Getting into the Mind of Saddam Hussein
An interview with the FBI’s Special Agent George Piro on how he got ‘High Value Detainee #1’ to befriend, trust and talk after his capture.
By Robin Jay
He remembers the moment like it was yesterday. The time was 5 p.m. on Wednesday, December 24, 2003. FBI Special Agent George Piro had left his office and was driving to the mall to catch up on some last minute Christmas shopping. The car phone rang. He could never have imagined how answering that call would put him center stage for one of the FBI’s most important missions.
“It was a senior official from FBI Headquarters in Quantico,” Piro told South Florida Opulence. “He said I had been selected to serve as the team leader to interrogate Saddam Hussein,” the deposed president of Iraq captured just 12 days prior while hiding in a spider hole in a mud hut in Ticrit. “I was told to prepare to leave for Baghdad.”
At the time, Piro had been an agent with the FBI just five years. “When I received that unexpected call on Christmas Eve, I was blown away.” The importance of the assignment was overwheming – in a moment’s notice, I had the reputation and the legacy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation riding on my performance and I didn’t want to disappoint my country.” Because of the Geneva Conventions and that Hussein had been classified as a prisoner of war, it was the first time in history the FBI had been put in charge of interrogating such a significant head of state in his home country. It was a monumental assignment.
Who is George Piro?
But make no mistake, Piro was no rookie to law enforcement. Prior to joining the FBI in 1999, he served as a security policeman in the United States Air Force. Afterward, he became a detective at a California Police Department, went to night school to earn a college degree in criminal justice, and then joined the ranks as a criminal investigator for the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office and was assigned to the County’s Drug Enforcement Agency.
Piro’s appreciation for law enforcement developed at a young age. Born in Lebanon with an Assyrian heritage, he witnessed as a boy firsthand the turbulence and terror of the Lebanese Civil War that broke out in 1975. Schools and businesses shut their doors. His family sought cover in a bomb shelter. It was a frightening experience no child should ever endure.
Piro’s father, being an expert in dental manufacturing and having relatives in the United States, found the means to relocate his family to the safety of Turlock, California, when George was 12.
“My parents wanted a better life for us,” Piro said. “I was eager to become an American and to fit in with the other kids. I didn’t want them to judge me because of my accent, so I began avidly studying and watching TV [his favorite program was the California Police Department show called CHiPs]. I was fluent in English within a year – and had every bit of an American accent. I wanted to dedicate my life to giving back to this country.”
The Covert Mission to Baghdad
At the time of the Iraq War, only one in 1,000 FBI special agents was fluent in Arabic – Hussein’s native language. Piro was one of those agents – and his Assyrian heritage made him the most likely candidate to earn the trust of the high-level Arabic prisoner. It would take trust to get the narcissistic Hussein to discuss extremely sensitive matters, such as the location of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), to admit to mass homicidal gassing of Kurds in Northern Iraq, to reveal any ties with Al-Qaeda, and among other things, to reveal reasons behind the invasion of Kuwait that sparked the Gulf War.
Piro prepared for his daunting task by watching countless news videos and reading newspaper reports; studying the history of Iraq and Hussein’s political ‘accomplishments’ (such as improving healthcare, education and infrastructure in the third-world country), and even reading the dictator’s four published books and poems. In January, following his appointment to lead the Hussein interrogation, Piro’s team of analysts from the CIA, FBI intelligence analysts, language specialists and a behavior profiler, landed unannounced in Baghdad in the middle of night at Camp Cropper. Being a high-value detainee, Hussein was separated from the other prisoners in a windowless barrack cell.
“When I arrived, Hussein wasn’t feeling well and asked to see a doctor,” Piro recounted. “No one was cleared to translate for the physician, so I saw this as an opportunitiy to start building a relationship with the man I was there to interrogate. I knew Hussein wouldn’t respond positively to threating language, so my mission was to get him to trust me, to befriend me. It would be no easy task, but, fortunately, we had no particular deadline – we had time on our side that would be necessary to penetrate his guarded wall of rhetoric and for me to learn his behaviors in order to know when he was lying and when he was telling the truth.
“The doctor and I approached his cell at the end of the hall. I knocked on the door and walked in. I introduced myself in Arabic as ‘Mr. George.’ Hussein was standing and was wearing a traditional white robe. He was clean shaven, with a mustache, and was much taller than I expected – 6’1”, about an inch taller than me. It was so hard to believe I was standing there, face-to-face with Saddam Hussein, the disreputable man I had watched on television news reports in the ’80s and ’90s who was notorious for causing such horrific conflicts and atrocities.”
