Beware of Dog: Bluff and Denial in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq

In December 2003, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was hiding in a spider hole. It was a stark decline for a dictator responsible for ensnaring the United States and its allies in two wars. After nine months, the revelation that Saddam had finally been captured led to U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer’s infamous proclamation: “Ladies and gentleman, we got him!”[1] Saddam Hussein is likely one of the most-psychoanalyzed minds in recent memory. His actions as leader of the brutal Ba’ath Party spanned a dark thirty-year period in Iraq, characterized by the horrors of regional warfare, the use of chemical weapons on Kurdish populations, the oppression of his own people, and the transformation of his country into a police state held together only by the unflinching use of force.[2] Following Saddam’s capture, he was interviewed informally by American military intelligence and then formally interrogated at the hands of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. Almost exactly three years following his capture, Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death and hanged. He went to his grave maintaining to be the rightful and current President of Iraq.[3]

The following discussion will explore the viability of Saddam Hussein’s claims to possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This essay will argue that Saddam Hussein’s WMD program can be seen through three lenses: public—through a rhetoric of denial and refusal to comply with UN inspections; private-made-public—through publicized findings of UN weapons inspectors; and private—by way of Hussein’s final interrogations at the hands of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). These three windows into Saddam’s rationale provide an understanding of perhaps the biggest bluff in recent history—the world thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was claiming not to have them; in reality, he was claiming to have them at his disposal when he did not. Considering Mr. Hussein’s public actions will construct a fuller picture of the Ba’ath leader’s psyche and motivations. Digging deeper into the transcripts from Saddam’s interrogations will help to reconcile his admissions with UN inspectors’ reports, and reveal that the discouragement of Iran and other enemies is a feasible explanation that resolves the inconsistency in Saddam’s WMD claims versus reality.

Portrait of Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein has been called an irrational megalomaniac bent on the consolidation and projection of his power.[4] Others, such as political scientist Williamson Murray, have called him a calculating, but ultimately flawed strategist, “demonstrating a mix of delusion and perception.”[5] Murray argues that Saddam understood how to best maintain power in terms of the Iraqi political theater, but “had no capability to understand the external world,” instead resorting to an interpretation of the external world as an extension of Iraqi politics: “a murderous, violent, and ferocious struggle for survival.”[6] In their seminal work on the deposed Iraqi leader, entitled Saddam Hussein: a Political Biography, Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi reject the popular notion that Saddam was crazy; instead, they cast the Iraqi dictator as “permanently beleaguered” by the “ceaseless struggle for survival.” The authors argue that to Saddam, “plots lurk[ed] around every corner,” yet he was able to remain one step ahead, once boasting that he was “far cleverer” than his enemies, enabling him to “get them before they [had] the faintest chance of striking at me.”[7]

Saddam’s personality arises at once from the tumultuous and ruthless political system that he commanded for decades, and according to Karsh and Rautsi, from his troubled childhood that “taught him…the cruel law of the survival of the fittest, a law he was to cherish throughout his entire political career.”[8] To be sure, Saddam Hussein was not a highborn son slated for the rule of Iraq. Instead, he was born to poor Sunni peasants in the town of Al-Awja, near Tikrit in April of 1937. Saddam’s official biographer wrote: “His birth was not a joyful occasion, and no roses or aromatic plants bedecked his cradle.”[9] His rise through the ranks of Iraqi politics defied odds: at age twenty-two the Ba’ath party assigned him to assassinate then-General Abdul Karim Kassem. The coup attempt failed and Saddam suffered a leg wound for the cause.[10] As an increasingly influential Ba’athist, he formally became head of Iraq in 1979 after successfully quelling Shi’a rebellions and Kurdish efforts at independence. He realized that “fear was not enough to secure absolute power; that if he were to stay at the helm for an indefinite period of time—and he had never had any other intention—then the Iraqi people had to be made to love and adore him.”[11] He began a campaign to construct a personality cult, portraying himself as a “strict but righteous” leader.[12] Sites ranging from mosques and airports to neighborhoods and even entire cities bore his name. His goal was to create a “specifically Iraqi identity” out of the disparate factions in Iraq.[13] The method to his rule: crush any opposition. Having constructed a network of palaces, Saddam ran the country “through a combination of deep fear and awesome grandeur.”[14] His “excessively suspicious mentality” tacked well with the “fear he evoked among his coterie”—he would last some twenty-four years as the icon and leader of Iraq.[15]

Kevin Woods, David Palkki, and Mark Stout compiled a vast archive of Saddam Hussein’s political career. In their work, The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime, the authors see Saddam as:

