Title: Debriefing The President
Author: John Nixon
Nixon, John (2016). Debriefing The President : The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein. New York: Blue Rider Press
DS79.66.H87 N59 2016
Date Updated: December 31, 2016
Prologue: unfinished business — Holy shit, it’s Saddam! — Dare to be right — Destination Baghdad — Winging it — Getting under Saddam’s fingernails — The Persian menace — Turbans in politics — Death to Shiites and Zionists — Saddam blows his top — Deep dive in the Oval Office — Crosswise with the president — In the shadow of his father — The first draft of history — Leaving with regrets — Epilogue: a hanging in the middle of the night.
- Hussein, Saddam, 1937-2006–Imprisonment.
- Hussein, Saddam, 1937-2006–Last years.
- Nixon, John (Middle East expert)
- Iraq–Politics and government–2003-
Date Updated: December 31, 2016
Review by James Risen
Most C.I.A. memoirs are terrible—defensive, jingoistic and worst of all, tedious. Others are doomed by the C.I.A.’s heavy-handed and mandatory censorship.
There are exceptions, and that list includes the refreshingly candid Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein by John Nixon.
Mr. Nixon, the first C.I.A. officer to interrogate Hussein after his capture in December 2003, reveals gobsmacking facts about that deposed Iraqi leader that raise new questions about why the United States bothered to invade Iraq to oust him from power. These details will likely appall Americans who have watched their nation’s blood and treasure wasted in Iraq ever since.
More broadly, Mr. Nixon offers a stinging indictment of the C.I.A. and what he sees as the agency’s dysfunctional process for providing intelligence to the president and other policy makers. The agency, he writes, is so eager to please the president—any president—that it will almost always give him the answers he wants to hear.
Mr. Nixon’s book comes at an extraordinary moment, when President-elect Donald J. Trump is already at war with the C.I.A. He has attacked the C.I.A.’s assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential election to help his candidacy, and he has cited the agency’s failures on prewar intelligence on Iraq as an example of how the C.I.A. is often wrong.
Debriefing the President will add fuel to the fire of the Trump-led criticism. It will also send a chilling warning to anyone counting on the C.I.A. to stand up to Mr. Trump once he is in office.
Mr. Nixon had been preparing for his interrogation of Hussein for years before he ever met him. Mr. Nixon, 55, did graduate work at New York University and Georgetown University, where he wrote about Hussein in his master’s thesis. He joined the C.I.A. in 1998, and was immediately assigned to be a “leadership analyst” on Iraq, which meant that his job was the full-time study of Hussein.
Mr. Nixon was an analyst in Iraq when the United States military captured Hussein, and he was asked to identify him so the Americans could be certain they had the right man. Mr. Nixon confirmed Hussein’s identity by checking for a tribal tattoo on the back of his right hand and a scar from a 1959 bullet wound.
Once he began debriefing Hussein, though, Mr. Nixon realized that much of what he thought he knew about him was wrong.
His most astonishing discovery was that by the time of the United States-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Hussein had turned over the day-to-day running of the Iraqi government to his aides and was spending most of his time writing a novel. Hussein described himself to Mr. Nixon as both president of Iraq and a writer, and complained to Mr. Nixon that the United States military had taken away his writing materials, preventing him from finishing his book. Hussein was certainly a brutal dictator, but the man described by Mr. Nixon was not on a mission to blow up the world, as George W. Bush’s administration had claimed to justify the invasion.
“Was Saddam worth removing from power?” Mr. Nixon asks. “I can speak only for myself when I say that the answer must be no. Saddam was busy writing novels in 2003. He was no longer running the government.” Strikingly, Mr. Nixon says that the C.I.A. had some evidence that this was the case before the invasion, but that “it was never relayed to policy makers and emerged only after the war.” By 2003, Mr. Nixon writes, Hussein’s disengagement meant that he “appeared to be as clueless about what was happening inside Iraq as his British and American enemies were.”
