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The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the CIA, and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq

March 7, 202427:32

In this edition of Wilson Center NOW, we speak with Steve Coll, editor at the Economist, author, and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He discusses his latest book, “The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the CIA, and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq.” The author uncovered unpublished and underreported sources, conducted interviews with surviving participants, and obtained Saddam’s own transcripts and audio files, to create "the definitive account of how corruptions of power, lies of diplomacy, and vanity—on both sides—led to avoidable errors of statecraft, ones that would enact immeasurable human suffering and forever change the political landscape as we know it." The author has donated many of the assets he used to research the book to the Wilson Center Digital Archive


  • The is an unedited transcript

    Hello, I'm John Milewski. Welcome to Wilson Center NOW a production of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. My guest today is Steve Coll. Steve is currently an editor at The Economist and is an award winning journalist who previously had long runs as a staff writer for The New Yorker and as an editor and writer for The Washington Post.

    While at The Post, he received the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1990. Steve is also the author of nine books, including the Pulitzer Prize winning Ghost Wars. His newest book is this one The Achilles Trap Saddam Hussein, The CIA, and the Origins of America's Invasion of Iraq. Steve, great to have you. Terrific piece of work. Thanks for joining us.

    Thank you for having me. So, you know, I was thinking about how to begin. And we often say that journalists do the first draft of history, and you cover this in real time, and we're part of that. But now here we are two decades later, and you've revisited the story. So now you're sort of in the historian land.

    Can you now, with all the benefit of that hindsight and the benefit of the archives, the treasure trove of documents you've got to peruse as you wrote the book, can you place this in historical context for us, the U.S. invasion of Iraq? Well, yes. I mean, of course, the 2003 invasion turned out to be one of the most consequential events in American life in the post-Cold War era.

    And the origins of it became instantly controversial because the war was advertised as a preemptive necessity to address the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But, of course, once troops got there, they discovered there there were no WMD stocks as advertised. And that set off a national reckoning that lasted for years was a very hot political subject.

    And it was often focused on why the American intelligence was wrong and why the George W Bush administration made the decisions that it made. And so on. All along, there was another question that seemed really important, which was why did Saddam surrender his regime, his power, ultimately his life, by creating the impression that he had WMD when in fact he did not.

    What was his contribution to this? What was he thinking? So that's where this inquiry began. As you say, I was a reporter who covered Iraq on and off and was around for some of the first draft of this history. But I discovered that the question of what Saddam was thinking might be answerable because he kept these records and tape recordings of his leadership conversations that documented what he was saying and thinking at various points of his conflict with the United States.

    So that became the launching pad for this four or five year project. And tell us about the process by which you gained access to these documents. So they have a tangled history, but the short version is that they were captured by the United States after the invasion. They were archived, reviewed, curated, and for a brief period at around 2008, some of them were released for public scholarly and journalistic use through a center at the National Defense University.

    Then they were withdrawn some years later, around 2015, ostensibly for budgetary reasons, which may be the explanation. But there's a little bit of mystery around it. So when I came into the picture around 2018, none of them was available for public use. And so I used the Freedom of Information Act request to seek them, identified where they were in the Pentagon.

    That's where they were being held and with advice from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press nonprofit, I ultimately had to file a lawsuit against the Pentagon asking for some of these materials, and I received them through a settlement of that suit. And I'm guessing this was the beginning of a major deep dive into translation and all the other things necessary for you to make sense of this.

    What jumped out at you initially? Were there things that were changing the narrative in your mind? You know, we usually cover history from the perspective of the winners. You were looking at it from the perspective of the losers. What were some of the shifts that started to occur for you? Because this was a story you knew very well from the U.S. perspective.

    Well, I think one theme was the extent to which Saddam saw himself battling a permanent conspiracy against him waged by the CIA, Israel and the Iranian revolution. I think he genuinely believed, or at least often was persuaded that Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution, which was so hostile to him and to the United States, was actually a product of American engineering and that it was all directed at him.

    And these suspicions that they might seem irrational or crazy to to us, they were really a bedrock conviction that surfaced again and again. And it's not. Once you get into the details and listen to him on the tapes and read the transcripts, it's not as if he had no evidence for this. For example, you recall the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986.

    Well, that took place when the CIA was secretly helping Saddam with satellite photography in the hope that he would not lose the war he had started with Iran. And at the same time, it was revealed that the U.S. was double dealing, had gone in with Israel to supply Iran with missiles and military equipment and intelligence to help Iran in its war against Iraq.

    Now, Saddam saw this scandal as as just confirmation of what he already believe, which was that the United States was not to be trusted and that there was a deeper conspiracy at work in the Middle East. And this conviction stayed with him all the way up towards 2003. You can see on the tapes later, he's debating with aides about how he should handle his relations with the United States, whether he should cooperate with the United Nations.

