The Surprising Interrogations That Led to Saddam Hussein’s Capture

The Surprising Interrogations That Led to Saddam Hussein’s Capture

After coalition forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 and toppled its government, the U.S. military launched an intensive manhunt. The target? The nation’s deposed dictator, Saddam Hussein, who escaped Baghdad when the capital fell.

Nine months later, in an operation code-named “Red Dawn,” U.S. troops extracted Hussein, disheveled and disoriented, from a hole in the ground near his home town of Tikrit. He had an unloaded Glock pistol (which President George W. Bush later kept as a trophy) and a suitcase stuffed with $750,000. According to U.S. military historians, the team that apprehended Hussein boasted 600 soldiers, two dozen tanks and a company of Apache attack helicopters.

Yet all that firepower would have been useless, had it not been for months of meticulous intelligence gathering and canny questioning. Eric Maddox, the Army interrogator connected to the Delta force pursuing Hussein, played a pivotal role in the operation—considered the biggest triumph of the Iraq War—with no trigger pulling, no drone strikes, no enhanced interrogation methods. His secret weapon for helping pinpoint Hussein’s exact location was much sneakier: He used empathy.

The fine art of verbal communication certainly wasn’t the kind of military action Maddox had envisioned when he heeded a vague sense of patriotic calling in his senior year at the University of Oklahoma and enlisted with the 82 Airborne Division. Fearless and hardworking, Maddox made jumpmaster and became a Ranger, a designation notorious for its grueling training. But ultimately, plunging out of planes was not how he made history. Instead, over the course of more than 300 interrogations in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, he used his ability to talk and listen with empathy—and to influence people who had no reason to trust him. His central role in Saddam Hussein’s capture earned Staff Sergeant Maddox a Legion of Merit, the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Director’s Award and the Bronze Star.

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Operation Red Dawn: a bright spot in a murky war

Few moments in the Iraq War were as widely celebrated as the capture of Saddam Hussein.

For one thing, the invasion had been unpopular from the start, both at home and internationally. Claims by the Bush administration that the brutal dictator was developing weapons of mass destruction ultimately proved false. Allegations connecting Hussein to al Qaeda terrorists also went unsupported. Many critics suspected ulterior motives, ranging from oil reserves to Bush’s declining poll numbers. Soon after the president prematurely declared “Mission Accomplished” on an aircraft carrier on May 1, it became clear that the invasion had done nothing to advance the war on terror, nor would it help establish a bulwark of democracy in the region. Instead, the nation of Iraq would face years—if not decades—of instability, strife and sectarian violence.

However, most Americans and their allies cheered the toppling of Saddam’s regime, which had been responsible not only for the invasion of Kuwait and the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, but for violent suppression of Shia and Kurdish uprisings, ruthless chemical-gas attacks on its own civilians and the murderous repression of all political dissenters. To help troops identify the leaders of the brutal regime, most of whom had also quickly dispersed after the invasion, the U.S. Army issued a special deck of playing cards to troops, showing photos, names and job titles of high-value targets. Pictured on the ace spades, number one on the blacklist? Saddam Hussein himself.

If the United States had overplayed its hand with the invasion, cleaning up this deck might just make the gamble worthwhile.

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From Chinese linguist to Middle Eastern interrogator

Maddox wasn’t exactly groomed for the role of Saddam hunter. After quitting the paratroopers in 1997, he pursued the more cerebral route of military linguist, with a concentration on Mandarin Chinese. In 1999, he became an interrogator. But except for occasional interviews with Chinese citizens apprehended on the U.S.-Mexico border as part of human-trafficking networks, Maddox had no opportunities to practice his interrogation and intelligence-gathering skills.

The September 11 attacks, and America’s subsequent war on terror, changed all that. After two years with the Defense Intelligence Agency, Maddox was ordered to Baghdad International Airport in July 2003. By chance he got attached to Special Operations Task Force 121 in Tikrit, a city on the Tigris River about 140 miles northwest of Baghdad. But while Tikrit was also Hussein’s home town, few strategists expected to find him there; most assumed he had escaped to Syria.

Maddox suddenly found himself immersed in a hunt for high-value targets—or HTVs—represented on the deck of cards. With a list of about 200 names, he began to interrogate prisoners in Tikrit. Drawing on his ranger skills, he joined delta force raids to capture suspects in the middle of the night, then interrogated them in the day. He quickly learned that the war on terror had changed the way we fight wars, making intelligence work more important than ever.

Before 9/11, he says, war focused on force distribution and battlefield strategies. But since the attacks, the enemy began to consist primarily of insurgencies and radical organizations without government backing or heavy amounts of equipment. “Their primary resource,” he says, “is their ability to recruit and inspire citizens.”

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Channeling Jack Ryan—and the actors who have played him

Maddox soon realized that threats and intimidation were not going to get him the answers he was looking for. Instead, he decided to incentivize prisoners, and offer a way out. “All they really care about is themselves,” he says. “At the end of the day they have to take care of themselves. They have to take care of their families, and what’s best for them.” Listening to his subjects through his interpreter, Maddox learned to gain trust, by displaying empathy—not to be mistaken with sympathy, he insists: “There are no emotions in empathy. Empathy is understanding. It’s not sympathy.”

While Maddox says his friends sometimes compare him to Jack Ryan—the fictitious CIA analyst-turned-field-operative in author Tom Clancy’s spy thrillers—he may have more in common with actors who have played Jack Ryan on screen. “If I need to cry or laugh or yell or scream, or get scared,” Maddox explains, “I gotta be able to pull any of those out of the bag as instantaneously and authentically as possible. There is no part of it that is real.”

At times, Maddox even fooled his superiors, who pulled him from interrogations, afraid he was losing his way. That, he says, was the greatest compliment: “Of course I want my prisoners to think that I am with them, and if my boss thinks that I am with those prisoners, then I must be doing a really good job.”

Maddox and the Special Task Force came to focus on one central character: Mohammed Ibrahim Omar al-Muslit, a relative and bodyguard of Saddam. After about three months of interrogations, Maddox began to suspect that the guard’s presence in Tikrit signaled the former dictator’s proximity, so finding him became the central mission. “We started with family members, business partners, and that eventually led to his driver,” says Maddox. “On December 1 we arrested al-Muslit’s driver. And he was the one who explained the entire layout—Mohammed Ibrahim was the messenger for Saddam and the insurgency.”

For the next 13 days, the driver joined Maddox on raids, even sat in on interrogations. On December 13, they finally got the bodyguard. The man stalled at first. After a few hours, his position changed. In fact, he became adamant: “I’ll take you, but we have to go right now,” he told Maddox. Ibrahim knew that if he waited too long, Hussein would grow suspicious and leave and Maddox’s offer—of money and relocation help—would become void.

That evening, the Special Task Force, with the support of the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, headed out to the village of Ad Dawr about 10 miles southeast of Tikrit. At first, a search of two targeted houses came up empty, but then a force member discovered the hole in the ground that was soon beamed across TV screens around the world. In that hole sat the pathetic, unkempt figure of a deposed tyrant.

Maddox himself didn’t take part in the final raid. Red Dawn’s heavily armed force took the former president without firing a single shot. The news stories that circulated for weeks afterward showed pictures of Hussein captured by members of the Delta Force and infantrymen of the 4 Brigade next to the hole. Maddox’s name never came up, nor did TV audiences learn what it had taken to get to the forlorn hideout along the Tigris. More than 300 interrogations, countless raids and meticulous analyses of personal networks had taken up most of Maddox’s six-month tour. After Red Dawn, he continued his service in Iraq and then in Afghanistan as a civilian, conducting more than 2,700 interrogations and participating in more than 200 raids before he left the service.

The power of intelligence

As effective as his techniques have been in the war on terror, Maddox knows that “intelligence through empathy” has not become the historical legacy of the ongoing battle. What has surfaced since Red Dawn, instead: authorizations for water-boarding, the torture of suspects through intermediaries at black sites overseas and the scandalous abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

For Maddox, this happened because commanding officers lost sight of their mission and began seeking the punishment of prisoners as a troop morale booster instead of intelligence. Those without experience in interrogation—the higher-ups—often work with false assumptions, he says. “The problem with our policy on torture is that people who have never done any interrogations, ever,” Maddox bristles, “are speaking smartly on the topic.”

Sometimes, it was simpler than that. “If you’re torturing somebody,” Maddox states, “then you’re just stupid.”

Not that Maddox didn’t know how to turn up the heat on a reticent subject. “If I really got upset with a prisoner, I could cause them more problems than torture,” Maddox explains. “If a prisoner really wanted me to hurt them, I would start spreading rumors around the town and the prison that they’re the ones who are being cooperative.”

On the other hand, Maddox kept his word and delivered on promisers he made to his prisoners. The bodyguard’s driver received a reward of $250,000 and was released to his family and eight children. His current whereabouts are unknown. As for Mohammed Ibrahim Omar al-Muslit, he received an early release, after which he retrieved a stash of money from a hideout in Aleppo, Syria, to build a new life as a rich man in Eastern Europe.

Staff Sergeant Eric Maddox helped locate other high-value targets using the same techniques as those that worked in Tikrit. But his later successes in Iraq and Afghanistan fade in comparison to Operation Red Dawn.

