Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 3, Issue 4  /  

Strategy and the Use of Covert Operations: The Failed Attempts to Overthrow Saddam Hussein

Strategy and the Use of Covert Operations: The Failed Attempts to Overthrow Saddam Hussein Strategy and the Use of Covert Operations: The Failed Attempts to Overthrow Saddam Hussein
To cite this article: Smith, Troy Emilio, “Strategy and the Use of Covert Operations: The Failed Attempts to Overthrow Saddam Hussein”, Infinity Journal, Vol. 3, Issue No. 4, winter 2014, pages 35-38.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”.

– Sun Tzu


The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is in the business of overthrowing governments or ousting leaders that are not in sync with the United States, especially when it relates to its hegemony. While many have succeeded, there have been numerous, highly publicized failures (Schuster).[i] Former CIA official Allan Goodman said, “We know this business very well. It doesn’t mean we’re good at it” and Bill Gates once said, “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure”.[ii] In order to heed the lessons of failed operations, the reason for failure and the consequences of failure must be understood. One series of failures that should be analyzed are the attempts to remove Saddam Hussein from power between 1991 and 1996. These failures cost the United States over 100 million US dollars and a substantial amount of embarrassment. This article demonstrates how flawed planning and assessment led to flawed strategy, and the consequences of not matching strategy and subsequent operations, with policy in Iraq.

Overview of Operations against Saddam Hussein (Ṣaddām Ḥusayn ʿAbd al-Maǧīd al-Tikrītī’)

In the years between 1992 and 1996, the CIA ran Cold War stylized operations against the Iraqi Ba’ath regime, with the goal of eliminating Saddam Hussein. Operations involved everything from radio propaganda to paramilitary plots. This was one foreign policy fantasy shared between Presidents William Clinton and George Bush. The motivation for the United States to take action against Saddam lay primarily in him taking Iraq out of the anti-Soviet Union Pact, his subsequent threats to invade Kuwait, his intent at nationalization of Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) i.e. the British oil consortium that exploited Iraq’s oil, and his increasingly extensive endeavors into nuclear and chemical weapons.

During the Bush administration, a presidential finding was signed, directing the CIA to “create the conditions for the removal” of Saddam Hussein[iii]. The Administration perhaps hoped to avoid the danger of downed pilots being paraded through the streets by Saddam and having to publicly confront its reluctant allies through the use of covert action. When initial covert operations were launched, the United States believed that Saddam was severely weakened by the rebellion of the Kurdish nationalist at the end of Desert Storm. The dilemma that faced Saddam with the Kurds was enhanced by the support afforded them by the United Nations (U.N.) in the form of food, supplies and flight restrictions imposed over part of Iraq. However, since it seemed imminent that his opponents would remove Saddam, covert efforts were markedly passive. The general plan was to isolate, marginalize, and weaken Saddam by increasing the autonomy of the Kurds in the U.N. protected areas.

In 1995-1996 when the Clinton administration realized that while Saddam had indeed been weakened he still endured, President Clinton signed an order to supply arms and other assistance to Iraqi groups seeking to overthrow Saddam. The view that increased covert action was necessary was shared in part by Congress. The efforts of the Clinton administration were focused on removing Saddam while avoiding war at all costs. This avoidance was with good reason as it would have likely led to much the same outcome as it did in 2012. Iraq today is still far from being a democracy and far from pro-American. The destruction of Iraq shifted power in favor of Iran in the Persian Gulf and cost the US over 1 trillion US dollars.[iv] Additionally, the war also had a seriously negative effect on the image of the United States around the world.

