Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, by John Nixon (Blue Rider Press, 256 pp., $25)
In December 2016, ten years after Saddam Hussein was hanged, John Nixon published an account of his work as the first CIA officer to interrogate the deposed Iraqi leader after his capture near his hometown of Tikrit. The Bush administration needed to be sure that the dirty, disheveled, bearded man U.S. soldiers had dragged out of a spider hole on a farm was, in fact, the fugitive who for nine months had eluded one of the most intensive manhunts in military history. Having spent three years as a “leadership analyst” at the CIA studying Saddam and having been stationed in Baghdad since October 2003, Nixon was asked to verify that American forces had finally found their man.
Nixon writes that he confirmed Saddam’s identity from a tribal tattoo on the back of Saddam’s right hand and a scar on his left leg from a 1959 bullet wound. But based on his debriefings of Saddam over the next two months—precisely how many sessions and at what length Nixon coyly does not say—he discovered that much of what he and the spy agency thought they knew about Saddam was wrong. Not only did Iraq have no weapons of mass destruction, a key justification for the 2003 Iraq war; Saddam was also “no longer running the government,” Nixon concludes, at the time the U.S. invaded. In fact, the Iraqi dictator had turned over day-to-day stewardship of Iraq to senior aides so that he could concentrate on writing a novel.
Nixon’s verdict on the agency that employed him for 13 years and the Bush administration he served is harsh. The administration “never gave a thought to what the Middle East would be like without Saddam,” he contends, offering no evidence to support this alleged lack of strategic curiosity. President Bush’s “black-and-white view of the world” made him unable to “understand the region and the fallout from the invasion.” The CIA, he asserts, has a “cover-your-ass culture.” Many of his colleagues were callow time-servers, telling their bosses what they thought they wanted to hear while they polished their resumes for more lucrative work in the private sector.
Nixon’s book has thrilled war critics and received glowing reviews. His “gobsmacking facts” about Saddam,” wrote James Risen, who covers intelligence for the New York Times, raises “new questions about why the United States bothered to invade Iraq to oust him from power.” Debriefing the President, Risen added, would “appall Americans who have watched their nation’s blood and treasure wasted in Iraq ever since.” The left-leaning New Statesman concurred, calling the book “excellent,” and the New Yorker applauded the book for giving “more ammunition to the skeptics.” With kudos like these, the book has sold well; it currently ranks tenth in Amazon’s “biographies and memoirs” category and will appear in paperback this year.
While Nixon’s account of his days with Saddam and at Langley adds some fresh insight into both Saddam himself and how the intelligence community misperceived him, his book’s success mostly attests to how such fashionable narratives, whether true or false, distort our understanding of complex institutions and events and reinforce popular—but often inaccurate—views about polarizing issues such as the war in Iraq. Many of his book’s ostensible revelations are old news to those who have studied the wealth of Iraq-related material disclosed since 2004, and some of what he suggests is new is inaccurate or simply misleading.
Historians, political scientists, and officials continue trying to understand Saddam Hussein, his regime, and the origins and impact of the Iraq war. There is no shortage of material about that catastrophic event: years of recordings of Saddam’s Revolutionary Command Council; tens of thousands of documents recovered after the invasion, many of them now declassified; transcripts of interviews with Saddam’s top officials and military officers; financial records; taped interactions between foreign leaders and Saddam and his relatives. Nixon’s work adds modestly to this body of information. But the official who conducted the most sustained, detailed debriefing of Saddam was not Nixon but George Piro, an Arabic-fluent, Lebanon-born FBI agent. Most of Piro’s extensive conversations with Saddam, which took place over seven months—as opposed to Nixon’s estimated 13 sessions in just over a month—have been published. In 2009, Charles Duelfer, coauthor of this book review, published Hide and Seek, The Search for Truth in Iraq, which contained an extensive description of what Piro gleaned from his conversations with Saddam, along with new information about Saddam’s thinking and motivations.
Nixon was a mid-level official in a section of the CIA that ranks low in the agency’s pecking order. Leadership analysts have historically been regarded as slightly more prestigious than high-powered librarians. Whereas those working in spy operations investigate issues like North Korea’s nuclear program, Russian or Chinese intentions, non-proliferation, and other high-priority security challenges, leadership analysts answer questions like, “Is Kim Jong Un nuts?” They write biographical papers but rarely meet the people they study. As Nixon acknowledges, being tasked to interrogate Saddam, or “High Value Target #1,” was more the result of being in the right place at the right time than a validation of his expertise. He was not a Middle East expert before joining the CIA; nor did he speak Arabic. And he had apparently never set foot in an Arab country before traveling to Baghdad seven months after the March 2003 U.S. invasion (he would do eight stints in Iraq afterward).
It’s unclear how Nixon reproduced what seem to be verbatim conversations with Saddam through a translator more than 13 years after they took place. He refers to “briefing notes,” and perhaps he was able to reference his reporting cables or notes of sessions, some of which he may not have attended. His 239-page book contains no index and no footnotes—odd for an analyst. The origin of his claims matters, because he makes sensational assertions. The most important, and contested, is that American prewar intelligence was so poor that the CIA did not understand that Saddam’s deputies were actually in charge—among them, the “unimaginative and combative” Iraqi vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, who “repeatedly missed opportunities to break Iraq’s international isolation.” Though there were reports that Saddam was preoccupied with writing fiction and with other “nongovernmental pursuits,” such information was “never reported to policymakers before the war,” Nixon writes. Saddam “was not a man bracing for a pulverizing military attack.”
