Posted by Jerrod @ 1:56 am on June 30th 2009

How to break a dictator

The New York Daily News is running a series of short but interesting posts looking at the US interrogation of Saddam Hussein. The FBI has released several of the interrogation reports and James Meek at the NYDN is talking about the process. What’s important about this is that it illustrates the value of a traditional and established interrogation method.

From the 3rd installment:

On Mar. 21, 2004, the FBI team in Baghdad reported they had conducted 16 interviews of Saddam and a dozen with his former henchmen, including ex-foreign minister Tariq Aziz and a death-dealing thug nicknamed “Chemical Ali.” Noting Saddam’s willingness to engage in “dialogue, not an interrogation,” the FBI’s Baghdad agents told Washington that Piro spent several sessions “discussing non-threatening topics,” and that Saddam felt relaxed enough “to talk freely and to boast of past accomplishments.”

But Saddam also quit eating in some unexplained protest, the FBI memo said – though he had grown so dependant on the G-man providing for all his needs that “Hussein announced he was ending his hunger strike for the benefit of SSA Piro.”

“As the rapport and dependency between Hussein and SSA Piro continues to grow, more complex topics are being introduced into the interviews,” such as detailed questions about gassing Kurds in northern Iraq and suppressing the 1991 Shi’a uprising, the once-secret memo reported.

It’s annoying how short these posts are and it feels like that they are trying to drive daily traffic with the series (or maybe Meek just can’t write more than 800 words a day), but its an interesting series. It’s all too bad that Meek couldn’t resist this framing of the interrogation approach:

The FBI prides itself on “rapport-based” interrogations that have a high success rate for yielding confessions from the likes of 1993 World trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and CIA headquarters killer Mir Aimal Kasi. There was no “ticking bomb” scenario with Saddam – just inherent political pressure – so the interrogation proceeded carefully and cautiously over months.

We (should) all know by now what a canard the idea of “torture to stop a timebomb” is, both with regard to our rather selective consideration of which kind of “ticking time bomb” matters as well as the rather important point regarding quality of information you get from it. It’s like Nice Guy Eddie told us: If you fucking beat this prick long enough, he’ll tell you he started the goddamn Chicago fire, now that don’t necessarily make it fucking so!

What really matters is the power of a friendly word. A little touch of love and compassion goes a long way to unlocking an evil heart, you know?

Update: James Meek sent an email to explain his process:

To answer your question, I’m posting to the blog as I’m reading the files, which consist of about 24 individual memos called FBI 302 reports. I looked over the 134-page file and had an idea of how the interrogations unfolded, and then have carefully gone through each report, writing as I go, while also cross-referencing them with a separate box of FBI records on Saddam and comparing all of it with reporting from confidential sources. (I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the Saddam files a year before it was public knowledge that the FBI had interrogated him, but got the docs 2 1/2 years later.) So what you’ll find is that my description of the interrogations is somewhat richer than what the files I’m posting describe. All of this is enormously time consuming and I’ve been doing it in between daily assignments. Yesterday I read 50 pages of the files and wrote part 3 while simultaneously reporting on a Supreme Court ruling with political implications for Sonia Sotomayor and for NYC.

Glad you are finding it of interest.

Cheers, JGM

Maybe I’ve become especially sensitive to others as is the Japanese way but I feel like a jerk for whining about his output. Considering how little I’ve written on this blog (or in my profession for that matter), I shouldn’t be throwing stones. Thanks for the reply, James, and good luck with the memos. He mentioned that one of the documents (see the “interrogation documents” link above) has already been viewed 500 times, a surprisingly large number, according to him.


  1. I forgot to include additional links about how to break a terrorist. Even The American Conservative gets in on the action!

    Comment by Jerrod — 6/30/2009 @ 4:59 am

  2. Good and important work on Meeks’ part (and a thoughtful reply). This stuff always fascinates me, in part because of how effectively it understands the tendencies of dictators and terrorists, but also because of how counter-intuitive it comes to the whole macho fantasy of interrogations, warfare, and criminal justice.

    Comment by Brad — 6/30/2009 @ 12:18 pm

  3. The final post is up.

    Comment by Jerrod — 7/2/2009 @ 10:47 pm

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