In October 2003, seven months after the American- led invasion of Iraq, I traveled to Baghdad on assignment for The Washington Post
. Saddam Hussein was by then a fugitive in hiding. Occasional car bombs rattled the capital, a prelude of much worse to come. One afternoon, at a fortified compound near the Republican Palace, I met Hamish Killip, a British investigator with the Iraq Survey Group, a C.I.A.- sponsored multinational task force dispatched at the onset of the invasion to find Saddam’s hidden stocks of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. By now it was apparent that Iraq possessed no such weapons. The shock of this revelation had already touched off investigations into the profound failures of U.S. intelligence and White House decision- making. In Iraq, the Survey Group’s mission had unexpectedly changed from hunting for weapons to sorting truth from lies in the history of the Saddam Hussein regime.
One set of questions involved Saddam’s motivations. Why had he seemingly sacrificed his long reign in power by giving the impression that he had dangerous weapons when, in fact, he had none? Or as Killip put it that afternoon, addressing Saddam: “What was so damned important that you were willing to go through all of this?”
Across town, I met David Kay, the Survey Group’s leader. He was exploring a theory that Saddam had been bluffing— pretending that he might have WMD in order to deter the radical ayatollahs of Iran from attacking Iraq. And yet the matter seemed uncertain, Kay told me,since Saddam did not appear to have been particularly afraid of Iran.When one of his ministers had worried aloud that Iran might pursue its own nuclear or chemical arsenal, Saddam had reportedly replied,“Don’t worry about the Iranians. If they ever get WMD, the Americans and the Israelis will destroy them.”
This was vintage Saddam, I now recognize—half joking, capable of striking prescience, reliably fixated on American and Israeli power,and, above all, impossible to reduce to a simple explanation. Successive American presidents misjudged him. They often dismissed him as a cartoon autocrat, akin to the faux Adolf Hitler played for laughs by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator
. Certainly, Saddam Hussein was as unsubtle as a shotgun blast. He was a cruel tyrant directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, as well as for the torture or imprisonment of many tens of thousands more. Without serious provocation, he invaded two of his neighbors, Iran and Kuwait.During the Iran-Iraq War, he gassed Iranian troops and his own rebellious Kurdish population. During the Gulf War, he lobbed terrifying Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel. He plastered Iraq with his image to promote his cult of personality. His speeches were often bombastic and alarming. Against such a record, it seems more than a little odd to argue that Saddam’s enemies failed to grasp important nuances of the man and his rule through the Baath Party. Yet as America’s tragic invasion to eliminate a nonexistent WMD arsenal amply demonstrated,there was more to Saddam than Washington’s politicians and spies could grasp—even when the stakes were very high.The Achilles Trap
is an investigation into how this failure of comprehension unfolded. It seeks to enlarge the story of the 2003 invasion’s origins by elevating Saddam’s side of the conflict and by adding substantial new information. Saddam left an extraordinary and still mostly secret trove of about two thousand hours of tape recordings of his leadershipmeetings—private discussions he recorded as assiduously as Richard Nixon—as well as meeting minutes, intelligence files, and other materials. They document what the Iraqi leader was saying privately at turning points of his struggle against the United States. The Saddam tapes have a complicated, problematic history. They were captured by invading U.S. forces and repatriated to Iraq in 2013, but most have never been released, and virtually all are currently unavailable to researchers (see “A Note on Sources”). During the more than four years I worked on The Achilles Trap
, I obtained several hundred transcripts, audio files, and document sets, including those of Saddam’s internal discussions. With support from Adam Marshall and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, I sued the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act and acquired a cache of 145 transcripts and files, including materials never before published. The scholar Michael Brill generously shared his sizable private archive assembled from previously open sources since closed. By connecting these and additional parts of the captured files with other sources, including interviews with surviving participants, it became possible to see in new ways what drove Saddam in his struggle with Washington, and to understand how and why American thinking about him was often wrong, distorted, or incomplete.
Starting with Saddam’s rise to unchecked power in 1979 and the birth of Iraq’s secret nuclear- weapons program soon afterward, it is a story that encompasses diverse episodes and crises: Saddam’s furtive collaboration with the C.I.A. during the 1980s; the Gulf War of 1991; the struggle over Iraqi disarmament that followed; and the climactic confrontation after 9/ 11. One recurring theme is the trouble American decision- makers had in assessing Saddam’s resentments and managing his inconsistencies. It is a theme that resonates in our present age of authoritarian rulers, when the world’s stressed democracies seek to grasp the often unpredictable decision- making of cloistered rulers, such as Vladimir Putin, or to influence other closed dictatorships, such as North Korea’s. Saddam believed— not without reason— that he was besieged by would be assassins and international conspirators. He was very keen to remain in power. About this, he was exceptionally cunning. In discussions with comrades— he usually did most of the talking— he regularly steered the conversation around to the subject of conspiracies.In his worldview, nothing was ever quite what it seemed. Great Powers like America and regional powers like Iraq were ceaselessly plotting in the shadows against one another. In one memorable meeting,he mused aloud about the relative strengths of the spy services out to get him. (He gave high marks to the Israelis and the British.)And, of course, they were
out to get him.