In his reports, Piro did not describe the man he interrogated for months as disengaged. Neither did several of Saddam’s closest lieutenants, before or after the war. Saddam did not lack focus or commitment to ruling Iraq, said his presidential secretary, Abed Hamoud. Indeed, Saddam took pride in how hard he worked. Even Nixon quotes Saddam’s driver, who marvels at how much energy Saddam had when others around him flagged. Saddam Hussein was Iraq, and Iraq was Saddam Hussein.
Saddam confirmed to Piro that he was writing poetry and fiction—his first novel was finished before the 2003 Iraq war— but he also told his FBI interrogator that, having long expected an American invasion, he had instructed his commanders that “their duty to Iraq was to defend against the invaders with all their power, pride, and dignity for two weeks.” Then, Piro recounted, Saddam said that they were to conduct “an insurgency against the occupiers.” While Piro and Nixon agree that the insurgency was neither well-planned nor well-organized and while several of Saddam’s military commanders debriefed after the war did not recall Saddam’s specific instruction to resist, America’s occupation of Iraq quickly turned deadly, as Saddam had intended.
After 9/11, Nixon writes, Saddam saw America as a “natural ally” in the fight against Islamic extremism and Iran’s fanatical Persians. His forced removal by America on false premises—the intelligence community’s mistaken belief that Saddam sponsored anti-American terrorism and still had WMD—created a power vacuum in Iraq that turned religious differences into a sectarian bloodbath and destabilized the entire region. This is a familiar critique, of course, but Nixon goes even further in his vituperative judgments about almost everyone around him, from his CIA colleagues to senior American officials, including President Bush. Many readers will no doubt enjoy Nixon’s reinforcement of their views of Bush and others whom they blame for the Iraq disaster.
But the passion of Nixon’s views on such policy matters is inversely proportional to his direct knowledge of them—hardly an ideal trait for a “leadership” analyst, or for that matter, any reasonable observer. Nixon lends support to the conventional view that post-invasion planning was haphazard by disclosing that the CIA had no plan for debriefing Saddam, despite the expenditure of vast amounts of time, manpower, and money to find him. Everyone implicitly assumed that Saddam would not surrender alive, he writes. But Nixon had little exposure to American leaders and their decision-making.
President Bush heard competing assessments from many sources. Whom did he choose to believe and why? Having experienced the bitter intelligence failures underlying 9/11, Bush understood the frailties of this enterprise. But the choices he faced were tough. If America’s intelligence agencies and their allies were correct in their “high-confidence” assessments that Saddam was continuing to hide WMD, would another president have decided not to challenge Iraq soon after the trauma of 9/11? Nixon, a mid-level analyst writing cables about Saddam, knew only a thin slice of what Bush knew. He understands little of the vexing policy challenges the president faced.
Yet Nixon asserts that the Bush administration was “set on war and determined to remove Saddam,” dismissing not only Bush’s own memoir about his tortured decision to invade but also supporting accounts written by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, CIA director George Tenet, and others. How does Nixon know what Bush was thinking? On what evidence does he assert that there was never a debate over removing Saddam?
Nixon also makes no mention of the extensive postwar investigations into intelligence failures, particularly the Robb-Silberman report, which, after studying the erroneous assessments of Iraq’s WMD capabilities, concluded that the prewar intelligence-gathering reflected shockingly poor tradecraft—including, among other taboos, the collection and reporting only of evidence that supported the analysts’ thesis. Rather than explore why the intelligence community so misjudged Saddam’s intentions, Nixon’s book trails off into a litany of complaints about coworkers, bosses, rivals in other agencies, and the policymakers he was charged with serving.
Such petty score-settling nonetheless provides fodder for an audience that wants its views reinforced, especially by a self-professed key intelligence insider. Nixon’s credentials are bolstered by the book’s blacked-out passages that the CIA refused to clear—annoying to readers but catnip for publishers. Nixon complains that the review process delayed the book’s publication and that the CIA’s redactions are unnecessary. His lament would have been strengthened by the inclusion of a few named sources and some supporting evidence for his provocative assertions.
We understand all too well how difficult it was before the Iraq war to assess whether Saddam had WMD. We both got it wrong. Both of us usually sympathize with intelligence analysts charged with making difficult, high-stakes judgments—but this is hardly a natural instinct for many other critics. In our polarized climate, is it any wonder that Debriefing the President, rife as it is with petty complaints about being ignored or undervalued, frequent descriptions of co-workers and bosses as lazy or inept, and evidence-free claims about what motivated America’s leaders in taking the country into war, has won such praise? In addition to getting basic Googleable facts wrong—such as the year in which Saddam’s daughters and their husbands defected to Jordan—Nixon’s book exhibits a trait all too common in intelligence, modern journalism, and throughout our country today: the belief that one’s judgments are irrefutable, and that conflicting views are malicious—or worse.
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