By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Tea and cookies with Saddam
Turlock grad recounts Hussein FBI interview at fundraiser
George Piro event 1
Turlock High grad George Piro recounts his historic FBI interrogation with deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2004 during a TAPO Widows & Orphans fundraiser at the Assyrian American Civic Club on Wednesday (KRISTINA HACKER/The Journal).

Retired law enforcement officers often have that one case that’s always worth a retelling. For Turlock High grad and former Ceres Police detective turned FBI agent George Piro, it just happens to involve infamous Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

In March 2003, with intelligence reports stating that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was in league with al Qaeda — and could possibly have had a part to play in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America — President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. invasion of Iraq. On Dec. 13, 2003, U.S. forces found Hussein hiding in a hole in northern Iraq.

Following a CIA interrogation, the FBI was then called in to find out the truth about Iraq’s WMD capability and their ties with al Qaeda.

Because Hussein only spoke Arabic, the FBI had to select agents from among their 12,000-agent pool who could speak the language. Only 12 Arabic speakers could be found at that time and because Piro was familiar with the history of Iraq and the Ba’ath Party and Arab and Iraqi cultures, he became the top candidate.

Piro recounted parts of his historic eight-month interrogation of the dictator, which provided the answers the FBI sought, during an event on Wednesday at the Assyrian American Civic Club to benefit the Turlock Police Association’s Widows & Orphans Fund. During the event, Turlock Mayor Amy Bublak also presented Piro with a key to the city.

Piro and Bublak
Turlock Mayor Amy Bublak presents George Piro with a key to the city during Wednesday's fundraising event at the Assyrian American Civic Club (KRISTINA HACKER/The Journal).

“On behalf of the City of Turlock, my colleagues…and an incredibly proud community, we want to thank you for what you've done for Turlock and for the United States. And by just a small token, we realize that you represent our city and our country and we're so humbled by that, so thank you,” said Bublak when presenting Piro with the key.

Piro shared that what gave him “the strength and confidence to take on such a difficult and challenging assignment” and be successful in his career was the love and support of his parents, his time at the Ceres Police Department and “moving and growing up in Turlock.”

“What Turlock instilled in me was its core values, and helped me appreciate hard work, family and friends, commitment, support, traditions, teamwork, and most importantly, pride. In addition, Turlock has one of the largest Assyrian communities in the United States. Growing up here, I realized the value of our history, the importance of our culture, and language and the true meaning of identity. I am extremely proud of being an Assyrian and continue to represent our people and culture and the highest standards,” he said.

Piro’s unique relationship with Hussein begins with a late afternoon call on Christmas Eve in 2003. He said he was on his way to do some last-minute holiday shopping when he received a call from FBI headquarters informing him that he’d been selected to interrogate Hussein. Piro said he aborted his trip to the mall and instead made his way to a bookstore to start reading up about his soon-to-be subject.

Piro was already a little familiar with Iraq, as he was part of the first FBI team deployed to the Middle Eastern country during the invasion. He was there was March to July 2003 helping search for other high-value targets.

The former police detective was already a good interrogator.

“I truly learned how to be a good interrogator at Ceres PD. I used to keep a little list of every interrogation I did in Ceres. And every confession that I did, I would receive. That's the kind of determination and focus that we had at Ceres PD. Nobody walked into the police department and left without confessing,” said Piro.

George Piro and parents
George Piro poses for a picture with his parents, Lazar and Francia Piro, following an event where he received the key to the city from Turlock Mayor Amy Bublak. Piro said that his mom paid a key role in his successful interrogation of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2004 (KRISTINA HACKER/The Journal).

Piro spent five to seven hours a day with the former deposed dictator over eight months to develop a rapport and eventually get the truth about the questions the U.S. wanted answered.

“Now people that know me go ‘wow, five to seven hours with you, that is actually torture.’ But I will tell you, we, of course, in the FBI do not torture. It goes against our core values. It's against the U.S. Constitution and FBI policy. The way we do our interrogations are based on rapport; you develop rapport with your subjects so you can identify what they care about in life, what they value in life. And then of course, you use that against them.

