John Nixon, Debriefing the President:
The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein
When Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq in December 2003, it marked only the second time in the post-World War II era in which the United States had detained and questioned a deposed head of state, the first being Panama’s Manuel Noriega in 1989. On an American base near Baghdad, CIA intelligence analyst John Nixon led the initial round of questioning of Saddam in December 2003 and January 2004. In the first two-thirds of Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, Nixon shares some of the insights he gained from his round of questioning — insights about Saddam himself, his rule, and the consequences of removing him from power.
Upon return to the United States, Nixon became a regular at meetings on Iraq at the White House and National Security Council, including several with President George W. Bush. The book’s final third contains Nixon’s account of these meetings, which continued up to the end of the Bush administration. In this portion of the book, Nixon also reflects upon the role of CIA intelligence analysis in the formulation of foreign policy. Nixon is one of the few individuals — maybe the only individual — who had extensive exposure both to Saddam and to those who drove the decision to remove him from power in 2003. Nixon thus offers readers of this compact volume a formidable inside perspective on Saddam’s regime and the US mission to change it.
But while working through Nixon’s account of his meetings with Saddam, I was puzzled by his title, “Debriefing the President,” asking myself, which president? Saddam Hussein had held the title of President of the Republic of Iraq and continued to refer to himself as president after he had been deposed, clinging tenaciously to the idea that he was still head of the Iraqi state. So does the “president” in the title refer to Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush? With the first two-thirds of the book detailing Nixon’s discussions with Saddam, I began to think that the reference was to the former Iraqi leader, which struck me as oddly respectful of a brutal tyrant and war criminal. But this ambiguity may be Nixon’s way of highlighting one of his major objectives in writing this book.
Nixon seeks to provide the reading public with a fuller and more nuanced portrait of Saddam Hussein than that which animated US policymakers and prevailed in the media at the time of the US intervention in Iraq, which began fifteen years ago next month. By detailing the content of his meetings with Saddam to the extent possible – the book contains numerous passages blacked out by CIA censors — Nixon hopes to reveal the man in all his twisted complexity. He recognizes that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of his own people, launched a fruitless war with Iran and used chemical weapons without compunction. He “took a proud and very advanced society and ground it into dirt through his misrule” (p.12), Nixon writes, and thus deserves the sobriquet “Butcher of Baghdad.” But while “tyrant,” “war criminal” and “Butcher of Baghdad” can be useful starting points in understanding Saddam, Nixon seems to be saying, they should not be the end point. “It is vital to know who this man was and what motivated him. We will surely see his likes again” in the Middle East (p.9), he writes.
When Nixon returned to the United States after his interviews with Saddam, he was surprised that none of the high-level policy makers he met with seemed interested in the question whether the United States should have removed Saddam from power. Nixon addresses this question in his final pages with a straightforward and unsparing answer: regime change was a catastrophe for both Iraq and the United States.
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Nixon began his career as a CIA analyst at in 1998. Working at CIA Headquarters in Virginia, he became a “leadership analyst” on Iraq, responsible for developing information on Saddam Hussein: “the family connections that helped keep him in power, his tribal ties, his motives and methods, everything that made him tick. It was like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle with small but important pieces gleaned from clandestine reporting and electronic intercepts” (p.38). In October 2003, roughly five months after President Bush had famously declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, Nixon was sent from headquarters to Baghdad. There, he helped CIA operatives and Army Special Forces target individuals for capture. At the top of the list was HVT-1, High Value Target Number 1, Saddam Hussein.
After Saddam was captured in December 2003 at the same farm near his hometown of Tikrit where he had taken refuge in 1959 after a bungled assassination attempt upon the Iraqi prime minister, Nixon confirmed Saddam’s identity. US officials had assumed that Saddam would “kill himself rather than be captured, or be killed as he tried to escape. When he was captured alive, no one knew what to do” (p.76). Nixon was surprised that the CIA became the first US agency to meet with Saddam. His team had little time to prepare or coordinate with other agencies with an interest in information from Saddam, particularly the Defense Department and the FBI. “Everything had to be done on the fly. We learned a lot from Saddam, but we could have learned a lot more” (p.84-85).