With Hussein increasingly detached, Mr. Nixon says that by 2003 Iraqi foreign policy decision-making had fallen to his lieutenants, led by the “unimaginative and combative” Iraqi vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, who “repeatedly missed opportunities to break Iraq’s international isolation.”
Regarding Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, the justification for the 2003 invasion, Hussein admits to Mr. Nixon that it was a mistake for him not to make clear before the war that he had long since gotten rid of them. “Saddam turned philosophical when asked how America got it so wrong about weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Nixon writes. He quotes him as saying that “the spirit of listening and understanding was not there … I don’t exclude myself from this blame.”
Hussein never understood the United States, and Mr. Nixon describes him as repeatedly mystified by American intentions in the Middle East. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Hussein fatally misread how America would react. He thought the attacks would bring the United States and Iraq closer together to jointly combat Islamic extremists.
“In Saddam’s mind, the two countries were natural allies in the fight against extremism,” Mr. Nixon writes, “and, as he said many times during his interrogation, he couldn’t understand why the United States did not see eye to eye with him.”
The findings from Mr. Nixon’s interrogations of Hussein that cast doubt on the Bush administration’s original justifications for the war, Mr. Nixon says, were ignored by senior officials at the C.I.A. and the White House. “The policy makers at the White House and the leadership on the seventh floor at the C.I.A. didn’t want to hear that many of the reasons for going after Saddam were based on false premises,” he writes.
Mr. Nixon’s most scathing criticism is reserved for the C.I.A, which he describes as a haven for yes-men excessively eager to please the White House. When he joined the C.I.A., Mr. Nixon says, he was told that analysts should “dare to be wrong”—in other words, be willing to take chances when the evidence called for counterintuitive reasoning. But he says experience taught him that the C.I.A. didn’t really reward out-of-the-box thinking. “As I found out in the Clinton, Bush and Obama years, the agency’s real operating principle was ‘dare to be right.’”
Mr. Nixon, who left the C.I.A. in 2011 when, he says, the work no longer excited him, depicts a sclerotic agency not much different from the Agriculture Department or any other large bureaucracy, complaining that the agency “was governed by lines of authority that were often clogged by people who got ahead by playing it safe and who regarded fresh thinking as a danger to their careers.” Since he had to submit the book to the C.I.A.’s censors, he doesn’t identify the stultifying bureaucrats and timeservers, although he does reserve special wrath for one boss he names only as “Phil,” who, he says, “as a schmoozer, had few equals.”
Mr. Nixon thoughtfully argues that the C.I.A.’s overeagerness to please the White House has led to a serious degradation in the quality of its intelligence. Virtually the entire analytical arm of the C.I.A. is focused on quickly pumping out short memos on the issues of the day that are immediately read at the White House. But the agency has largely abandoned its tradition of freeing up analysts to engage in deeper, long-term research. As a result, Mr. Nixon writes, few analysts at the agency now know very much about anything. “Expertise is not valued, indeed not trusted.”
The C.I.A.’s brief memos have become like “crack cocaine for consumers of classified information,” Mr. Nixon says. It’s as if the C.I.A.’s analytical branch has been transformed from a college faculty into a cable news network.
The trend toward quick-hitting but shallow intelligence reports—which other former C.I.A. analysts have also criticized in recent years, particularly since 9/11—makes the agency much more susceptible to manipulation and politicization, and to repeating the kinds of mistakes it made when it inaccurately concluded that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
When it came to Iraq, Mr. Nixon writes, the “agency slavishly sought to do the president’s bidding—as it usually does—in an effort to get a seat near the center of power and justify its budget. That was the institutional imperative.”
 James Risen, “Books of the Times, ‘Hussein, The C.I.A. and Me,’” The New York Times (December 19, 2016}. A version of this review appears in print on December 19, 2016, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: “Hussein, the C.I.A. and Me.” Downloaded December 24, 2016.