“A highly intelligent yet frequently deluded man…his worldview consisted of a curious mix of shrewdness and nonsense. He was a tyrant who foolishly and ruthlessly invaded his neighbors and repressed his people, yet he was also a pragmatist whose perspicuity at times exceeded that of his generals and advisors.”[16]

British journalist Con Coughlin has written several books on Saddam Hussein, and he emphasizes how the dictator built a broad support base and modernized Iraq using the oil revenues to improve infrastructure, housing, and quality of life. Saddam’s regime was a “complex mechanism were family and tribe are central.”[17] Neil MacFarquhar of The New York Times explains that Saddam tried to “be a tribal leader on a grand scale. His rule was paramount, and sustaining it was his main goal.” Saddam aimed to develop Iraq by harnessing its “considerable wealth and manpower,”[18] and had few qualms about the use of unconventional weapons in order to advance his goals.

The Iran-Iraq War

Any assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities must include the Iran-Iraq War, a conflict that specifically involved the use of chemical weapons, setting the stage for future WMD claims. Many historians, including Coughlin, believe that Saddam was a poor military strategist who failed to weigh the costs and benefits of starting wars.[19] In 1980, fearing the spread and incisiveness of the Iranian Revolution and Shi’a rebellion, Saddam ordered the Iraqi military to invade Iran, provoking an eight year conflict involving considerable civilian suffering. Following a long history of border disputes, the offensive yielded very little in terms of strategic or territorial gains, and by 1988, a United Nations-monitored ceasefire finally ended the conflict with little to show. The Iran-Iraq War had taken a toll: the conflict is believed to have killed over 200,000 Iraqis.[20] At its conclusion, Iraq found itself $80 billion in debt with a stalling economy, suffering from “high levels of inflation, unemployment, shortages in basic goods, growing and highly visible economic inequality, and the emergence of a brisk black market in foreign currencies.”[21] Some observers compared the Iran-Iraq War to World War I because of the magnitude of the loss of life and the use of chemical weapons.[22]

Use of Unconventional Weapons

Concerns over the Iraqi possession of unconventional weapons were very much grounded in reality. In 1986, the UN declared that Iraq had used chemical weapons against Iran, in violation of the Geneva Convention. Definitive evidence confirmed Iraq had used mustard gas starting in 1983 and the nerve gas Tabun starting in 1985 to repel Iranian troops.[23] Beyond open warfare, in 1988 Iraq unleashed chemical attacks against the Iraqi Kurds in the north—some of whom had joined Iranian forces and others who were maintaining their fight for independence. Estimates of a March 16, 1988 mustard gas attack on the Kurds of Halabja yielded casualty estimates of 3,000-5,000 killed.[24] Most famously, Saddam embarked on a “scorched-earth” chemical campaign against the Kurds, called the al-Anfal Offensive, in which an estimated 50,000 Kurds were killed and numerous settlements were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.[25]

The Gulf War

Less than two years after the conflict with Iran ended, Saddam touched off another war by invading Kuwait, an oil rich neighbor to which Iraq had long laid territorial claims. Within a short period of time, the Iraqi military took control and occupied Kuwait, prompting an international crisis. The United Nations Security Council imposed a trade embargo and economic sanctions in response. Soon, the United States mobilized a coalition of over thirty nations, consisting of over 500,000 US soldiers. The coalition overwhelmed the Iraqi military and produced a definitive victory within 100 hours in a show of massive force that came to exemplify the Colin Powell Doctrine.[26] While the United States certainly wanted to see the end of Hussein’s despotic rule, the coalition stopped short of marching to Baghdad. President George H.W. Bush also called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam, but there was no attack plan drafted or military support given.[27] US Secretary of State Dick Cheney advocated against the advance to Baghdad, warning that US forces would be marching into a quagmire[28]—an ironic foreshadowing of a conflict to occur a decade later. Because the coalition stopped at the border, Iraq’s Republican Guard units were able to stave off major casualties. With his army largely intact, Saddam authoritatively stamped out all post-conflict uprisings.[29]

One may question why Iraq did not use WMD when facing the American coalition, but such a choice proved rational in the interest of self-preservation. On January 20, near the eve of the battle, Saddam warned: “Our ground forces have not entered the battle so far…when the battle becomes a comprehensive one with all types of weapons, the deaths on the allied side will be increased with God’s help.”[30] He would later announce: “I pray to God I will not be forced to use these [unconventional] weapons…but I will not hesitate to do so should the need arise.”[31] Looking back on the conflict, Saddam was clearly best served by his hesitation. Daniel Byman, Kenneth Pollack, and Matthew Waxman argue in Survival that Iraq did not use its unconventional arsenal against coalition forces because Saddam feared a nuclear reprisal. In refraining from using his WMD, he was rationally responding to American policymakers’ statements warning of a “massive retaliation” to potential biological or chemical attacks. The purposefully vague language convinced Saddam that it wasn’t worth using them.[32] Furthermore, even barring a nuclear response, Hussein may have felt more personally vulnerable had unconventional weapons been used; US Secretary of State James Baker warned that the US would hold any individuals complicit in the use of chemical weapons accountable.[33] Saddam feared that the use of chemical weapons, no matter how tactically advantageous, might shift the coalition’s goals to regime change. Though it cost him the war, it was a wise move in the interest of self-preservation.

