Through Hussein’s Looking Glass

Times Staff Writer

Saddam Hussein was convinced he won the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

And when he destroyed all his weapons of mass destruction after that war, Hussein was sure the CIA knew it.

As a result, he saw 12 years of United Nations resolutions, trade sanctions and threats of war as a charade to humiliate him.

In Hussein’s view, Washington and Baghdad should have been close allies. He could have helped curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He offered to become America’s “best friend in the region, bar none.” He was certain U.S. forces would never invade.


Hussein’s looking-glass view of the world is vividly described in the report last week by Charles A. Duelfer, the CIA’s chief weapons investigator. The document is based on a variety of sources, including interrogations of Hussein himself. A close reading of the report, along with interviews with intelligence officials and outside experts, sheds new light on Hussein’s mind-set leading up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Duelfer argues that for Americans to understand Hussein’s baffling decision to defy U.N. resolutions and face disaster they must “see the universe from Saddam’s point in space.”

Yet the reverse is also true. If Hussein misunderstood the West, it’s clear that successive administrations in Washington since 1991 projected their own misconceptions and misjudgments onto Hussein. They also had a looking-glass view.

They saw evidence of banned weapons when none existed. They missed signs that now seem obvious. President Bush, for example, insisted before the war that the failure by U.N. teams to find any evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons despite 731 inspections in the four months before the invasion simply proved that Hussein was hiding them -- not that they didn’t exist.

“I sometimes wonder, what part of the word ‘no’ didn’t we understand?” mused a Pentagon official who has long studied Hussein’s regime.

Duelfer clearly wrestled with the conundrum of years of miscommunication between the two foes. Seeking clarity from the alternate realities in Washington and Baghdad, his report sometimes reads like a script from “The Twilight Zone.”


To understand Hussein, Duelfer writes, one must step back from “reality and time. We would collect the flow of images, sounds, feelings and events that passed into Saddam’s mind and project them as with a Zeiss Planetarium projection instrument.... Events would flow by the reader as they flowed by Saddam.”

Duelfer urges people to forget the images that portrayed Hussein as a buffoon. In the dictator’s mind, he was the latest in a line of great leaders such as Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin.

“Saddam saw adulation in a crowd cheering him when he fired a rifle over their heads -- not what we Westerners may see as a guy in a funny hat recklessly firing a weapon,” Duelfer writes. Imagine the dictator’s thoughts, he adds, when he saw Bush on TV “calling him a madman.”

Duelfer has spent a decade studying Hussein, first as deputy head of the U.N. weapons inspections program and then as chief U.S. investigator in Iraq. His 960-page report is based on 16 months of work in Iraq, interviews with Hussein and most of his top aides and scientists, and a review of an estimated 40 million pages of documents retrieved from Iraq.

A single FBI agent has conducted all U.S. interrogations of Hussein since he was captured in December and placed in a solitary cell at a U.S. military base outside Baghdad. By all accounts, Hussein has been lucid, rational and deliberate in months of sessions.

“It would be easier to understand if he really was loony,” said a former senior intelligence official who has read many of the debriefings and who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There’s nothing that’s come through in the interviews that would lead you to believe the guy’s got a screw loose.”

But the former senior official said the interrogations of Hussein are frustrating for those trying to understand the ousted dictator’s motivations and decision-making -- as well as the regime’s use of torture, assassination and mass murder.

“What you’d hope is he’d lay out why he did what he did, or what he was thinking when he did all these stupid things,” he said. “He’s not giving us those kinds of insights. He doesn’t reveal that much.... It’s like having Hitler on the couch but he’s not telling you anything about concentration camps.”

The former official said the CIA never understood that Hussein was bluffing about his long-abandoned weapons chiefly to deter Iran, Iraq’s longtime enemy. To Hussein, Tehran’s alleged push to gain the nuclear arms that he was denied posed an unacceptable danger to his country and a challenge to his rightful place in history.

CIA officials heard dire threats in Hussein’s bombastic speeches. They assumed banned weapons were in trucks and buildings they could not enter. They believed defectors with codenames like “Curveball” and “Red River,” who told them what they wanted to hear. They reasoned that Hussein would not endure U.N. sanctions, and lose an estimated $100 billion in trade, if he had nothing to hide.

In the end, Hussein’s bluff backfired. Washington’s failure to read the bluff would have a huge impact on both countries.

Hussein’s mistake “was one of the more monumental miscalculations of history,” the former official said. “Even larger than ours of not understanding what he was doing.... We’re used to people going out of their way to pretend they don’t have bad stuff. But we hadn’t before encountered someone who went out of his way to pretend he did. I know he said he didn’t [have banned weapons], but all his actions said he did.”

In Hussein’s view, the U.S. priority in the region was to ensure that Iran’s Islamic Revolution did not spread to other nations and give radical Shiite clerics a chokehold on global oil supplies. He was convinced that Washington’s national interest lay in containing Iran’s suspected nuclear arms program, not in toppling his regime.

Indeed, he depended on it.

David Kay, who preceded Duelfer as the chief U.S. weapons sleuth, said he asked Tarik Aziz, Iraq’s former deputy prime minister, in an interrogation last year why Hussein didn’t keep his illicit weapons if he was so nervous about Iran’s effort to build a nuclear bomb. “He said every time they raised it with Saddam, he said, ‘Don’t worry about Iran because if it turns out to be what we think, the Israelis or the Americans will take care of them,’ ” Kay said. “In other words, he was relying on us to deal with his enemy.”

