With Saddam Hussein now residing in a cell on the grounds of the international airport that once bore his name, and with the prospect of him being tried by the very people he misruled, tortured and murdered for decades, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of incentive for a vanquished despot to start singing. But what if the Bush administration, so desperately eager to clear up the impression that it drove the nation into a war under false pretenses, offered Saddam a deal: Show us where you buried the WMD, and the death penalty is off the table?
American officials, in keeping with senior Bush administration policy at the moment, are being careful not to predict any kind of intelligence bonanza about the Iraqi resistance beyond what already flowed from briefcase of documents captured along with the vanquished despot on Saturday.
Indeed, with news on Thursday that the administration’s chief weapons sleuth, David Kay, is returning to private life after his next WMD report, you might think the Bush administration is happy at this point to allow the controversy over what it said before the war and what appears to be true now that American troops control Iraq simply fade away.
On the other hand, there may be no group of Americans – and certainly no presidential dynasty– more sensitive to the dangers of leaving loose ends in Iraq than the Bushes and their senior aides. All of them know they can stonewall and dissemble on the issue of what Saddam had and whether pre-war intelligence was deliberately distorted to support the war.
“So what’s the difference?” demanded President George W. Bush when pressed on the issue by ABC News’ Diane Sawyer on Tuesday. “If he were to acquire weapons, he would be the danger. That's what I'm trying to explain to you. A gathering threat, after 9/11, is a threat that needed to be dealt with, and it was done after 12 long years of the world saying the man's a danger."
The potential pitfalls of this position don’t seem to loom at large in the afterglow of Saddam’s capture. But the glow may fade, and cool, experienced heads inside the Bush administration know that. With that in mind, there is an active debate going on about whether to offer Saddam a chance to cheat the hangman if he can lead American WMD hunters to evidence that silences Bush’s critics, both foreign and domestic, once and for all.
“There is no way anything that transpires with Saddam will ever be described as a plea agreement,” a U.S. official says, requesting anonymity. “There are ways to make sure a death penalty isn’t imposed, though. I don’t think it will come to that, but if the information is there, there is nothing stopping it”
The WMD defense?
Could a president -- whose own father was nearly killed by Saddam Hussein -- actually countenance such a deal? Many doubt it, for reasons both personal and political.
“Expect offers without delivery,” says Raymond Tanter, a neo-conservative expert on Iraq who was a national security aide to Ronald Reagan.
Tanter says CIA interrogators may try to play on Saddam’s expectations and bloated self-image by making promises in exchange for information that they have no intention of keeping.
“And I doubt if Saddam would be able sue on nonperformance of what he thought to be a binding contract,” Tanter says. “There are precedents for deceiving the likes of a Saddam during CIA interrogations.” Tanter cites the case of CIA defector Edmund Wilson in 1982, who was lured back to the United States with false promises that he would not be jailed. He remains in jail to this day.
However, others note that redemption is a big theme of Bush’s life. “Reagan forgave Hinckley, and the Pope forgave his assassin, and that made a lasting impression on a lot of people,” says the U.S. official. “Bush doesn’t have to forgive Saddam, but showing mercy sometimes is a lot better way to impress the world with your power.”
There are other reasons the Bush administration might rationalize such a plea.
One is relations with key allies. In spite of deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s deviously timed decision to cut the Germans, French and Russians out of post-war contract bidding earlier this month, the White House clearly is trying to rebuild bridges to these nations. One simple way to break Saddam’s date with the hangman, and at the same time conceding to a demand that even the British are making, would be to insist that the Iraqi court proceed under the rules that govern international war crimes tribunals convened by the United Nations, which no longer administer the death penalty. Call it ‘killing two birds with one stone,’ while turning the third into a jailbird-for-life.
Always a catch
Of course, there is a very strong possibility at this late date that Saddam has no chip to bargain with. David Kay and some 1,200 other WMD experts, intelligence agents and military search teams have been combing Iraq and interviewing top Iraqi officials for eight month now. The net result: with little exaggeration, it is fair to say, nada.
Dr. Raymond Zilinskas, an expert on WMD at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies and a former United Nations inspector, does not believe there is any information to get from Saddam.
Iraq’s WMD capability, he says, “was destroyed during 1991 by the U.N. weapons inspectors and International Atomic Energy Agency teams and was not reestablished. Some potential was kept and supported in case the opportunity arose in the future to once again try to dominate the region, but this was not a major effort.”
The Bush administration, enjoying the prospect of an improving economy, a possibly diminishing casualty rate in Iraq and a Democratic field of presidential hopefuls tearing at each other’s flesh, may choose to ride out the “WMD controversy” and hope a combination of good news elsewhere and attention deficit disorder among the American public will make it all irrelevant.
Good cop, bad cop
The question will always linger in some minds, however, and many of them the most dangerous minds to a seated American president. So, should Bush decide to explore some kind of deal, how might it play out?
I asked a former intelligence officer who participated in the interrogation of Panama’s Manuel Noriega what might be going on at Baghdad International Airport about now.
Saddam Hussein, deprived of sleep, an attorney and his beard (not to mention palaces, lackeys and sidearm), sits at a simple table in the U.S. holding pens at Baghdad International Airport (itself recently deprived of Saddam’s name). A single, harsh light bulb illuminates the dictator’s pitted face as two men orbit the table. A third man sits unmoving beside Saddam, the first translator in decades to grapple with Saddam’s tangled prose without fearing for his life.
Of the two men looming in the din around him, one is a soft-spoken civilian, casual in manner, fluent himself in Arabic. He encourages to the toppled tyrant to speak his mind, to unburden his soul, to make good with Allah. He offers the occasional cigarette, assures Saddam it can all be over very soon if he would just come clean.
The second man is different. He speaks in a loud voice, always in English, followed by the murmur of the translator’s voice, who sometimes adds “I have never seen him this way, you must excuse him.” Physically imposing, the second man is in shirt sleeves. He may be military, but Saddam cannot be sure. There is a tattoo on his forearm. “FDNY: Never forgive, never forget.” The translator makes sure that, too, is put in Arabic.
“Three days or so with guys like this, and tough nuts begin to crack,” says the former intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Some never do, but they’re freaks. Most eventually do start offering. Little things at first, maybe even mixed with lies. That’s when you offer the deal, just when the brain begins to overwhelm the will tough it out.”
Should Saddam Hussein lead American search teams to a WMD smoking gun, even a small one, election 2004 is over before it’s over, no matter what Yogi Berra says. And Santa could fly right by Crawford, Texas. After all, what other gift could possibly compete?