“You get Saddam Hussein,” he notes dryly, “your career has peaked.”

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The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein

Parts of John Nixon’s Debriefing the President help improve America’s understanding of Iraq’s former tyrant. The rest of it evinces bureaucratic parochialism, rivalry and envy.

John Nixon, Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2016), 252 pp., $25.00.

IN DECEMBER 2003, nine months into the U.S. occupation of Iraq, American forces seized the man who had been their number one target. Saddam Hussein, dictator turned fugitive, was finally captured. Like so much else about the U.S. expedition in Iraq beyond the initial invasion and overthrow of Saddam’s regime, there was little preparation or planning for how to handle the former despot once he was in custody. The prevailing assumption had been that the hunt for Saddam would conclude with him being killed, or killing himself. When he instead was captured alive, his interrogation became a matter of improvisation. At one point Saddam had to be moved to a different cell because in his first one he was losing sleep from the noise of small fry being moved in and out of the facility, resulting in him dozing off during the next day’s questioning.

At the time of the capture, John Nixon was a CIA analyst covering the leadership of the Iraqi regime. He had been in Iraq for two months on a short-term assignment, assessing information that might help in the search for Saddam. He was an obvious asset to throw into the breach, first to provide positive identification that the man the U.S. military had pulled from a spider hole on a farm near Tikrit was indeed Saddam Hussein, and then to begin questioning him. The identification was accomplished easily with the aid of such indicators as telltale scars and tribal tattoos. The questioning was more of a challenge, largely because of the lack of prior planning.

The FBI, as the U.S. government’s premier specialists in interrogating bad guys with an eye for both criminal justice and intelligence equities, would be given the main job of questioning Saddam. But the FBI did not have a suitable team in place in Iraq to do the job. Nixon and his CIA colleagues were instructed to start the process, then to yield to the FBI. When that would occur, and what topics should be the focus of questioning until then, were left vague. Based on Nixon’s account—whose role in the process appears to have lasted only a couple of weeks near the end of 2003, before returning to Washington—he and his colleagues nonetheless managed to collect useful information from their famous subject. The insight he acquired provides today’s readers with historical enrichment whether or not it was helpful at the time for those coping with the occupation of Iraq is another question entirely.

MOST OF the first and second drafts of the Iraq War chapter of American history were written several years ago, and Nixon admits to initial difficulty in garnering interest in publishing his part of the story. But his portrait of Saddam and the conversations with him offer an engaging and insightful addition to that history. The author’s skills as an analyst, one who had been following and assessing his subject from afar, come through in his portrayal and interpretation of Saddam in the flesh.

Nixon highlights the qualities that enabled Saddam to rise to the top and retain power in the ruthless and bloodstained polity that Iraq has been ever since a coup overthrew the monarchy in 1958. Going on the lam after the U.S. invasion barely weakened those qualities. Saddam retained his swagger and his conviction that he was still the rightful president of Iraq. His political skills were constantly in evidence. A drab debriefing room in a prison was for Saddam just one more milieu in which he would size up everyone present and figure out how they might be manipulated. The debriefing sessions were jousts in which Saddam worked as much to find out what the Americans questioning him knew as the Americans were working to find out how much he knew.

Saddam also could turn on a politician’s charm. He did so at the end of Nixon’s last session with him, in which he gave the CIA analyst a five-minute handshake accompanied by soothing words about how he had enjoyed their time together and how Nixon should always be just and fair when working back in Washington. This seemingly amicable parting came despite Saddam’s ire during earlier sessions, when questioned about human-rights abuses and, especially, the use of chemical weapons to kill thousands of Iraqi Kurdish civilians in Halabja during the Iran-Iraq War.

How truthful was Saddam? He was not being coerced, beyond the fact of his incarceration. He had reasons to deceive and conceal, perhaps in the hope that his sympathizers still in the fight could eventually prevail over their adversaries and that the United States would give up. Barring that kind of turning of the tide in his favor, he probably knew that his eventual fate (which was the gallows) would not depend on how frank he was being with his interrogators. He clearly lied about some things. For example, he denied any Iraqi-sponsored plot to assassinate George H. W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait in 1993, even though the evidence was conclusive. Bill Clinton retaliated with a cruise-missile strike.

Most of what Saddam told his interlocutors, however, was probably true. When he did not want to reveal what he knew about a topic, he simply refused to answer the question. One of the advantages his interrogators had was, as Nixon puts it, that Saddam “loved to talk, especially about himself,” so much so that sometimes it was “hard to shut him up.” This trait went with the braggadocio and a genuine pride in what Saddam considered he had done to develop Iraq. The conversations yielded freely offered detail about Iraqi affairs from the perspective of the presidential palace—nothing miraculous, but a fleshing out of what was already known.

Perhaps somewhat surprising was how much Saddam appeared to be detached from governing during the last months of his rule and to have delegated important matters to subordinates, including planning resistance to a U.S. invasion. Saddam may have dissembled about this more than Nixon seems to believe, both to divert blame from himself and to avoid jeopardizing continued resistance to the American occupation. More plausible in Saddam’s comments, but also at odds with the common view of him as a firmly entrenched dictator, was his worry about internal opposition, both Sunni and Shia.

Although Saddam had been the master of Iraq and had an acute understanding of its internal affairs, the same cannot be said of his foreign-affairs acumen. His miserable record of launching failed wars is a case in point. His insular view probably contributed to Baghdad’s inability to anticipate American reactions and perceptions. Saddam was surprised by the American response to his seizure of Kuwait. He thought that 9/11 would draw the United States and Iraq closer together against the sort of Islamist extremists who had perpetrated that attack. And he thought that concealment of weapons-related files should have been accepted as what any sovereign state would do to keep prying foreign eyes out of what was none of their business. In fairness to Saddam, the U.S. side of this history could have perplexed more savvy observers as well. Saddam correctly discerned inconsistency in U.S. behavior, which zigzagged from a pro-Baghdad tilt during the Iran-Iraq War to, shortly afterward, characterizing Saddam as a Hitler-like aggressor. Furthermore, opposition to Islamist terrorism was indeed an interest he shared with the United States, even though the promoters of the U.S. invasion of his country would try to conjure up an “alliance” between his regime and Al Qaeda to muster public support.

Nixon also gives accounts of two subsequent Oval Office briefings on the unpleasant reality of post-invasion Iraq. George W. Bush and his senior advisers resisted the idea that anyone they considered their foes in Iraq, starting with Saddam himself, could have had any significant popular support.

During one of these briefings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice characterized Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric and militia leader, as “just a flake.” Nixon attempted to caution against underestimating Sadr, but was interrupted by what he describes as practically a scream. “Oh yeah? Well, I think we overestimate him! The man’s a thug and a killer, and the Iraqi people don’t want that,” the president of the United States interjected.

THE REST of the book is a memoir about the remainder of Nixon’s time with the CIA, coupled with some observations about how intelligence allegedly operated regarding Iraq and some now-familiar criticisms of the Iraq War. These portions are less insightful than the rest and betray the author’s narrow perch. They evince bureaucratic parochialism, rivalry and envy (although Nixon compliments the military component that served as Saddam’s jailers). There is boasting, for example, that “CIA analysts were the first and foremost proponents of focusing on bodyguards to find Saddam.” Nixon’s criticism of American political leaders is not limited to one party and extends into the Obama administration he writes that Joseph Biden’s “grasp of foreign policy seemed shaky at best.” He knocks the experienced diplomat Christopher Hill, who became ambassador in Baghdad, for not having enough experience on Iraq.


The Surprising Interrogations That Led to Saddam Hussein’s Capture - HISTORY

On December 13, 2003, the United States military captured Saddam Hussein. Image Source: imgur

On March 20, 2003, the Iraq War commenced with a surge of U.S.-led troops and the explicit goal to take down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and find his supposed weapons of mass destruction. On December 13, the first part of that mission was accomplished, and Hussein’s reign came to an end.

Hussein dictatorship took hold in 1979. He spent 24 years in office, by most accounts terrorizing the public and letting the people live in poverty while he traveled from palace to palace. He began committing crimes against humanity shortly after he took power, firing off nerve agents and mustard gas during an eight-year war with Iran as well as using these weapons on his country’s own Kurdish population. He then invaded Kuwait in 1990, which prompted President George H.W. Bush to call for the first U.S. strike in Iraq, the Gulf War.

The United States drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, but left Hussein in power. He continued ruling as he previously had throughout the rest of the 1990s and into the 2000s, until the supposed threat of weapons of mass destruction led President George W. Bush to follow in his father’s footsteps in 2003.


Operation Red Dawn: The mission that snared Saddam Hussein

It was on 5 November 2006 that Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death. On New Year’s Eve of that year, he was led to the gallows by a jeering, taunting crowd, his final moments caught on mobile phone footage that went viral online. How had a man who’d once dominated his nation like some all-powerful medieval king, who’d build dozens of personal palaces and signed death warrants with a Cartier pen, been brought to such a pitiful end?

