Assistance to reporter imperiled key contact
BAGHDAD — Khalid's nightmare started the morning of Jan. 6, 1999, when he was taken from a bus stop 500 yards from his home as he headed to work.
Hustling him into a black Buick, the two men told Khalid they were his "brothers" - a euphemism for agents of the Mukhabarat, Iraq's internal security police.
Many stories of persecution in the old Iraq begin this way. But in this case, I knew the detainee personally. Khalid is not his real name. He was a key government contact when I was reporting on the issue of depleted uranium (DU) in Iraq.
Khalid's harrowing experience offers a glimpse of the Big Brother methods of fear and intimidation practiced daily under Saddam Hussein. It also reveals the pitfalls that Western correspondents and editors can stumble upon while reporting from a closed and paranoid country.
In 1998, I began working on articles about the effects on Iraq of DU ammunition, used by the US during the 1991 Gulf War. Iraqi authorities granted me access unprecedented for any other Western journalist - including a visit to former Gulf War battlefields with radiation detectors. As head of an official research center that dealt with DU issues, Khalid was crucial in organizing interviews with Iraqi officials, military officers, soldiers, and doctors.
A high-level committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz had calculated that press coverage of DU - which they blamed for a surge of serious health problems in southern Iraq - was in Iraq's interest.
But, due to the project's size and a grueling editing and fact-checking process, the stories did not run until 14 months after reporting began. The time gap raised suspicion in Baghdad, where authorities began to believe that I was not a journalist but a spy, with Khalid in cahoots with me.
"You spend 50 years serving your country, and this is the result," the graying Khalid recalls, after seeking me out in Baghdad four years after his ordeal to tell his story. "[Mr. Hussein's loyalists] will never change their way of thinking. They suspect their mothers and fathers," said Khalid.
On that January day, the two agents drove Khalid to the infamous Mukhabarat investigation center at Kadamiya and forced him to change into a dirty set of prisoner's clothes.
"Then they came: three champions of torture. Huge," Khalid says. "They started asking: Do you know American journalist Scott Peterson?"
Khalid says that his interrogators then proceeded to describe a tangled web of details that raised their suspicions, and though completely innocent in reality, were difficult to explain. Khalid was told that I was an expert on ballistic missiles, and that I had paid Khalid for information. "I insisted you had nothing to do with espionage," Khalid told me.
The first pieces of "evidence" came from a videotape shot as I attended a two-day DU conference held in Baghdad in July 1998. It included footage of me dashing to catch up to Khalid and quickly slipping a folded note into his hand.
Khalid explained that I was returning a fake $100 bill a French journalist had given him to aid Iraqi children with health problems. Khalid loaned me the counterfeit to use for a story on fake bills being printed in Lebanon.
"OK. We believe you," Khalid was told. "But what about these documents we found in his room?"
The documents were extra photocopies of reports that I didn't need, and had torn up before throwing them out in my hotel trash can. To Iraqi intelligence, they were evidence of spying, and the agents had carefully taped them back together.
Khalid was handcuffed and sent to Cell 63, where there was human waste on the floor and no blanket to ward off the cold.
On the second day, Khalid was grilled by seven interrogators. "They put a video into the machine, and I was there, in the Rashid Hotel. And you were there, with a small bag," Khalid told me. "You put your right hand on my shoulder." It is a typical gesture between men in the Middle East, but one that the security agents found suspicious between an Iraqi and a foreigner.
The interrogators wanted to know whether I had paid any money to the Iraqi officers who escorted me to the southern city of Basra, and to the former battlefields.
While Khalid was being questioned and denying the accusations, one interrogator, who Khalid remembers had an "awful face," asked his boss twice for permission to "take him to the operation room" - a place Khalid understood to be a torture chamber.
Another interrogator asked: "Why don't you accept that he [Mr. Peterson] tried to recruit you, and say you refused because you love your nation and your leader?"
"It wasn't like that," Khalid recalls answering.
The agents had checked his bank account, and found he had no money. They had traced Khalid's latest car purchase, and found the legitimate source of funds. "They had everything," Khalid says.
But they didn't have the reporter they were after. They wanted Khalid to help them lure me back to Iraq from my base in Jordan, and say that I was welcome to return to Iraq. It was a request that set off alarm bells, Khalid says, reminding him of another journalist, Farzad Barzoft. The Iranian-born writer for the British newspaper the Observer was accused of spying and hanged after being caught in 1989 disguising himself as a doctor to get close to an Iraqi nuclear design facility.
Though I did not know of Khalid's trouble, I knew something was wrong when months later, I was put on a blacklist of journalists barred from Iraq.
Khalid was interrogated intensively for three days about his assistance to the Monitor. He was then released, after signing a letter that committed him to cooperating with the Mukhabarat. Every two to three weeks for the next few months, he was called in for a "chat" with a local Mukhabarat officer.
His file was closed in April 1999, when the DU stories were printed in the paper. Copies finally arrived in Iraq two months later, Khalid says, providing proof that his American connection was indeed a journalist and not a spy.
But the impact has never left Khalid, who to this day resents his arrest and humiliation at the hands of Hussein's thugs. The intelligence chief gave him two pens, a signal that the case was closed.
"They are still there," Khalid says. "I hate to touch them."