John Nixon, Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2016), 252 pp., $25.00.
IN DECEMBER 2003, nine months into the U.S. occupation of Iraq, American forces seized the man who had been their number one target. Saddam Hussein, dictator turned fugitive, was finally captured. Like so much else about the U.S. expedition in Iraq beyond the initial invasion and overthrow of Saddam’s regime, there was little preparation or planning for how to handle the former despot once he was in custody. The prevailing assumption had been that the hunt for Saddam would conclude with him being killed, or killing himself. When he instead was captured alive, his interrogation became a matter of improvisation. At one point Saddam had to be moved to a different cell because in his first one he was losing sleep from the noise of small fry being moved in and out of the facility, resulting in him dozing off during the next day’s questioning.
At the time of the capture, John Nixon was a CIA analyst covering the leadership of the Iraqi regime. He had been in Iraq for two months on a short-term assignment, assessing information that might help in the search for Saddam. He was an obvious asset to throw into the breach, first to provide positive identification that the man the U.S. military had pulled from a spider hole on a farm near Tikrit was indeed Saddam Hussein, and then to begin questioning him. The identification was accomplished easily with the aid of such indicators as telltale scars and tribal tattoos. The questioning was more of a challenge, largely because of the lack of prior planning.
The FBI, as the U.S. government’s premier specialists in interrogating bad guys with an eye for both criminal justice and intelligence equities, would be given the main job of questioning Saddam. But the FBI did not have a suitable team in place in Iraq to do the job. Nixon and his CIA colleagues were instructed to start the process, then to yield to the FBI. When that would occur, and what topics should be the focus of questioning until then, were left vague. Based on Nixon’s account—whose role in the process appears to have lasted only a couple of weeks near the end of 2003, before returning to Washington—he and his colleagues nonetheless managed to collect useful information from their famous subject. The insight he acquired provides today’s readers with historical enrichment; whether or not it was helpful at the time for those coping with the occupation of Iraq is another question entirely.
MOST OF the first and second drafts of the Iraq War chapter of American history were written several years ago, and Nixon admits to initial difficulty in garnering interest in publishing his part of the story. But his portrait of Saddam and the conversations with him offer an engaging and insightful addition to that history. The author’s skills as an analyst, one who had been following and assessing his subject from afar, come through in his portrayal and interpretation of Saddam in the flesh.
Nixon highlights the qualities that enabled Saddam to rise to the top and retain power in the ruthless and bloodstained polity that Iraq has been ever since a coup overthrew the monarchy in 1958. Going on the lam after the U.S. invasion barely weakened those qualities. Saddam retained his swagger and his conviction that he was still the rightful president of Iraq. His political skills were constantly in evidence. A drab debriefing room in a prison was for Saddam just one more milieu in which he would size up everyone present and figure out how they might be manipulated. The debriefing sessions were jousts in which Saddam worked as much to find out what the Americans questioning him knew as the Americans were working to find out how much he knew.
Saddam also could turn on a politician’s charm. He did so at the end of Nixon’s last session with him, in which he gave the CIA analyst a five-minute handshake accompanied by soothing words about how he had enjoyed their time together and how Nixon should always be just and fair when working back in Washington. This seemingly amicable parting came despite Saddam’s ire during earlier sessions, when questioned about human-rights abuses and, especially, the use of chemical weapons to kill thousands of Iraqi Kurdish civilians in Halabja during the Iran-Iraq War.
How truthful was Saddam? He was not being coerced, beyond the fact of his incarceration. He had reasons to deceive and conceal, perhaps in the hope that his sympathizers still in the fight could eventually prevail over their adversaries and that the United States would give up. Barring that kind of turning of the tide in his favor, he probably knew that his eventual fate (which was the gallows) would not depend on how frank he was being with his interrogators. He clearly lied about some things. For example, he denied any Iraqi-sponsored plot to assassinate George H. W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait in 1993, even though the evidence was conclusive. Bill Clinton retaliated with a cruise-missile strike.
Most of what Saddam told his interlocutors, however, was probably true. When he did not want to reveal what he knew about a topic, he simply refused to answer the question. One of the advantages his interrogators had was, as Nixon puts it, that Saddam “loved to talk, especially about himself,” so much so that sometimes it was “hard to shut him up.” This trait went with the braggadocio and a genuine pride in what Saddam considered he had done to develop Iraq. The conversations yielded freely offered detail about Iraqi affairs from the perspective of the presidential palace—nothing miraculous, but a fleshing out of what was already known.