Long regarded by the US in particular as a kind of international bogeyman who threatened the safety of the world, Saddam had taken control of Iraq back in 1979, following a rocky rise to the top. A politically active young man, he’d embraced the revolutionary, Arab nationalist ideology of Baathism and been directly involved in an attempt to assassinate the Iraqi prime minister in 1959. He would later serve time in prison for plotting another political killing, but a successful Baathist coup in 1968 led to Saddam becoming Vice President of Iraq. Over the years that followed, he consolidated his power base, eventually establishing himself as dictator.

The decades after that were scarred by conflict. There was the Iran-Iraq War that sprawled for eight bitter years in the 1980s. Then came the first Gulf War of the early 90s, triggered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Saddam maintained power through it all, but the end would eventually come in the wake of 9/11, when US President George W. Bush signalled a new, uncompromising stance by naming Iraq as part of an “axis of evil”.

In the face of widespread controversy, with many questioning whether Saddam even possessed any weapons of mass destruction, the US-led invasion of Iraq went ahead in 2003. Thanks to an unstoppable 'shock and awe' onslaught, Iraqi forces were rapidly crushed. Within weeks, the ruthless reign of Saddam Hussein, which had lasted almost a quarter of a century, had been brought to an end. The problem was, Saddam himself was nowhere to be found.

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As Major General Ray Odierno later put it, 'The fact that he’d gotten away made him even more mystical. The longer that he was free, the more mystical it got.'

Designated 'High Value Target #1', the toppled dictator was the focus of a vast manhunt across a dangerous, war-torn landscape. Tens of thousands of US troops were involved, along with a special unit known as Task Force 121, which included members of the Delta Force and CIA operatives.

Hundreds of interrogations were carried out. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell would later recall how one Iraqi literally drew up a 'family tree' of those closest to Saddam – 'half a dozen families, cronies who had been with him since the 1950s… it was like sketching out Tony Soprano’s family.'

The mission to capture Saddam Hussein was dubbed Operation Red Dawn, after an 80s Patrick Swayze action movie

A prime focus was Mohammed Ibrahim al-Muslit, a close associate of the dictator who was eventually apprehended in a raid conducted in Baghdad. 'I knew exactly what he was supposed to look like,' a US army interrogator later said. 'Ibrahim was supposed to have a chin like John Travolta’s. When I took the hood off him, it was like, bam.'

Mohammed Ibrahim al-Muslit was the big break they desperately needed. He agreed to cooperate, and revealed that the former dictator was hiding in a location close to his hometown of Tikrit. The mission to capture Saddam Hussein was dubbed Operation Red Dawn, after an 80s Patrick Swayze action movie. The two sites singled out as where Saddam was most likely to be hiding were named Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2, after the heroic resistance fighters in the Swayze movie.

Much to the frustration of the troops deployed to search the targets, both of these Wolverine sites yielded nothing. But then they closed in on a third, less important-seeming target: a farmhouse. A search of the site, followed by a fierce interrogation of the farm’s owner, led to the discovery of a concealed hole in the ground. And from this hole, came a voice that was instantly recognisable to one of the Iraqi translators. It was Saddam Hussein.

The news was communicated back over the radio with one word: 'Jackpot'. When he was taken to a secure compound, Saddam proved strangely chatty, even charming. While being examined by a US army surgeon, the heavily bearded and dishevelled former dictator said 'I wanted to be a doctor when I was a kid, but politics had too great a hold of my heart'. That began a conversation that lasted almost six hours.

Saddam would prove similarly talkative when he was put on trial for crimes against humanity. He shouted and jabbed his finger angrily, trying to assert his authority. The proceedings themselves were both farcical and tragic – the chief judge resigned, one of Saddam’s co-defendants had to be removed after calling the court the 'daughter of a whore', and Saddam’s own lawyer was murdered.

In the end, the one-time strongman of Iraq was sentenced to death. Many prominent figures disapproved – Amnesty International criticised the 'flawed process' of the trial, and even Tony Blair told journalists 'We’re against the death penalty, whether it is Saddam or anybody else.' To many others, death by hanging was all Saddam Hussein deserved for the brutality he had brought to his own people for so many years.


&ldquoLooking for Elvis&rdquo

In early 2003, long on confidence and short on foresight, the United States invaded Iraq and sent its despot into hiding. Fifteen years ago this month, we found him. (And that&rsquos when our real challenges began.) Here, the harrowing story of Saddam Hussein&rsquos capture, as told by those who pulled it off.

In the first weeks of the Iraq war, the Pentagon assembled a pack of playing cards denoting Iraq&rsquos most wanted, the fifty-five figures in the Iraqi government and military deemed its most important targets. This is the story of the hunt for the Ace of Spades&mdashthe ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, known around the world simply as Saddam&mdashtold by those who caught him.

Saddam made his last public appearance on April 9, 2003, in the streets of Baghdad, as U.S. forces closed in on the Iraqi capital. Then he just disappeared. As months passed and priorities shifted, it seemed that our interest in finding him did, too. In May, President George W. Bush took to the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and, under a banner reading mission accomplished, proclaimed major combat operations over the U.S. government established its own interim government in Baghdad, called the Coalition Provisional Authority and more than 150,000 U.S. troops settled in to occupy post-Saddam Iraq.

In fact, the search for Saddam, aka &ldquoHigh Value Target #1,&rdquo never stopped, particularly in areas where U.S. intelligence suspected he might be found: northwest of the capital, around Tikrit and the area that would later be labeled the Sunni Triangle&mdashreflecting the ancestral roots of Saddam&rsquos Sunni backers. That work fell to the roughly thirty thousand troops of the Army&rsquos Fourth Infantry Division, working alongside a special team of Delta Force operators known as Task Force 121


Major General Ray Odierno, commander, Fourth Infantry Division:

[Iraqis] feared Saddam. They feared he would come back. To them, he was all-powerful, almost like this mystical figure. The fact that he&rsquod gotten away made him even more mystical. The longer that he was free, the more mystical it got.

Ambassador Paul Bremer, administrator, Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq: He was a presence&mdashor an absence, more accurately&mdashin everything we were doing.

Andy Card, White House chief of staff: We were always frustrated not to have captured Saddam.

Odierno: We were chasing the card deck. We realized that was not going to help us capture him&mdashhe had a whole other network that supported his moving around, based on ties from his childhood, family, other relationships he had. Very few of the ties were within the Iraqi government.

The leaders of our special-operations forces came to see me. We made an agreement to work closely on capturing Saddam.

Major Brian Reed, operations officer, First Brigade, Twenty-second Infantry, Fourth Infantry Division: There was a sense in the brigade, and with the special task force that we were working with, that Saddam was going to come back to where he was from, given his lineage, his tribal linkages, familial linkages.

Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell, commander, First Battalion, Twenty-second Infantry, Fourth Infantry Division: Our orders were to occupy Tikrit. This was Saddam&rsquos hometown, 97 percent Sunni.

Reed: It wasn&rsquot a place that welcomed us with open arms.

Colonel James Hickey, commander, First Brigade, Fourth Infantry Division: Historically, Tikrit is an interesting piece of ground: It&rsquos on the east-west route along the Tigris, one of the great rivers of the world. We were just one of the armies that had passed through&mdashalong with the Persians, the British, the Turks, the Romans. It&rsquos the crossroads of history. It&rsquos the Iraqis who stay.

Captain Bradley Boyd, commander, Charlie Company, First Battalion, Twenty-second Infantry, First Brigade, Fourth Infantry Division: We assumed Saddam and his supporters weren&rsquot hanging out in town. But we thought they were passing through town on a regular basis. I thought we&rsquod catch him by accident on the side of the road.

Staff Sergeant Eric Maddox, interrogator, U. S. Army: If you look at how we got [the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi, how we got bin Laden, it was cell phones. You ain&rsquot finding those guys without cell phones. There was not a single cell phone used to track any part of this hunt. We had to use HUMINT [human intelligence] from prisoners exclusively.

The Special Forces team and I started to pursue individuals who we learned about from prisoners. And that gave us new prisoners, and through their interrogations, they started to talk about a certain family&mdashthe al-Muslits&mdashand their former role as a bodyguard family for Saddam.

Russell: The biggest breakthrough came in June, when two businessmen came to a complaint center we&rsquod set up for Iraqis. We got some chairs, some Pepsis, put them in a cool place in the building, and for the next two and a half hours, they sketched out on butcher paper Saddam&rsquos security apparatus: half a dozen families, cronies who had been with him since the 1950s, people related by blood or marriage. It was like sketching out Tony Soprano&rsquos family.

Major Michael Rauhut, operations officer, First Battalion, Fourth Infantry Division: We were given what turned out to be a treasure trove of context.

Joseph Fred Filmore, translator, Fourth Infantry Division: We grabbed so many of his inner-circle guards. Lieutenant Colonel Russell had a big map with the families and the tribes. Every time we came from a raid, we discovered this tribe married a girl from this one, this one was close to this tribe. It was painstaking.

Hickey: There were a handful of guys we were really looking for. One was named Hadooshi, and one was named Mohammed Ibrahim al-Muslit.

As the spring progressed, intelligence led the task force and the Fourth Infantry Division to zero in on the Hadooshi farm, ten miles outside of Tikrit. On June 18, they raided it.