Nixon’s instructions from Washington were that no coercive techniques were to be used during the meetings. Saddam was treated, Nixon indicates, in “exemplary fashion – far better than he treated his old enemies. He got three meals a day. He was given a Koran and an Arabic translation of the Geneva conventions. He was allowed to pray five times each day according to his Islamic faith” (p.110). But Nixon and his colleagues had few carrots to offer Saddam in return for his cooperation. Their position was unlike that of a prosecutor who could ask a judge for leniency in sentencing in exchange for cooperation. Nixon told Saddam that the meetings were “his chance, once and for all, to set the record straight and tell the world who he was” (p.83). Gradually, Nixon and his colleagues buitl a measure of rapport with Saddam, who clearly enjoyed the meetings as a break from the boredom of captivity.
Saddam, Nixon found, had “great charisma” and “an outsize presence. Even as a prisoner who was certain to be executed, he exuded an air of importance” (p.81-82). He was “remarkably forthright when it suited his purposes. When he felt he was in the clear or had nothing to hide, he spoke freely. He provided interesting insights into the Ba’ath party and his early years, for example. But we spent most of our time chipping away at layers of defense meant to stymie or deceive us, particularly about areas such as his life history, human rights abuse, and WMD, to name just a few” (p.71-72).
Saddam saw himself as the “personification of Iraq’s greatness and a symbol of its evolution into a modern state,” with a “grand idea of how he fit into Iraq’s history” (p.86). He was “always answering questions with questions of history, and he would frequently demand to known why we had asked about a certain topic before he would give his answer” (p.100). He often feigned ignorance to test his interrogators knowledge. He frequently began his answers “by going back to the rule of Saladin.” Nixon “often wondered afterward how many people told Saddam Hussein to keep it brief and lived to tell about it” (p.100).
The meetings revealed to Nixon and his colleagues that the United States had seriously underestimated the degree to which Saddam saw himself as buffeted between his Shia opponents and their Iranian backers on one side, and Sunni extremists such as al-Quada on the other. Saddam, himself a Sunni who became more religious in the latter stages of his life, could not hide his enmity for Shiite Iran. He saw Iraq as the “first line of Arab defense against the Persians of Iran and as a Sunni bulwark against its overwhelmingly Shia population” (p.4). But Saddam considered Sunni fundamentalism to be an even greater threat to his regime than Iraq’s majority Shiites or Iran.
What made the Sunni fundamentalists, the Wahhabis, so threatening was that they “came from his own Sunni base of support. They would be difficult to root out without alienating the Iraqi tribes, and they could rely on a steady stream of financial support from Saudi Arabia. If the Wahhabists were free to spread their ideology, then his power base would rot from within” (p.124). Saddam seemed genuinely mystified by the United States’ intervention in Iraq. He considered himself an implacable foe of Islamic extremism, and felt that the 9/11 attacks should have brought his country and the United States closer together. Moreover, as he mentioned frequently, the United States had supported his country during the Iran-Iraq war.
The meetings with Saddam further confirmed that in the years leading up to the United States intervention, he had begun to disengage from ruling the country. At the time hostilities began, he had delegated much of the running of the government to subordinates and was mainly occupied with nongovernmental pursuits, including writing a novel. Saddam in the winter of 2003 was “not a man bracing for a pulverizing military attack” (p.46), Nixon writes. In all the sessions, Saddam “never accepted guilt for any of the crimes he was accused of committing, and he frequently responded to questions about human rights abuses by telling us to talk with the commander who had been on the scene” (p.129).
On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush had likened Saddam to Hitler, and the idea took hold in the larger American public. But not once during the interviews did Saddam say he admired either Hitler or Stalin. When Nixon asked which world leaders he most admired, Saddam said de Gaulle, Lenin, Mao and George Washington, because they were founders of political systems and thinkers. Nixon quotes Saddam as saying, “Stalin does not interest me. He was not a thinker. For me, if a person is not a thinker, I lose interest” (p.165).
When Nixon told Saddam that he was leaving Iraq to return to Washington, Saddam gave him a firm handshake and told Nixon to be just and fair to him back home. Nearly three years later, in December 2006, Saddam was put to death by hanging in a “rushed execution in a dark basement” in an Iraqi Ministry (p.270), after the United States caved to Iraqi pressure and turned him over to what turned out to be little more than a Shiite lynch mob. Nixon concludes that Saddam’s unseemly execution signaled the final collapse of the American mission in Iraq. Saddam, Nixon writes, was:
not a likeable guy. The more you got to know him, the less you liked him. He had committed horrible crimes against humanity. But we had come to Iraq saying that we would make things better. We would bring democracy and the rule of law. No longer would people be awakened by a threatening knock on the door. And here we were, allowing Saddam to be hanged in the middle of the night (p.270).