During the Gulf War, it was clear that Iraq possessed an array of unconventional weapons that provided a perpetual source of worry for its neighbors and the West. Saddam had been developing NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) weapons since his ascendance to power. In 1981, Israeli fighter jets dropped thousands of pounds of ordinance on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, severely crippling the country’s nuclear progress in an attempt to stop potential development of an Iraqi nuclear bomb. Israelis believed the Iraq’s nuclear program would inevitably end in the development of weapons—“an existential threat to Israel.”[34] After the swift coalition victory in 1991, several UN Security Council resolutions were adopted to address this threat further. Under the UN-brokered ceasefire in S/RES/686 and under S/RES/687, Iraq was expressly forbidden from developing, possessing or using NBC weapons and the range of its missiles was capped at 150km. Resolution 687 also called on Iraq to declare the existence and destroy any current stockpiles, as well as to make no future attempts to acquire or manufacture NBC weapons. Only if these criteria were met would the sanctions levied against Iraq be lifted.[35] The resolution established the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to inspect the Iraqi weapons program. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was charged with verifying the dismantlement of the Iraqi nuclear facilities.[36]

Background to UN Weapons Inspections

At the conclusion of the Gulf War, it was no secret that Saddam Hussein and his elite military units possessed stockpiles of unconventional weapons. In the ensuing years, Saddam played a game of cat and mouse with the international community. To show “good-faith” efforts and to discourage the sanctions against their country, the Iraqis presented several “full, final and complete” weapons disclosures to the weapons inspectors, which were each in turn deemed inadequate, inconclusive and incomplete.[37] Saddam made it more difficult to access various installations around, he erected a web of inconsistent statements about the country’s weapons capacity, and periodically kicked the UN weapons inspection teams out of the country. Each Iraqi disclosure documenting and cataloging the status of the country’s weapons programs and caches gave the impression that Saddam had dismantled and disposed of his NBC programs. But the international community was not convinced; people understandably distrusted the dictator and sensed that his claims and his non-cooperative actions did not exactly line up. The only explanation to many people was that Saddam was making his best efforts to hide the fact that he had weapons of mass destruction.

By 1998, UNSCOM formally withdrew from Iraq. Controversy erupted over whether or not they had been expelled, and testimony from members of UNSCOM indicated the team’s frustration.[38] Due to continuous Iraqi subversions and non-cooperation, they saw their mission as sabotaged. However, Scott Ritter, a UNSCOM inspector claims that the inspectors were relatively successful:

“There’s no doubt Iraq hasn’t fully complied with its disarmament obligations as set forth by the Security Council in its resolution. But on the other hand, since 1998 Iraq has been fundamentally disarmed: 90-95% of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capacity has been verifiably eliminated.”[39]

Shortly after the withdrawal and conclusion of UNSCOM’s activities, American and British forces launched airstrikes on suspected Iraqi weapons facilities and strategic disarmament targets as part of Operation Desert Fox. The weapons inspection mission in Iraq had been dealt a major blow, but it was not yet completely doomed.

Private-Made-Public Part I: IAEA & UNSCOM Findings

The following section will briefly outline the reports prepared by the IAEA on Iraq’s nuclear program, as well as present UNSCOM’s assessment of Iraq’s biological and chemical capacities. Between 1991 and 1998 the IAEA made over 1,500 inspections.[40] The agency’s definitive report, released in 1997 and updated in subsequent years, states that after the 1990 Kuwait invasion, Iraq launched a “crash program” to quickly develop a nuclear weapon from research reactor fuel. Experts estimate that had Gulf War not derailed the project, there would have been a deliverable weapon by 1992.[41] The IAEA identified seven nuclear-related sites in Iraq. At all of these locations, “all sensitive nuclear materials were removed and… facilities and equipment were dismantled or destroyed.”[42] In 1998, the IAEA concluded: “There were no indications to suggest that Iraq was successful in its attempt to produce nuclear weapons…[or] that there remains in Iraq any physical capability for the production of amounts of weapons-usable nuclear material of any practical significance.”[43] The IAEA did concede that Iraq was close to a “threshold” where it would be easy to finish producing a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, the agency speculated that the remaining “know-how and expertise” could provide the basis with which the program could be restarted.[44]

