The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein points to CIA errors

John Nixon's book is gripping account that reveals flaws of US in its decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam from power.

Cover of the book Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein by John Nixon.

2017/03/05 Issue: 96 Page: 23

The Arab Weekly
Dunia El-Zobaidi

Although the invasion of Iraq by the United States took place in 2003, the influence of the so-called liberation of Iraq on the region should not be underes­timated. Saddam Hussein’s decisions, mindset and legacy linger, causing many to question if it was right to remove him from power.

Marking ten years since Saddam Hussein’s death, John Nixon has released Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein. The book is a gripping account that reveals the flaws of the CIA and the United States in its decision to invade the country and remove Saddam from power. Nixon details his interrogation of Saddam while the former Iraqi president was in prison.

Nixon was a senior analyst with the CIA from 1998-2011. He regularly wrote for and briefed the most senior officials of the US government, including the president. Since leaving the CIA, Nixon has worked as an interna­tional risk consultant in Abu Dhabi.

Nixon studied Saddam well. He is well-informed on what has been written about the former Iraqi president, what is false or true and came to understand the way Saddam thinks.

He wrote: “For years at the CIA, I lived and breathed Saddam. … Sometimes I just couldn’t stop thinking about him; he was on a video loop in my brain. And I wasn’t the only one. I worked with a number of dedicated professionals at the CIA who were absorbed by Saddam as I was.”

Saddam’s confidence and charisma showed during his interrogation, even though he knew he was going to be exe­cuted. It struck Nixon how quickly Saddam adapted to his new surroundings and status as a prisoner.

“Whatever his atrocities, there was no denying that Saddam had great charisma,” Nixon wrote. “He was a big man, 6-feet-1 and thickly built. I am 6-feet-5 but Saddam seemed oblivious to the difference. He was a man who had an outsize presence.”

During questioning, Saddam said: “Iraqi people lived this life in balance. Injecting any foreign factors will make it unbalanced. So when you bring Wahhabism to Iraq, Iraq can become imbal­anced.” His prediction has proven true.

Saddam insisted Iran wanted to expand to the Arab world in the name of Islam and was responsible for many of the hostilities. Nixon said Iran moved Saddam to talk in ways that few other subjects did.

Nixon noted: “In the Iran-Con­tra report that was published in 1978, Saddam learned that one of Iran’s negotiating conditions was that Washington help overthrow Saddam’s regime.”

Again, Saddam’s prediction came true as Iran’s use of political Islam in the region is evident.

Nixon revealed things about Saddam that may shock some people. In his final years, Saddam was more occupied with nongovernmental ambitions, such as writing a novel… He did not look like a man who was planning an attack.

He was also fond of the Kurds and particularly praised Saladin, a Kurd born in Tikrit, Saddam’s city of birth.

“The Kurds before 1961 were simple people,” Saddam said during his interrogation. “Any valuable things in Baghdad could be entrusted to a Kurdish person with confidence. After 1961, old hostilities started in the north and the government has to respond.”

Saddam did not speak highly of his fellow Arab leaders. He said he was the best leader in the region. He was proud to be a leader of Arabs but said he did not necessar­ily want to lead all Arabs.

“I only want to lead Iraqis. They are the noblest of all people,” he said. “You are going to find that it is not so easy to govern Iraq. You are going to fail in Iraq because you do not know the language, the history and you do not understand the Arab mind.”

Nixon pointed out many flaws in the government and CIA. The policymakers at the White House and the leadership at the CIA ignored that many of the reasons for going after Saddam were based on false claims. Senior politicians managed to justify going to war even though facts proved they should not have.

The simplicity of the writing in this book makes it accessible to almost anyone. For those who are not familiar with Saddam or Iraq, there are revelations that will alter viewpoints of Saddam. For an Iraqi, regardless of whether he has lived there, most of the information was predicted by word of mouth.

Debriefing the President provides an essential exposure of the CIA and US government’s failure in invading Iraq and an important reminder of the need to understand a country’s people to help them.

Dunia El-Zobaidi is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.

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