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Profile: Joe Persichini
Joe Persichini was a participant or observer in the following events:
Saddam Hussein in US custody. [Source: US Department of Defense]The FBI sends veteran interrogator George Piro to question captured Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein. Over a period of months, Piro uses a combination of friendliness, warmth, and verbal provocations to tease a wealth of information from Hussein. At no time does Piro or other FBI interrogators use “aggressive” or “harsh” interrogation methods against Hussein. Piro works closely with a team of FBI and CIA analysts to pore over Hussein’s responses. He will later recall his sessions with Hussein for CBS News interviewer Scott Pelley.
'Mr. Saddam' - Piro begins calling the dictator “Mr. Saddam,” as a sign of respect; by the end of their time, they are on a first-name basis with one another. Hussein never finds out that Piro is “just” an FBI agent; he believes that Piro is far more influential than he actually is, and is directly briefing President Bush on their conversations. “He didn’t know I worked for the FBI, he didn’t know I was a field agent,” Piro will recall. Had he found out, “I think initially he would have been angry. He would feel that I was way beneath him, and would not respond well to the interrogation. Or even to me.… I think he thought, and actually on a couple of occasions talked around the issue that I was directly answering to the president.” Piro will recall setting several strategies of deception into motion, including his barking orders at the guards to send them into a panic to obey his instructions. “[I]t was all part of our strategy,” Piro will explain.
Controlling the Dictator - Piro will say that he gained physical control of the setting—a small, windowless room with chairs and a table—merely by placing himself between Hussein and the door. “I purposely put his back against the wall,” Piro will recall. “And then mine against the door, psychologically to tell him that his back was against the wall in the interview room. And that I stood between him and the door, psychologically. Between him whether it’s to go back to his cell, freedom, whatever he was projecting to be outside of that door. I was kind of that psychological barrier between him and the door.” Piro will add, “I basically said that I was gonna be responsible for every aspect of his life, and that if he needed anything I was gonna be the person that he needed to talk to.” Piro controls Hussein’s food and cleaning materials—Piro will describe Hussein as a “clean freak” who uses large numbers of baby wipes to disinfect his cell and his food. Piro allows Hussein pen and paper to write what Piro will describe as inordinate amounts of “terrible” poetry. “We had the guards remove their watches,” Piro will recall. “And the only person that was wearing a watch was me. And it was very evident to him, ‘cause I was wearing the largest wristwatch you could imagine. And it was just the act of him asking for the time—was critical in our plan.” Pelley says, “So you controlled time itself,” and Piro answers, “Yes.”
No Coercive Interrogation Methods - Piro will say that no coercive interrogations, such as sleep deprivation, excessive heat or cold, bombardment with loud music, or waterboarding are ever used. “It’s against FBI policy, first,” Piro will explain. “And wouldn’t have really benefited us with someone like Saddam.… I think Saddam clearly had demonstrated over his legacy that he would not respond to threats, to any type of fear-based approach.” The best methods for use with Hussein are, according to Piro, time and patience.
Using Emotions to Create Vulnerability - Piro uses their time to build a relationship with Hussein based on dependency, trust, and emotion. He alternates between treating Hussein with courtesy and kindness, and provoking him with pictures and video images designed to anger and embarrass the former dictator. He uses pictures of the toppling of Hussein’s statues and news videos documenting his overthrow. “I wanted him to get angry. I wanted him to see those videos and to get angry,” Piro will say. “You want to take him through those various emotions. Happy, angry, sad. When you have someone going through those emotions they’re not able to really control themselves. And they’re more vulnerable during the interview.”
Insult Drove Kuwait Invasion - Piro learns that one of the driving forces behind Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 (see August 2, 1990) was personal insult. “What really triggered it for him, according to Saddam, was he had sent his foreign minister to Kuwait to meet with the Emir Al Sabah, the former leader of Kuwait, to try to resolve some of the… issues” between Kuwait and Iraq, Piro will recall. “And the Emir told the foreign minister of Iraq that he would not stop doing what he was doing until he turned every Iraqi woman into a $10 prostitute. And that really sealed it for him, to invade Kuwait. He wanted to punish, he told me, Emir Al Sabah, for saying that.” The 1991 US invasion of Iraq (see January 16, 1991 and After) soured Hussein on then-President George H. W. Bush, a feeling that Hussein transferred to the son. “He didn’t like President [George W.] Bush,” Piro will say. “He would have liked meeting President Reagan. He thought he was a great leader. Honorable man. He liked President Clinton. But he did not like President Bush, the first or the current.”