Aziz said Hussein got his news from the Arabic-language radio services of the BBC and Voice of America. But Hussein was more interested in books and news about rival Arab leaders. He especially resented the Saudi rulers for their U.S. ties.

Hussein’s own view of the United States was conflicted. In his mind, he was a heroic leader who gained prestige in the Arab world for his defiance of the sole superpower. But Hussein told aides it would be equally prestigious to become a U.S. ally. So he used U.N. diplomats, journalists and others to carry back-channel offers to improve relations with Washington.

“They really thought they could cut a deal,” said a former CIA officer who was contacted by a senior Iraqi official shortly before the invasion in March 2003. “He thought it was power politics to the end. He really couldn’t believe we would eliminate his country from the map. That’s the way he looked at it.”

All of Hussein’s entreaties were rebuffed, and it’s impossible to know if he was serious about cooperating with Washington. But he complained to an interrogator that “he was not given a chance because the U.S. refused to listen to anything Iraq had to say.”

Dr. Jerrold M. Post, a psychiatrist who has profiled Hussein for the CIA, said Hussein was “not psychotic.” But he said the dictator had little recent experience outside Iraq, and had a distorted worldview.

“He thought the real threats from the West were the kind of hyperbole that one often hears in the Arab world,” Post said. “And he was surrounded by sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear, not what he needed to know.”

An interrogation of Ali Hassan Majid, the senior aide known as “Chemical Ali” for his alleged role in using poison gas to slaughter Iraqi Kurds in 1988, illustrated the point. Asked how Hussein responded to bad news, Majid indicated he “has never known any instance of anybody bringing bad news to Saddam,” according to Duelfer’s report.

Hussein’s second son and heir apparent, Qusai, was no better. The former commander of the Nebuchadnezzar Republican Guard division told a U.S. interrogator that Qusai “thought most of us were clowns. We pretended to have victory, and we never provided true information as it is here on planet Earth.... Any commander who spoke the truth would lose his head.”

Ironically, Saddam Hussein misread U.S. intentions in part because he believed the CIA was far better at spying than it turned out to be. Senior aides told interrogators that Hussein was convinced the U.S. intelligence agency knew he had no illicit weapons.

Hussein assumed that the CIA had penetrated his regime, just as his own intelligence services used wiretaps, secret cameras and informants to spy on the U.N. weapons teams.

He was wrong. In July, the Senate Intelligence Committee reported that the CIA had no informants or spies inside Iraq for at least five years before the war.

“Saddam believed in the myth of the CIA,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who worked in northern Iraq. “He really thought we knew what was going on inside his regime. He couldn’t believe that we didn’t have any sources.”

Other Iraqis also believed in the CIA. Duelfer recounts how a top regime official, Abdel Tawab Mullah Huweish, began to worry that Hussein was hiding banned weapons after Bush named Iraq as part of an “axis of evil” in January 2002.

“Huweish could not understand why the United States would challenge Iraq in such stark and threatening terms unless it had irrefutable information,” Duelfer writes.

In other ways, the Iraqis understood U.S. thinking all too well. Top regime leaders “had a much better understanding of how the West viewed their programs than the other way around,” Duelfer concludes.

In the 1990s, as tensions between Iraq and the international community waxed and waned, U.S. analysts studied images from spy satellites and identified prominent regime buildings as potential targets for cruise missile attacks. The U.S. did launch limited strikes on occasion, targeting missile facilities and suspected weapons labs.

But Iraqi officials quickly understood U.S. strategy and emptied many of the sites of key equipment and records before any attack, according to Duelfer.

More than a decade of regular U.S. and British bombing of Iraqi antiaircraft, communications and other military sites in the “no-fly” zones in northern and southern Iraq were worth the cost to Hussein. Sooner or later, the dictator thought, he would shoot down a plane.

“This was a battle he was fighting with a very favorable exchange ratio,” Duelfer writes. “He cost the United States a lot with almost no cost to himself, and he could readily sustain the battle indefinitely.”

In other cases, U.S. officials simply misunderstood the high-tech intelligence they had.

On Feb. 5, 2003, for example, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell appeared at the U.N. Security Council to make the administration’s case for war. He played a tape of a phone call that he said was intercepted on Jan. 30 between a Republican Guard officer and an underling in the field. According to Powell, the officer issued orders to “clean out all the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure nothing is there.”

Powell said the tape proved Hussein was hiding “the presence of weapons of mass destruction.” U.S. investigators never found the officers. But they concluded that Powell misinterpreted the tape. The call concerned materials from Iraq’s long-defunct, pre-1991 arms program, not new weapons.

In fact, on Jan. 25, five days before the call was taped, a senior regime official met Republican Guard military leaders and warned that “the government would hold them responsible” if U.N. inspectors found any of the old material in their areas “or if there was anything that cast doubt on Iraq’s cooperation.”

Until the final few months, Hussein was convinced that Bush would not invade. He told aides America still suffered from the “Vietnam syndrome.”

“He probably didn’t think he’d be alive at this point,” said Kay, the former U.S. weapons inspector. “Every day he probably wonders what went wrong.”