“With Saddam it was very, very easy to figure out what he cared about in life or what mattered. It wasn't his family. It wasn't his country. It wasn't his people. It wasn't wealth. It was his self-inflated image and his legacy and place in history. We think about Iraq, Iraq is the cradle of civilization. Some of the most important advancements of our modern time have come out of Iraq… Saddam saw himself as the next great leader of the cradle of civilization. He told me he cared about what people thought about him in 500 or 1,000 years, then that day that I was talking to him, he wanted to be remembered and revered in that same category as Hammurabi, Sargon, Nebuchadnezzar and so on. So that was our focus. When people asked me how do you build rapport with someone as horrible as brutal as Saddam, what I always say is ‘you always find something in common with people.’ You can always find that one thing that can help you connect, that can help you develop that rapport that you have in common,” shared Piro.

“With Saddam for me, it was very, very easy to figure out. What I knew about Saddam was that he didn't have a father…His mother married his uncle who became his stepfather and was extremely abusive, to Saddam. So for Saddam, the only person that he truly cared about, the only person that probably really cared about Saddam, loved Saddam, had any influence over Saddam, anything like that was his mother.

“Now you ask any Assyrian in this room…who is the most important woman in an Assyrian man's life? And the answer is and will always be, his mother. Absolutely. To this day, my mom reminds me of that almost every day and I, of course, agree with her 110%.”

Little did Piro’s mom know, that she would play a pivotal role in helping her son connect with Hussein enough for him to share his secrets. And it all came about through her homemade cookies.

Piro said that during his imprisonment Hussein was kept in isolation, except for healthcare visits and his time talking with Piro. But on his birthday, Hussein was allowed to watch TV. During his decades-long rule of Iraq, by law every resident of the country had to celebrate Hussein’s birthday. In fact, every year the dictator would stop by random homes and expect to be entertained with a birthday party.

Despite the atrocities that Hussein perpetrated on the people of his country — he was the first dictator in history to use chemical weapons against his own people and one of very few dictators in history to use chemical weapons against a civilian population — he maintained that the Iraqi people loved and worshipped him. The FBI allowed Hussein to watch the news coverage of the people of Iraq celebrating the fact that they did not have to celebrate Hussein any longer.

“That was the most depressed…I ever saw him in the eight months that I spent with him,” said Piro. “He hit rock bottom at that point…He was really emotional all the way till the end of the day. The only people that really cared that it was his birthday and took the opportunity briefly to stop, recognize and acknowledge it was the FBI.”

Knowing his birthday was coming up, Piro had contacted his mom back in Turlock and asked for a care package. She promptly sent homemade cookies to him in Iraq, which was a turning point in Piro’s growing rapport with Hussein, he said.

“I gave him my mom's cookies for his birthday. He immediately recognized that they were my mom's cookies because they were homemade — and he knew I didn’t make them — it picked up his spirits, we had tea and then continued. So, my mom played an incredible role for me throughout the interrogation,” Piro said.

Once the connection was made, Piro was able to find out that Iraq did not have any WMD. At that time, Hussein was terrified that Iran would discover how weak Iraq had become and start another war. He worked very hard to convince the neighboring nation that Iraq had WMD, enough so that it also convinced the rest of the world.

Piro also found out that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

“We were able to absolutely clarify that and provide a very accurate assessment of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda in Iraq. And we also confirm that with some very senior all kinds of officials that were that were captured. Iraq did have a relationship with al Qaeda, but it was an arm's length relationship at best. Saddam did not believe in al Qaeda’s ideology and wasn't willing to share power with Osama bin Laden,” said Piro.

Once the interrogation was complete, the FBI turned Hussein over to the Iraqi government in June 2004. Piro said the first act of the new government was to issue an arrest warrant for Hussein.

“As a well-trained former Ceres Police officer, first thing I did was serve the warrant and claim the arrest stats,” said Piro.

The Iraqi government requested assistance from the FBI in building a criminal case against Hussein for crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. And the FBI turned to Piro.

“We built enough evidence that we provided to the Iraqis a 687 page prosecutorial report with physical evidence that supported the charges. And the Iraqis used that to prosecute, convict and eventually execute Saddam for those horrific atrocities. At that point, my role was ended. And to reward me, the FBI sent me to Afghanistan to look for to Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, I wasn't successful with that. But at the end, it all worked out,” he said.

Piro went on to have an illustrious career in the FBI, serving as the Supervisor of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Washington, D.C. and Assistant Director of the International Operations Division at FBI headquarters. He recently retired from the FBI and has been working on a book for Simon & Shuster about his time with Saddam Hussein. Piro said he expects the book’s release at the end of the year.