Why Saddam Hussein lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction

The former dictator was afraid of looking weak to Iran, according to newly declassified interviews he had with an FBI agent.

By , Middle East Editor

Saddam Hussein encouraged the perception that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) because he was afraid of appearing weak in Iran's eyes, according to nearly two dozen declassified transcripts of an FBI agent’s conversations with the former Iraqi dictator released Wednesday.

The National Security Archive, a project run by The George Washington University in Washington, obtained 20 interviews and five “casual conversations” through the Freedom of Information Act. Conducted in 2004 by FBI agent George Piro, they shed new light on Mr. Hussein’s thinking and the course of events that led to the US invasion six years ago.
Among the findings, with links to the .pdf file of the relevant transcript:

  • Hussein criticized Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as a “zealot,” denied meeting him in Sudan in 1994, and said his country and the international terrorist franchise “did not have the same belief or vision.”
  • Iraq would have been more likely to cooperate with China or North Korea, with which Hussein claimed to have a relationship. But his first choice would have been to seek a security agreement with the US to protect Iraq against regional threats.
  • Iraq had complied with all UN resolutions regarding nuclear weapons by 1998. The main reason Hussein would not let UN inspectors return after kicking them out was that he was afraid Iran would learn from them where to strike Iraq.
  • Hussein reluctantly reversed that decision after the British government prepared a report with inaccurate intelligence. “It was this inaccurate intelligence on which the United States was making their decisions,” says the transcript.

Hussein's unlikely bond with FBI agent
Mr. Piro, one of about 50 Arabic speakers among the FBI’s 10,000 agents, coaxed this information out of Hussein over the course of nearly a year – during which, he says, the dictator came increasingly to rely on him emotionally.

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According to CBS, Piro listened to Hussein read poetry he’d written – a daily exercise for the former dictator, who had always carefully carved out time to read fiction when he was running Iraq. He gave Hussein the baby wipes the "clean freak" ruler loved to use to clean his cell and wipe off fresh fruit. The FBI agent celebrated Hussein’s birthday with cookies from his mother. He gave Hussein flower seeds, which he cultivated in a tiny garden with his bare hands. Slowly, the relationship began to yield fruit.

When Piro gave a lengthy interview to CBS’s 60 minutes in January 2008, his boss – FBI Assistant Director Joe Persichini – called the interviews with Hussein “one of the top accomplishments of our agency in the last 100 years.”

The FBI was asked, it said in statement, to brief Hussein because of the agency’s “longstanding work in gathering statements for court.”

Excerpts from the transcripts
Piro, a former California policeman who earned his college degree in night school in order to be eligible for the FBI, often took issue with Hussein’s assertions.

Hussein denied having any WMD. Piro countered, pointing out that US intelligence had gathered intelligence to the contrary and asking if WMDs could have been developed without his knowledge:

Hussein said no, and claimed on several occasions he held meetings with all of his ministers and asked them specifically if Iraq had WMD that he was unaware of.

All of the ministers said no.

Hussein also claimed that if UN sanctions had been lifted, he would have sought a security agreement with the US. Piro pointed out that given the relationship of the two countries, such an agreement may have not been an immediate option, and Iraq “would have needed to reconstitute its own weapons program in response.” Hussein replied that “Iraq would have done what was necessary and agreed that Iraq’s technical and scientific abilities exceeded others in the region.

On other points, Hussein’s statements received less criticism – particularly on Iran. The former dictator’s was worried not only about the immediate threat from Iran, but its advancing expertise:

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