Perhaps somewhat surprising was how much Saddam appeared to be detached from governing during the last months of his rule and to have delegated important matters to subordinates, including planning resistance to a U.S. invasion. Saddam may have dissembled about this more than Nixon seems to believe, both to divert blame from himself and to avoid jeopardizing continued resistance to the American occupation. More plausible in Saddam’s comments, but also at odds with the common view of him as a firmly entrenched dictator, was his worry about internal opposition, both Sunni and Shia.
Although Saddam had been the master of Iraq and had an acute understanding of its internal affairs, the same cannot be said of his foreign-affairs acumen. His miserable record of launching failed wars is a case in point. His insular view probably contributed to Baghdad’s inability to anticipate American reactions and perceptions. Saddam was surprised by the American response to his seizure of Kuwait. He thought that 9/11 would draw the United States and Iraq closer together against the sort of Islamist extremists who had perpetrated that attack. And he thought that concealment of weapons-related files should have been accepted as what any sovereign state would do to keep prying foreign eyes out of what was none of their business. In fairness to Saddam, the U.S. side of this history could have perplexed more savvy observers as well. Saddam correctly discerned inconsistency in U.S. behavior, which zigzagged from a pro-Baghdad tilt during the Iran-Iraq War to, shortly afterward, characterizing Saddam as a Hitler-like aggressor. Furthermore, opposition to Islamist terrorism was indeed an interest he shared with the United States, even though the promoters of the U.S. invasion of his country would try to conjure up an “alliance” between his regime and Al Qaeda to muster public support.
Nixon also gives accounts of two subsequent Oval Office briefings on the unpleasant reality of post-invasion Iraq. George W. Bush and his senior advisers resisted the idea that anyone they considered their foes in Iraq, starting with Saddam himself, could have had any significant popular support.
During one of these briefings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice characterized Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric and militia leader, as “just a flake.” Nixon attempted to caution against underestimating Sadr, but was interrupted by what he describes as practically a scream. “Oh yeah? Well, I think we overestimate him! The man’s a thug and a killer, and the Iraqi people don’t want that,” the president of the United States interjected.
THE REST of the book is a memoir about the remainder of Nixon’s time with the CIA, coupled with some observations about how intelligence allegedly operated regarding Iraq and some now-familiar criticisms of the Iraq War. These portions are less insightful than the rest and betray the author’s narrow perch. They evince bureaucratic parochialism, rivalry and envy (although Nixon compliments the military component that served as Saddam’s jailers). There is boasting, for example, that “CIA analysts were the first and foremost proponents of focusing on bodyguards to find Saddam.” Nixon’s criticism of American political leaders is not limited to one party and extends into the Obama administration; he writes that Joseph Biden’s “grasp of foreign policy seemed shaky at best.” He knocks the experienced diplomat Christopher Hill, who became ambassador in Baghdad, for not having enough experience on Iraq.
Envy of the FBI is palpable, and this is related to the different circumstances of each agency’s turn with Saddam. Nixon and his CIA colleagues not only had less time with the prisoner but also had to use an interpreter. Nixon wasn’t even directly posing most of the questions. That job was given to a CIA polygrapher, not because there was any intention to give Saddam a polygraph exam but because polygraphers are supposed to be good at getting people to talk. By contrast, the FBI team that later took over the questioning was led by a Lebanese-born agent fluent in Arabic named George Piro. Piro’s long, confidence-gaining interactions with Saddam, without a translator, made him the American with the best up-close-and-personal understanding of the former Iraqi president, a status for which Piro would receive publicity in a 60 Minutes report. Piro has had a subsequent successful career in the FBI; he currently heads the bureau’s Miami office (where he recently was back in the public eye after a shooting incident at the Fort Lauderdale airport). Nixon’s only reference in the book to Piro is a disdainful one regarding a comment made in a briefing in which they both participated.