Staff Sergeant Sean Shoffner, scout platoon, First Battalion, Twenty-second Infantry, Fourth Infantry Division: We went in to scout the Hadooshi farm. We were gathering intelligence there were quite a lot of buildings and compounds across the whole farm. We could see they were antsy. We went up to the gate, breached it. We caught them off guard. This one woman, she was just mean. Every time we walked through the garden, she went nuts. We noticed the garden was freshly dug. We started moving the dirt around, and we pulled up a big square riveted container. Reed: We recovered $8 million [in U. S. currency] out of a hole.

Filmore: In the stable, we saw, like, four huge boxes buried. We saw some jewelry, also buried.

Shoffner: We came across birth certificates, marriage licenses. We knew it was significant.

Filmore: The soldiers&rsquo jaws dropped, like, three miles down to the floor. So much jewelry. Then they opened the money in front of me, and I couldn&rsquot believe it: $10,000 bundles of hundred-dollar bills in Chase Manhattan Bank wrappers. I can still see it.

Hickey: We pulled in [Saddam&rsquos wife] Sajida Talfah&rsquos jewelry collection, literally like half a dozen garbage bags full of gems.

Odierno: Everything is gold&mdashgold jewelry, you have earrings, rings, little knives, everything you think that would be in a treasure chest, a gold-plated AK-47.

Rauhut: You don&rsquot just find $8 million. If we had any doubts before that time on whether or not we were acting on good information, that was a confirmation.

Through the summer and fall, the political situation in Iraq deteriorated rapidly and a new threat to American soldiers began to appear: roadside IEDs, improvised explosive devices that in the years to come would kill and wound thousands of Americans. The intensity of combat rose significantly. In October, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz visited the Fourth Infantry Division in Tikrit as part of a tour of Iraq. Meant as a sign of hope, the tour only underscored the challenge ahead: The next morning, Wolfowitz&rsquos hotel in Baghdad was hit by a rocket attack, killing an American soldier and wounding at least fifteen others.

Russell: The enemy was clearly forming.

Boyd: We called it the &ldquoTraveling Roadshow.&rdquo The insurgency was in this transition from fedayeen fighters&mdashSaddam loyalists&mdashto the growing AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq]. They didn&rsquot have the numbers to do a full press on the town, but guys would come in, start fighting, and the temperature would go up for a week or two until we got them or they moved on to another city.

Hickey: We had to do something strategic to bring the violence down. We couldn&rsquot win tactically. So I said, &ldquoLet&rsquos dust off everything we know about Saddam Hussein.&rdquo We kill or capture Saddam, that&rsquos going to take the wind out of their sails. I couldn&rsquot care less whether we killed or captured.

Boyd: By December we knew that Saddam was exploiting some seam to stay elusive.

Shoffner: It was like looking for Elvis.

Maddox: When we as a team decided to focus on Mohammed Ibrahim&mdashand that&rsquos where all our focus was&mdashit was easy, because we didn&rsquot give any stupid leads the time of day. The last few weeks before Saddam&rsquos capture, it was one raid after the next to get to Mohammed Ibrahim.

Hickey: On December 9, a pleasant day, I was leaving the headquarters. I was rolling out the front gates, and a little boy was walking down the access road to our front gate. He&rsquos screaming at us. He must have been nine years old, if that.

Specialist Esteban Bocanegra, First Brigade, Fourth Infantry Division: We pulled over. When Joseph and the colonel talked to this kid, we thought the kid was throwing rocks.

Filmore: The kid said there was a meeting of the fedayeen. I said, &ldquoWhere?&rdquo He said, &ldquoOutside of town.&rdquo

Russell: It wasn&rsquot &ldquoI know where some guys were.&rdquo It was &ldquoI know where some guys are.&rdquo He&rsquos pointing us to this western desert farm.

Hickey: They ended up doing a raid and picked up a bunch of characters in two buildings in the desert west of Tikrit and pulled in a bunch of paraphernalia from the fedayeen.

Russell: We were able to determine a few locations in Tikrit, Samarra, and Baghdad where Mohammed Ibrahim might be. To prevent the whack-a-mole, we hit them all simultaneously.

Hickey: They scooped up a bunch of guys, handed them over to the interrogators.

Maddox: At the time, my tour was up. I was manifested to leave the country the morning of December 13 and had returned to Baghdad. The night of December 12, after the Baghdad team conducted the raid and brought back the prisoners from one of the houses, I started interrogating the prisoner they said owned the house and quickly realized that he was the deputy of the bodyguard, Mohammed Ibrahim. He eventually said, &ldquoI know where Ibrahim is. And by the way, he was at the house last night.&rdquo I went to the other prisoners and took off their hoods, and one of them was the bodyguard&mdashit was Mohammed Ibrahim. I knew exactly what he was supposed to look like. Ibrahim was supposed to have a chin like John Travolta&rsquos. When I took the hood off him, it was like, bam. I even said, &ldquoYou&rsquore Mohammed Ibrahim. I&rsquove been waiting to meet you.&rdquo He looked at me and said, &ldquoI&rsquove been waiting to meet you too.&rdquo

Hickey: [Maddox] recognized him because we had captured all these photographs. We shared it all with our special-operations guy. It probably sounds unbelievable, the combination of me talking to this young boy and this guy heading out on home leave and seeing a guy&rsquos face he recognizes from photographs captured a few months prior&mdashit comes together.

Maddox: My pitch to him was &ldquoSaddam made you get involved. He&rsquos the reason forty of your [family members] are in jail. You take us to Saddam, and I will let all forty go.&rdquo We went back and forth. He indicated he may know, but he didn&rsquot want to do it. My time ran out, my flight was leaving the country, and I told Mohammed Ibrahim, &ldquoYou are a terrorist, right? They will not let you out. They don&rsquot think you can take us to Saddam. When I leave, your ship is gone. When you change your mind, you&rsquore going to have to make them come talk to you. Bang on the walls of your cell. Go crazy.&rdquo

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Our flight was leaving Baghdad at 8:00 in the morning. At 7:00 a.m., on the way to the airport, the head interrogator said, &ldquoThey&rsquore really worried. They think your prisoner is trying to kill himself. He&rsquos banging on the walls of his cell and they can&rsquot get him to stop.&rdquo I jumped out, went to the prison. I pulled Ibrahim into a cell and said, &ldquoWhere is he?&rdquo He said, &ldquoI&rsquom going to help you.&rdquo I said, &ldquoYou&rsquore not going to help us. You&rsquore going to take us.&rdquo

Within hours of Ibrahim&rsquos agreement to cooperate, Task Force 121 and the Fourth Infantry Division were ready for the final raid of the operation. Even fifteen years later, the U. S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) considers the Special Forces&rsquo role classified and prohibited any operators from participating in interviews for this story. SOCOM says it will evaluate the operation for possible declassification in 2028.

Hickey: The field phone rang. It was John with the special-ops unit. [John is a pseudonym for a Task Force 121 team commander whose identity is still classified.] He said, &ldquoWe got Ibrahim in Baghdad last night.&rdquo I said, &ldquoNo shit?&rdquo He said, &ldquoYes, sir.&rdquo I said, &ldquoJohn, you know what we&rsquore doing tonight? We&rsquore going after Saddam.&rdquo

Rauhut: Steve tells me, &ldquoThey&rsquore coming up north with an informant. Saddam is either in Tikrit or across the river, so we&rsquove got to be ready.&rdquo That&rsquos when it got real.

Special Agent James Davis, deputy on-scene commander, FBI Iraq Task Force: Early in the day, [Davis&rsquos boss, FBI Special Agent Ed Worthington] called and said, &ldquoI can&rsquot tell you anything. But round up a fingerprint expert, stat.&rdquo It was pretty clear to me what he was saying.

Reed: Colonel Hickey called me and said, &ldquoWe caught the source who we were looking for, and he&rsquos being brought up to Tikrit. I want you to link up with the task-force guys.&rdquo

Samir, translator, Task Force 121: They brought Ibrahim to us. Around 1:00 p.m., he showed us on a map where Saddam was supposed to be.

Reed: The questioning took place in a living room. Ibrahim was obviously frightened, having been caught, but the conversation proceeded easily. He was very willing to help.

Hickey: Just before 5:00 p.m., John said he thought Saddam was somewhere down in Ad-Dawr. I said, &ldquoThat&rsquos it.&rdquo Ad-Dawr had gotten very violent in October. It&rsquos on the east side of the river, halfway between Tikrit and Samarra. We pulled out some aerial photographs. John said, &ldquoIbrahim said something about &lsquodown by the river, by the junkyard.&rsquo &rdquo I knew exactly where that was: in the northwest part of town, next to the Qais family property. We&rsquod had some shoot-outs there a few months prior.

Russell: Brian Reed, John, Colonel Hickey, and an operational planner hammered out the mechanics of the raid. Reed: On a piece of butcher paper, we drew a sketch of how we were going to do this thing. Then we transmitted those orders over the radio.

Russell: We&rsquod narrowed the location down to a couple farms. All of these locations were to be simultaneously hit.

Hickey: We did it all with verbal orders, which is pretty rare.

Russell: Between the team going in on the raid, the overwatch, the security cordon, the armored vehicles, and the helicopters, roughly a thousand soldiers were involved.