One after another, three American presidents—GeorgeH. W. Bush,Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—signed Top Secret “findings” directing the C.I.A. to overthrow Saddam. This campaign to foster a coup d’état in Baghdad, which lasted from May 1991 until the 2003 invasion, proved to be spectacularly unsuccessful. As recently available records show, Saddam was well aware of the C.I.A.’s not‑so‑covert actions,which he regarded, in any event, as nothing new or unexpected—just another day at the office. Saddam entered politics as a Baath Party assassin. He and his comrades had grappled as young revolutionaries with the C.I.A.’s prior involvement in Iraqi affairs, dating to 1963,when the C.I.A. supported a Cold War–driven coup that briefly brought the Baath Party to power.
Like many people in the Middle East and elsewhere, Saddam thought of the C.I.A. as all-knowing.This contributed to his own misunderstandings of America, which were at least as profound as America’s misunderstandings of him. For instance, after 1991, Saddam assumed that the C.I.A. knew
that he had no WMD, and so he interpreted American and British accusations about his supposed arsenal of nukes and germ bombs as merely propaganda lines in a long-running conspiracy to get rid of him. He resisted the disarmament inspections demanded by Washington and London as a possible alternative to war partly because he saw the camera-wielding,walkie-talkie-toting inspectors as spies with a hidden agenda—again,not without reason. A C.I.A. capable of making a gigantic analytical mistake on the scale of its error about Iraqi WMD was not part of Saddam’s worldview.
For its part, the C.I.A.— assigned a central role in America’s dramas with Saddam from the early 1980s onward— suffered from White Houses and agency leaders who often halfheartedly deployed their spies as if they were wizards with magic wands, conjurers who might solve the otherwise unsolvable Saddam problem. This was a prescription for failure, history showed, but the C.I.A. has been no better at learning from its own history than the nation it serves. Although marked by episodes of daring, success, and shrewd judgment— and populated by a remarkable cast of committed American operatives— the C.I.A.’s record in Iraq after 1991 was mostly one of operational and analytical calamities. This is not just an outsider’s hindsight verdict. Inside the C.I.A. during the late 1990s, the Iraq Operations Group was known sardonically as “the House of Broken Toys.”
In addition to the stories of Saddam and his flamboyantly brutal ruling family, I have chronicled the sometimes astonishing experiences of other Iraqis who lived on the front lines of the conflict with Washington, such as Jafar Dhia Jafar, the British- educated physicist who was the intellectual leader of Iraq’s atomic- bomb program, and Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s longtime envoy. No dictatorship is a monolith, and I hope the complicated lives of talented Iraqi patriots who accommodated Saddam may add dimension to our understanding of what the regime was and how it so confounded America. Equally, I have tried to humanize some of Saddam’s victims and opponents (also Iraqi patriots), such as Hussain Al Shahristani, the Canadian- educated physicist who worked with Jafar on the nuclear program but was tortured and then imprisoned after refusing Saddam’s entreaties to help build a bomb.
Much of America’s self- examination since 2003 has concentrated on the post 9/ 11 up to the invasion— the false claims about Iraqi WMD, the media’s complicity, neoconservative hubris, and George W. Bush’s choices. Investigative journalists have produced a remarkable shelf of book- length work on the C.I.A.’s covert- action campaigns before and after 9/ 11, the Bush administration’s selling of the war, and the intrigues of specific episodes, such as that involving the infamous intelligence source known as Curveball. In addition, there have been significant studies of the conflict that go back to its origins. In September2004, the Survey Group, under its second leader, Charles Duelfer, published a multivolume study of the history of the Saddam Husseinregime’s internal dynamics and weapons programs. In recent years, scholars have dug into the available regime files and offered groundbreaking insights or brought forward other new information. I have relied gratefully on all of this documentary record, journalism, and scholarship.
America’s conflict with Saddam Hussein is saturated in the primary colors of political history—the corruptions of power, the follies of war, the lies of diplomacy, the price of dissent, the absurdity of vanity.It is a story of avoidable errors of statecraft that exacted an immeasurable toll in human life and suffering. Some of these errors resulted from blindness about the enemy, others from “mirroring,” the human habit of assuming that adversaries will analyze a situation as you would and act accordingly. Saddam was right that nothing in this long struggle was quite what it seemed. Much of what mattered lay hidden from public view. It is in these shadows, as Saddam Hussein reaches a fateful decision to inaugurate a secret atomic-bomb program, that The Achilles Trap
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