Security Studies Program Seminar
A View from the Other Side of the Hill: The Records of Saddam Hussein
Colonel Kevin Woods
Institute for Defense Analysis
November 18, 2009
- Hill has been working on the project since 2003.
- This project, Iraq Perspectives, started off very simply as a military lessons learned project. The U.S. military has a professional need to learn about what just occurred in order to improve for the next military engagement – whether at the tactically or strategically.
- In 2003, a small group took a look at operational lessons from the U.S. perspective for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Hill was part of the team and the purpose was to look at U.S. operational joint doctrine.
- While briefing the results of the study, they were asked if the results would change if they had Iraqi perspective on the same fight. To them, the answer was obvious that if they had access to all the discovered records and access to Iraqi officials it would be helpful to the project. This is specifically the records of the state and of those closest to Saddam Hussein.
Expansion of the Project
- Interviews were done as oral histories and they are continuing today in the Middle East. The purpose is to continue to build on gaining a greater understanding of the Iraqi military and Iraqi military culture.
- They are using the Iraqi veterans of Saddam as a glimpse into the world that was closed before.
- This has led to a series of reports, such as Saddam and Terrorism (five volumes of captured records 1500 pages of Iraqi intelligence files and memorandum from senior ministries on terrorism)
- They asked Iraqi commanders what the war looked like from their perspective – and they put these types of interviews together in a second book
- They also did a book, The Mother of Battles, which was a study of the first gulf war. It was heavily based on documents on lessons learned (from the Iraqi documents). Most of the documents were Iraqi top secret and they were not meant for public use.
- There is also spin-off project, which entails collecting oral history monographs from Iraqi senior officials. The first one is an Iraqi commander’s views of the Iraq-Iran war.
- They also just completed a series of interviews with former head of navy, former head of intelligence group, etc. with the goal of developing a better understanding from the region using primary source interviews
About the Documents
- You need to think about the context by which the documents were obtained. The documents were captured in war and not captured in a clean, pristine environment. For example, two out of the three floors were firebombed in defense ministry – documents were captured from one of the floors. You also had records spread about in Baghdad to preserve - in various safehouses.
- There are piles and piles of paper – rooms full of paper – of these documents. This has been a slow and deliberate process of going through and categorizing the records. It will never marry up to what it should be as an archive, but it now has a structure for research purposes.
- The Iraqis were very detailed in their record-keeping – very exacting records. A single memorandum to Saddam might have 5 or 6 supporting documents on who else saw this document and comments.
- In addition to the paper (hundreds of millions of pages of paper ) – there are also audio and visual files. The audio files: Saddam had the Nixon disease – he likes to record his calls and his revolutionary command meetings and dinner conversations with his close inner circle.
- It is not clear if people were aware that they were being recorded at a given time, but they tended to feel like they were being listened to all the time and they operated under this assumption
- It is also not clear why Saddam did all this recording.
- The records provide an unparalleled resource. Started with 12700 hours of Saddam on tape in private conversations.
- They are barely into the catalog stage of archiving all this material.
- There is a significant expat population that have a perspective on regime, so they continue to do oral histories with them
- The combination of the docs, the tapes and the oral histories provides quite a rich history
Housing the Records
- The whole project started as a project for the DOD (funding from DOD), but there is no guidance from DOD.
- Secretary of Defense Gates announced the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) with the goal of putting the documents as they exist in military into a place where civilian scholars can access them. The hope is to open this in January. The CRRC will be at the National Defense University in Washington DC.
- There are some constraints on accessing for security reasons: Saddam did do weapons design and weapons testing, so there are some concerns.
- In 2006, there was an attempt to put these on the internet, but this was shut down because nuclear scientific data was inadvertently released, so program was shutdown
- CRRC has new mechanisms and constraints on the data – scholars will not be constrained in what they use or what they write on
- There are other collections of these records from Iraq: bath party records deposited at Hoover Institute in California – most significant collection on politics of Iraq
- Univ. of Colorado Boulder – documents related to Kurdish issues in Iraq
- Kuwait dataset – records captured in Kuwait after Persian gulf war. These are primarily military and tactical documents
Iraqi Perspectives Report
- The Iraqi Perspectives Report wanted to look at OIF from the other side to balance against what the us and the coalition thought and why.
- What you recognize when you interview individuals around Saddam is that you can’t understand the decisions until you understand the nature of the regime.
