The killing of Osama bin Laden this week by US Navy SEALs in Pakistan has raised questions about what might have happened if bin Laden had been captured alive.
Would he have ended up in Guantanamo? Would he have stood trial in the United States? These questions aren’t entirely new—in fact, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, few officials expected dictator Saddam Hussein to be taken alive. He, however, gave up meekly, crawling out of an underground hole and announcing to the US troops, “My name is Saddam Hussein. I am the president of Iraq and I want to negotiate.”
In his new book The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror, Washingtonian editor Garrett M. Graff describes how the U.S. reacted to the capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in December 2003. And in this excerpt from the April issue of The Washingtonian, he tells the incredible story of the relationship between the FBI interrogator and the Iraqi dictator that developed while he was in U.S. custody.
FBI agent George Piro was driving south on the Fairfax County Parkway when his cell phone rang on Christmas Eve 2003. He knew immediately it was something big: “It was my section chief—my boss’s boss,” Piro says. The mission was quickly explained: Just months after returning from his first wartime deployment to Iraq, he was being ordered back. He had a new assignment: to interrogate Saddam Hussein.
Piro’s path to Iraq had begun two years earlier, on September 11, 2001. Then the sole Arabic speaker in the FBI’s Phoenix field office, he had watched the attacks on the television in the office gym. Piro’s knowledge of Islamic extremism was unparalleled in the bureau. Born in Lebanon, he and his family lived through years of the civil war there before moving to California’s San Joaquin Valley when he was 12. He already had a deeper understanding of the threat of groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas than most counterterrorism experts. Drawn from the start to law enforcement—Air Force security police, then a police detective in California—he became an FBI agent in 1999.
On 9/11, the Phoenix field office had a single squad working all the various threads of international terror. Piro worked with Kenneth Williams, a more experienced agent, and they’d made some good cases in just two years, including the bureau’s first prosecution of an Iranian agent for violating sanctions against Iran. In the summer of 2001, Williams, after his work with Piro, had sent FBI headquarters an “electronic communication” warning of Arab students taking flight lessons; the so-called “Phoenix memo” would be held up later as a missed opportunity before 9/11.
Starting just after 7 am in Phoenix on September 11, Piro watched the attacks unfold on TV. He quickly showered and headed upstairs to meet Williams, who had been through big cases before—he’d helped work the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Williams began to tell Piro what the coming days were likely to hold for the Phoenix office. As the attacks continued on the East Coast, the partners decided they didn’t want to sit around waiting for an order. They knew Phoenix had the nation’s second-highest concentration of flight schools. Piro opened the Yellow Pages and scanned the listings until he found three programs that offered commercial licenses. The two men set out.
Just then, Piro’s cell phone rang. On the line was an agent at Boston’s Logan Airport with a name from the flight manifest for the Phoenix team to check out: Hani Hanjour. I”‘m holding his file in my hands right now,” Piro said.
They raced back to the field office. “I’ve identified one of the hijackers,” Piro told his squad leader.
“Get out of here—I don’t have time for jokes today,” his supervisor said.
Hanjour’s file was just the beginning: A second hijacker also had trained nearby. And there were other suspicious individuals who hadn’t been on the planes—were they lying in wait for a second wave? Warning bells went off as they examined the file of Faisal al-Salmi. He was Saudi, matched the age range of the other hijackers, had signed up for flight lessons along with Hanjour, but hadn’t performed well. “If this guy ran into a cloud, he’d be dead,” one flight instructor said of him.
On September 18, Piro and Williams knocked on al-Salmi’s door. Over the next eight hours, the agents interrogated him, first at his apartment and then at the FBI field office.
“I was very uncomfortable with his statement,” recalls Piro, who alternated between Arabic and English in his questioning. Initially al-Salmi denied any ties to Hanjour. By night’s end, he admitted having had conversations with Hanjour. Al-Salmi, indicted for lying to federal agents, became the first arrest directly tied to the 9/11 investigation.
September was the beginning of a whirlwind for Piro and Williams, neither of whom took a day off until Thanksgiving—and got going again as soon as the turkey was eaten. By February, Piro was in the United Arab Emirates as the FBI’s temporary legal attache tracing the money and hijackers’ schedules. August found him in Amman, Jordan, running leads and investigating the assassination of US diplomat Laurence Foley, who was killed by al-Qaeda sympathizers. Then came a transfer to the Washington Fly Team, the elite FBI unit tasked with responding to terrorist incidents overseas.
