By NEIL A. LEWIS and DAVID JOHNSTON
The New York Times
July 2, 2004
WASHINGTON, July 1 — In the nearly seven months that he was held captive by American forces, Saddam Hussein revealed little of what his interrogators most wanted to know, about his weapons programs and the insurgency in postwar Iraq, senior officials involved in his custody said in a series of recent interviews.
But Mr. Hussein would occasionally provide startling comments and observations, they said, as when he spoke about his reasons for invading Kuwait in 1990, and precipitated the first gulf war.
Mr. Hussein told his interrogator on one occasion that a principal reason for invading was his belief that he needed to keep his army occupied.
One senior intelligence official familiar with that interview said Mr. Hussein seemed to suggest that he distrusted what his restive officer corps might do if they were not otherwise distracted.
When charged in connection with the Kuwait invasion, Mr. Hussein told the judge, "I'm surprised you're charging me with that as an Iraqi when everyone knows that Kuwait is part of Iraq."
From his partial answers to questions about the recent war, intelligence officials said they came to believe that Mr. Hussein was surprised when the United States began its invasion in March 2003.
One official said that Mr. Hussein had implied that ambiguity over whether his government possessed illegal weapons "would keep the neighbors at bay, while the U.S. would be hung up in interminable debate at the U.N."
On Wednesday, Mr. Hussein was formally transferred to the custody of the new Iraqi government. Along with 11 former aides, he was formally charged on Thursday with crimes against humanity, including genocide, in connection with several major events during his rule.
He was interrogated principally by one intelligence officer in Arabic, the officials said. The authorities did not use any physically coercive methods, an official said, adding that psychological tricks were employed, like questioning him for several hours and then leaving him for a while, returning to ask just a brief question, only to leave him alone again for a while.
Mr. Hussein chided his interrogators at one point, saying that while he was on the run during the war, American soldiers had forced some people who were helping him hide to shame themselves by refusing to shelter him any longer because the pursuit was so intense. He said his hosts had been embarrassed that they could not provide him with the hospitality that is an important custom in the Arab world.
Officials said he also seemed to boast at one point that he had infiltrated the Iraqi National Congress, the exile organization headed by Ahmad Chalabi, that was instrumental in pressing the Bush administration to invade Iraq.
And in one curious session, an official said, he related how his son Uday had beaten to death someone who had annoyed him by playing music too loudly.
Mr. Hussein said that after the beating, he had Uday imprisoned in solitary confinement for a time to teach him a lesson.
It was unclear whether he was referring to an incident in 1988, in which it was widely reported that Uday bludgeoned to death his father's valet and food taster, supposedly because he had introduced Mr. Hussein to the woman who became his mistress and replaced Uday's mother in his affections. Both Uday and Mr. Hussein's other son, Qusay, were killed in a firefight with American forces last July.
But for all the intriguing comments and surprising observations, Mr. Hussein's information was of little use, the officials contended. He behaved as if he were still Iraq's ruler, a posture he maintained Thursday when he appeared before the Iraqi judge.
"We got very little, I would say almost nothing," said one former senior official with the occupation authority.
The official said that interrogators "like to work in ways that gain the confidence" of the person being questioned, an approach that did not fit Mr. Hussein's situation.
The official said Mr. Hussein had willingly discussed the roots of the Baath Party in the 1970's but became uncooperative when the questions turned to illegal weapons or links to Al Qaeda.
"I never saw anything useful," the official said.
Mr. Hussein was initially held under the supervision of the Central Intelligence Agency, the officials said.
After a time, when officials decided he would not cooperate with them, the Federal Bureau of Investigation assumed a greater role in his interrogations.
Although Mr. Hussein can speak a halting English, he refused to speak anything but Arabic.
His military guards for an extended period were reservists from Puerto Rico, who were instructed to speak only Spanish in his presence.
Mr. Hussein was circumspect about his whereabouts while in hiding. He did not satisfy his interrogators' curiosity as to where he was, particularly during the first days of the war, when the United States tried to kill him by bombing various locations where he was thought to be hiding, the officials said.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting for this article.