Nixon’s contempt extends to many within the CIA. In this respect, he demonstrates the inferiority complex that tends to be a job-related disability of leadership analysts, who unfairly are given a low position on the analytical totem pole. Nixon complains that his superiors “always rushed to the same individuals—usually the people they hung around with on weekends—to provide the same old answers.” He expresses no liking for case officers of the National Clandestine Service, who he says “professed not to know what analysts actually did” and “would act even more confused” if the job were explained to them. Actually, the great majority of CIA case officers both understand well what analysts do and show that they understand.
Related to the parochialism is Nixon’s apparent ignorance of much of what was taking place in the intelligence community concerning Iraq outside his own small niche. That, or he consciously rejected the implications of that work for the sake of his own narrative. He gives the impression, for example, that the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center pushed through an assessment, despite heroic dissent from Nixon’s own unit, that catered to the war promoters’ notion of an alliance between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the perpetrators of 9/11, and that such work “was used by Defense Department hard-liners such as Douglas Feith to justify the invasion of Iraq.” In fact, the major CIA paper on the subject, completed in September 2002, did not support the notion of an alliance and found no conclusive reporting about any collaboration on terrorist operations. When Feith forwarded a copy of the paper to the secretary and deputy secretary of defense, he added a covering note that advised, “CIA’s interpretation ought to be ignored.” The intelligence community’s overall work on Iraq and terrorism, including this CIA assessment, was so contrary to the war promoters’ efforts to associate Iraq with Al Qaeda that Feith set up a special shop in the Pentagon to discredit the community’s work and to try to devise an alternative case.
NIXON TOSSES numerous brickbats at CIA management, placing Debriefing the President within the genre of books written by people who leave the agency short of a career and, because such people include a disproportionate number of those who for one reason or another were misfits there, collectively convey a disproportionately negative impression of the place. A characteristic the book shares with some of the rest of the genre is the use of big black bars to indicate material that was deleted when submitted to the agency for prepublication review to avoid release of classified information, contributing to the air of an individual voice being suppressed by an institutional goliath. The book also shares similar pejorative language. Nixon’s managers were “aloof and distant.” CIA Director George Tenet “and his cronies on the seventh floor of the CIA in Washington just didn’t understand what went into a successful debriefing.” The CIA was a “sclerotic organization” with a “hidebound mindset that prevented analysts from doing their best work.” The agency has a “cover-your-ass culture.” Agency managers let the organization “sink into mediocrity” and “simply did not get” why people like Nixon “cared deeply about what was happening in Iraq.” And so forth.
Amid his effort to paint agency management as obsequiously bending to the Bush administration’s push to make a case for the war in Iraq, Nixon obliterates the major distinction between proper responsiveness to policymakers’ needs and improper politicization of intelligence. He criticizes what he calls the “service” approach to intelligence, as if serving policymakers’ information needs is somehow wrong—and as if intelligence officers should work on whatever they, and they alone, consider important. Nixon assails how “the pooh-bahs at the CIA” let “the White House choose the topic” for briefings. All of this ignores how the fundamental purpose of intelligence is to provide information to policymakers. What Nixon seems to be advocating would not only make policymakers unhappy but also would lead responsible members of Congress to conclude correctly that the intelligence agencies were largely wasting taxpayers’ money. Politicization was indeed a problem in the atmosphere in the buildup to the Iraq War, but it was not a simple binary between serving and ignoring policymakers. The politicization of intelligence was more atmospheric: bias creeping subconsciously into the minds of analysts, or policymakers forgetting their own bias by asking questions shaped to uncover only certain kinds of answers.
As Nixon nears the finish line, the accusations come fast and loose. Nixon asserts that while the institution “slavishly sought to do the president’s bidding,” individuals at the CIA “leaked like mad when they disagreed with presidential decisions related to the war.” How could he know that? Did coworkers happen to mention to him in corridor conversations that they had just leaked something? Nixon ought to know enough about the distribution of intelligence products to realize it is fallacious to assume—as a certain president-elect recently did on another topic—that the organization that originated a document is necessarily where such a document leaked.
The United States did not understand Saddam Hussein well. The parts of Nixon’s book that are about Saddam—well worth reading—help belatedly to improve that understanding. But as Nixon himself acknowledges, the Bush administration officials who launched the disastrous war in Iraq were determined to do so for other reasons, regardless of how well or how poorly they understood the tyrant they toppled from power.
Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author of Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy.
Image: Former Cpl. Edward Chin places the U.S. Flag over a statue of Saddam signifying the liberation of the Iraqi people in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.