In the spring of 2003, weeks after the United States invaded Iraq, Piro arrived as part of the first FBI team to help occupy the country. The 16-member team settled into a two-room shack on the edge of the Baghdad airport.
Piro had flown commercially from DC to Qatar and then on to Baghdad by “milair,” the teeth-rattling military transport flights that were shuttling millions of pounds of supplies and material into the captured Iraqi capital. Wary of shoulder-fired missiles, the pilots came in high and then dove, corkscrewing in sharp turns down to the runway. “You go from staying the night before at the Ritz-Carlton in Doha to locking and loading your M4 as you hit the ground,” Piro recalls. Baghdad was a shock to his senses, even though the Lebanese-American agent had lived just 500 miles away in Lebanon as a child.
For Piro and the other agents, the tasks ahead were manifold—training Iraqi police, investigating crimes of the deposed regime, searching for weapons of mass destruction, helping US forces pacify the country. The American military leadership only gradually realized how hard it was going to be.
The commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, General Stanley McChrystal, first asked for FBI agents to be embedded with the military in Iraq, thinking they could help find fugitive members of the Iraqi regime.
“We saw it as a chance to get on the battlefield and find links to the United States,” says FBI agent James Davis.
The FBI had sent agents mostly drawn from the elite Hostage Rescue Team, but then it got a clarifying message from McChrystal explaining his desire for men like the street cop on NYPD Blue. “I got shooters. I appreciate that,” he said. “I need Sipowicz. I need investigators. We can take care of killing people.”
The next FBI wave was heavy on case agents, analysts, and evidence-collection teams’ people not focused on making arrests but on ensuring actionable, evidence-based intelligence. Over the coming years, some 1,500 FBI personnel would serve in Iraq, hundreds more in Afghanistan.
Piro and the 16 members of the FBI’s Iraq deployment slept in one big room and worked in the other. At night, to break up the monotony of military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), Piro and his teammates would zip into downtown Baghdad to buy groceries, fresh-baked bread, or takeout dinners. He recalls, “That was the happy time in Iraq. Being an Arabic speaker gave me a chance to be involved in all sorts of projects.” By the time Piro returned to Baghdad in early 2004, that freedom no longer existed.
During the brief period when there was some safety and a stable environment in Baghdad, the FBI ended up operating as a default police force—a very small one. The Army and Marines had little experience policing urban areas, and the Iraqi police were mostly absent. “All the investigative techniques we use on fugitives cases work the same,” Piro says. “Baghdad was a large, secure metropolitan area—we had a ton of experience operating under those conditions in the US; the military didn’t.”
Agents helped train the Iraqi police force; worked kidnapping, money-laundering, and terrorist-financing cases; and established fingerprinting and biometric services for the occupying forces. As the FBI presence in Iraq evolved—and billions in poorly monitored money flooded into Iraq—one of the agents in Baghdad was assigned solely to investigating government corruption.
Piro’s Arabic fluency was in demand, and at odd hours he received calls from the military with requests to accompany troops on missions. One night in June, he found himself helping capture Saddam Hussein’s personal secretary, Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, the highest-ranking Iraqi official caught to that point.
In another instance, as the FBI was tracking a bomb maker across Baghdad, Piro dressed as an Iraqi and was dropped off a few blocks from the suspect’s apartment. He walked through the crowds, made his way into the suspect’s building, and surreptitiously photographed the doors and locks in preparation for a raid. At 3 am, the military and the FBI came back in full force, just missing the suspect.
As he rotated out after his 90-day stint in mid-2003, Piro wondered whether he’d return and, if so, under what conditions.
On December 13, 2003, James Davis, deputy commander of the FBI’s Baghdad team, awoke to a wildfire of rumors that Saddam Hussein had been located. Such stories were common, so at first it seemed like nothing more than the usual scuttlebutt. Then Davis’s boss, on-scene commander Ed Worthington, called from the US military’s headquarters in the Green Zone: I can’t tell you anything, but round up a fingerprint expert. “It was pretty clear to me what he’s saying,” Davis remembers.
The FBI found itself taking custody of the most wanted man in Iraq. Davis held the dictator while agents took his fingerprints and mug shot (pictured below), as they would do with any other fugitive from justice. Coalition forces didn’t immediately start interrogating Saddam Hussein, as the dictator was in dire physical shape following his months on the run; efforts focused first on ensuring his health. The United States couldn’t afford to have him die on its watch.
