Interrogation a race against clock

Monday, December 15, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Saddam Hussein's interrogators are initially focusing on the former Iraqi president's ties to the guerrilla war, pressing him for intelligence about impending attacks and the locations of resistance leaders, U.S. officials said Sunday.

Their immediate hope is that he will have a wealth of knowledge on the insurgency against the U.S.-led occupation force and its Iraqi allies, officials said.

It is a race against the clock. His information grows more outdated by the hour, and other leaders from Saddam's toppled government can move or take other steps to avoid capture.

Officials said there was little initial evidence that Saddam had operational control over the resistance. They announced finding no communications equipment, maps or other evidence of a guerrilla command center at Saddam's hiding place.

Intelligence officials have previously said they believe Saddam was too concerned with survival and staying hidden to provide much more than symbolic leadership.

Of secondary concern, at the outset, is whether Saddam will answer the many unresolved questions about Iraq's alleged efforts to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and his government's ties to terrorism, the officials said.

That will be addressed down the road, perhaps when interrogators have established a rapport with Saddam, according to the officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, described Saddam as talkative and cooperative. Other officials, however, shied away from suggesting he has provided any useful intelligence right away.

Over the long term, intelligence officials hope Saddam will put to rest questions on the Bush administration's stated reason going to war: Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorists.

Thus far, the weapons hunt has not come up with much that would validate the prewar assertions by President Bush and U.S. intelligence.

Saddam has maintained he did not have an ongoing program for such weapons, and some experts doubt he will give much ground.

In the end, Saddam's account of his weapons program may primarily hold only propaganda value to the administration, once it is publicized, said Robert Baer, a former CIA operations officer involved in efforts to overthrow Saddam in the 1990s.

"I can imagine at some point the man's going to be broken, psychologically," Baer said, suggesting interrogators will make Saddam dependent on them for news. "It's pretty clear now there were no WMD. So you get some statements about his intentions to build them -- I think he always had the intention to go back and reconstitute this stuff."

Some material from his interrogations, particularly on his repression of dissent, could go toward any public tribunal of the former Iraqi president.

The success of the interrogation depends on the skills and methods of the interrogators, who must divine aspects of Saddam's psychology and figure out the best way to keep him talking.

"They're going to use every interrogation method in the book, short of torture," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. "What are they going to get from him? He's not going to admit he has done all these horrible things. He's going to say he was firm and fair."

Interrogators might initially appeal to him simply by making him comfortable, he said.

"The guy's been hiding out for eight months. He must be completely depressed. Look at the way the guy's living. He was in palaces. Now he's living in a hole," Cannistraro said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: