The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein

The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein

Parts of John Nixon’s Debriefing the President help improve America’s understanding of Iraq’s former tyrant. The rest of it evinces bureaucratic parochialism, rivalry and envy.

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.