As a result of President Clinton’s order, the CIA embarked on two types of covert action – one dealt with information warfare through the spread of propaganda, while the other dealt with support for paramilitary operations with the hope of a coup d’état. The planned overthrow of Saddam through a coup d’état was to be achieved through CIA supported Iraqi military officers opposed to Saddam, and two Kurdish nationalist groups who wanted to ensure Kurdish autonomy. The Kurdish groups were the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Flawed Strategy Means Failed Operations

Many consider the failure of covert operations in Iraq to be a colossal disaster. All that was thought to be missing was media coverage of helicopters evacuating U.S. agents and allies from rooftops. While it is easy to blame the administrations of the time, or the CIA, it is more prudent to analyze the failure to determine what went wrong so that future operations could be guided accordingly. Operations in Iraq adopted a strategy with the ambitious goal of toppling Saddam rather than trying to prevent him from future military aggression or revitalizing programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Given the dynamics in Iraq, and in the larger Persian Gulf at the time, the plan seems to have been ill conceived. The plan was flawed in four (4) major areas; assessment of Saddam’s intelligence resources, assessment of the geopolitics of the region, the plausibility of covert action and alignment with foreign policy.

Similar to the unsuccessful invasion of the Bay of Pigs, there was a gross underestimation of the capabilities of the targeted leader. With the Bay of Pigs, policymakers failed to apprise themselves of Fidel Castro’s military capabilities or the degree of intelligence sharing with the Soviet Union/KGB. The CIA also failed to evaluate the ability of the KGB to recruit a double agent within the U.K. or U.S. intelligence services. In the case of Saddam, the coup planned by the CIA with the Iraqi National Accord (INA) was far from secret and was well known by the Iraqi government. The INA or Wifaq was a paramilitary organization that the CIA utilized to penetrate the Republican Guard. Many of the defectors being used by the CIA were actually Mukhabarat double agents. Unknown to them, the Mukhabarat acquired a secure satellite used by the INA to communicate with agents in Baghdad, which allowed them to acquire detailed information on the planned coup (that wasn’t). This shortcoming in assessing the intelligence/security capabilities of the targeted leader led to failure in both cases. Information oversight led to a poorly conceived strategy which resulted in dismal failure. At the core of this problem was insufficient support from Baghdad-controlled Iraq to supply timely information needed to collate intelligence on the capabilities and activities of Saddam’s secret services. The diplomatic, political and economic structures, which would traditionally be used to conceal CIA officers and agents [embassies, political contacts or businessmen travelling to and from the country] did not exist in Iraq. This made it exceedingly difficult for agents to infiltrate the inner circle of Saddam’s regime and security forces. This in direct contrast to Saddam who had tens of thousands of soldiers and spies dedicated to preserving his power though information collection, covert operations and security protocols. It became clear that Saddam held power for all those years because he relentlessly suppressed all opposition and utilized an extensive intelligence and security apparatus.

Secondly, the conceived strategy was poor and lacked intelligence on the geographic and political relationship between Iraq, its surrounding nations and the United States. Any successful strategy needed to be militarily operational and advantageous to U.S. allies in the region, such as Turkey, so that the cooperation necessary for success could be acquired. The U.S. was limited in the quantity of support it could afford the Kurds due to Kurdistan’s remote location. Sworn enemies of the U.S. such as Iran and Syria surrounded the region. While access may have been possible through Turkey, unfortunately for the U.S, they had an opposing policy towards the Kurds. The planned increase in the autonomy of Kurdistan was inconsistent with broader U.S. policy toward Turkey, which opposed the creation of an independent Kurdish state along its borders. Also, due to the deterioration of the coalition formed during the Persian Gulf War – with key players the United Kingdom, France, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia – it was becoming difficult to maintain support for the continuation of U.N. economic sanctions on Iraq. This was essential in weakening Saddam and thereby ensuring the success of the potential coup. Also, Saddam had the full support of the elite Sunni, who feared loss of wealth, prestige and possibly their lives, if Saddam was to be overthrown. The Sunni also feared that, in a post-Saddam Iraq, the fundamentalist Shiite Muslims, who formed 67% of the Iraqi populace, would seize the opportunity to obtain political power. This made the possibility of them lending support to a coup d’état highly unlikely. Additionally, given the hardships that the Iraqi people had suffered since the Persian Gulf War, there was a fear that a post-Saddam regime may prove even more virulently anti-United States than Saddam. Moreover, Iraq is in an exceptionally turbulent region and therefore has an incentive to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, regardless of who is in power.[v]

