About the Author
Judith Miller is a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter formerly with the New York Times. She won an Emmy for her work on a Nova/New York Times documentary based on articles for her book Germs. Miller is the author of four books, two #1 bestsellers. She is the recipient of many awards, among them the Society of Professional Journalists’ “First Amendment Award” for her protection of sources. An adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal, Miller is theater critic for Tablet magazine. Since 2008, she has been a commentator for Fox News.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Story — CHAPTER 1 —
ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ
Late July 2010
As I opened the door of my flimsy CHU, the “compartmentalized housing unit” at Camp Ramadi in the Iraqi desert where I had slept after arriving from Baghdad, a gust of wind covered me with sand. The thermometer on the trailer door registered 100. It was six in the morning.
“Welcome to Spa Ramadi!” Maj. Ryan Cutchin said.
Tall, sandy haired, and army fit, Ryan loved mornings. Twenty years a soldier, he had probably been out for a run.
Summer was an insane time to visit Iraq. But I wanted to report on the US military’s withdrawal before Ryan finished his final deployment here, his third in seven years. America’s war in Iraq was ending. Soldiers like Ryan were leaving in what military spokesmen insisted on calling a “responsible drawdown of forces.” President George W. Bush had established the withdrawal schedule by December 2011. President Barack Obama was implementing it rigorously.
When we had first met seven years earlier in March 2003, then Captain Cutchin was serving in the 75th Field Artillery Brigade in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The brigade had been charged with finding WMDs in Iraq. Embedded for the New York Times, I was the only reporter with his then-secret brigade, known as the 75th Exploitation Task Force. The XTF, as it was called, would find only traces of the weapons that the CIA and fifteen other American intelligence agencies had concluded Saddam Hussein was hiding, a nightmarish cache that the soldiers searching for them (and I with them) were convinced existed: remnants of some 500 tons of mustard and nerve gas, 25,000 liters of liquid anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 29,984 prohibited munitions capable of delivering chemical agents, several dozen Scud missiles, and 18 mobile biological weapons vans—not to mention its ambitious nuclear weapons program, according to US estimates based on United Nations reports of what Iraq had made and claimed to have destroyed.1 My bond with Ryan and other XTF members, forged during that often frustrating, infuriating, ultimately fruitless four-month search, had endured.
“We were so sure we’d find WMDs! Any day now,” Ryan recalled, as we sipped coffee in the ice-cold trailer housing the Green Bean cafeteria, one of the few private contractors left at the forsaken army base on the outskirts of Anbar Province, a Sunni Muslim stronghold sixty miles west of Baghdad.
Neither of us would ever forget that maddening hunt, or the faulty intelligence that had helped justify the war, some of which I had been the first to report. When the war had begun, I accompanied Ryan and other XTF members day after exhausting day—inspecting sites on a list of more than eight hundred suspect places that the intelligence agencies had identified based on the outdated reports of UN inspectors. Most of those sites had been heavily looted by the time we arrived. At one villa in Baghdad, soldiers found a singed fifteen-page list of Iraqi front companies and individuals authorized to buy dual-use equipment in Europe and Asia suitable for conventional or unconventional weapons. The list and other weapons-related documents were smoldering in an old metal steamer trunk when the soldiers arrived. The contents had been set on fire—we never learned by whom. Tewfik Boulenouar, the unit’s Algerian-born translator, had salvaged some pages by stamping out the fire with his boot. Most of the time, intelligence about what was stored where were stunningly wrong.
“Remember those packets we got each morning, with the glossy pictures and a tentative grid?” Ryan reminisced. “Go to this place. You’ll find a McDonald’s there. Look in the fridge. You’ll find French fries, cheeseburger, and Cokes. Then we would get there, and not only was there no fridge and no fries, there hadn’t even been a thought of putting a McDonald’s there.”
One day in mid-April 2003, Ryan had raced to the city of Bayji, 130 miles north of Baghdad, to inspect a dozen fifty-five-gallon drums in an open field that soldiers had unearthed. The Iraqis buried everything of even remotely potential value, which increased suspicions about them among US intelligence agencies. Ryan, who led Mobile Exploitation Team (MET) Bravo, was told that one of the drums had tested positive for cyclosarin, a deadly nerve agent. “It turned out to be gasoline,” he recalled. On another trip, his soldiers had dug up a crate containing a sofa.