    And he points back to the 1980s and he says, in effect, that conspiracy that was revealed in 1986 is still with us, gentlemen, and that's why we're going to be defiant. Perhaps, you know, paranoia drove his sense that the United States was almost super power in its ability to gather intelligence or to create this invisible hand of manipulation in your sense of Saddam.

    Was this more about him as a paranoid individual, or did his lieutenants and others in the story also share this notion that the United States had these abilities? I think it was, yeah, it's a good question. I think that he does a lot of the talking and his lieutenants don't often speak honestly about their own analysis. But in the in the Q&A, you can see that his diplomats are pressing him to relent a little bit and to entertain the possibility that normal relations with the United States might be possible and that not everything is part of a bit of an effort to oust him from power or to punish Iraq, and that there might be

    a pathway for him to improve Iraq's standing by engaging in negotiations or cooperation with the United States. And it's not as if he says never, never over my dead body. But he's he's much more suspicious about the United States than than many of his aides in this in this dialog. Steve, how did you go about being a fair to Saddam Hussein as you tried to get inside his head?

    You know, we're talking about a dictator, a ruthless murderer. And, you know, for the for the process of being a fair reporter, you don't want to come in with all of this negativity about the character as you try to figure him out. How did you build those firewalls for yourself as you thought, work through this? I guess I you know, I thought that as a writer, I had sort of permission to try to really empathize with him without sanitizing him.

    That's the balance, right? So you need to understand him as a human being and to try to see the world from behind his eyes. And to do that, you do kind of have to suspend judgment in some respects to remind yourself that, you know, while his behavior was outrageous and that you hungry for war crimes, you know, justifiably, that he was also, you know, at times charismatic, at times generous.

    He maintained stable relationships within his family, for the most part, and with his comrades. So he was not like a troubled individual from day to day. He was quite comfortable in his own skin. And that allows you to sort of start to think about the problems he confronted from his perspective and to try to make some sense of the choices he makes and the and the analysis analysis he brings to bear.

    The the history books are filled with the headliners, right? The people whose names are on the marquee of these stories, and they become almost household names. And yet when you dive as deeply as you did into a story, you find all these other characters who maybe even more significance but aren't known to history. In the book you list early in the book a cast of characters from that cast of characters.

    Who did you discover who maybe was not on your radar previously? Who jumps out as really important to understanding the story? Well, I tried to build some of the story of the Iraq's WMD program that the kind of unraveling the mystery of what really happened and why there was nothing there when we went in 2003 through the physicist who was identified by his own paper as a sort of the Robert Oppenheimer of the Iraqi nuclear program, Jaffar did offer a fascinating character still alive in his eighties, living in Dubai, educated in Britain as an as an atomic physicist, theoretical physicist, a particle physicist.

    He worked at one of the most prestigious particle accelerators in Europe in Geneva, and then was recruited home by Saddam. But he had an ambivalent relationship, mutually ambivalent with Saddam's regime. In fact, he never was a member of the Baath Party, and he came under suspicion at a certain point and was arrested, detained for more than a year.

    And then Saddam more or less coerced him, invited him into becoming the father of an Iraqi nuclear bomb. And he successfully oversaw a program that remain secret for a decade. And I was able to meet with him in Dubai, interviewing him and then entered into a long correspondence with him. And I thought his life, the complexity of his own patriotism, his own decision to help Saddam, but also his own kind of distance from Saddam, might help us understand some of the complexity of what this regime was outside of the center point of the dictatorship.

    One way to summarize the story that you uncover is sort of an attempt by Saddam Hussein to have his cake and eat it right, to have the threat of WMD while still having a clean inspection. It's almost as if his failed bluff cost him his life. Is that a fair analysis of what happened? And is it is there any insight into why he tried to have it both ways?

    Yeah, I think the the the kind of idea of having his cake and eat it, too, is is a fair summary of, you know, a number of interacting motivations. He basically feared being exposed as weak, feared that his enemies would take advantage if he admitted fully that he had disarmed as he was required to do after the Kuwait war, when he was expelled from Kuwait after invading and occupying the country.

    So he didn't want to be held accountable for holding weapons, that he didn't feel that he really needed that much. At the same time, he didn't want to be exposed as vulnerable either to his external enemies, Iran and Israel or to generals in his own regime. But in addition to that, he concluded, and not without reason, that honesty wouldn't pay in the in the system that he was confronting after the Kuwait war, after the Gulf War, he had been very heavily sanctioned.

    His goal was to get out of sanctions and and to be able to sell the oil again and rebuild Iraq. But the sanctions were conditional on him satisfying these inspections. And he suspected that it was all a game that he would never really be given be given credit. And at the same time, he didn't want to make it easy for the inspectors by leaving weapons around for them to find.

