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February 03, 2009

"That Dark Question"

Charles Duelfer's book Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq is surprisingly sensitive and insightful. Duelfer ran the CIA's search for Iraq's non-existent WMD; here are some of his musings about Saddam and the United States:

It was not lost on us that in our positions of absolute authority over Saddam and the other detainees, we had powers that were Saddam-like. Could we become Saddam? That dark question floated silently over our work. What made Saddam extraordinary? What was in him that was not in any of us? Or was it in us, but buried?...

In one of Piro's formal sessions, Piro questioned Saddam about war crimes committed by an Iraqi tank crew in 1991. Civilians had been tied to the front of tanks as human shields. Piro was pressing Saddam about his knowledge of such tactics...

Saddam parried by questioning Piro, "How do you know this? Who told you? What was the weather like at the time?" He continued with other spurious points to deflect the line of questioning.

Piro pressed on, stating flatly that he must have been aware. "How could you not know these tactics? You are the supreme military commander at the time..."

Saddam countered, "Many times, subordinates are afraid to report to the president...Officers are particularly reluctant to report any information that is not good. They are afraid that their superiors may punish them."

This was a recurrent theme of Saddam's, and it held some truth, though it was self-serving. The terror he emanated inhibited his receipt of accurate information. The picture he saw was distorted by those reporting to him who feared for their positions and their lives either from Saddam directly or from some of the surrounding guards. Unlike Saddam, President Bush had not shot any of his subordinates, but I had to wonder if he didn't experience similar doubts about the information provided to him, perhaps especially about Iraq.

Beyond the rest of it, it's fascinating that the U.S. saw Saddam's use of human shields as particularly evil, given that our closest ally does that systematically.

(See also a previous excerpt from the book here.)

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at February 3, 2009 12:29 PM

JUST another opportunity George missed to improve the world while he was in office. I personally feel Cheney would shoot any number of subordinates necessary to get the job done.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 3, 2009 04:10 PM

Cheney did the bureaucratic and political equivalent of shooting people who might put out information that contradicted his version of reality.

Wielding real power while still assuring your access to information that you might not prefer to hear... it's one of the ceaseless struggles, even for a politician with good intentions in a fairly democratic society with lively media.

For dictators and authoritarians of all degrees, it's the weakness. Leads directly to muliple layers of informers, paranoia, etc.

Posted by: Nell at February 3, 2009 10:07 PM

I have thought and thought about it and I realized that since this IS America, maybe just the one lawyer really was all it takes, simple.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 4, 2009 04:23 PM

"I personally feel Cheney would shoot any number of subordinates necessary to get the job done." If not Cheney, then Addington.

No mercy for either of them, same as they would give for you or me.

Posted by: bill at February 5, 2009 04:51 PM