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Little intelligence gained from Saddam interrogations, officials say

WASHINGTON—The CIA and other intelligence agencies learned virtually nothing of value from former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during more than six months of interrogations that ended this week with his handover to Iraqi legal custody, three senior U.S. officials said Thursday.

The officials, who had access to secret transcripts of Saddam's debriefings, said he provided no clues to the fate of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs and no information on whether his regime had contacts with terrorists.

Both were key Bush administration justifications for invading Iraq, but have since been called into serious question.

Saddam provided "very little—almost nothing," said a former top official of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which dissolved on June 28.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he stopped reading the transcripts after a couple of months.

In them, Saddam reminisced at length over his rise to power 35 years ago and the history of his Baath Party, he said. Those familiar topics apparently were raised by his CIA interrogators in a tactic meant to put captives at ease. "Maybe they never asked him the hard questions," the official said.

Another senior official said U.S. intelligence debriefers would have liked to have continued interrogating Saddam and some of his 11 former top aides, whom the U.S. military also turned over to the interim Iraqi government's custody.

"Clearly, he (Saddam) has more that he knows than he has told us. He's never going to be as cooperative as you'd like. You could learn more," said this official.

Saddam, 67, showed continued defiance Thursday as he made an initial appearance before an Iraqi tribunal, jabbing his finger into the air and calling President Bush "a criminal."

The interim Iraqi government assumed legal custody over Saddam and 11 of his top deputies on Wednesday. The deposed Iraqi dictator remains in U.S. physical custody, largely to prevent Iraqis who suffered under his rule from taking violent revenge.

It's uncertain what access U.S. intelligence officers will have to Saddam in the future.

He's no longer considered a prisoner of war covered by the Geneva Conventions, but rather is subject to the Iraqi criminal code, a senior administration official said.

"There would still be the hope that we could get more. But, it's their (the Iraqis') country," the second senior official said.

But a Defense Department official, who like the senior officials spoke on condition of anonymity, said he knew of nothing that would prohibit members of the Iraq Survey Group, the CIA-led effort to trace the fate of Saddam's illicit weapons programs, from checking new leads with the former dictator or his co-defendants.

"I'm not aware of anything that would preclude us, should we have additional information or leads, from talking to those folks," he said.

A few of the Saddam aides have provided useful information, but none has been completely open, officials said. The 11 include former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and Ali Hasan al Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in chemical weapons attacks on Iraq's Kurds in the late 1980s.

Revelations of Saddam's negligible intelligence value contrast with official U.S. statements in the days after his Dec. 13, 2003, capture.

Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division was quoted as saying after the capture that information provided by Saddam, and documents captured with him, had led to the detention of several leaders of the anti-U.S. insurgency and helped clarify its structure.

But the former top CPA official said the United States still lacks good intelligence on the Iraqi insurgency led by former regime members, which threatens the U.S.-supported interim government.

"It's disappointing that we haven't been able to have better insight into the command and control of the insurgency," he said. "You've got to have that if you're going to have effective military operations. You need to know who you're going to target."


(Joseph L. Galloway contributed to this report.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.