CBS’ Sixty Minutes devoted most of its Sunday program to one revealing story, an account of the remarkably productive seven month long interrogation of Saddam Hussein by FBI agent George Piro, an Arabic speaking American of Lebanese descent. According to the way the story was handled on the air and in the CBS online account of it, as well as the way the international press picked it up, the big news was that Saddam got rid of his WMD in the 1990s, but refused to prove it—even when threatened by U.S. attack. The reasons, he said, were that he feared revealing Iraq’s weakness to its real enemy, Iran, and that he needed the perception of WMD to maintain his prestige at home. He also believed that the worst that President George W. Bush would do to him was to drop some bombs, the way President Clinton had done in 1998.
But that story, interesting as it might be, is not altogether new. Moreover, it does not compare to the golden news nugget lodged deep within the Sixty Minutes segment; namely, that Saddam expressly told Piro that he had planned to restart the WMD program in all phases—”chemical, biological and nuclear”—within a year after the lifting of U.N. sanctions. The 9/11 attacks and the reactions to them set back his plan, but didn’t eliminate it.
This stated intention of Saddam constitutes fresh justification for the American-led invasion in 2003. Had the United States accepted the view that Iraq lacked WMD and no longer posed a threat, it would have been only a matter of time before new WMD efforts by Iraq were undertaken. And, once the West had stood down in 2003, the second round of WMD development would have been far harder to stop. By now—in 2008—Saddam could well have had the WMD he wanted all along. Iran, meanwhile, would have been given urgent incentive to move forward more quickly on its own WMD program. The Bush Administration knew all this, but now we have a report of Saddam himself confirming it.
There is little reason in this case to doubt either the veracity of Piro or the candor of Saddam. Certainly in its Sixty Minutes program, CBS and reporter Scott Pelley, demonstrate complete faith in Piro and the FBI reports. The FBI, says the CBS story, rates the Piro interrogation as one of the top achievements of the Bureau’s past 100 years of existence. If, then, the Piro interrogation can be trusted, Saddam’s plain statement that he had planned to construct WMD again also must be credited. In fact, it is credited in the Sixty Minutes program. However, it also is completely played down there, both in the program itself and in the CBS news account derived from it. The press stories that covered the program followed CBS’ lead and lede. Most press stories that I found online omitted altogether Saddam’s statements that he had always planned to restart his WMD program.
How could CBS News step on its own big story, and produce a minor story instead? Perhaps the answer is that for over five years now CBS and most Western media have followed the liberal party line has discounted President Bush’s concerns about WMD, judging them either a deceit or a delusion. The American president was either malign (“Bush Lied, People DIed”) or a dunce. As a third option, charitable interpreters on the left (and some on the right) have described Bush as sadly misinformed by his intelligence services and led to make the tragic mistake of invading Iraq. It took a long time, with day after day of news twists, but variations on these views finally suffused public opinion and persuaded a majority of Americans against the wisdom of the Iraq War. Who can doubt that those views are largely responsible for Bush’s relatively low public approval ratings and his difficulty mobilizing public and Congressional support for prosecuting the war?
To showcase its program properly, Sixty Minutes would have led with something like this: “Revelations from a six month long FBI interrogation of Saddam Hussein conducted before his trial indicate that while the Iraqi dictator lacked weapons of mass destruction at the time of the American and Coalition attack in 2003, he fully intended to restart his WMD projects as soon as U.N. sanctions against Iraq were lifted. After months of elaborate interrogation by an Arabic speaking FBI agent, Saddam candidly acknowledged his plans. It would seem now that the US may well have had ample reason to attack Iraq, after all, though not for the exact reasons emphasized at the time.”
Instead of that kind of news story, Scott Pelley leads Piro—an appealing, intelligent FBI agent of the kind that brings great credit to the bureau—on a somewhat rambling review of the extensive mental and emotional seduction of Saddam. Piro is presented as the FBI agent operationally in charge of Saddam’s interrogation, but he clearly was part of a large team. The saga told on TV ruminates on such matters as Saddam’s distrust of Osama bin Laden, the problems the FBI has finding Arabic speakers, and the terrible poetry Saddam wrote in prison and the way Piro flattered him about it. Then it turns finally to the gassing of the Kurds in 1998, a genocidal act for which Saddam told Piro he took personal responsibility and pronounced “necessary”.
Only then does CBS have Pelley drop in this little handgrenade: “In fact, says Piro, Saddam intended to use weapons of mass destruction again someday.
“‘Saddam had the engineers. The folks he needed to reconstruct his program were still there,'” FBI agent Piro reports.
“‘That was his intention?'” asks Pelley.
“‘What weapons of mass destruction did he intend to pursue again once he had the opportunity?’
Answers Piro, “‘He wanted pursue all of W.M.D. (sic)’
“‘He wanted to reconstitute all of his W.M.D program–chemical, biological, even nuclear?’
And that is all there is of that!
As a matter of news judgment, I submit that if Saddam had told Piro that he really had no plans to start a new WMD program after the old one was dismantled, that would have been played up big by CBS and the mainstream media. But the fact that he said the opposite has been all but buried. The whole Piro interrogation of Saddam cries out for much more extensive coverage and maybe a Congressional hearing. Eventually, the whole story would make a fine documentary showing how the Iraq War, bad as it has been, probably spared Iraq and the world a much worse fate.
Meanwhile, even the conservative media seem to be missing the significance of this story. Most are simply ignoring the Piro interrogations altogether. The conservative online news service, NewsMax.com, does write about the CBS program, but mainly to take credit for having had it before CBS, citing an article from a new book by Ronald Kessler (The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack, Crown Forum books). NewsMax relegates Saddam’s stated intention to reconstruct his WMD program to a minor theme in its story, the major theme of which is the fascinating interrogation project itself.
Am I alone in recalling the weight put on the WMD issue when we invaded Iraq? I remember, in fact, thinking that the WMD threat should not have been forced to carry so much of the argument, since it was only one of several reasons to remove Saddam (e.g., his continued threats to his neighbors, his provocative attempted assassination of former President George H. W. Bush, his financial support of terrorism against Israel, his succor for assorted terrorists-on-the-lamb, and especially his many violations of the Gulf War truce terms). Most of these reasons, alone, would have constituted a justifiable casus belli. But, largely for diplomatic reasons at the United Nations, the threat of WMD was emphasized. Later, after the investigation, that threat seemed to be discredited and with in, in many eyes, the whole justification for the war.
I’ll bet the FBI and its agent George Piro have very good knowledge and memories on the subject. So, undoubtedly, does George W. Bush.