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.
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.