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Nixon’s experiences with Saddam made him a familiar face at the White House and National Security Council when he returned to the United States in early 2004. His meetings with President Bush convinced him that Bush never came close to getting a handle on the complexities of the Middle East. After more than seven years in office, the president “still didn’t understand the region and the fallout from the invasion” (p.212). In Nixon’s view, Bush’s decision to take the country into war was largely because of the purported attempt Saddam had made on his father’s life in the aftermath of the first Gulf War – a “misguided belief” in Nixon’s view. The younger Bush and his entourage ordered the invasion of a country “without the slightest clue about the people they would be attacking. Even after Saddam’s capture, the White House was only looking for information that supported its decision to go to war” (p.235).
One of the ironies of the Iraq War, Nixon contends, was that Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush were alike in many ways:
Both had haughty, imperious demeanors. Both were fairly ignorant of the outside world and had rarely traveled abroad. Both tended to see things as black and white, good and bad, for and against, and became uncomfortable when presented with multiple alternatives. Both surrounded themselves with compliant advisers and had little tolerance for dissent. Both prized unanimity, at least when it coalesced behind their own views. Both distrusted expert opinion (p.240).
Nixon is almost as tough on the rest of the team that surrounded Bush and contributed to the decision to go to war, although he found Vice President Dick Chaney to be a source of caution, providing a measure of good sense to discussions. Chaney was “professional, dignified, and considerate . . . an attentive listener” (p.197-98). But he is sharply critical of the CIA Director at the time, George Tenet (even while refraining from mentioning the remark most frequently attributed to his former boss, that the answer to the question whether Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk”).
In Nixon’s view, Tenet transformed the agency’s intelligence gathering function from one of neutral fact-finding, laying out the best factual assessment possible in a given situation, into an agency whose role was to serve up intelligence reports tailored to support the administration’s positions. Tenet was “too eager to please the White House. He encouraged analysts to punch up their reports even when the evidence was flimsy, and he surrounded himself with yes men” (p.225). Nixon recounts how, prior to the 2003 invasion, the line level Iraq team at the CIA was given three hours to respond to a paper prepared by another agency purporting to show a connection between Saddam’s regime and the 9/11 attacks — a paper the team found “full of holes, inaccuracies, sloppy reporting and pie-in-the-sky analysis” (p.229). Line level analysts drafted a dissenting note, but its objections were “gutted” by CIA leadership (p.230) and the faulty paper went on to serve as an important basis to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Nixon left the agency in 2011. But in the latter portion of his book he delivers his fair share of parting shots at the post-Iraq CIA, which has become in his view a “sclerotic organization” (p.256) that “badly needs fixing” (p.261). The agency’s leadership needs to “stop fostering the notion that the CIA is omniscient” and the broader foreign policy community needs to recognize that intelligence analysts can provide “only information and insights, and can’t serve as a crystal ball to predict the future” (p.261). But as Nixon fires shots at his former agency, he lauds the line level CIA analysts with whom he worked. The analysts represent the “best and the brightest our country has to offer . . . The American people are well served, and their tax dollars well spent, by employing such exemplary public servants. I can actually say about these folks, ’Where do we get such people?’ and not mean it sarcastically” (p.273-74).
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Was Saddam worth removing from power, Nixon asks in his conclusion. “As of this writing, I see only negative consequences for the United States from Saddam’s overthrow” (p.257). No serious Middle East analyst believes that Iraq was a threat to the United States, he argues. The United States spent trillions of dollars and wasted the lives of thousands of its military men and women “only to end up with a country that is infinitely more chaotic than Saddam’s Ba’athist Iraq” (p.258). The United States could have avoided this chaos, which has given rise to ISIS and other forms of Islamic extremism, “had it been willing to live with an aging and disengaged Saddam Hussein”(1-2). Nixon’s conclusion, informed by his opportunity to probe the mindset of both Saddam Hussein and those who determined to remove him from power, rings true today and stings sharply.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
January 31, 2018