When George Piro asked fellow FBI agent Todd Irinaga to join him for a special mission in the spring of 2004, Irinaga thought his longtime friend was just kidding.
After all, Irinaga -- who heads the FBI's Modesto office -- had tested Piro's sense of humor on occasion while recruiting him to the agency in 1999. So when Piro called, but couldn't immediately give details, Irinaga suspected he might be in line for a little payback.
"He thought I was playing a joke on him," Piro said.
Some joke. Irinaga soon found himself on a plane bound for Baghdad for perhaps the most important and certainly the most interesting four months of his FBI career. He joined Piro as a member of the Saddam Interrogation Unit -- a group of FBI and CIA agents who spent seven months picking Saddam Hussein's brain.
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In a lengthy "60 Minutes" segment Sunday evening, Piro detailed his conversations with the deposed Iraqi dictator before the trial that led to Saddam's execution.
A former Ceres police officer and Stanislaus County district attorney's investigator, Piro headed the team even though he had been with the FBI only five years. His ability to speak Assyrian and Arabic made him the prime-time player in this high-stakes information game with the notorious "Butcher of Baghdad."
Piro, 40, was born in Lebanon in 1967. He was 12 when his family came to the United States and the Northern San Joaquin Valley, with its large Assyrian population. He joined the Ceres police force in September 1989, and his constant smile puzzled some folks in town.
"We'd get calls from people who complained, thinking he wasn't taking their matter seriously," Ceres Deputy Chief Mike Borges said. "That's just the way he was."
They clearly misread Piro, Borges said.
"He was an excellent investigator," Borges said. "He was always tactically minded. George was a member of one of our SWAT teams, and a team leader in 1990."
Irinaga, meanwhile, was assigned to the Modesto FBI office in 1991 and met Piro three years later, when they teamed up to investigate a bank robbery in Ceres.
"George expressed an interest in working for a federal law enforcement agency," Irinaga said.
In March 1997, Piro became an investigator for the Stanislaus County district attorney's office. His language and investigative skills helped prosecutors win a death penalty conviction against Michael Bell, who murdered Semon Francis, an Assyrian, at a convenience store in Turlock in 1997. Many witnesses spoke no English.
"I worked with his (Francis') family, and targeted the gang Michael Bell had started in Turlock," Piro said.
Before Bell's trial began in 1999, though, Piro left the district attorney's office to join the FBI and Irinaga.
"Todd's really the reason I joined the FBI," Piro said.
When Saddam was pulled out of a vermin-filled hole and captured in December 2003, the FBI took control of his interrogation because it is a law enforcement agency. The CIA is, well, a spy organization.
"The U.S. government had to keep in mind he was going to be prosecuted," Piro said.
Only a handful of FBI agents spoke Arabic, Piro among them. He arrived in Baghdad in January 2004 and found himself face to face with Saddam almost immediately.
Irinaga arrived in April 2004. By then, Piro had developed a solid rapport with Saddam, gaining his trust. While "60 Minutes" focused solely on Piro's role, he and Irinaga were partners in the interrogations.
It was no vacation. They seldom left Baghdad International Airport -- formerly Saddam International. They interrogated him in a small room near his cell in the airport facility. Saddam told them, among other things, that although U.N. inspectors had destroyed some of his weapons of mass destruction, and that he had eliminated the rest, he fully intended to rearm had he remained in power.
They worked 12 to 16 hours a day, writing lengthy reports after interrogation sessions. They also interviewed other members of Saddam's inner circle, including secretary Adib Hamid Mamoud and Tariq Aziz, the man whom Americans came to hate as the face of Iraq during Desert Storm in 1991.
"Later, you'd find out that these were the same guys sitting with General Norman Schwarzkopf in 1991 at the surrender," Irinaga said.
Now, after Saddam died in December 2006 at the end of a hangman's noose, Piro and Irinaga can step back and reflect on the importance of the job they did.
"You can't minimize the significance of this," Piro said. "I'm very proud of what we accomplished."
"If not the top, it's at the very top," Irinaga said, on where the case rates on his list of career achievements. "I think about that experience daily."
And that's no joke.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.