UNSCOM’s final 1999 report to the Security Council outlined some seventy inspections relating to Iraq’s biological warfare program. UNSCOM explained that Iraq’s biological weapon development was “among the most secretive of its programs of weapons of mass destruction.”[45] The report claimed that Iraq “took active steps” towards concealment, including “inadequate disclosures, unilateral destruction, and concealment activities.”[46] Iraq admitted in 1995 that it once possessed biological weapons but that the entire program was “obliterated” in 1991 and that all biological agents had been destroyed. Even so, UNSCOM could not find evidence to support the destruction of the quantities claimed: “the Commission has no confidence that all bulk agents have been destroyed… and that a [biological weapon] capability does not exist in Iraq.”[47] Large amounts of biological growth media were reported as missing.[48]

The UNSCOM report notes that its inspections of chemical weapons were more successful because Iraq was more cooperative. “A significant number” of chemical weapons and related components were destroyed under UNSCOM supervision.[49] Iraq admitted to developing a large-scale chemical weapons program between 1982 and 1990. According to reports from cooperating Iraqi officials, aerial bombings in the Gulf War destroyed the majority of its chemical production facilities and that 80% of Iraq’s chemical weapons were used between 1982 and 1988.[50] Finally, Iraq reports to have unilaterally discarded 130 tons of non-weaponized chemical agents during the 1980s, a claim among others that UNSCOM could not verify.

One can conclude from the IAEA and UNSCOM efforts that Iraq boasted viable nuclear, biological, and chemical programs at different points in time. The reports by each agency effectively concluded that the development of NBC weapons had ceased by that time and the programs had been actively dismantled. Nevertheless, the inspectors’ reports left many questions unanswered and claims unsubstantiated. What was the fate of the NBC materials and components declared “missing”? Where was the evidence for the alleged unilateral destruction of countless warheads and agents? Could these programs be restarted easily? These questions did not receive satisfactory answers. A satisfactory answer might not have existed in the first place.

Private-Made-Public Part II: Hans Blix and UNMOVIC

In 1999 former head of the IAEA Dr. Hans Blix was appointed to lead the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC)—the replacement to UNSCOM. Under S/RES/1284, UNMOVIC was tasked with overseeing the disarming of Iraq through specific monitoring and verification programs.[51] Saddam Hussein readmitted UNMOVIC inspectors into Iraq in November of 2002. Ultimately, UNMOVIC would report that UNSCOM had successfully dismantled the Iraqi NBC programs in the 1990s, finding no trace of unconventional weapons. In a presentation to the UN Security Council at the conclusion of UNMOVIC’s mandate, Dr. Blix reported, “UNMOVIC has not found any such weapons, only a small number of empty chemical munitions, which should have been declared and destroyed.”[52]

Dr. Blix has since written a definitive account of his work, called Disarming Iraq, in which he explains that UNMOVIC’s efforts confirmed UNSCOM’s assessment that Saddam Hussein ceased the development of NBC weapons following the first Gulf War. The UNMOVIC report surmises that Saddam ordered the destruction of the remains of weapons program not to hide them, but rather as a genuine attempt to comply with the UNSC resolutions.[53] Despite interference and reluctance to comply with inspectors, Dr. Blix is adamant that UNMOVIC never found significant evidence of WMD[54]. He writes: “Containment had worked…It has also become clear that national intelligence organizations and government hawks, but not the inspectors, had been wrong in their assessments.”[55] Dr. Blix concedes that at the beginning of his task, he privately suspected that Iraq was hiding a sophisticated WMD program or stockpiling weapons from the past. But in the end, inspections proved a “worthwhile and effective method of containing potentially dangerous regimes.”[56]

Dr. Blix also describes a pattern of American unwillingness to accept the evidence his organization produced. For example, upon giving a joint presentation to the UN Security Council reporting that Iraq had “greatly improved its work with the inspectors,” both Dr. Blix and Mohamed El-Baradei of the IAEA received criticism from the American representative for failing in their task.[57] Blix also points to a specific event in 1995: Saddam’s son-in-law Hussein Kamel had defected to Jordan. Kamel claimed that Saddam had ordered the complete dismantling of the WMD programs in 1991—a declaration that Dr. Blix found believable given the inspectors’ findings.[58] But this unsettled Blix: why did Iraq refuse to fully cooperate and produce complete and categorical evidence to UNMOVIC? Blix provides a number of potential answers, ranging from Saddam’s pride, to the argument this essay advances—that he hoped to retain the threat of WMD in his weakened state. Only with the perception that he possessed unconventional weaponry could he be protected from his enemies such as Iranian Shi’a, Israel, and the Kurds.[59]