Thirdly, covert action was never a plausible option, nor was it necessary, given Saddam’s intent to strike at the U.S. and its allies after the Persian Gulf War. Covert action seemed to ignore the recognized need for expediency in dealing with Saddam, as Iraq continued to amass Weapons of Mass Destruction, intimidate neighbors and support terrorism. Additionally, the instability of any Kurdish alliance, due to a continuous struggle for power, put a potential time limit on any plan utilizing the Kurds. Masoud Barzani, the leader of KDP who was one of the two leading political Kurdish entities receiving CIA funding betrayed the operation. In his quest to regain control of the Kurdish capital and suppress the rival PUK, Barzani acquired military assistance from Baghdad and abandoned both the U.S. and members of the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Also, the Kurds who were terribly inexperienced in covert operations were more focused on gaining power and prestige than maintaining secrecy. As such, Kurdish leaders talked freely to the press, disclosing what could be considered critical information.

Most importantly, this strategy in principle contradicted the foreign policy that already existed for Iraq: for stability to be maintained. Due to this inconsistency the U.S. appeared to lack the commitment to do what was necessary or supply the required financial backing. Firstly, the U.S. refused to support an all-out guerrilla war but chose to finance organizations capable of possibly overthrowing Saddam by giving finance. However, even this assistance was half-hearted, as they did not commit to guiding activities, even though they concluded that the Kurds, in particular, lacked the necessary dexterity in covert operations. The Kurds would call those in Saddam’s regime on unsecured phone lines and their networks lacked counterintelligence measures and therefore were easily infiltrated. While the CIA claimed the U.S. would give full support to the INC, the support was never backed by sufficient cash infusions. Some say what was given was less than 5% of what was needed for the INC to overthrow Saddam[vi]. This was possibly due to a fear that Wifaq or Kurdish inspired uprisings would hurt U.S. interests. For example, Iran may have tried to acquire Iraqi territory during the mayhem, or the Kurdish fight for autonomy could have spread to Turkey, a member of the NATO war alliance. All the planned action seemed to contradict existing U.S. policy for the Middle East at the time, which required a stable Iraq to counter balance the troublesome Iran. All the planned action seemed to lead to long-term instability in Iraq which was contrary to existing U.S. policy. While the U.S. desired the removal of Saddam, the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state needed to be maintained. Balancing the contending power of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq to maintain stability in the Gulf would be extremely difficult if Iraq devolved into a motley federation of ethnic states.[vii]

Consequences of Failure

Covert action should not be used when a government wants to avoid confrontation for reasons of comfort. The Clinton Administration simply got impatient with the slow process of installing democracy and opted for a quick-fix solution to oust Saddam, hopefully, before the 1996 presidential campaign. Clinton, much like Bush before him, allowed political considerations and sensitivity to public perception to shape the goal and timing of covert operations against Saddam. The 1996 plot to oust Saddam evolved from a classic case of ‘the tail wagging the dog’; policymakers guided the intelligence rather than the intelligence guiding the policymakers. The policymakers, feeling pressured by the resilience of Saddam during the Persian Gulf War, which had resulted in an extremely expensive and open-ended commitment, ignored some pertinent facts. Two notables were the effectiveness of Iraqi Intelligence and the instability of any Kurdish alliance due to the continuous struggle for power. Masoud Barzani, the leader of KDP, who was one of the two leading political Kurdish figures receiving CIA funding, betrayed the operation. The administration likely overlooked these problems as they succumbed to groupthink,[viii] catalyzed by the knowledge that presidential elections were on the horizon. Driven by a false sense of unanimity, invulnerability, and self-righteousness, the group ignored policy options and made faulty decisions without sufficiently considering potential outcomes.[ix]