Samir: We decided to take Ibrahim there in a civilian van. Me, him, and a team of Delta 121 forces drove through Tikrit and out to Ad-Dawr. At the start of the main road that led to the farm, a quarter mile away, Ibrahim said, &ldquoIf you keep going, they&rsquore going to know somebody&rsquos here.&rdquo

Hickey: At precisely 1930 hours, we rolled out. We were completely blacked out. The artillerymen were in the shadows. You could see their silhouettes as they sealed up the road behind us.

Sergeant Major Larry Wilson, Twenty- second Infantry, Fourth Infantry Division: From Ibrahim, they got three targets: two primary targets, Wolverine One and Wolverine Two, and an alternate target, an old farmhouse. Once [the team raided] Wolverine One, dry hole&mdashdry hole means no one&rsquos there&mdashWolverine Two hit dry hole, and they were thinking, Wow, man. We missed him.

Hickey: It was just negative contact, negative contact. I&rsquom thinking, Damn.

Wilson: Then they hit the farmhouse.

Hickey: John and [Captain Desmond] Bailey went down to the river line. Des set up a cordon. John and his guys cleared out the palm groves. There was a little lean-to with a kitchen next to where date palms and an orange grove came together, right on the edge of a fallow sunflower field. It was completely blacked out to the naked eye, but we had our night-vision equipment.

Russell: Operators coming in on the Little Birds [helicopters] encountered two men, Qais Namaq and his brother, fleeing through the orchard. I believe they hid Saddam, stashed their AKs, and took off, trying to divert the forces away from the location.

Hickey: John said to Des, &ldquoLooks like a dry hole.&rdquo

Samir: When we got to the farm, we captured two guys guarding Saddam. We couldn&rsquot get any information from them, so we decided to come back with Mohammed Ibrahim.

Russell: They got Ibrahim out of the back of a Hummer. He was nervous he didn&rsquot want to be seen there.

Maddox: Ibrahim started yelling at the farmhouse owner, Qais Namaq, &ldquoShow him where Saddam is!&rdquo Qais said, &ldquoI don&rsquot know what you&rsquore talking about.&rdquo

Russell: They were pressuring him. &ldquoWhere&rsquos he at?&rdquo [Ibrahim] motioned with his foot toward a foot mat. &ldquoHe&rsquos here.&rdquo Now everyone was concerned. How deep was the hole? How many people were down there?

They brushed away the dirt and uncovered the top to something. John radioed to Colonel Hickey and [Delta Force squadron commander] Bill Coultrup, &ldquoWe may have something.&rdquo It was 8:25 p.m. They pulled open the top and hit it with the weapon&rsquos lights.

Samir: When we opened the hole, he started yelling, &ldquoDon&rsquot shoot, don&rsquot shoot!&rdquo I was yelling at him&mdashbecause I was the only translator&mdashto come out. Finally, he put one hand up, then the other. I grabbed both hands and got help to pull him out.

Hickey: It was Saddam.

Samir: I knew from his voice that it was him. I was raised in Iraq. We saw Saddam on television almost every day. I couldn&rsquot recognize his face because he looked so different&mdashhe had a lot of hair on his face&mdashbut the voice, it was him.

Russell: The guy inside said, &ldquoI am Saddam Hussein, I am the president of Iraq, and I am willing to negotiate.&rdquo One of the soldiers said, &ldquoPresident Bush sends regards.&rdquo

Wilson: The hole [where Saddam was hiding] reminded me of a fighting position. It was about two M-16&rsquos long. You could sit two people inside. There was a ventilation fan and a fluorescent light. He could&rsquove stayed there for a long time.

Samir: To end up to be the one who grabbed him first&mdashI didn&rsquot think too much about it. I wanted to get that son of a bitch out because he put me, my parents, and my country through hell.

Filmore: Samir started slapping him. The Special Forces took Saddam away and said, &ldquoYou are not allowed to touch him. We need him alive.&rdquo

Hickey: Over the radio, John said, &ldquoJackpot.&rdquo Bill Coultrup, his squadron commander, was right next to me. We hugged one another.

Bocanegra: We heard &ldquoJackpot&mdashAce of Spades.&rdquo We were like, &ldquoNo shit!&rdquo It was surreal. This was Saddam&mdashwhere was his personal guard? No shots were fired. It was the opposite of what we&rsquod expected.

Wilson: We heard &ldquoJackpot.&rdquo It was said eight octaves higher than usual. Normally the Delta guys didn&rsquot get excited, but this was a big deal.

Samir: We put him in a helicopter and flew him back to the Special Forces compound.

Bocanegra: We were pulling up as that helicopter was coming in blacked out, and you could see shadows and silhouettes. It was like, &ldquoShit, there he goes.&rdquo They just took off.

Reed: We then did what&rsquos called a tactical site exploitation.

Bocanegra: The sergeant major came back [to my vehicle] carrying a footlocker and told me to open it. It is $750,000 of American money in hundred-dollar bills.

Hickey: We were effectively done at 2030. It was a very early night.

Reed: It was textbook.

Odierno: This guy brutalized an entire population for at least two decades, and he ended up where he should have been&mdashbeing pulled out of a hole in the middle of nowhere.

Hickey: Suffice it to say, nobody in Baghdad ever expected us to do this. They were caught unawares. There was a lot of scrambling going on.

Odierno: Nobody thought we&rsquod find him.

Davis: No one thought we&rsquod capture him alive.

Card: Paul Bremer called Condi [Rice]&mdashshe was the first to know. George Tenet called me. It was a nighttime call, late, probably 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. I was dubious at first. We were all excited, but we needed to make sure it was right. The president was cautious. He wanted to make sure we were 100 percent, that Saddam was identified. He said, &ldquoI don&rsquot want anyone pounding their chest before we&rsquore sure.&rdquo I remember the skepticism. &ldquoDo we really know it&rsquos right? Are people too excited about this?&rdquo

Rauhut: Colonel Hickey had a conversation with [the commander of U. S. forces in Iraq] Lieutenant General [Ricardo] Sanchez. Jim said, &ldquoWhat&rsquos next?&rdquo You know, the same thing we all were wondering: How do we leverage this? It became very clear, very quickly, that strategically, we didn&rsquot plan for the capture of Saddam.

Dr. Mark Green, flight surgeon, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment: Saddam made a circuitous route back [to the Special Forces compound]. I&rsquod already come back from the mission and had cleaned up my gear, so I thought, I&rsquod better go over there and get a glimpse of this guy. I was standing outside his cell, and tons of people, all of these dignitaries, were coming and going. They were getting their picture taken with him.

Davis: We did a fingerprint, a DNA swab, and a photograph. Physically, he was in bad shape.

Green: Around midnight, I was still standing outside Hussein&rsquos cell. [Special Forces Commander William] McRaven came out and said, &ldquoI want a physician with this guy overnight. Mark, will you stay with him?&rdquo I said, &ldquoHell, yeah.&rdquo I grabbed an issue of Stars and Stripes. I thought I would read while Saddam was sleeping.

But he couldn&rsquot sleep. He motioned for me to take his blood pressure. When you&rsquore taking somebody&rsquos blood pressure, you&rsquore in their face and they&rsquore in yours. He said to me through an interpreter, &ldquoI wanted to be a doctor when I was a kid, but politics had too great a hold of my heart.&rdquo This image of the Butcher of Baghdad taking the Hippocratic Oath&mdash&ldquoDo no harm&rdquo&mdashstarted a conversation that lasted five and a half hours. He was charming, a bit aloof. Obviously, I did not want to foul any of the ongoing investigations, so I didn&rsquot ask questions about WMDs. My questions evolved from his political career&mdashWhy did you invade Kuwait? Why did you start the Iran&ndashIraq war?&mdashto getting very personal. In the middle of our conversation, he asked which direction Mecca was he turned and prayed, but he never kneeled.

It was now morning. The commander walked back in and asked what was going on. I said, &ldquoWe&rsquore just chatting.&rdquo He said, &ldquoWe&rsquove got to get this on tape,&rdquo and I&rsquom like, &ldquoCool.&rdquo They get a camera. This little red dot comes on. Saddam lies down, pulls the covers over his head, doesn&rsquot say another word. End of interview.

At a press conference on December 14, Bremer announced to the world the successful outcome of what the military had dubbed Operation Red Dawn, saying, &ldquoLadies and gentlemen, we got him.&rdquo He added, &ldquoNow is the time for all Iraqis, Arabs, and Kurds, Sunnis, Shia, Christians, and Turkmen to build a prosperous, democratic Iraq at peace with itself and with its neighbors.&rdquo

Bremer: There was an important political message to deliver. People in the audience were in tears, were shouting. It was quite a scene. Before I went out, a British spokesperson, Dan Senor&rsquos British counterpart, introduced me to the idea of &ldquoWe got him.&rdquo He was an Arabic speaker and knew that phrase worked in Arabic too.