    So he secretly destroyed all this stuff and then lied about it and then and didn't come forward. And so he ended up sowing quite a lot of confusion, which led right up until 2003. But I think his conclusion that honesty wouldn't pay, which is in the transcripts quite a lot, he's constantly telling his comrades who are urging cooperation on him, that you may think that if we do this or that, that we'll get credit for it.

    I'm telling you, I know how the world is organized against Iraq, and we're not going to get credit. And in 1997, the Clinton administration, in its second term at Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, delivered a speech in which she made it explicit that even if Saddam did disarm, even if he did pass all of the inspections, that the United States would not lift sanctions until Saddam was gone from power.

    Well, that just confirmed what he had been saying for years. Honesty doesn't pay. We can either have sanctions with all of these people running around with their clipboard boards, violating our sovereignty and our dignity, or we can have sanctions without them. And so he threw them out. And that exacerbated the blindness in the West as as in the in the months in the heated months after 911.

    And why did U.S. intelligence miss this? Well, I think there was a dynamic of mirroring that developed in the nineties during the inspections in which, on the one hand, there were unanswered questions about the extent and history of Saddam's WMD program. There were they were unanswered because he hadn't been orderly or transparent about the subjects of these programs, even though he had destroyed his weapons stocks.

    He hadn't really answered the questions in a straightforward way. So there were questions. But when the inspectors looked for hidden materials or for hidden documents, they triggered a response from Iraqi security services that they interpreted as evidence that Iraq was still hiding dangerous weapons. But in fact, what was happening was that his bodyguards were afraid that other regime secrets about his own security were the real target of these inspectors, because these were really assassins in white coats or coup makers under U.N. guise.

    And so they would scramble to deflect the inspectors. That created an impression in the UN among Western intelligence agencies. well, obviously they're hiding these weapons. Well, no, they were hiding something, but it wasn't the weapons. It was regime security. And it wasn't until after this was all over that this kind of mutually reinforcing confusion became apparent. But at the time, every bit of evidence about Saddam's response to the inspection was interpreted as evidence of deception and and of danger.

    Another part of the mythology is the alleged assassination attempt on George Herbert Walker Bush and supposedly part of George W Bush's motivation beyond WMD. Your book challenges whether or not that actually happened. What did your research indicate about that story? Well, just to briefly set the stage after the after George H.W. Bush's presidency in early 1993, he visited Kuwait, the country he had led a coalition of military forces to liberate.

    And he was celebrated, welcomed by the emir, spent several days there. His son Jeb, was with him, Laura Bush, George W's wife, was in the entourage. And they went around Kuwait and president gave some talks and then they left without incident. Nothing happened while they were there. About a week later, the Kuwaitis announced that they had foiled an assassination plot.

    As evidence, they pointed to a vehicle bomb, an SUV bomb that they had discovered in a warehouse in Kuwait City. The CIA and the FBI went out to investigate and they determined that this vehicle bomb was of Iraqi origin. But the evidence was that the Iraqis had made this bomb during the occupation of Kuwait, and they had spread some of these vehicles around the Gulf and they dated front to way before Bush had visited.

    The next thing the Kuwaitis produced were some whiskey smugglers who they said had been sent to use this bomb to blow up George H.W. Bush. But these were hapless characters who were given a rough interrogation and delivered confessions of questionable reliability. Bottom line, when you added up all the evidence, Sandy Berger, who was then Bill Clinton's deputy national security adviser, said this is this is a setup.

    I don't believe this. This is. You have not persuaded. The Court that this was an assassination plot, But he lost the argument. And Clinton ultimately retaliated and endorsed the idea that this had been a genuine assassination. What's what one thing that's new is that with all these records and all these tapes, some researchers who have had access to all of them, which I did not have access to everything they used all kinds of word search terms, and they searched them as vigorously as they could.

    They couldn't find a single piece of evidence that this had been Saddam's doing. I know you've said that it would have been impossible for a U.S. president to pick up the phone and speak to Saddam Hussein just based on US politics, or at least US politicians have said that Bill Clinton, I think, among them. But was there any indication of backchannel discussions between Iraq and the U.S., or was this just flying blind from both sides?

    It was flying blind, blind from both sides. I think there was a desire on the Iraqi side to initiate backchannel discussions. But the Clinton administration had declined to do that, even when the opportunity arose in the George W Bush administration, a turned aside a similar opportunity in the fall of 2001. The Iraqis wanted the backchannel because they wanted to get out of sanctions, and they thought talking about subjects of common interest with the United States might help them.

    And there were subjects of common interest how to contain the Iranian revolution, how to deal with Islamist terrorism. Would Iraq play a more constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? There were there were many things that that had been subjects of mutual interest during the 1980s, but that were now off the table in the nineties. The Clinton administration declined to take up any of those channels.