Blix offers this conclusion: “The UN and the world had succeeded in disarming Iraq without knowing it.”[60] While it is worth condemning policymakers for not listening to the evidence gathered by Dr. Blix and the UN weapons inspectors, it is also understandable why the West was so suspicious of Saddam Hussein’s actions, given his tenuous cooperation. Saddam, by January of 2003, realized the imminence of a US attack and was “frantically agreeing to almost anything the inspectors demanded: interviews outside Iraq of key scientists, over-flights by U2 spy aircraft and the destruction of dozens of Al Samoud 2 missiles, which were its technical pride and joy.”[61] What is perhaps saddest is that though so much inertia was driving the Bush Administration, there was not much that Saddam or Blix could have done to avoid the war. Unequal information on all sides was a major driver of the conflict, but with the clarity of hindsight, Blix’s reports to the Security Council, and his account in Disarming Iraq, one can view Saddam’s WMD program through a private-made-public lens.

Public: Saddam’s Actions and Denial of WMD

With the UNMOVIC findings and Blix’s revelations in mind, it is prudent now to turn to both Saddam’s fervent public denial of possessing WMD and the actions he took in relation to his alleged WMD programs. This is the public window into Saddam’s WMD program. Saddam confused the international community because he acted exactly how a rational actor would have, had he possessed WMD. On the surface Saddam denied the existence and production of WMD and more discretely acted to subvert the weapons inspections—both strategies that he might use if he truly did possess unconventional weapons. For example, in a rare interview with a Western reporter, Saddam Hussein sat down with CBS’ Dan Rather and resolutely denied having any WMD or anything that might violate the UN resolutions:

“Which is that? Which missiles are you talking about? We do not have missiles that go beyond the prescribed ranges, by the…U.N. The inspection teams have been here. They have inspected every place. And if there is a question to that effect, I think the question should be addressed to them.”[62]

Later, Saddam continued: “I think the United States and the world also knows that Iraq no longer has the [unintelligible] weapons…These missiles…have been destroyed and are no longer there.”[63]

This was a frequent pattern Saddam set when talking to leaders, politicians, and the media. In another interview, Great Britain’s Anthony Benn asked Saddam if Iraq possessed WMD to which the dictator responded: “There is only one truth and therefore I tell you as I have said on many occasions before that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever. We challenge anyone who claims that we have to bring forward any evidence and present it to public opinion.”[64] However public statements aside, Saddam’s actions were an endless source of confusion to observers who could not understand why he actively sabotaged UN weapons inspections. In retrospect, it is likely Saddam was making a calculation. He deemed it necessary to make out that he might have had WMD by continually denying it and simultaneously complicating UNSCOM and UNMOVIC’s inspections. According to Blix, “like someone who puts up a sign warning beware of dog without having a dog,” Saddam “did not mind inspiring in others the thought that he had [WMD].”[65] Hostile neighbors like Iran and Israel appeared far more threatening than the United States at the time, and if he had fully cooperated with the weapons inspections it might have come to light that his country was weaker and more vulnerable than it seemed.

Private: Interrogations Following Capture

When Saddam was captured, the first words he spoke to American forces were, “I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq, and I am willing to negotiate.”[66] Immediately following his apprehension, Saddam was never under the control of a specific American agency for long. Military intelligence officers initially ceded control over Saddam to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); however, the CIA soon transferred custody to the FBI, an organization better accustomed to interrogating suspects prior to legal proceedings. At the recently renamed Baghdad International Airport, the FBI had five “casual conversations” and twenty formal interviews with “High-Value Detainee #1.”[67] These interviews provide the private insight into Saddam’s WMD program. FBI Special Agent George Piro carried out the interrogations, which yielded a number of revelations including Saddam flatly denying any connection to Osama bin Laden, whom he called a “zealot.”[68] Because Hussein was not deemed an immediate threat, Agent Piro was able to conduct the interviews over a span of months and “build rapport” with Hussein.69] Agent Piro was relatively new to the FBI, and he was chosen as a young man from the Middle East who spoke fluent Arabic. His presence, it was correctly predicted, would be non-threatening to Saddam Hussein, who might treat the up-and-coming Piro paternalistically. At no point did Piro reveal his affiliation with the FBI, only that he was a representative of the US Government and that some of his reports might make it to President George W. Bush.[70]