Reed: I did not know what we&rsquod named the operation until I was getting ready to watch the announcement. I asked my planner, &ldquoWhat did we name this thing?&rdquo This was before we had conventional naming systems, so we were basically naming stuff whatever we wanted to name it. He said, &ldquoRed Dawn.&rdquo I asked if it was named after the movie. He said, &ldquoNah, I&rsquove never seen it, sir.&rdquo &ldquoWhy would you name it Red Dawn?&rdquo &ldquoBecause I&rsquove been watching the sunrise over the Tigris every morning, and it&rsquos this really cool red dawn.&rdquo

Reed: At the time, I thought the war was over. I felt like we were starting to see the end of things.

Lieutenant Jason Lojka, second platoon leader, First Battalion, First Brigade, Fourth Infantry Division: The feeling was &ldquoWe got him. Now we can go home.&rdquo After the euphoria of the capture wore off, I realized that was a very naive approach. We were not going home earlier than projected.

Card: It was closure to Saddam&rsquos role, but it wasn&rsquot closure to the challenges in Iraq.

Green: Saddam was probably thinking, I&rsquom going to ride out the rest of my life in a nice American jail.

Bremer: One of the military plans had been to remove Saddam to a ship in the Navy&rsquos Fifth Fleet, in the Persian Gulf. I said, &ldquoAbsolutely not. He belongs to the Iraqis.&rdquo It was very important that we allow the Iraqi people to put him on trial.

Odierno: When I left in April 2004, I felt like we were heading in the right direction. But it&rsquos like everything else with Iraq&mdashwe totally misunderstood what was going on. The sectarian war started to break out below the surface, and that regenerated the insurgency. Our failure to understand that, I think, was our biggest mistake.

On June 30, 2004, Saddam Hussein and eleven senior Iraqi Baathist leaders were handed over to Iraqi authorities as part of the transfer of control from the U. S. to the country&rsquos interim government. In November 2006, an Iraqi court found Saddam guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death by hanging. He was executed on New Year&rsquos Eve. Video of his Shia captors celebrating around him as he awaited execution sparked fresh controversy in Iraq.

Odierno: His death, the way it was done, was not our best moment. The celebrations on the Shia side just refueled the Sunni&ndashShia conflict. The saddest thing for me was in 2010, when I was getting ready to leave Iraq for the last time. Violence was way down we&rsquod just had a very successful national election. I thought maybe we were coming very close to the end of this. But again, we miscalculated on understanding the dynamics. It went back to sectarian ways. ISIS grew out of the fact that the Sunnis had nowhere to turn. Rauhut: Fifteen years later, what have we learned as a nation? This threat is not going away. The world will always have tyrants. We cannot afford to invade every country that&rsquos got a tyrant, overthrow him, hunt the guy down, and come up with another plan. I&rsquom still hopeful for Iraq, but it&rsquos looking pretty messy.

This past February, two months after its declaration of victory over ISIS, the Iraqi government announced that the U. S. would draw down some of its remaining troops. Approximately 5,200 American troops remain. On August 19, a spokesperson for the U. S. forces in Iraq said, &ldquoWe&rsquoll keep troops there as long as we think they&rsquore needed.&rdquo The next day, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Taylor Galvin, thirty-four, of Spokane, Washington, was killed in a helicopter crash near Sinjar, the 4,555th U. S. military casualty of the Iraq war. Galvin was on his ninth deployment.


By Patricia Karvelas on RN Drive

Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP

Iraqis in Baghdad read newspaper reports about the capture of former president Saddam Hussein on December 15, 2003.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP

Former US intelligence official Eric Maddox speaks to RN Drive about the moment his interrogation led to the capture of Saddam Hussein and why torture is not an effective means of gathering information from prisoners.

'Initially he said he couldn't take us to Saddam, but within two hours, the prisoner broke and said, "Let's go. We gotta go right now."'

When Americans kick in your door and pull you into a prison, you are having a really bad day.

Eric Maddox recalls the exact moment his interrogation led to the 2003 capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a 'spider hole' in ad-Dawr, near Tikrit.

At the time he was assigned to a US Delta Force team gathering intelligence on 'bad guys' in the Sunni Triangle of northern Iraq.

'Saddam was not suspected to be hiding in Tikrit, but after about 300 interrogations, I determined that there was one individual I felt was harbouring Saddam and had direct contact with him,' says Maddox.

'We spent the next several months tracking down this one man, a bodyguard of Saddam Hussein, and we captured him on December 13.'

The following day, the US military proudly presented a video of Hussein in custody to the world's media.

In his time in the armed forces, Maddox conducted more than 2,700 interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as across South America, Southeast Asia and Europe.

Yet he says his first 100 interrogations were 'not effective'.

'Ironically, in the first 100, I was doing exactly what the army had taught me, and the techniques just didn't work. They were kind of confrontational.

'What I realised was, I had to negotiate and compromise, and I had to help these guys out.

'If you help out these prisoners, they will actually give you information.'

In the case of Hussein's bodyguard, Maddox knew the army had captured 40 of the man's friends and family who had formed part of a local insurgency.

'I said, "The moment you take me to Saddam, I am releasing all 40 of those individuals."

'The moment we captured Saddam, they were let go.'

Maddox, who describes himself as a 'very practical individual', has been openly critical of controversial interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, but not necessarily on the grounds of human rights.

'I think it's the dumbest thing you can do to somebody, because it's not effective,' he says.

'The reason I'm really opposed to it is in Iraq, for every person we waterboard, we create five more enemies. In Afghanistan, it's 10.'

His interrogation techniques instead focused on a combination of cooperation and convincing prisoners that his offers of release were in fact genuine.

'When Americans kick in your door and pull you into a prison, you are having a really bad day.

'If you can turn that around, you would be surprised what you will give up in order to get your life back the way you want it.

'A warzone is to eliminate the enemy. If it means turning the enemy into a non-combatant, there you go.'

RN Drive takes you behind the day’s headlines, with an engaging mix of current affairs, analysis, arts and culture from across Australia and around the world.


Saddam Hussein’s CIA Interrogator Says He Tried To Warn Us, But We Didn’t Listen

After coalition forces captured Saddam Hussein in December 2003, John Nixon, a senior leadership analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1998 to 2011, interrogated the former Iraqi dictator. The detailed account of this interrogation is now available to the public in the form of a book, Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein.

In the publication, Nixon explains that Hussein was out of touch with the military reality of his own country in his final years.

When I interrogated Saddam,” Nixon told Time magazine, “he told me: ‘You are going to fail. You are going to find that it is not so easy to govern Iraq.

As Nixon pressed Saddam to explain why, the captured dictator said Americans would soon learn they “are going to fail in Iraq because [Americans] do not know the language, the history, and [they] do not understand the Arab mind.” To the former CIA agent, Saddam’s warning had a point.

In order to “maintain Iraq’s multi-ethnic state,” Nixon told reporters, the presence of a strongman like Saddam in Iraq was necessary. He added:

Saddam’s leadership style and penchant for brutality were among the many faults of his regime, but he could be ruthlessly decisive when he felt his power base was threatened, and it is far from certain that his regime would have been overthrown by a movement of popular discontent.

Reflecting on what he learned, Nixon told Time it was unlikely that “a group like ISIS would have been able to enjoy the kind of success under his repressive regime that they have had under the Shia-led Baghdad government.” He made the case against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which led to Saddam’s ultimate fall.

According to Nixon, Saddam added that before his ascension to power, “there was only bickering and arguing [in Iraq]. I ended all that and made people agree!‘” Nixon eventually found he had developed “a grudging respect for how [Saddam] was able to maintain the Iraqi nation as a whole for as long as he did,” despite the CIA officer’s lack of sympathy for the fallen dictator.

To Nixon, Saddam Hussein was certainly a brutal dictator, but he wasn’t “on a mission to blow up the world, as George W. Bush’s administration had claimed to justify the invasion.”

While many may argue Nixon’s explanation is rather “simplistic,” it undoubtedly reveals that there’s much more to the stories of how the U.S. government justifies invasions and military involvement abroad than meets the eye. In the specific case of Iraq, anti-intervention activists have been on record for years saying the invasion created a power vacuum, making the rise of ISIS more likely to occur.

As countless Iraq war enablers and supporters in the United States continue to defend their actions and claim Saddam had the will and the means to threaten the world, how this war came to be reality is still often ignored.

As the former CIA agent Nixon publishes Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, Americans are witnessing a fight between competing narratives as they shape the news the country consumes. These narratives could even impact our foreign and domestic policies. And even now, as we hear yet another account of an insider claiming the U.S. invasion of Iraq was unjustified and damaging, it’s incredible to see much of the media still ignoring what non-interventionists have been saying all along.

This article (Saddam Hussein’s CIA Interrogator: He Tried to Warn Us, but We Didn’t Listen) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Alice Salles and theAntiMedia.org. Anti-Media Radio airs weeknights at 11 pm Eastern/8 pm Pacific. If you spot a typo, please email the error and name of the article to [email protected].

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CIA analyst John Nixon's grilling 'Interrogation of Saddam Hussein' left the dictator whining about scrapes as he gave up answers

On Dec. 13, 2003, U.S. special-ops soldiers dragged a haggard, white-bearded man from a spider hole in the town of Ad-Dawr, Iraq.

Before his captors could inform President George W. Bush that one of the largest manhunts in U.S. military history had ended in victory, the prisoner's identity needed confirmation.

Enter CIA analyst John Nixon.

"Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein" is Nixon's account of his work as the first U.S. inquisitor to confront the brutal dictator with the hard questions.

Nixon, like Saddam, was in a tough spot. In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. went to war and targeted the murderous dictator accused of harboring weapons of mass destruction — and evil intent.

Nixon, armed with a specialized knowledge of Saddam, was able to identify the Iraqi strongman by an old scar, a bullet wound and two tribal tattoos.

A few targeted questions from Nixon — whose book hits stores Dec. 27 — eventually sealed the deal.

"When was the last time you saw your sons alive?" he asked Saddam.

"Who are you guys?" replied a still-arrogant Saddam. "Are you military intelligence? Answer me. Identify yourselves."

Informed that Nixon would ask all the questions, Saddam settled in. He then had the gall to complain of a few cuts and bruises incurred in the capture.

Mass graves would be uncovered across Iraq, the burial grounds for thousands of victims of his regime. And Saddam had the nerve to whine about a few scrapes.

Throughout days of prolonged grilling, Saddam was both garrulous and wily. Whenever the interrogation turned to his depravity, surliness curdled the notorious dictator's face.

One line of questioning focused on the massive clouds of lethal gas unleashed on the Kurdish town of Halabja as the Iran-Iraq war wore down in 1988.

It was not only genocide but proof that Saddam once had weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam refused to answer, glaring at Nixon with "such murderous loathing" that it was "frightening even though he was under lock and key."

Nixon was restrained from investigating acts of terrorism. The FBI would pursue building a criminal case against Saddam when they took him into custody early the next year.

What emerged in that first interrogation was how completely out of touch Saddam was with military reality in those final few years.

"Saddam was busy writing novels," Nixon reports. "He was no longer running the government."

In other words, the evil madman wasn't plotting an attack on neighboring countries — much less the United States or any Western nations.

"Saddam appeared to be as clueless about what was happening inside Iraq as his British and Americans enemies were," writes Nixon. "He was inattentive to what his government was doing and had no real plan to prepare for the defense of Iraq."

Saddam pointed out that since Iraq was not in possession of any WMDs, he posed no threat to any enemy nation.

He insisted he'd never plotted to assassinate President George H.W. Bush in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. He stopped viewing the one-term President as an adversary after his defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992.

What Saddam didn't get was that the alleged plot created a lasting enemy in President George W. Bush.

As the interrogation rolled on, the sounds of distant bombings clearly indicated the U.S.-led coalition wasn't doing well.

Saddam took obvious pleasure in that.

The deposed dictator knew the invasion would not prove a "cakewalk," as one boastful Bush administration official said.

"You are going to fail," Saddam predicted in 2003. "You are going to find it is not so easy to govern Iraq."

Saddam shed some interesting insight into the fractured dynamics of his regime's corrupt and viciously brutal first family.

He loathed discussing his wives. His first spouse, Sajida Talfah, was the daughter of a Baghdad politician. Their union came with political advantages that facilitated his rise to power.

Saddam provoked a severe rift in the family when he took Samira Shahbandar, a blond flight attendant, as wife No. 2.

Saddam's son Uday was close to his mother, Sajida — and even murdered Saddam's valet over rumblings that the man's duties included procuring women for the despot.

Saddam obviously preferred the company of Samira, but was furious when Uday openly disapproved.

The dictator refused to discuss the matter with Nixon, but said he was realistic about his son's views. Uday, widely regarded as psychotic, was in his father's view "a particular problem."

He learned that Uday kept a fleet of luxury cars in Baghdad guarded by the military. Saddam felt it sent the wrong message to Iraqis suffering under sanctions, so the despot ordered the cars torched.

Nixon confronted Saddam with the rumor that he and Samira had a son named Ali. Saddam, who also had a son Qusay with Sajida, appeared particularly pained.

"If I told you yes, would you kill him like you killed Uday and Qusay?" he inquired.

Nixon pressed harder, and Saddam finally answered.

"In Arab culture we have a saying: 'Those who have children we regard as married, whether they have performed the ceremony or not,' " he declared. " 'Those who do not have children, we regard as unmarried.' "

Saddam and Samira were unquestionably married, and the CIA man read that as confirmation there was a son.

As Nixon notes, there could be any number of enemies eager to eliminate Saddam's last male heir. The author feels such a plot is unlikely to succeed: "Like his mother, Ali appears to have slipped away from history's grasp."

The only time Saddam showed any emotion was in discussing his daughters Rana and Raghad.

Both defected to Jordan in 1995 with their husbands, Hussein and Saddam Kamel. Uday prompted their panicked escape after shooting up the Kamel residence during a drunken spree.

Saddam Hussein's eyes watered and his voiced quivered as he admitted to missing them.

"Terribly," he acknowledged. "They loved me very much and I loved them very much."

Saddam became the target of the massive manhunt in March 2003, first escaping Baghdad with Uday and Qusay. Several days into the journey, Saddam decided to split from his sons.

Uday was severely crippled from a 1996 assassination attempt where he was shot 17 times. His inability to walk made the band of escapees entirely too noticeable.

Saddam ensured his safety first and left his sons to find harbor on their own. Qusay was said to hate Uday, but he refused to abandon his brother.


30 Facts About the Rise and Fall of Saddam Hussein, the Butcher of Baghdad

Saddam Hussein was a figure whose reign of terror was supported by the United States until he could no longer fulfill its political agenda in the Middle East. He was overthrown by the country that had previously supported him and then executed by his own. Keep reading to learn more about this infamous dictator.

A young Saddam Hussein. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

30. He Was Born in 1937

Hussein was born on April 28, 1937, in the Iraqi city of Tikrit. His father was a shepherd, and both he and Saddam&rsquos older brother died, presumably from cancer, while his mother, Sabha, was pregnant. By the time he was born, she was consumed with grief and depression.


The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein

John Nixon, Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2016), 252 pp., $25.00.

IN DECEMBER 2003, nine months into the U.S. occupation of Iraq, American forces seized the man who had been their number one target. Saddam Hussein, dictator turned fugitive, was finally captured. Like so much else about the U.S. expedition in Iraq beyond the initial invasion and overthrow of Saddam’s regime, there was little preparation or planning for how to handle the former despot once he was in custody. The prevailing assumption had been that the hunt for Saddam would conclude with him being killed, or killing himself. When he instead was captured alive, his interrogation became a matter of improvisation. At one point Saddam had to be moved to a different cell because in his first one he was losing sleep from the noise of small fry being moved in and out of the facility, resulting in him dozing off during the next day’s questioning.

At the time of the capture, John Nixon was a CIA analyst covering the leadership of the Iraqi regime. He had been in Iraq for two months on a short-term assignment, assessing information that might help in the search for Saddam. He was an obvious asset to throw into the breach, first to provide positive identification that the man the U.S. military had pulled from a spider hole on a farm near Tikrit was indeed Saddam Hussein, and then to begin questioning him. The identification was accomplished easily with the aid of such indicators as telltale scars and tribal tattoos. The questioning was more of a challenge, largely because of the lack of prior planning.

The FBI, as the U.S. government’s premier specialists in interrogating bad guys with an eye for both criminal justice and intelligence equities, would be given the main job of questioning Saddam. But the FBI did not have a suitable team in place in Iraq to do the job. Nixon and his CIA colleagues were instructed to start the process, then to yield to the FBI. When that would occur, and what topics should be the focus of questioning until then, were left vague. Based on Nixon’s account—whose role in the process appears to have lasted only a couple of weeks near the end of 2003, before returning to Washington—he and his colleagues nonetheless managed to collect useful information from their famous subject. The insight he acquired provides today’s readers with historical enrichment whether or not it was helpful at the time for those coping with the occupation of Iraq is another question entirely.

MOST OF the first and second drafts of the Iraq War chapter of American history were written several years ago, and Nixon admits to initial difficulty in garnering interest in publishing his part of the story. But his portrait of Saddam and the conversations with him offer an engaging and insightful addition to that history. The author’s skills as an analyst, one who had been following and assessing his subject from afar, come through in his portrayal and interpretation of Saddam in the flesh.

Nixon highlights the qualities that enabled Saddam to rise to the top and retain power in the ruthless and bloodstained polity that Iraq has been ever since a coup overthrew the monarchy in 1958. Going on the lam after the U.S. invasion barely weakened those qualities. Saddam retained his swagger and his conviction that he was still the rightful president of Iraq. His political skills were constantly in evidence. A drab debriefing room in a prison was for Saddam just one more milieu in which he would size up everyone present and figure out how they might be manipulated. The debriefing sessions were jousts in which Saddam worked as much to find out what the Americans questioning him knew as the Americans were working to find out how much he knew.

Saddam also could turn on a politician’s charm. He did so at the end of Nixon’s last session with him, in which he gave the CIA analyst a five-minute handshake accompanied by soothing words about how he had enjoyed their time together and how Nixon should always be just and fair when working back in Washington. This seemingly amicable parting came despite Saddam’s ire during earlier sessions, when questioned about human-rights abuses and, especially, the use of chemical weapons to kill thousands of Iraqi Kurdish civilians in Halabja during the Iran-Iraq War.

