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BOOK REVIEW

'Hide and Seek' by Charles Duelfer

Why had the U.S. government been wrong about WMDs in Iraq? The author looked for answers.

February 27, 2009|Tony Perry

In "Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq," Charles Duelfer describes the early fumbling efforts of U.S. interrogators to question former officials in Saddam Hussein's regime.

Baghdad (and Tikrit) had fallen, and U.S. officials had scooped up most of the Iraqi high command. They wanted to know the what, why and how of things, particularly regarding weapons of mass destruction.

The prisoners were allowed to mingle, probably cooking up consistent stories. The somewhat good and the very bad were imprisoned together. And the U.S. was still functioning on misleading information from Iraqi dissidents.

"We were amateurs," Duelfer writes, "dealing with the world's best dissemblers, manipulators, and, in certain cases, torturers. In lumping them all together, we had additionally mixed up potentially helpful technocrats, who had welcomed the U.S. invasion, with reconstructed thugs. They all looked alike on the U.S. blacklist."

It fell to Duelfer, a veteran government employee, to produce a report for the president and Congress about why the U.S. had been so wrong about the WMDs.

The result was a 1,000-page document from the Iraq Survey Group presented in October 2004, complete with congressional hearings featuring Duelfer's testimony.

Duelfer's group made headlines for concluding that Hussein hadn't had weapons of mass destruction since his capability was destroyed by the 1991 Persian Gulf War and United Nations sanctions.

Lesser notice was given to the report's conclusion that he never abandoned his dream of dominating the region by stockpiling nuclear and biological weapons. Indeed, he planned to get back into the WMD business after U.N. sanctions lapsed.

"Hide and Seek" is, in large part, the story behind the story, detailing how the October 2004 report came into being as well as how unprepared much of the U.S. bureaucracy was for the collapse of Iraq's Baathist government. Duelfer had worked for the State Department and then, from 1993 to 2000, as deputy chairman of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq.

After the fall of Baghdad, he was selected by then-CIA Director George J. Tenet to head the agency's Iraq Survey Group. The work of interrogating Iraqi officials and combing through documents had already begun, and, by Duelfer's account, much of it was a mess.

A lot of "Hide and Seek" is inside baseball. Duelfer's prose is clean and well-paced, but there are probably too many names, too many meetings to engage any but the most dedicated Iraq war reader.

The book will probably not please either Bush backers or Bush bashers. Duelfer is of the "Hussein had to go, WMDs or not" school.

He keeps certain confidences and fuzzes certain names. His book was reviewed by the CIA before publication.

He writes things that may give some officials heartburn -- such as the allegation that then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pressured him to omit from his report any information about Russian connivance with Hussein.

But the book is not primarily a score-settler, unlike those of some major Iraq figures, civilian and military.

Rudyard Kipling said the first step toward understanding a foreign land is to know how it smells. Duelfer knew the smell of Iraq from his prewar involvement with the U.N. He had access to high-level Iraqi officials, although not, apparently, to the maximum leader.

He suggests that the U.S. and Iraqi governments were mutually distrustful and ignorant of each other's history. Some Iraqi functionaries wanted back-channel communication with the U.S., but Washington was not interested.

Duelfer is a close observer of events that have shaped U.S. foreign policy in the last two decades, and, as such, his insights and descriptions are invaluable.

Duelfer's view of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is of a cold fish without much intellectual curiosity. She brushed off his comments that the debriefing of Hussein's henchmen was not going well.

His chapter on the interrogation of Hussein by FBI agent George Piro is the stuff of psychological drama. If someone isn't working on a screenplay, they should.

For weeks, Piro, a Lebanese American, was Hussein's only link to the world. The fallen dictator was writing poetry. He asked to be shot like a soldier, not hanged like a petty criminal. The two played mind games, with Piro looking for information and Hussein seeking goodness knows what.

Hussein looked on Piro as a surrogate son and gave him a pair of sandals when they parted for the final time. The information Piro extracted helped send Hussein to the gallows.

The CIA gave Piro a $2,500 bonus, but his agency, the FBI, seemed oblivious to what he achieved. Only three years later did FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III publicly praise Piro.

Six years after Sept. 11, the two big agencies still had different agendas. "Classic Washington bureaucratic style," Duelfer concludes.

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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