WASHINGTON – CIA interrogators taking on Saddam Hussein must contend with the likelihood that some of their questioning could become public during his eventual trial. That means decisions now on how to conduct the questioning and record the conversations, U.S. officials say.
On the one hand, any admissions Saddam might make of human rights violations or responsibility for massacres would be useful material for prosecutors in a trial.
But any such statement by Saddam also would probably have to meet some kind of standard for use in a court case, much like an affidavit in the U.S. court system. That could mean officials might want the informal give-and-take of a typical interrogation to give way to a ritualized question-and-answer session.
That makes Saddam’s interrogation different in fundamental ways from the questioning by U.S. officials of senior members of the al-Qaida terrorist organization. It is unclear whether those al-Qaida members, captured and hustled off to secret overseas locations for interrogation, will ever see daylight again, even if they are afforded some kind of military or other trial.
But if Saddam’s trial is to have any kind of legitimacy, he must be given a chance to speak and defend himself publicly, experts say. The location and form — and date — of his trial have not been finalized. U.S. officials have said they will work with Iraqi officials to come up with those details.
“We can’t we treat him the same way as we treat Khalid Shaikh Mohammed,” said John T. Parry, an international law expert at the University of Pittsburgh, referring to a top al-Qaida figure being questioned by U.S. officials. “He (Saddam) was an evil man, but he was the head of state. It can’t possibly be in our long-term interests to be seen acting brutally or indifferently toward his welfare.”
When Saddam eventually addresses his judges, he may describe the methods used to interrogate him. He may embarrass the government with revelations about its friendly relationship with his regime in the 1980s.
He might claim physical torture, even if none took place.
“Anything we do with him will almost certainly become public,” Parry said. “If you were his defense attorney, you would run to the press. It will be blaring on Al-Jazeera within moments.”
CIA interrogators are pressing Saddam for details on the insurgency in Iraq, on possible weapons of mass destruction and on his government’s ties to terrorists, U.S. officials say.
An interrogation is about control. The CIA now controls everything about Saddam’s life: his food, his surroundings, his information. Interrogators can befriend him, lie to him, confuse him — all to get him talking.
U.S. officials say they don’t resort to torture. But there’s a gray area of interrogation techniques designed to stress and disorient a person through physical discomfort — like preventing the person from sleeping. Some say that is torture.
At some point, the CIA interrogators will lose their control over Saddam. Presuming the former Iraqi leader gets some kind of attorney, that person can meet with Saddam and re-orient him by providing him with news from the outside world.
Jerrold Post, a former CIA profiler who directs the political psychology program at George Washington University, said he believes Saddam’s personality has three layers: On the outside is the builder of grandiose palaces, who envisions himself on par with Asian kings of antiquity. Beneath that is a man concerned primarily with his personal safety — the Saddam who made massive bunker complexes beneath those palaces. On the inside is the remnant of an abusive childhood.
The world saw that innermost layer in the video taken after Saddam’s capture, as he submitted to inspection by an American medic, Post believes. But, according to intelligence officials, Saddam quickly grew defiant during initial attempts to question him.
It is unlikely, then, that interrogators will be able to penetrate much past the first layer, particularly because Saddam will have eventual contact with a lawyer, Post said. He recommends interrogators try to appeal to his vanity by, for example, trying to get him to brag about how skillfully he concealed weapons programs from U.N. inspectors.
“I would play to his swollen ego, recalling … it rests on this fragile foundation,” Post said. “Get him into a boasting mode.”