War Stories

Mind Games

Are those Pentagon leaks the truth or “psy-ops”?

Pentagon officials the past couple of days have been hinting (when speaking on background, they’ve stated directly) that Saddam Hussein may be dead or wounded, that his command-control apparatus is in shambles, and that U.S. officials are engaged in surrender talks with officers of his Special Republican Guard.

The question of the moment: Are these claims part of an elaborate psychological-warfare campaign or are they for real? Nobody on the outside can say with any confidence. Some evidence suggests they are, to some degree, genuine. And to the degree they’re not, any fabrications may soon be self-fulfilled.

We still don’t know the effects of Wednesday night’s cruise-missile attack on a Baghdad compound where Saddam and his two sons were believed to be holed up. The CIA may not fully know the results, either. However, if they did know that Saddam survived the airstrikes, U.S. officials would be smart to pretend that they did not know—and even to encourage active speculation of his demise. Saddam rules by fear. If the Iraqi people—or, more to the point, Iraqi military officers—thought he was dead or merely weak, they might feel emboldened to rebel or sow discord. For that reason, if Saddam were still alive, he might feel compelled to emerge from hiding to prove the fact—at which point, U.S. air forces would try to hit him again. Saddam knows this, too, which means he’s likely to stay hidden—further fueling the belief that he’s dead, thus further weakening his authority.

This dynamic of disinformation may also be spurring claims that we’re in surrender negotiations with officers of Saddam’s ultra-loyal Special Republican Guard. If U.S. officials have managed even to contact some of these officers, that would be enough to throw Saddam into a state of shock. Certainly, he would purge—i.e., murder—a fair number of them, just to discourage future contact with the enemy. (He has routinely killed acolytes suspected of the slightest betrayal.) That could spur the survivors into bumping him off, before he chops their heads off next.

All this said, there are reasons to suspect that these claims are not pure fabrication. First, there almost certainly was convincing intelligence that Saddam was in the compound that Bush decided to attack on March 19. No U.S. official would have advocated altering the entire war plan just for the sake of a clever disinformation campaign. Today’s Washington Post quotes Sen. Pat Roberts, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as saying this tip came from “what we call human intelligence”—i.e., a spy of some sort, not satellites or electronic intercepts. That indicates we have somebody inside Saddam’s entourage.

In this context, it almost doesn’t matter whether the man who appeared on Iraqi TV a couple of hours after Wednesday night’s attack was the real Saddam Hussein or an imposter—or whether the speech was live or taped. He is weakened, if he’s not dead. And as the rumors mount, whether they’re true or false, he will become weaker and weaker until he’s toppled, if not by JDAM bombs or cruise missiles, then by the men around him.

Just now, bombs and cruise missiles are bombarding Baghdad and the outskirts, demolishing Saddam’s presidential palaces—reducing massive complexes of hardened buildings to ash and cinder—and almost certainly massacring the Republican Guards poised to defend the city, breaking the “rings of defense” into useless shards. Whether Saddam was dead or alive on Wednesday night, he won’t be alive much longer.