be on the side of the south. The middle of the country, the Sunni middle, would be squeezed. And that with this pressure from both sides, eventually Saddam would be weakened and be overthrown, or would fall one way or another.

But I think what is illustrated by the two days of the Defense Policy Board meetings is that an advisory board was doing its job, it was debating a lot of policies, including Iraq policy. But if the Defense Policy Board met with all of its luminaries, from Henry Kissinger to James Schlesinger, to former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, and if the Iraqi National Congress was invited to those meetings, and the State Department wasn't informed, or the White House wasn't informed, then it's not a well-functioning policy, because all arms of government should be coordinating. This is war.

How influential is the Defense Policy Board?

The Defense Policy Board is only an advisory board, and it has no power. Even if it gives advice, the advice doesn't have to be taken. I can't point to any policy decision that was ever made in the Pentagon that came from the Defense Policy Board, although there may have been some.

But the Defense Policy Board is a group of luminaries. These are the leading figures in national security and defense in the country. It's also bipartisan. So if this group agreed on a strategy to use military force against Saddam Hussein, it would not just be a group of conservative Republicans in the Defense Department saying this should be the policy; it's leading figures from both the Democratic and Republican side of the fence agreeing.

If the Defense Policy Board came up with a strategy to oust Saddam Hussein, it gives extraordinary weight to that point of view, because of the people who are on that board. They're the leading lights of the national security establishment in the country, and the bipartisan... If the Defense Policy Board agreed to oust Saddam Hussein by this policy of seizing southern Iraq, it would give extraordinary weight to so-called Wolfowitz argument.

You keep saying "if." What did happen?

They didn't agree. One person who's very senior in the administration told me that there was full agreement and the Defense Policy Board signed on to this plan, to occupy the south with American ground troops use fighter jets in a robust air campaign.

And then I went up and down the Defense Policy Board and called as many of them as I could. And they said, "We didn't agree. We talked, but we made no recommendation. We don't really make recommendations for policy. We didn't agree." Some people said, "We won't talk about it all."

And that was interesting, because when people say... When you go to people and you say, "I understand you agreed on x, y and z," and they say, "I'm not going to talk about it," and they don't say to you, "I wouldn't go that far, you know. I would steer you away from it," you start thinking maybe they did agree.

In fact, there were even a couple of stories in the press that suggested that there had been agreement on this plan. But I couldn't find that they agreed on it. In fact, I had one member of the Defense Policy Board saying, "We think we're being used."

So then what's the relevance of the entire event if, in fact, this great group of luminaries never really agreed at all?

You're laying the groundwork. This might not be the last meeting of the Defense Policy Board. And also, if these people, such as Henry Kissinger or Harold Brown, or James Schlesinger have been exposed to the leaders of the Iraqi National Congress, and if they're impressed, then even though there's no formal recommendation to the secretary of defense, the Iraqi National Congress has been elevated and has more credibility.

What's happening here? Sure, there's a debate. People have different points of view. But how does this lead towards policy eventually?

OK, let me say it this way. If things are going well, it's kind of like "Swan Lake," when all the swans come out and they're all dancing the exact same thing, and they're all moving beautifully together. Everything works together. And everybody thinks we're on the same team. ... And I have been told that the State Department people who work this part of the world weren't even informed that the Defense Policy Board met for this long a time to discuss Iraq, and certainly not that members of the Iraqi National Congress were there.

Now, is that a betrayal? No, it's not a betrayal. There's no requirement that the Pentagon tells the State Department, "This is what we're doing." But in this climate, in which the United States is at war, I would argue that -- I wouldn't even argue, the State Department people would argue -- that every bit of information you have should be shared, and that there shouldn't be inter-agency rivalries over something that's so important.

Are there Machiavellian sort of maneuvers being made at this point? I mean, is that what this is all about -- who wins out in the end?

I don't know how much this is personal; I really don't. All I can do is talk to as many people as I can, and try to figure out who knows what and what it means. And is it important or not?

And when I have senior people in the administration saying that they have not seen this kind of dissension and backhandedness, and backroom kind of maneuvering since the end of the Reagan administration, when you had those terrible debates between Schultz and Weinberger, it's just not good. It's not good for the American people. ...

If there was going to be one piece of evidence, or one part of this debate that was going to be laid on George Bush's desk so that he would make the definitive decision to go at Iraq, what would it be? From the debate that's going on, what seems to be the piece of the pie that people are [going to] say, "This is it?"

If there were some sort of intercept that linked Iraq directly to the operation on September 11, that changes everything. And the president might make the determination that there had to be military action now against Iraq. If there were evidence that Iraq was involved in these anthrax attacks, there might a military operation against Iraq. But in the absence of hard evidence of current Iraqi involvement in September 11 and post-September 11 terrorism, the debate is whether or not Saddam Hussein has to be dealt with, or should be dealt with now.