Especially during his “casual” conversations with Agent Piro, Saddam talked openly about his WMD, providing new explanations to the subject. Several passages in Saddam’s declassified interviews are of particular interest: “Regarding destruction of weapons, Hussein stated, ‘We destroyed them. We told you, with documents. That’s it.’”[71] When Agent Piro provided Saddam with a list of locations where UN inspectors’ efforts were restricted, Hussein replied: “By God, if I had such weapons, I would have used them in the fight against the United States.”[72] Later in the interviews, Hussein stated that the UN inspections had achieved their objectives in dismantling Iraq’s WMD: “Iraq does not have any WMD and has not for sometime.”[73] When pressed on the beliefs of many in the international community that Iraq was reluctant and difficult during the inspections, Saddam shot back that Iraq had cooperated and that “it took time and occurred in steps,” for it was difficult for the “loyal hard working people dedicated to their work” to be “told one day to open all of their files and turn over all of their work and government secrets to outsiders.”[74]

So was there a purpose to Saddam’s maneuverings? Why did he insist that he did not have WMD while discretely hindering inspections? In one casual conversation, Saddam provided a critical revelation in support of this essay’s argument:

“Even though [Saddam] claimed Iraq did not have WMD, the threat from Iran was the major factor as to why he did not allow the return of the UN inspectors. [Hussein] was more concerned about Iran discovering Iraq’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities than the repercussions of the United States for his refusal to let weapons inspectors back into Iraq. In his opinion, the UN inspectors would have directly identified to the Iranians where to inflict maximum damage.”[75]

Under this logic, the expulsion of UNSCOM inspectors in 1998 could have been a calculated move. Saddam could have been worried that the successful completion of inspections would reveal that he conclusively lacked WMD, opening the door to his enemies.

Saddam pointed out that Iran’s weapons capabilities “have increased dramatically, while Iraq’s have been eliminated by the UN sanctions”—thus causing an asymmetry in strategy and tactics making Iran a “greater threat to Iraq and the region in the future.”[76] Interestingly, because of Iran’s advantage, Saddam claimed that had the sanctions on Iraq been lifted, he would have pursued a security agreement with the US for his country’s protection.[77] When asked if others might continue and reboot the WMD program in Iraq without his knowledge, Saddam answered no, and claimed to have met with his senior ministers to confirm the dismantlement of all unconventional weapons. His position on WMD, he argued, was well understood by his government.[78]

Several other important clarifications on WMD arose from the toppled leader’s conversations with Agent Piro. Saddam stated that Iraq’s WMD were for the “defense of Iraq’s sovereignty.” Saddam did not choose to use WMD during the Gulf War in 1991 because he did not believe that coalition forces intended on removing him from power.[79] Put simply, he did not feel Iraq’s sovereignty had been threatened. Finally, Saddam commented that UN inspectors were allowed back into Iraq to counter what he claimed were incorrect British intelligence reports, upon which the Americans were basing their decisions. When Saddam realized that war with the United States was imminent, he fully cooperated with inspectors in hopes of averting war; but he soon realized that the war was inevitable.[80] 

Analysis & Conclusions

In assessing the convergence of three sources of information: 1) UN weapons inspection reports; 2) Saddam’s public statements denying WMD and his belligerence directed towards inspectors; and 3) his interviews and conversations with the FBI; what conclusions may be drawn? It would seem that perhaps the only explanation that can properly address all three would be Blix’s “Beware of Dog” sign. It is possible—even likely—that Saddam’s Iraq dismantled its WMD programs following the 1991 conflict, and benefited from the international perception that he did have them in order to discourage attacks from his enemies, most notably Iran. He had dog, but without overtly claiming so, he needed his enemies to believe he did.

In a 2006 interview with the Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Journal of International Affairs, Williamson Murray saw Saddam as,

“Clearly playing a double game: trying to comply to a certain extent with UN sanctions, or to the demands for Iraq to destroy the substantial WMD capabilities it had, to get sanctions lifted; at the same time, not wanting to come fully clean because Saddam wanted the Iranians—particularly the Iranians—and the Israelis, to think that Iraq had substantial WMD capabilities; probably the United States as well.[81]

Saddam was caught in a catch-22: he wanted America and the West to believe that he no longer possessed WMD; at the same time, he thought it necessary to give the impression to his neighbors and potential enemies that Iraq was strong and not afraid to defend itself through unconventional warfare. Moreover, he strove to maintain his status in the eyes of the Arab world as a rugged and defiant leader, unafraid of the Americans.[82]

How feasible are Saddam’s claims in his interrogations? Might he have been lying? Hussein was not ignorant of his fate and expressed this to Agent Piro: he had no qualms that he would be found guilty and killed.[83] A condemned prisoner has little incentive to lie or revise the truth, so it would appear entirely possible that Saddam’s claims were, in his mind, true. Furthermore, over time Agent Piro developed an increasingly complex relationship with Saddam Hussein; Saddam would implore Piro to spend more time with him, and he visibly enjoyed talking with Piro. At their final parting, the two men smoked Cuban cigars, and visibly choked up, Saddam gave Piro three kisses on the cheeks, the traditional Arabic farewell.[84] This might indicate that the rapport that Piro developed with Saddam might have encouraged Saddam to be truthful during their conversations.