In late May 2003 Ryan’s friend, Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Monty” Gonzales, the head of search team MET Alpha, was sent to Basra in southern Iraq to investigate what senior weapons experts had described as nuclear equipment. What they found were industrial-scale vegetable steamers. The contents of the crates had all been clearly marked—in Russian.2
By the time their deployment and my embed ended in June 2003, the soldiers who had tried to remain optimistic about their mission were bitter. After promising leads had fizzled and Iraqi weapons scientists who had cooperated with the XTF were turned over to the Iraq Survey Group (the XTF’s larger successor), Ryan Cutchin, Monty Gonzales, and Dave Temby, a veteran Defense Department bioweapons expert, called the suspect site list “toilet paper.” They had reached another disheartening conclusion: while weapons hunters were likely to continue uncovering remnants of chemical and biological munitions, suspect chemicals, and WMD precursors, they were unlikely to find stockpiles of modern unconventional weapons that administration officials claimed had posed the “grave threat” to America. We were gobsmacked.
What we did not know then was that Saddam Hussein had been playing a double game: while he wanted the UN to believe that he had given up his WMD so that sanctions would be lifted, he also wanted Iran, Israel, and his other external and internal enemies to believe that he had kept those weapons. Moreover, as America’s top weapons analysts would later conclude, even Saddam wasn’t absolutely sure what was left in his stockpiles. At a Revolutionary Command Council meeting in October 2002, he had asked his senior staff whether “they might know something he did not about residual WMD stocks,” Charles Duelfer, America’s top Iraq weapons inspector, would write in 2013.3 But a decade earlier, as we were crisscrossing Iraq in search of the elusive WMD stockpiles and the scientists who had produced them, all we knew for certain was that the intelligence the XTF had been given about Iraq’s unconventional weapons was wrong. With this came the devastating realization that, as a result, some of my own earlier WMD stories were wrong, too.
I had not been wrong about Saddam, though. He was a mass murderer, a true psychopath. Sure, there were lots of bad people in the world, and some of them even led countries. It would have been folly for the United States to try to oust them all. But after years of reporting in the Middle East, I considered Saddam special.
When I had first visited Iraq, in 1976, Saddam, not yet president, was already consolidating power. An American assistant secretary of state had described him at the time as a “rather remarkable person,” “very ruthless,” and a “pragmatic, intelligent power.”4 During my first visit to Baghdad, my suitcase was stolen. The incident would not have been noteworthy if I hadn’t been the only journalist covering two US senators on a visit chaperoned by US security officials and a large contingent of Iraqi uniformed and secret police. Although I was reporting for the Progressive, an obscure leftist midwestern monthly, the delegation had a high profile.
I had seen my bag loaded onto a well-guarded van as we left for the airport. Still, someone, perhaps one of the many Iraqi “minders,” had been brazen or desperate enough to walk off with it. The incident was telling. If Saddam was trying to build a “new socialist Arab man”—secular, disciplined, marching confidently into an oil-rich future—this petty theft was not an encouraging start.
The political climate deteriorated dramatically three years later in 1979, when Saddam assumed the Iraqi presidency in a characteristic bloodbath. He celebrated his inauguration in a giant hall in Baghdad by denouncing party members and even close friends whom he considered insufficiently loyal. As Saddam intoned their names one by one, the men were surrounded by goons and dragged out of the room. He had then called upon senior ministers, party leaders, and loyalists to form instant firing squads to kill their colleagues. After he had finished reading the list of the condemned, officials of the ruling Ba’ath Party who had not heard their names called wept openly with relief and began hysterically chanting in Arabic “Long Live Saddam!” “With our blood, with our souls,” they shouted, “we will sacrifice for you, O Saddam!” (It more or less rhymes in Arabic.)
Years later, I would hear an audiotape of the astonishing assembly, the details of which Laurie Mylroie, a scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and I would be among the first to describe in a book we wrote and published in 1990 just before the US-led liberation of Kuwait.5
I had joined the Times in 1977 and became its Cairo bureau chief in 1983, responsible for covering most of the Arab Middle East. I traveled to Iraq more than a dozen times to cover the Iran-Iraq war and had grown to dread those visits. The war that Saddam had launched against neighboring Islamic Iran less than a year after becoming president was not turning out as he—or the CIA—had predicted. Though weak and internally divided, Iran’s revolutionary government, which in 1979 had ousted the Shah and created the world’s first militant Shiite Islamic state, was fighting back ferociously. Outgunned but not outmanned, given a population some three times that of Iraq, theocratic Iran seemed at times on the verge of defeating the secular state that Arabs regarded not only as the cradle of their civilization but also the “beating heart” of Arab nationalism.
