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Saddam apparently enjoys questioning, U.S. officials say
He doesn't have a lawyer in the room, but Saddam Hussein apparently is practicing what most lawyers would advise: Don't talk. Diplomatic and military officials say the former Iraqi leader has provided little useful information in interrogations so far -- and may even be having fun.
The questioning of Saddam -- initially handled by the CIA -- is now a joint CIA-FBI operation, a sign that the aim is changing from finding intelligence to gathering evidence for any eventual trials. The people who are asking the questions at the moment are from the FBI, said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has indicated in interviews that interrogators aren't learning much from the former president of Iraq.
In a recent interview, deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage said he occasionally sees the interrogation briefing reports. "He's a pretty wily guy, and he's not giving much information that I've seen. But he seems to be enjoying the debate," Armitage told WPHT-AM radio in Philadelphia.
When Saddam was captured, haggard in an underground room in December, officials hoped the interrogation would yield details about the Iraqi insurgency, Saddam's weapons programs, human rights violations and corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program.
A 'patience project'
Instead, House Intelligence chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., now calls the questioning a "patience project."
"He is very good at denial and deception. I am not sure he even knows what the truth is anymore," Goss said. "I think he's been surrounded by yes-men and sycophants."
In an interview with the Associated Press last week, FBI director Robert Mueller said the FBI is assisting with "certain interrogations" in Iraq, as well as helping with investigations into killings there. He said the bureau is also working with documents obtained in Iraq.
Those most likely include Saddam's papers. Vince Cannistraro, a former counterterrorism director for the CIA, said papers found with Saddam when he was captured have proved much more useful than anything the former leader has said. "Everything that they have found and taken action on has come from documentation found on him," Cannistraro said.
A defense official would say only that Saddam was in good health at an undisclosed location.
Details of the interrogations could come out in any eventual trial of Saddam. But the logistics, including the date, of any trial have yet to be settled.
On Sunday, Jacques Verges, a French lawyer who claims to be representing Saddam at his family's request, said he expects that a trial is still some time away. Verges has not met with Saddam and is trying to act as his attorney from afar, a U.S. intelligence official said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross visited Saddam in jail for the first time in February. The group does not release details of such visits or of a prisoner's confinement. However, Saddam did write a letter to his family that was to be delivered once the United States confirmed it did not contain any hidden messages to his followers. Verges did not discuss that letter.
A team of 50 Justice Department prosecutors, investigators and support staff has traveled to Iraq to help assemble a war-crimes case against Saddam and others in his former government.
But Justice officials take pains to say that the United States is there only to assist the Iraqis with advice on what their options for a trial might be. The officials say they are helping the Iraqis to organize evidence and lay out possible charges, and aiding them in finding cooperating witnesses and key documents. The U.S. team is joined by legal experts from Britain, Spain and Poland.
While it's possible Saddam could be put on trial before any others, Justice officials say another approach would be to start lower and work up the ladder of seniority. The hope would be that some Iraqi officials might be persuaded to testify against Saddam to avoid harsh sentences.
The Iraqi Governing Council has already set up tribunals consisting of three panels of five judges each, with nine other judges to serve on an appeals panel.
Verges said he believes the United States has violated the Geneva Conventions in its detention of Saddam, and said the world must wait for a trial to determine whether Saddam was guilty of wrongdoing.
"We know that Mr. Bush has said he's guilty," Verges told Associated Press Television News. "But what does that mean? Mr. Bush is not a judge. We cannot accept him as a judge. He is an enemy of Saddam Hussein."