- The view is - I am the state, the state is me – and Saddam had a very singular view on everything about Iraq and everyone around him understood that…Everyone always knew there was this dangerous glass ceiling to be cautious of when you dealt with Saddam
- The regime also set up some constraints for dealing with military problems
An example: Saddam brought together officers for assessment of what happened in 1991 and what the Iraqis should do about it with regard to capabilities in the future.
-An officer lays out historical parallel and recommends Iraq maintain small heavy armored force, but we should go to dispersed more infantry based force.
-Saddam at end of conversation and says to generals and says if what this officer told you was true you would all be dead or in an American prison camp right now…and we used opposite approach in 1991 and you are all here, so why would we change our approach if the approach won.
-the state stood against 33 nations and a superpower at the time and we are still here.
- The lessons of force: Saddam had conversations with senior officials about the U.S. decisions to use force. He pointed out various incidents, including Somalia and Kosovo, to illustrate U.S. was increasingly unwilling to use force. And from the first gulf war, Saddam believed that he won because he still controlled the state.
- On military effectiveness: The longer he was in power the more he thought he was becoming a military genius in his mind …early on he was talking to soldiers and learning how to be a military commander and by the early 1990s he was less convinced that generals knew what he was talking about…and later on he thought he was mil genius and he was writing field manuals (27 march 2003 – writing manuals on how to employ mines and use machine guns) - - he gave guidance on a very tactical level.
- The nature of the people around Saddam: there were purely political generals (they were not military professionals, but they were there because of status in family or political power through a group to rise in Iraq) and then there were the professionals. Some people held both positions(close family members/professional)
- As part of the project, one question Hill would always ask to commanders would be about assessments of his peers to get a professional opinion on others –and you’d get a mix of responses.
- Hill’s impression was that the commander of the Special Republican Guard would be a pretty tough commander, but when he asked the commander’ peers about him, he was universally derided….So, Hill asked why this individual picked for the SRG: three reasons given 1) close relative of Saddam 2) wasn’t smart enough to put a coup together on his own 3) too much of a coward to participate in anyone else’s good ideas. So, he was not the type to conspire.
- This is one of the problems the regime had in putting together its defense – the quality of the people involved
- Security is another problem that got worse over time. Iraqi general officers also would joke about listening devices in the state cars.
- When senior officer in the room, generals wouldn’t even talk. They didn’t have relationships with each other after 1990 unless they were in the room with one from the inner circle because of fears they might be accused of conspiring with the regime. So commanders would not communicate unless directed to communicate from above.
- They made dramatic changes to their plans in Dec 2002 in run-up to oif campaign. There was no real good reason for these changes – they felt it was mostly psychological campaign aimed at west. Iraqis went from area defense to an urban centric defense focused on Baghdad. They watched the us media about the type of warfare that the war might entail…..
- Iraq survey group report captures WMD issue well from the Iraqi side
- When interviewing head of military industrial committee (built the weapons), Hill would ask “is it possible given your position in the regime that WMD could exist in Iraq and you might not know about it (at any level – stored, research, etc)…is it possible for it to occur without you knowing about it?"
The response Hill got: 1) yes it is possible – because a) we are compartmentalized govt and things going on that not everyone knows about b) chaos – air campaign in 1991 destroyed a lot of records and post 1991 inspections drove Iraqis to extreme measures to preserve what was left and they went to extreme measures to hide and disperse - - the chaos of war made it worse c) defection – when someone defects, there is a panic…there was panic to move and destroy things, but they did this in a haphazard way. So, before the war when they tried to do final document for the UN, they really didn’t know and there was such chaos and discrepancy, they just didn’t know and couldn’t put it together in the fine level of detail required for the UN and the coalition d) the U.S. president and went in front of the world and said it is true. How do you stand up in front of the world and say a country has the following material if you know it to be not true…because what are you going to do if it is not there once you get there? So they all though the U.S. must know something that I don’t.
- The project generally avoids question of Saddam and links to AQ – They asked the general question of what do records say about Saddam’s interactions with non-state actors? And they let the records speak for themselves on these issues and Hill believes the records tells a nuanced story about what it means to be a state working with non-state actors.
Highlights from Questions and Answers:
1) Why did Iraqis not deploy WMD in battle or scuds against the Israelis?
2003 no WMD to employ….and earlier, Saddam firmly believed Saddam could not go naked in front of his neighbors. He had to convince the west that under terms of 1991 war they had no WMD. He also wanted to keep Iran guessing and he was explicit about this in private conversations . In 1991, they did have WMD (stockpiles of chemical weapons) – they did deploy it ,but they did not use it. It is not 100% clear why, but from initial evidence, they had plans for its use – contingency plans – Saddam stood up independent chain of command for use of WMD back in 1990. They moved it out of certain warehouses for certain reasons in case it was hit…and to facilitate access for certain missile brigades for use with scuds.
He thinks Saddam was deterred and there is debate over why…Iraqi military records in sept, oct, nov, timeframe assumed the U.S. would use CW in a major fight with Iraq. Saddam didn’t use WMD against Israel because he believed Israel would use it back against him.
2) If none of the commanders knew about WMD for reasons you gave – what exactly did Saddam know? And why didn’t he use info to stop U.S. invasion?
-Pride was a lot of it, as he wanted to keep Iran guessing.
-Saddam did not think the U.S. would invade….he felt it was the U.S. bluffing….Saddam actually believed that until about 27 or 28 of March that the war would end with him still in power – this was almost 10 days into the ground campaign.
3) Who uses the records?
-When the project started in 2003, we had very high level support (sec of defense and chairman of the joint chiefs said let the team have access). They have briefed to highest levels of govt – all the 4 star commands and their staffs and commands around the world. There have also been a lot of talks on the records – at all the war colleges every quarter and regular briefings at school of advanced military studies and school of airpower and marine staff college….There are also lectures on the records at defense intelligence schools, CIA university, etc. Hill is funded to do this as part of the project. There is a little less interest in it now, as people are focusing more on Afghanistan.
4) Going back to 1991, in terms of Saddam’s decision-making to invade Kuwait and to do it in that time frame – given he was relatively close to potential nuclear weapon, why not hold off until he had that?
-Don’t know – his timing was always bad. Maybe partly because he didn’t see a large international response the way it ended up happening with regard to Kuwait. He thought he had public opinion on his side.
5) Question on period between gulf wars – what is Saddam inferring from U.S. behavior during interwar years?
-There are series of conversations in the records about the about increasingly frail nature of the U.S. use of force and the U.S. tendency not to go for robust solutions. Saddam believed U.S. influence was going to wane over time and he argued that time was on the Iraqis side…
6) Are there any lessons for intelligence collection on other hard targets like North Korea and Iran?
- Part of the purpose of the project is for policymakers or analysts to use what is learned for future situations. We can study the Iraqi reactions to our signals and our approaches and see how they responded to us to learn about how others might react to us in future situations.
----For example, in run-up to 2003 war, Powell went in front of UN w/evidence for WMD program still ongoing. He showed taped radio conversation between two republican guard officers talking about bunker site that was known to have nerve gas before….
-by chance, in going through the records, the team came across files laying out inspection program in Oct /Nov 2002, which entailed going back to prior inspection sites and double and triple checking to ensure there is no possibility that anything might be left. The officers in the recording were coordinating the operation orders to clean up for inspections – which mistakenly provided the evidence that the U.S.. was looking for to confirm the activity.
7) a) The soviets had pretty good relations w/Iraqis – did you come across anything on the soviet role and any advice soviets gave Iraqis b) did we miss opportunity to end this earlier with the uprisings in the north?
-Not sure how the counterfactual would play out…The society wasn’t as weak back then as it was in 2002….so, in 2002 it had already started to break up more. In 1991, there was still nationalism from the 1980s war….
-On the Russians, there is a lot of material on the Russians. Saddam had a very cynical attitude about the advice he got from the Russians. He got more commercial support from some countries and mil support from some countries than other countries, but he broke relations with them at beginning of Iraq-Iran war. He had an on and off again relationship with the Russians and the Iraqi military had also been frustrated by Russian equipment..
8) Eventually down the road, will these records be going back to Iraq to national archives there?
-We prepared a paper on the question of where the documents will go. Everything we currently have is a pdf copy and the original documents are still in the Middle East under control of DOD. The documents will go back to the country of origins (that is a matter of international law) how and when they go back is an interesting dilemma.
-During ww2: At the end of the war, we had German documents and then after the intel community went through them, they turn it over to scholarly operations (first went to state) and then other groups went through them and get them microfilmed quickly and the Germans got them back in 50s and got most back by the 60s…..
-so, the Iraqi records will all go back as matter of law and U.S. policy
-Right now, the project is starting under DOD, but Gates wants to see it under a consortium of universities eventually.
-Hill thinks the originals should go back to Iraq as soon as possible, but you can’t be naïve about what will happen with certain documents when they go back…there are issues of openness….
Rapporteur: Tara Maller
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2009