Small Things, Big Impact - Piro will recall the outsized impact relatively small incidents have on Hussein. One night the FBI flies Hussein to a hospital. He is manacled and blindfolded. Piro will remember: “And once I saw how beautiful Baghdad was in the middle of the night, so I took advantage of it. I allowed him to look out and the lights were on. There was traffic. And it looked like any other major metropolitan city around the world. And for him to see that. And as I mentioned, you know, big Baghdad is moving forward without you. I mean, little things like that didn’t require a lot of suggestion on our part. It made its point.” Piro even uses Hussein’s birthday, a former national holiday, to drive home his point. “In 2004, no one celebrated his birthday on April 28th. So the only one that really knew and cared was us. I’d brought him some cookies, and we, the FBI, celebrated his birthday for him.” Piro gives Hussein packets of flower seeds and allows him to plant his own small garden, which he must tend with his hands because the FBI will not allow him to use tools. Piro will recall that their strolls in Hussein’s tiny garden are often the site of large revelations.
Avoiding Capture - Hussein tells Piro that US forces simply missed him during the first days of the invasion, the “shock and awe” assault. “He said that he was at one of the locations. He said it in a kind of a bragging fashion, that he was there, but that we missed him,” Piro later says. “He told me he changed the way he traveled. He got rid of his normal vehicles. He got rid of the protective detail he traveled with. Really just to change his signature so he would be much harder to identify.” And Hussein denies ever using body doubles or decoys, as US intelligence had long asserted.
WMD - Five months into the sessions, Hussein finally opens up to Piro regarding the subject of Iraq’s WMD programs. Using indirection, Piro begins to tease information out of Hussein. “He told me that most of the WMD had been destroyed by the UN inspectors in the ‘90s. And those that hadn’t been destroyed by the inspectors were unilaterally destroyed by Iraq,” Piro will recall. So why, Pelley will ask, did Hussein “put your nation at risk, why put your own life at risk to maintain this charade?” Piro will respond: “It was very important for him to project that because that was what kept him, in his mind, in power. That capability kept the Iranians away. It kept them from reinvading Iraq.” It is apparent, Piro says, that Hussein did not believe he could survive without the perception that he had WMD. But Piro confirms that Hussein always intended to restart his WMD program someday. “The folks that he needed to reconstitute his program are still there,” Piro will observe. “He wanted to pursue all of WMD. So he wanted to reconstitute his entire WMD program.”
Did Not Believe US Would Invade - From there, Hussein begins to explain why he let the US continue to believe he had such weapons even as troops began massing on his borders. He didn’t believe the US would actually invade, he says. As Piro will recall: “[H]e told me he initially miscalculated President Bush. And President Bush’s intentions. He thought the United States would retaliate with the same type of attack as we did in 1998 under Operation Desert Fox (see December 16-19, 1998). Which was a four-day aerial attack. So you expected that initially.” Hussein says that Iraq would have survived a relatively limited aerial bombardment. “He survived that once,” Piro will recall. “And then he was willing to accept that type of attack. That type of damage.” But he never believed the US would invade until almost the moment of the initial assault.
'The Secret War' - Hussein knew his military could not win in any confrontation with the US. Instead, as Piro will recall: “What he had asked of his military leaders and senior government officials was to give him two weeks. And at that point it would go into what he called the secret war.… Going from a conventional to an unconventional war.” Pelley will remark, “So the insurgency was part of his plan from the very beginning,” to which Piro will say, “Well, he would like to take credit for the insurgency.”
Iraq and al-Qaeda - Hussein confirms that his regime had no dealings with al-Qaeda, as many Bush officials have long believed. Hussein considered Osama bin Laden “a fanatic,” according to Piro. “You can’t really trust fanatics,” Hussein tells the interrogator. And he had no interest in any alliance with al-Qaeda. “He didn’t wanna be seen with bin Laden,” Piro will recall. “And didn’t want to associate with bin Laden.” Hussein viewed bin Laden as a threat to him and his regime.
Independent Confirmation and Praise for Piro's Efforts - Hussein’s claims are later verified by independent interrogations with other high-ranking Hussein regime officials. Piro’s boss, FBI Assistant Director Joe Persichini, will say that Piro’s interrogation is a high mark of the bureau’s recent efforts. “The FBI will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and I would have to say that the interview with Saddam Hussein is one of the top accomplishments of our agency in the last 100 years,” Persichini will say, and gives credit to Piro’s language skills. Only about 50 of the 10,000 FBI agents speak Arabic, he will note. Piro will credit his FBI and CIA colleagues for their work in analyzing Hussein’s statements, and their extensive knowledge of Hussein and his regime. “The more you know about your subject, the better of an interview… that you’re gonna conduct,” he will say. “You’ll be able to recognize inconsistencies, deception, things like that. Plus it really establishes your credibility within the interview.”
No Regrets - One thing Hussein never shows during his long interviews, Piro later recalls, is remorse. “No remorse,” Piro will say. “No regret.” [CBS News, 1/27/2008]
Entity Tags: George Herbert Walker Bush, Ronald Reagan, George Piro, George W. Bush, Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Joe Persichini, CBS News, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Scott Pelley, Al-Qaeda, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Iraq under US Occupation
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