Persuading A Sociopath to Talk Truthfully
At first, Hussein was guarded and reserved. But as a special agent of the FBI, Piro was highly trained in the skill of interviewing reluctant sociopaths, understanding what makes them tick, how to gain their trust and get them to talk. Interestingly, Hussein thought Piro reported directly to President George Bush. If he had known that Piro was an FBI agent (and had never even met the President), he would likely have viewed his position as being beneath him and may have refused to communicate.
From his very first encounter with Hussein, Piro subtly set the scene psychologically to demonstrate he was in charge and that the inmate was at a submissive disadvantage. Overtime, the strategy was designed to break down Hussein’s defensive walls
“I positioned his chair so that it literally put his back up against a wall. I sat between Hussein and the door,” Piro explained. “It was a subliminal message that he couldn’t escape without dealing with me. I told him that if he needed anything – even the time of day – he needed to go through me. There was purposefully no clock on the wall and I was wearing a very large watch. The strategy was to get him to rely on me and only me.”
Special Agent Piro came back to the cell every day for 9 months, spending increasingly longer amounts of time with him, at Hussein’s request. Sometimes they spent as many as seven hours a day together. Sometimes he listened for hours as Hussein read him poetry he had written – a task he detested but very convincingly pretended to enjoy.
“I spoke to him about things I knew he’d be proud of – like the books he had written, how he had developed Iraq with improved healthcare and nationalized oil production, and about philosophies of religion and politics,” said Piro. “I stayed away from subjects that would make him angry and clam up – like his childhood. He didn’t want people to know his father wasn’t kind to him or that he grew up poor and underprivileged.”
Eventually the two were on a first-name basis – George and Saddam. Sometimes they would eat together or walk next to each other in the exercise yard. And there was one characteristic about Saddam that Piro found particularly surprising. “He seemed more ‘normal’ than I expected; he had some likable qualities. He was polite and sometimes charming. He shook my hand. Don’t get me wrong – there were times I could see hate in his eyes. And he could be cold, like when I brought up the death of his sons, it didn’t seem to phase him. But deep down, he needed the same basic things every human being does – to have companionship and interaction with other
human beings.” Piro had discovered Hussein’s human weakness and would covertly take advantage of that vulnerability.
The subtle psychological initiatives continued to ensure Saddam’s deeper dependency on George – and for the prisoner to come to his own realization that he’d never again be free or take back the saddistic rule of his country. In a prior interview with 60 Minutes, George said he showed Saddam videos of his statue being torn down by fellow Iraqis, and he once allowed him to look out the window during a nighttime flight over Baghdad so that he could see for himself the bright lights and bustling activity. The unspoken message: Iraq is thriving without you. On Saddam’s birthday, it became apparent to the former dictator that none of his countrymen celebrated. But in a twist to make Saddam think his interrogator was his friend, George brought him ‘birthday cookies’ made in his own mother’s kitchen.
The Moment of Truth
Saddam’s trust in George grew. At just the right moment, in the natural progression of a conversation that Saddam initiated, George asked him about the weapons of mass
destruction and where they were hidden.
“Saddam confided in me that Iraq didn’t have WMDs, that most were destroyed during the U.S. inspections. But he did say he fully intended to rebuild WMDs again one day,” George said. “I asked him why he adamantly lied about having WMDs, risking the penalty of war against his country. He said it was because he was more fearful of letting Iran find out he didn’t have WMDs; to do so would show weakness and invite defeat. Hussein said he underestimated the United States, assuming the most he’d have to endure for his lies would be minor air strikes.”
With regard to the homicidal gassing of the Kurds, Saddam made no denials. “In his twisted mind, Saddam truly believed the people he killed were getting what they deserved for committing acts of treason,” George said.
Interestingly, when asked about Saddam’s connections to Al-Qaeda, the former dictator told George that he was against a united Islamic state and viewed Osama bin Laden as a lunatic, a threat.
And the real reason for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait? Saddam revealed to George that it was revenge for an insult from the country’s leader – for an Emir saying it was his mission to turn every woman in Iraq into a $10 prostitute.
In the end, Special Agent George Piro won the cunning game of chess – getting his opponent, one of the most brutal dictators in history, a man who knew his fate, had no motivation to cooperate, and had “no remorse, no regret” – to entrust him, to believe “the show,” and to tell us what we wanted to know.
His boss at the finish of the interrogation said, “Piro’s expert work in revealing Saddam’s secrets was probably one of the top accomplishments of the agency in the last 100 years.” Today, it’s no wonder why Mr. Piro is Special Agent in Charge of the Miami Bureau of the FBI.
Well done, sir.