During my visits in the mid-1980s, it was still unclear which side would win. Officially, the United States was neutral. But President Ronald Reagan had secretly decided that “secular” Iraq could not be permitted to lose to anti-American theocrats who, in 1979, had attacked the US Embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats hostage for more than a year. So even after the United States received evidence that Saddam was using poison gas and other chemical weapons against Iranian forces and, later, his own citizens, Reagan extended credits to Iraq. America would also give intelligence guidance to Iraq’s military to enhance the accuracy of its bombing raids and missile strikes. Once Saddam concluded that the United States would let him “get away with murder,” as one scholar put it, his use of chemical weapons increased.6
Throughout the eight-year war, however, Washington had quietly provided, or tried to provide, covert assistance to both Iraq and Iran, reflecting what was euphemistically known as a “realist” foreign policy.
On my seventh trip to Baghdad in March 1985, I saw firsthand what our cynical policy meant for the Iranians and the Iraqis. After landing in Baghdad late at night and checking into the Sheraton, I was just dozing off when a missile struck. Its high-pitched whoosh was followed by an ear-splitting boom. The blast shattered the sliding glass terrace door of my seventh-floor room overlooking the Tigris River.
I bolted upright in bed, moving my hands slowly across the sheets. There was no glass on the bed, but shards covered much of the floor near the window. Barefoot, I inched my way across the room toward the light switch. Nothing. The blast had knocked out the power.
I had come to Baghdad to investigate whether Iran had begun firing Libyan-supplied Scud-B missiles at Iraq in retaliation for Iraq’s relentless rocket attacks in the “war of the cities,” the latest escalation of the Iran-Iraq war, then in its fifth year. The missiles I was trying to find almost found me.
Flashlight in hand, my duffel bag strapped over one shoulder, and my purse dangling from the other, I inched my way down the unlit emergency stairwell to the hotel’s gaudy marble lobby. Its lights were still glowing brightly—a surreal scene, given the darkness and chaos above.
An Iraqi concierge, who only an hour earlier had been overly solicitous while checking me in, suddenly barked at me, “Where are you going?”
I was leaving the hotel, I told him as calmly as possible. My room had just been destroyed by a missile.
“You are not going anywhere,” he commanded.
Seeing him reach for the bulge under his ill-fitting hotel uniform jacket, I froze as he retreated behind the front desk. Handing me a sheet of paper listing over $1,000 in charges for the night and the week I had planned to spend there, he insisted that I pay my bill, in cash. Rattled but furious, I flung two $100 bills on the desk and left. As I bolted out of the hotel, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t shoot me.
While I walked to the home of a European diplomat, I thought about the Iraqi leader. In a region of brutal tyrants, Saddam stood out. The Godfather was his favorite film—a nugget that Laurie and I unearthed in researching our book. His role model was Joseph Stalin. “I like the way he governed his country,” Saddam had told a well-known Kurdish politician.7
Like Stalin, Saddam had institutionalized terror as an instrument of state policy. With more than 150,000 employees of his competing intelligence agencies watching citizens in a country of fourteen million people (the population would surge to thirty million by 2010), his reliance on arbitrary punishment and the promotion of the most obsequious had destroyed Iraq’s civil society and all centers of opposition. Individuals were subordinate to the whims of a state that—as noted by Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi writer and exile whom I had befriended—was synonymous with Saddam.
No one could escape his vile gaze. Thirty-foot-high portraits and smaller renditions of him—as soldier, peasant, teacher, and tribal elder—were everywhere. With his black hair and trademark mustache, his portrait graced the entrances of hotels, schools, public buildings, city squares, private offices, and even the dials of the gold wristwatches favored by the political elite. As Makiya wrote, the government had devoted an entire agency, the Very Special Projects Implementation Authority, to creating and maintaining such depictions of him.8
Iraqi women died for him, literally and figuratively, and men emulated his style of dress, his swagger, even the cut of his mustache. All mustaches in Iraq seemed to resemble his; I longed to see a goatee or a handlebar mustache. In the land where Sumerians had invented writing, discourse had been degraded to a single ubiquitous image.
All roads led to Saddam, the “leader-president,” “leader-struggler,” “standard-bearer,” “leader of all the Arabs,” “knight of the Arab nation,” “hero of national liberation,” “father-leader,” and my personal favorite title, the “daring and aggressive knight” (al-faris al-mighwar).”9 A scholar said that Saddam’s name was mentioned between thirty to fifty times an hour in a typical radio broadcast; his TV appearances often lasted several hours a day. Makiya argued that Saddam’s name and image were so ubiquitous that he had become the personification of what Iraqis perceived to be the “Iraqi” character.10
In Saddam’s Iraq, real and imagined critics had a disconcerting way of ending up dead, in jail, or simply disappearing. Saddam had used the war as a pretext for p...
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