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Searching For Saddam


Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein

Slate

Traffic had slowed to a crawl in Baghdad's Azamiyah district as drivers stopped to ogle the president. It was April 2003, and Saddam Hussein cheerily greeted his subjects as a few bodyguards tried to keep the crowd at bay. Someone handed Saddam a bewildered baby, which he hoisted up in the air a few times and handed back. When he reached a white sedan, Saddam climbed onto the hood to survey the sea of loyalists.

Not long after—possibly that same day, just a few miles away from where Saddam went on his celebratory walk—U.S. Marines in Baghdad tore down a 40-foot-tall bronze statue of the Iraqi dictator. At the time, American intelligence officers didn't know whether Saddam had survived a hailstorm of 2,000-pound bombs and Tomahawk missiles fired at the beginning of the war. When grainy footage of the Butcher of Baghdad's last promenade surfaced 10 days later, most analysts were preoccupied with determining whether it was authentic. Nobody was particularly worried about the guy next to the dictator, a heavyset man in a brown striped shirt and sunglasses. He wasn't anyone on the deck of playing cards depicting the regime's 55 most-wanted members, and the coalition troops had much bigger priorities than hunting down bodyguards.

It would be months before anyone realized that this man was the key to capturing Saddam Hussein. His identity was classified, but those on his trail would take to calling him "Fat Man."

The war in Iraq will always be remembered for the failures of intelligence that preceded it and the insurgency that bedeviled coalition forces long after President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations. Amid all that disaster, the capture of Saddam Hussein has become a forgotten success story. It's an accomplishment that wasn't inevitable. In a five-part series that begins today, I'll explain how a handful of innovative American soldiers used the same theories that underpin Facebook to hunt down Saddam Hussein. I'll also look at how this hunt was a departure in strategy for the military, why its techniques aren't deployed more often, and why social-networking theory hasn't helped us nab Osama Bin Laden.

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