Turlock High grad and former Ceres Police Officer turned FBI agent George Piro was on the most important assignment of his career in 2004 when he asked his mother in Turlock, Francia Piro, to send a care package with home-baked Assyrian cookies. His mother complied, sending them by FedEx with the belief that her son assigned to Baghdad, Iraq, would be the one eating them.
Little did she know that those cookies baked in Turlock would help crack secrets from Saddam Hussein, the captured and deposed brutal leader of Iraq, said to be responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people during his 34-year reign.
The story of the cookies was part of a speech given by Piro – the celebrated interviewer of Hussein – at Saturday’s Ceres Public Safety Black Tie Charity Ball to raise funds for the police and fire department explorer programs. The event, hosted by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce, also featured brief talks from two other former Ceres public safety employees: State Senator Anthony Cannella, who was a volunteer firefighter in Ceres from 1987 to 1992; and Ceres police officer turned Sheriff Adam Christiansen.
Guests arrived at the Ceres Community Center under a high level of protection from hired security officers and some police officers wearing Secret Service like earpieces. The department didn’t want to take any chances as Piro has been the subject of death threats from the Middle East.
Piro flew to the event from Florida where he is the FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Miami office. He spoke of his early days in Ceres and how that impacted his career.
“I had less than five years in the FBI when I was selected to carry out this assignment and I still truly believe that it was the time I spent here in Ceres and in Detectives … being exposed to some tremendous folks like Commander John Chapman, Mike Borges, Brian Weber, Fred Perez … that helped me prepare for such a huge responsibility,” said Piro.
He added that he learned much about interrogation techniques from Pat Sullivan and Sam Ryno, who were detectives at the time Piro started at CPD.
“I spent a month and a half just building rapport with Saddam Hussein,” said Piro, who spoke to the dictator five to seven hours every day for “seven months straight without a single day off.”
His mom’s cookies were part of Piro’s team’s overall strategy to gain the confidence of Hussein in order to spill his guts about weapons of mass destruction, his country’s ties to Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden and his own crimes against humanity. Piro told Saturday’s audience that ultimately it was links to their mothers that allowed Piro to connect to Hussein, considered by many to be one of the most ruthless dictators in recent world history.
Piro spent some time detailing how he was chosen to interview the deposed leader of Iraq. Some of the information was explained during a 2008 “60 Minutes” program on CBS.
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 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.
The FBI was selected as the lead agency because the CIA does not testify in criminal trials and the interrogator may have been needed in a trial.
Born in Lebanon of Assyrian heritage, Piro was just 12 when his parents, Lazar and Francia Piro, fled their homeland during a civil war and landed in Turlock. Piro served in the Air Force and was hired by Ceres Police in 1989. He worked at night to earn his college degree and left to join the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s office as a criminal investigator. In 1999 joined the FBI’s Phoenix field office.
Hussein only confided in Piro because “he thought he could get me to see what a great guy he was … and then come back to the United States to advocate him and promote me.”
The opposite occurred. Even Piro’s mother later found out that Hussein enjoyed her baked skills on his birthday and gave George a teasing thump on the head. His country was more appreciative of her gesture, which led to the gathering of more evidence used in his trial – he was charged with crimes against humanity – that ultimately led to Hussein’s execution on Dec. 30, 2006. Piro commented that while the execution by hanging was “fair, just and appropriate,” he did not enjoy the dictator’s fate.
“Saddam was absolutely one of the most brutal dictators of our modern time,” said Piro, “the first dictator in history to ever use chemical weapons against his own population. Saddam was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent lives so you can imagine the challenge and responsibility that fell on FBI to carry out such a critical investigation.”
Piro used a Power Point presentation detailing how Hussein became a terrifying world leader. Born in a mud hut without running water, Hussein had an “incredibly tough childhood” and was raised by his mother and an extremely abusive stepfather. “That childhood really shaped the man who Saddam Hussein became,” said Piro. Hussein trusted nobody but his mother, and came to depend on his own instincts and fostered a drive to conquer and overachieve as a way to claim his spot in history.
Hussein joined the Ba’ath Party and in 1959 tried to assassinate Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim. Because the plot failed, Hussein fled to Egypt. He returned to Iraq in 1963 and rose through the ranks of the Ba’ath Party by “identifying and eliminating anyone that was going to be a problem.”
In 1979, he kicked the president of Iraq out of office and took over for the next 34 years.
Hussein’s atrocities included using mustard gas on Kurdish people in his country during the Anfal Campaign from 1987 to 1988. A minimum of 150,000 Kurds were wiped out.
The whole world believed Hussein had WMDs but Piro didn’t need torture and waterboarding to use to get to the truth. He used a rapport-based approach after a thorough psychological assessment.
He described Hussein as “very defiant and did not respond well to ultimatums.” Nor did he respond well to criticism. He thought of himself as “almost God-like and thought he was the greatest thing that ever lived.” To tear down his “self-inflated image” and make him as depressed as possible, Piro and team placed Hussein on an emotional roller coaster. Ultimately, they showed him videos of his statue being torn from its pedestal and the Iraqis celebrating his run from American forces.
“In the Arab culture, the most important woman in an Arab man’s life is his mother,” said Piro. “So I talked to him about my mom. My parents still live in Turlock. I talked about what a wonderful mother that she is, all the things that she taught me, how to be a strong man, the value of our culture, history and tradition, things like that and he could see that it was very real and very genuine and he really connected with me on that. As you do interrogations, you have to find that connection and Saddam and I’s connection was our moms.”