Saddam was granted enemy-prisoner-of-‘war status, which meant he was protected by the Geneva Conventions against some of the “enhanced interrogation” methods the United States had used on al-Qaeda detainees. In addition to being charged with atrocities against his own citizens, Saddam was still the object of a US investigation into the foiled plot to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush in Kuwait in April 1993.
Until a special cell could be built, Saddam was held in the coalition’s high-value-detainee facility known as Camp Cropper. Located near the airport, Camp Cropper had started out as the central booking facility for Iraqi prisoners and morphed into a high-profile prison for regime members such as Tariq Aziz and the man known as Chemical Ali. On one wall of Saddam’s tiled cell, photos of Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush stood watch. On the facing wall, a poster of the US military’s “deck of cards” tracked the capture of the Iraqi regime, so Saddam—the ace of spades—could watch each day as the net circled more tightly around members of his government.
No one had expected Saddam to be taken alive, so there was only the barest outline of a plan to deal with him. The CIA wanted to be the only agency to question the Iraqi leader, though it quickly allowed in the FBI when it was told that whoever questioned Saddam might later have to testify in court proceedings. Saddam Hussein, the US government decided, would be the FBI’s show to run.
For days after getting the Christmas Eve call while driving on the Fairfax County Parkway, Piro spent long hours holed up at the FBI’s Washington field office near Judiciary Square with an intelligence analyst developing a framework for an interrogation strategy. Piro met with other government agencies to discuss some of the topics but was mostly on his own. It was standard procedure in a way: Investigate a case. Break the suspect. Get the confession. But what was the case? And how would the suspect react?
“I was just hoping he’d talk to me,”Piro says. “I don’t lack for confidence, but this guy—from a distance he’s larger than life. He’s brought us to two wars. He’s manipulated the world stage, kept the only true superpower at bay. He was an icon. Holy crap—what am I doing?”
Piro devoured books and reports on Saddam and the Iraqi regime, building on the knowledge he’d acquired during his first rotation in Iraq the summer before. He watched Dan Rather’s 2003 CBS News interview with the Iraqi leader, read reports by Human Rights Watch about atrocities committed by the regime, and paged through then-classified reports on Iraq’s supposed WMD programs.
When he left Washington in January 2004, Piro was told to prepare to be gone for a year. He said an emotional goodbye to his family at Dulles International Airport. A thousand logistical challenges and questions awaited him. He had to understand Saddam’s physical and psychological state, establish the interrogation setting, and prepare for months of intense interviewing.
To assist him, Piro had one other agent, two intelligence analysts, a profiler from the bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, and a handful of linguists. Midway through the project, the second agent—who, because of the sensitive nature of his ongoing work, hasn’t been publicly named—rotated out, and Piro was asked to help select another partner. He called Todd Irinaga. While Piro was a police officer in Ceres, California, the two men had worked bank robberies and carjackings, and Irinaga had recruited Piro into the FBI in the late 1990s. Piro considered him a solid, well-rounded agent. Irinaga, then head of the FBI’s Modesto office, didn’t believe Piro’s offer at first, but once he realized it wasn’t a prank, he jumped at the chance.
While more than 100 CIA and FBI personnel were conducting interrogations in Camp Cropper, where high-value detainees were held in what came to be known as the “petting zoo,” the Saddam unit was single-minded. Though its reports were shared with the CIA and other agencies, only the FBI was involved in the interrogations.
“The primary purpose was intelligence, yet we also had to be aware of his history,” Piro recalls. “You couldn’t ignore the atrocities that Saddam committed, and it was clear that he might face prosecution for them.” The question of jurisdiction hadn’t been settled—whether Saddam could face a US trial, an international trial, or an Iraqi trial. That meant that the whole team had to be able to testify in a variety of settings. Agents also interrogated other high-value detainees, such as Chemical Ali and Tariq Aziz, to gather insights into Saddam and, as Piro says, “other information that could either corroborate or contradict what Saddam was telling us.”
First the team needed to take control. Because Saddam was believed to speak some English, his guards were replaced by Puerto Rican National Guard troops who were told to talk only in Spanish. Saddam wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone but Piro. “Every interaction had to be controlled,” Piro says. “All of these things were imposed on him slowly, forcing him to ask me for things.”
Piro had every clock removed from Saddam’s view, then walked into the interrogations wearing the biggest watch he could find. “When you’re in prison, robbed of all sense of time, day or night, you’re desperate to know the time,” he says. “I wanted him to know that it was easy for me to know the time. For him, it was impossible. It was all about establishing dominance.”
While Piro had little say over what ultimately happened to Saddam, he projected a sense that he did.
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