Saddam once told his inner circle of advisors and confidants: “We have nothing; not even one screw.”[85] The preponderance of evidence now points to a lack of WMD in Iraq. Woods, Palkki, and Stout write in The Saddam Tapes:

“[He] ordered his lieutenants to restrict UN inspectors’ access to suspected WMD sites, to bribe inspectors, and to refuse to deliver information on Iraq’s foreign suppliers of WMD-related materials. Despite such obstructionism, [the primary sources] are consistent with other evidence indicating that Iraq had divested itself of prohibited nuclear, chemical, and biological weapon stockpiles.”[86]

Also, the “missing” chemical agents and warheads, and lack of evidence for unilateral purging could have been a deceptive ploy by Saddam. By leaving the issues unsolved, he could indirectly signal to his enemies that he might still have unconventional weapons. In his interrogations he called destroying some weapons without UN supervision “a mistake.”[87] This, according to Dr. Blix, does not mean that Iraq still had WMD, it meant that the UN inspectors were not given enough evidence to prove their destruction. If true, the decision to not provide evidence also contributed to the international community’s mistrust of his claims.

With no hard evidence for WMD, how can America and Britain’s rush to the warpath be explained? Today it has become clear that sad intelligence failures combined with the refusal to listen to Hans Blix and UNMOVIC’s reports drove the march to war. The 2003 Iraq invasion and subsequent “quagmire” that then-Secretary of Defense Cheney foreshadowed—and in which he was complicit—went unimpeded. Most importantly, for a variety of reasons, the Bush Administration seemed to be convinced from the beginning that war was inevitable. It was understandably difficult to take Saddam’s word, for he walked a thin, self-interested line. His psyche notwithstanding, Blix’s inspections and Saddam’s increasing cooperation and steadfast denial of WMD were drowned out in the rumbles for combat.

An assessment of the linkages between Saddam’s statements and actions, the UNSCOM and UNMOVIC reports, and the transcripts of his interrogations leads to the entirely possible conclusion that in the years following Dessert Storm and leading up to the 2003 invasion, Saddam did not possess WMD in any substantial capacity. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and we are left scratching our heads, wondering how and why we were misled. The truth is that Saddam’s bluff was finally called. Saddam had consistently hinted to his enemies that he had WMD, but his lie fell upon the wrong ears, and the ruse he created for his protection ultimately led to his downfall. Sitting atop Saddam’s bloody legacy should read this headline: Saddam Hussein—the man who fell prey to the greatest backfire in modern military history.

Samuel Obletz is a Political Science major in Saybrook College.

Correction: This article referred to Richard Cheney as having previously been Secretary of State. He was Secretary of Defense from 1989 to 1993.

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[1] Joyce Battle (ed), “Saddam Hussein Talks to the FBI,” The National Security Archive at George Washington University, July 1, 2009, retrieved from <>.

[2] Neil MacFarquhar, “Saddam Hussein, Defiant Dictator Who Ruled Iraq With Violence and Fear, Dies,” The New York Times, December 30, 2006, retrieved from <>.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Efraim Karsh & Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein: a Political Biography, New York, Grove Press (2003), 75.

[5] Williamson Murray, “Saddam’s Table Talk,” Interview with Evan McCormick, The Yale Journal of International Affairs, Winter/Spring 2006, 40-42.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Karsh and Rautsi, 3.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Amir Iskander, Saddam Hussein, the Fighter, the Thinker and the Man, Paris: Hachette Realites (1980), 10.

[10] MacFarquhar, “Saddam Hussein, Defiant Dictator Who Ruled Iraq With Violence and Fear, Dies.”

[11] Karsh and Rautsi, 5-6.

[12] Ibid., 6.

[13] Ibid., 11-12.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. 14

[16] Kevin Woods, David D. Palkki, & Mark E. Stout, The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime, Cambridge University Press (2011), vii-viii.

[17] Con Coughlin, Saddam: His Rise and Fall, New York, Harper (2005), 98.

[18] MacFarquhar, “Saddam Hussein, Defiant Dictator Who Ruled Iraq With Violence and Fear, Dies.”

[19] Con Coughlin, Saddam: His Rise and Fall, New York, Harper (2005), 5.