How truthful was Saddam? He was not being coerced, beyond the fact of his incarceration. He had reasons to deceive and conceal, perhaps in the hope that his sympathizers still in the fight could eventually prevail over their adversaries and that the United States would give up. Barring that kind of turning of the tide in his favor, he probably knew that his eventual fate (which was the gallows) would not depend on how frank he was being with his interrogators. He clearly lied about some things. For example, he denied any Iraqi-sponsored plot to assassinate George H. W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait in 1993, even though the evidence was conclusive. Bill Clinton retaliated with a cruise-missile strike.

Most of what Saddam told his interlocutors, however, was probably true. When he did not want to reveal what he knew about a topic, he simply refused to answer the question. One of the advantages his interrogators had was, as Nixon puts it, that Saddam “loved to talk, especially about himself,” so much so that sometimes it was “hard to shut him up.” This trait went with the braggadocio and a genuine pride in what Saddam considered he had done to develop Iraq. The conversations yielded freely offered detail about Iraqi affairs from the perspective of the presidential palace—nothing miraculous, but a fleshing out of what was already known.

Perhaps somewhat surprising was how much Saddam appeared to be detached from governing during the last months of his rule and to have delegated important matters to subordinates, including planning resistance to a U.S. invasion. Saddam may have dissembled about this more than Nixon seems to believe, both to divert blame from himself and to avoid jeopardizing continued resistance to the American occupation. More plausible in Saddam’s comments, but also at odds with the common view of him as a firmly entrenched dictator, was his worry about internal opposition, both Sunni and Shia.

Although Saddam had been the master of Iraq and had an acute understanding of its internal affairs, the same cannot be said of his foreign-affairs acumen. His miserable record of launching failed wars is a case in point. His insular view probably contributed to Baghdad’s inability to anticipate American reactions and perceptions. Saddam was surprised by the American response to his seizure of Kuwait. He thought that 9/11 would draw the United States and Iraq closer together against the sort of Islamist extremists who had perpetrated that attack. And he thought that concealment of weapons-related files should have been accepted as what any sovereign state would do to keep prying foreign eyes out of what was none of their business. In fairness to Saddam, the U.S. side of this history could have perplexed more savvy observers as well. Saddam correctly discerned inconsistency in U.S. behavior, which zigzagged from a pro-Baghdad tilt during the Iran-Iraq War to, shortly afterward, characterizing Saddam as a Hitler-like aggressor. Furthermore, opposition to Islamist terrorism was indeed an interest he shared with the United States, even though the promoters of the U.S. invasion of his country would try to conjure up an “alliance” between his regime and Al Qaeda to muster public support.

Nixon also gives accounts of two subsequent Oval Office briefings on the unpleasant reality of post-invasion Iraq. George W. Bush and his senior advisers resisted the idea that anyone they considered their foes in Iraq, starting with Saddam himself, could have had any significant popular support.

During one of these briefings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice characterized Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric and militia leader, as “just a flake.” Nixon attempted to caution against underestimating Sadr, but was interrupted by what he describes as practically a scream. “Oh yeah? Well, I think we overestimate him! The man’s a thug and a killer, and the Iraqi people don’t want that,” the president of the United States interjected.

THE REST of the book is a memoir about the remainder of Nixon’s time with the CIA, coupled with some observations about how intelligence allegedly operated regarding Iraq and some now-familiar criticisms of the Iraq War. These portions are less insightful than the rest and betray the author’s narrow perch. They evince bureaucratic parochialism, rivalry and envy (although Nixon compliments the military component that served as Saddam’s jailers). There is boasting, for example, that “CIA analysts were the first and foremost proponents of focusing on bodyguards to find Saddam.” Nixon’s criticism of American political leaders is not limited to one party and extends into the Obama administration he writes that Joseph Biden’s “grasp of foreign policy seemed shaky at best.” He knocks the experienced diplomat Christopher Hill, who became ambassador in Baghdad, for not having enough experience on Iraq.

Envy of the FBI is palpable, and this is related to the different circumstances of each agency’s turn with Saddam. Nixon and his CIA colleagues not only had less time with the prisoner but also had to use an interpreter. Nixon wasn’t even directly posing most of the questions. That job was given to a CIA polygrapher, not because there was any intention to give Saddam a polygraph exam but because polygraphers are supposed to be good at getting people to talk. By contrast, the FBI team that later took over the questioning was led by a Lebanese-born agent fluent in Arabic named George Piro. Piro’s long, confidence-gaining interactions with Saddam, without a translator, made him the American with the best up-close-and-personal understanding of the former Iraqi president, a status for which Piro would receive publicity in a 60 Minutes report. Piro has had a subsequent successful career in the FBI he currently heads the bureau’s Miami office (where he recently was back in the public eye after a shooting incident at the Fort Lauderdale airport). Nixon’s only reference in the book to Piro is a disdainful one regarding a comment made in a briefing in which they both participated.

Nixon’s contempt extends to many within the CIA. In this respect, he demonstrates the inferiority complex that tends to be a job-related disability of leadership analysts, who unfairly are given a low position on the analytical totem pole. Nixon complains that his superiors “always rushed to the same individuals—usually the people they hung around with on weekends—to provide the same old answers.” He expresses no liking for case officers of the National Clandestine Service, who he says “professed not to know what analysts actually did” and “would act even more confused” if the job were explained to them. Actually, the great majority of CIA case officers both understand well what analysts do and show that they understand.

Related to the parochialism is Nixon’s apparent ignorance of much of what was taking place in the intelligence community concerning Iraq outside his own small niche. That, or he consciously rejected the implications of that work for the sake of his own narrative. He gives the impression, for example, that the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center pushed through an assessment, despite heroic dissent from Nixon’s own unit, that catered to the war promoters’ notion of an alliance between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the perpetrators of 9/11, and that such work “was used by Defense Department hard-liners such as Douglas Feith to justify the invasion of Iraq.” In fact, the major CIA paper on the subject, completed in September 2002, did not support the notion of an alliance and found no conclusive reporting about any collaboration on terrorist operations. When Feith forwarded a copy of the paper to the secretary and deputy secretary of defense, he added a covering note that advised, “CIA’s interpretation ought to be ignored.” The intelligence community’s overall work on Iraq and terrorism, including this CIA assessment, was so contrary to the war promoters’ efforts to associate Iraq with Al Qaeda that Feith set up a special shop in the Pentagon to discredit the community’s work and to try to devise an alternative case.

NIXON TOSSES numerous brickbats at CIA management, placing Debriefing the President within the genre of books written by people who leave the agency short of a career and, because such people include a disproportionate number of those who for one reason or another were misfits there, collectively convey a disproportionately negative impression of the place. A characteristic the book shares with some of the rest of the genre is the use of big black bars to indicate material that was deleted when submitted to the agency for prepublication review to avoid release of classified information, contributing to the air of an individual voice being suppressed by an institutional goliath. The book also shares similar pejorative language. Nixon’s managers were “aloof and distant.” CIA Director George Tenet “and his cronies on the seventh floor of the CIA in Washington just didn’t understand what went into a successful debriefing.” The CIA was a “sclerotic organization” with a “hidebound mindset that prevented analysts from doing their best work.” The agency has a “cover-your-ass culture.” Agency managers let the organization “sink into mediocrity” and “simply did not get” why people like Nixon “cared deeply about what was happening in Iraq.” And so forth.

Amid his effort to paint agency management as obsequiously bending to the Bush administration’s push to make a case for the war in Iraq, Nixon obliterates the major distinction between proper responsiveness to policymakers’ needs and improper politicization of intelligence. He criticizes what he calls the “service” approach to intelligence, as if serving policymakers’ information needs is somehow wrong—and as if intelligence officers should work on whatever they, and they alone, consider important. Nixon assails how “the pooh-bahs at the CIA” let “the White House choose the topic” for briefings. All of this ignores how the fundamental purpose of intelligence is to provide information to policymakers. What Nixon seems to be advocating would not only make policymakers unhappy but also would lead responsible members of Congress to conclude correctly that the intelligence agencies were largely wasting taxpayers’ money. Politicization was indeed a problem in the atmosphere in the buildup to the Iraq War, but it was not a simple binary between serving and ignoring policymakers. The politicization of intelligence was more atmospheric: bias creeping subconsciously into the minds of analysts, or policymakers forgetting their own bias by asking questions shaped to uncover only certain kinds of answers.

As Nixon nears the finish line, the accusations come fast and loose. Nixon asserts that while the institution “slavishly sought to do the president’s bidding,” individuals at the CIA “leaked like mad when they disagreed with presidential decisions related to the war.” How could he know that? Did coworkers happen to mention to him in corridor conversations that they had just leaked something? Nixon ought to know enough about the distribution of intelligence products to realize it is fallacious to assume—as a certain president-elect recently did on another topic—that the organization that originated a document is necessarily where such a document leaked.

The United States did not understand Saddam Hussein well. The parts of Nixon’s book that are about Saddam—well worth reading—help belatedly to improve that understanding. But as Nixon himself acknowledges, the Bush administration officials who launched the disastrous war in Iraq were determined to do so for other reasons, regardless of how well or how poorly they understood the tyrant they toppled from power.


Watch the video: Inside Saddams Interrogation. National Geographic