As a result of the repeated failures in Iraq, the United States suffered a substantial political setback, albeit due to it’s half-hearted reliance on covert action against Saddam and an unwillingness to confront Iraq directly. Additionally, in this case, failure likely influenced subsequent decisions by Saudi Arabia and other states to align themselves with Iraq rather than Washington. The apparent ease with which the Kurds were abandoned, after the U.S. claimed they were in full support of Kurdish actions towards autonomy, further exemplified the issues associated with trusting the U.S. This abandonment was almost an endorsement of the claims of dictators such as Saddam and Fidel Castro: that the U.S. could not be trusted. It also sent the message that joining forces with the U.S. could be an act of suicide. According to the press, Iraqi intelligence forces executed more than one hundred Iraqi dissidents and military officers cooperating with the U.S. when the operation failed. This certainly jeopardized the U.S.’s ability to acquire the necessary assistance for overt and covert action in the region. Friends and allies in the region no longer believed that the United States would take definitive action against Saddam, which resulted in them rushing to reach separate arrangements with Baghdad. Jordan, which initially was against Saddam, became publicly critical of U.S. efforts to isolate him. European allies and Saudi Arabia pointedly declined to support subsequent military moves by Clinton, lest they too fall subject to his same humiliating defeat.[x]

It should also be noted, that this failed attempt at overthrow acted in Saddam’s favor as it allowed him an opportunity to identify, assess and weaken opposing coalitions. Saddam also gained considerable information on U.S. tradecraft, technology and operations through interrogations and the multitude of equipment left behind by CIA operatives who fled Iraq. Rather than weakening him through a show of omnipresent power, the U.S. only succeeded in solidifying and stabilizing Saddam’s authority. By allowing him to strike such a devastating blow against CIA led attacks, facilitated by the Kurds and INC, his dominance in the region was reinforced. The national and international newspapers showcased the failed covert U.S. intelligence operation. Saddam boasted that he destroyed the U.S. supported by Kurdish operatives. The U.S. had no response. This failed attempt at a coup not only humiliated the U.S. but also effectively demolished the Desert Storm coalition, assembled by President Bush, to fight the Gulf War. Saddam in turn consolidated his internal authority and international image. The operations allowed Saddam to identify and destroy his internal opposition in the military and in Kurdistan and reasserted his authority in the so-called safe havens in northern Iraq. The exploitation of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), which coordinated the United Nations’ weapons inspection programmes, by the CIA Near East Division, was discovered by a Mukhabarat team dedicated to UNSCOM. This discovery seriously stymied any chance of Iraq disarming under UN supervision.

While covert action can be a useful tool, or as Clausewitz implies; a natural extension of foreign policy, it must be used appropriate to be effective and must avoid the consequences of failure. History, as Thucydides phrases it, is “philosophy teaching by examples”, a useful tool for strategists aiming to improve their craft. The failure of covert action in Iraq demonstrates the need for careful consideration when using covert action. The variables to be considered include sociological, religious, geopolitical and historical factors, all of which can be very dynamic. Policymakers must therefore resist the urge to seek expediency through rushed covert operations, especially when covert operations are not the only or the best option. While policymakers have access to significant education and experience from professionals at the CIA, the Department of State and the Department of Defense, they have in the past succumbed to biases and made assessments tainted by political influence.


[i] Schuster, Corey. “The United States-Iraq Conflict: CIA Involvement with the Kurds.” University of Michigan. (accessed December 2, 2013).
[ii] Xplore. “Failure Quotes.” BrainyQuote. (accessed December 1, 2013).
[iii] “The Man Who Sold the War.” 2005. (accessed 17 November, 2013)
[iv] Walt, Stephen. “Top 10 Lessons of the Iraq War.” Foreign Policy. (accessed November 23, 2013).
[v] Isenberg, David. Imperial Overreach: Washington’s DubioU.S. Strategy to Overthrow Saddam HU.S.sein. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1999.
[vi] Fedarko, Kevin. “Saddam’s CIA Coup.” Time Magazine, 24th June, 2001,,9171,136540,00.html (accessed 20 November 2013).
[vii] “The CIA’s Secret War in Iraq.” 1998. (accessed 12 October 2013).
[viii] Groupthink is a mode of decision making by a cohesive group lacking a tradition of impartial leadership and norms requiring methodical procedures.
[ix] Janis, A. J., and Paul Jalkanen. Dr. A.J. Janis Interview. 1972.
[x] Cox, Christopher. “U.S. Intelligence Debacle Worst Since Bay of Pigs Clinton’s Humiliating Defeat and Retreat at the Hands of Saddam Hussein.” (accessed November 25, 2013).