    I think partly they were afraid that if they did so, they would weaken the sanctions coalition. If they if these contacts were exposed. But I also think they just they were trying a full pressure strategy and they wanted Saddam to stew in his own juices. But I'm afraid that it deprive them of opportunities to learn about some of the complexities of the regime and the way it was handling WMD that might have challenged the conventional groupthink about what was really going on in Iraq.

    The promotional material for your book and some of the blurbs. Human error, Hubris. Miscalculation. These are words that turn up frequently given the human nature that is revealed in this story, whether it's looking inside Saddam's palace or looking inside the White House. Other than that, are there lessons to be learned or are there takeaways? Are there ways that U.S. intelligence could do a better job?

    Anything that jumps to mind for you that could be applied as we move forward? Well, I think we've covered a couple of them. I do think that having contact even with your adversaries, even if it's done in secret through intelligence channels, is better than not having contact you just simply for the sake of collecting information. Because we missed the fact that for example, at the time of 911, Saddam now in his sixties, was no longer the same person as he had been 15 years before, and he'd become obsessed with writing novels.

    And what if we had learned that? Would we have paused or rethought? Possibly not. But in any event, why not collect the information? So that's one lesson. I think he also presents a kind of paradox, because while we ultimately made this misjudgment by because we failed to understand who he was and how he thought so there's clearly an argument for making a continuous effort to try to empathize with even, you know, very morally affronting characters like him in order to to just see the world the way he does and to try to evaluate his decisions more accurately.

    So on the one hand, that's a lesson. On the other hand, I think in Saddam's case, he was so aggressive, so erratic, he invaded two neighbors without provocation that if I were the unlucky person who was the president in charge of managing him, I would be tempted not to trust even well-informed judgments about what Saddam was planning to do.

    And I might be tempted to go back to the classic formula of international relations, which is when you have a dangerous adversary, focus on their capabilities and try to send clear deterrence messages. I think maybe the most interesting lesson from Saddam's case is that as rash as he was and as aggressive and norm breaking as his actions were, he was deterrable.

    And we did successfully deter him at times, for example, from using chemical weapons against U.S. troops during the Gulf War. You know, I'm always fascinated when I speak to someone who has done such a deep dive and has spent years working on a book, you know, not these things that you see turned out in a couple of months.

    Now you shift from that depth and that focus to the book tour, where you're hearing what people like me think about the book or chance we have. And I'm wondering, Steve, is there anything that we've been missing, you know, the collective group of interviewers you've encountered as you've been out promoting the book, are there aspects of this story that we've ignored that we just didn't see for how important they are?

    Well, I think, you know, this is this is I'm afraid of the kind of historian's answer, but it's these these conflicts that we continue to manage today, whether with Vladimir Putin or, you know, Kim Jong un in North Korea. They unfold over long periods of time and we tend to manage them as fixed static conflicts. But in fact, they are dynamic and subtle and they're full of nuance.

    And it's very difficult, I think, for a president with so many responsibilities to maintain the level of concentration or to collect the level of information that's required to keep up with the nuances of these relationships. But the President should expect that level of fidelity and and free thinking and reexamination of assumptions continuously, because I think the lesson of these long narrative histories is that they do change that, that simply dismissing a dangerous adversary through caricature or demonization deprive you of vital insight that is necessary to protect the national security interests of the country.

    And only hard work will get you there. Now, you know, I have the luxury of having hindsight and having evidence that wouldn't be available to a president in real time. But I think what I take away from this is that you really do need to insist that those arms of your government that can deliver those insights work on it, and in a free thinking way, free of political and and sort of groupthink straitjackets as best as possible.

    We're human beings. We're not going to always get it right in the last lesson, of course, there's a level of humility about what you don't know. Yeah, always a lesson worth revisiting. You know, congratulations on an epic piece of work. Thank you for joining us today. I should also mention to our viewers and listeners that you have generously donated a lot of the assets you worked with that are now going to be part of the Wilson Center's digital archive.

    And so on behalf of our history and public policy program. Sincere thanks for that generous offer. well, I'm grateful to the center for for housing them and for curating them. You know, it's a shame that these records are not available and full to all researchers because they do provide a very rare case study of a dictatorship from the inside.

    But I'm very glad that what I was able to extract through this lawsuit will be available to researchers through the efforts and investments of the Woodrow Wilson Center. So it's a great partnership and I'm happy to be involved. Great. Thanks again. And thanks again and congratulations again on the book. So I hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll join us again soon on.

    Until then, for all of us at the center, I'm John Milewski. Thanks for watching. And again, the book is The Achilles Trap by Steve Coll. Thank you.


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