[20] “Truce and Debt: August 1988” in “Saddam’s Iraq: Key Events,” BBC News, 2002, retrieved from <>.

[21] F. Gregory Gause III, “Iraq’s Decisions to Go to War, 1980 and 1990,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Winter 2002), 52.

[22] Javed Ali, “Chemical Weapons and the Iran-Iraq War: A Case Study in Noncompliance” The Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2011.

[23] “Chemical Warfare” in “Saddam’s Iraq: Key Events,” BBC News, 2002, retrieved from <>.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] MacFarquhar, “Saddam Hussein, Defiant Dictator Who Ruled Iraq With Violence and Fear, Dies.”

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Coughlin, 268.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Daniel Byman, Kenneth Pollack, and Matthew Waxman, “Coercing Saddam Hussein: Lessons from the Past,” Survival, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Autumn 1998), 127-151.

[33] Ibid., 132-133.

[34] Colin H. Kahl, “Before attacking Iran, Israel should learn from its 1981 strike on Iraq,” The Washington Post, March 2, 2012, retrieved from <>.

[35] See S/RES/686 and S/RES/687, available at <>.

[36] Ibid.

[37] MacFarquhar, “Saddam Hussein, Defiant Dictator Who Ruled Iraq With Violence and Fear, Dies.”

[38] Scott Ritter, “Resignation Letter,” The Federation of American Scientists, August 26, 1998, retrieved from <>.

[39] William R. Pitt, War On Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You to Know, Context, New York, (2002), 28.

[40] “UNSCOM Report to the Security Council, January 25, 1999” The Federation of American Scientists, January 25, 1999, retrieved from <>.

[41] “Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction,” PBS Frontline, November 8, 2001, retrieved from <>.

[42] “IAEA and UNSCOM reports to UN Security Council,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury College, December 15, 1998, retrieved from <>.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] “UNSCOM Report to the Security Council, January 25, 1999”

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., Appendix D.

[48] Ibid.

[49] “Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

[50] Ibid.

[51] See S/RES/1284, available at <>.

[52] Hans Blix “Briefing of the Security Council, 14 February 2003: An update on inspections” UNMOVIC, February 14, 2003, retrieved from <>.

[53] Fareed Zakaria, “Blix: I Needed Evidence,” The New York Times, April 11, 2004, retrieved from <>.

[54] “Twenty-ninth quarterly report on the activities of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission in accordance with paragraph 12 of Security Council resolution 1284 (1999)” UNMOVIC, May 29, 2007, retrieved from <>.

[55] Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq, New York, Pantheon (2004), 290.

[56] Ibid., 290-292.

[57] Ibid., 202.

[58] Ibid., 232-233.

[59] Ibid. 290-292.

[60] “A disarming tale: Iraq and weapons of mass destruction,” The Economist, March 11, 2004, retrieved from <>.

[61] Kevin Woods, James Lacey, and Williamson Murray, “Saddam’s Delusions: The View From the Inside,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2006.

[62] David Kohn, “Transcript: Saddam Hussein Interview,” CBS, February 11, 2009, retrieved from <>.

[63] Ibid.

[64] “Full text of Saddam interview with Tony Benn,” The Guardian, February 5, 2003, retrieved from <>.

[65] Blix, 287-288.

[66] MacFarquhar, “Saddam Hussein, Defiant Dictator Who Ruled Iraq With Violence and Fear, Dies.”

[67] Battle (ed), “Saddam Hussein Talks to the FBI.”

[68] Ibid.

[69] James Joyner, “How the FBI Broke Saddam,” Outside the Beltway, June 28, 2009, retrieved from <>.

[70] Battle (ed), “Saddam Hussein Talks to the FBI.”

[71] “Interview Session 4, February 13, 2004,” Declassified Transcript, US Department of Justice, February 13, 2004, available at: <>.

[72] Ibid.

[73] “Casual Conversation, May 13, 2004,” Declassified Transcript, US Department of Justice, May 13, 2004, available at: <>.

[74] Ibid.

[75] “Casual Conversation, June 11, 2004,” Declassified Transcript, US Department of Justice, June 11, 2004, available at: <>.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid.

[78] “Casual Conversation, May 13, 2004.”

[79] Ibid.

[80] “Casual Conversation, June 11, 2004.”

[81] Williamson Murray, “Saddam’s Table Talk.”

[82] Ibid.

[83] “Interrogator Shares Saddam’s Confessions,” 60 Minutes, CBS, February 11, 2009, retrieved from <>.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Woods, Palkki, & Stout, 293.

[86] Ibid., viii.

[87] “Interview Session 4, February 13, 2004.”