How has the anthrax attacks changed this debate?

Saddam Hussein is believed to have a supply of chemical and biological weapons. Iraq has prevented United Nations weapons inspectors from going into the country for several years. So that there has been no independent kind of check on what Saddam Hussein is doing with weapons of mass destruction. ... The anthrax attacks obviously came from somewhere. Some person, or some government, or some group had access to anthrax. And Iraq has access to biological weapons. So one can say that perhaps Iraq was behind the anthrax attacks. I don't know if there's any evidence of that, but that is an argument that is being made.

Why would Saddam Hussein be so crazy to do this? I mean, things are working in his direction. The French and the Russians are sort of singing his praises in the United Nations. The embargo seems to be sort of near the end. Why does this make any sense at all? Why do the people in the Pentagon sort of even assume this? Shouldn't Saddam Hussein be basically at home knitting and trying to be a good boy at this point? Why do we think not?

The difficulty with Iraq, and the difficulty with Saddam Hussein, is that even after all these years, the United States has limited intelligence on Saddam Hussein and his motives, even on the state of his health. And we ask the same question -- why did Saddam Hussein invade Iran in 1980? Why did Saddam Hussein invade Kuwait in 1990? It didn't seem to make sense. Why did he occupy all of Kuwait, when maybe he could have gotten away with just taking a little bit of the oilfield, the main oilfield near Iraq? Why didn't he pull out of Kuwait before the United States led a military coalition against him?

And it's because we couldn't answer those questions, or we answered them wrong, that we have to ask the same question now -- why would Saddam Hussein be so stupid to, at this moment in time, send anthrax-laced letters throughout the United States? He's got the French on his side. He's got the Russians on his side. Sanctions are degraded or unraveling. And he's sitting in Baghdad, still in power. It doesn't make sense. But Saddam Hussein often doesn't make sense. ...

What's Jim Woolsey's role in all this? ...

Jim Woolsey, the former director of Central Intelligence, has taken an extremely active role in the anti-Saddam strategy. He was one of the signatories of the letter from the late 1990s that promoted a much more vigorous campaign against Saddam Hussein. And he's also a brilliant lawyer. And he sort of has put together a case against Saddam Hussein, regardless of September 11.

Saddam Hussein probably tried to assassinate former President George Bush. Saddam Hussein does have weapons of mass destruction. One doesn't even have to make a legal argument about why he might be overthrown. ...

insert question about evidence link of Iraq to terroristm

You can find terrorist links to just about anyone. For heaven sakes, you've got Iranians in Lebanon, you've got the Syrians helping Iran send weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, you've got Hezbollah in Lebanon maybe having contacts with Al Qaeda. Does this mean the United States is going to bomb Syria and Iran? I don't think so.

So then why the focus on Iraq?

The focus on Iraq is larger. The focus on Iraq is that Iraq is a bad player. Saddam Hussein is the United States' enemy. Saddam Hussein should be overthrown. Even if there's not a link to September 11, there is other ample evidence that Saddam Hussein is a terrorist -- that he terrorizes his own people; that he potentially terrorizes his neighbors; and that he should be part of the war on terror.

This isn't my view. This is as best as I can define it the view of the administration. ...

But this debate is depending upon quote, unquote, "evidence" linking Saddam Hussein to terrorism. What is the real evidence? What holds water here?

I don't know what holds water; I really don't. ... In the camp that says you should whack Saddam militarily, there are two points of view. One point of view is that there is enough evidence against Saddam Hussein, regardless of what happened on September 11, to get him.

The other point of view is September 11 gives you the vehicle, or the way, or the justification to get Saddam Hussein, because this is a war against all terror.

The problem is, is the evidence any good? Is the evidence against Iraq and the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 good enough? Is the evidence that Iraq was behind the assassination attempt against George Bush, the father, good enough? Is there enough other evidence that Iraq has training camps in its territory? That's something that's going to have to be judged by the administration as it moves from phase one to phase two.

Is there another side that sort of says, "The evidence isn't good enough and we haven't gotten there, folks. And what we really need to do at this point is research the past so that we have a better understanding of the directions we should go?"

From what I'm told, the Colin Powell point of view, and the president of the United States' point of view, is, "Wow, we're dealing with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda now. When we're finished there, we will look at the evidence and see whether there is enough evidence. But there is not enough evidence now to prosecute this war against Iraq. This is not a war on two fronts right now. It's a war on one front, and one step at a time."

Is there anything that might change that immediately so that tomorrow morning, your front-page article in the New York Times is, "We are now at war with Iraq?"

If Saddam Hussein's fingerprints are on one of those letters filled with anthrax, then all bets are off. And I wouldn't be surprised if the United States started bombing Baghdad tomorrow.

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