By Peyman Pejman
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a historical event of such significance that it will define the modern-day Middle East for years to come. Proponents and opponents of the invasion have written books about it. Many were officials who served in the administration of President George W. Bush – the man responsible for sending U.S. forces into Baghdad.
Admittedly, these authors were privy to debates and discussions inside the Bush administration, both before and after the invasion.
Yet none had the unique front seat to history that John Nixon had. Nixon, who was an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at the time, was the person charged with Saddam’s interrogation after the “Butcher of Baghdad” was arrested on December 13, 2003 at a farm in Tikrit, near his hometown.
In his new book ‘Debriefing the President’¸ Nixon recalls questioning the former Iraqi dictator for four weeks, often several times a day, and hearing the fallen dictator talk about numerous regional and international issues.
Saddam was unabashed about his distrust – if not his outright hatred – of the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and of the Shi’ite-led regime’s desire to meddle in Iraqi politics and to dominate the mostly Sunni Middle East. Saddam was also perplexed that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States put Washington and Baghdad on a war path; he had expected closer friendship.
Debriefing the President is as riveting on the subject of Saddam as it is on Nixon’s true feelings about the Bush administration. Here’s a hint: he uses a crude epithet to describe the former president . . .
Speaking to Kayhan London from his home in Alexandria, Virginia, Nixon discussed the CIA, the interrogation of Saddam, and the new Trump administration.
You say in your book that the CIA was “woefully unprepared” for Iraq and that reporting on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) was of “poor quality.” At the same time, you criticize the Bush and Obama White House for not listening more to the CIA. Didn’t they have good reason not to want to play ball with the Agency?
When I say we were woefully unprepared, it’s a broad statement. There are many things that we understood correctly about Saddam’s regime. There were a lot of subject areas that we should have been looking into, particularly those that were not on policymakers’ radar screen but eventually would be. The four core questions we always got [from the administration] were: WMD, will Saddam move north, will Saddam move south, and regime stability.
We should have worked on tribal structures, on potential key leaders in the post-Saddam era – particularly among the Shia – [and] on the spread of extremism. We were too reactive to policymakers’ whims. A lot of times, we let the policymakers drive the collection of data and the analysis of data, rather than telling them what they needed to know.
As for George W. Bush and his administration, you ask why they should have listened to us if we were having so many problems. You know, our analytical collection shortcomings meant nothing to them. What they wanted was a rubber stamp. They were committed to removing Saddam, and it almost didn’t matter what we said. They preferred hearing things that reinforced what they thought, and they didn’t listen to anything that contradicted that.
You have a lot of harsh words for Bush himself, but very few about Cheney, who many thought was the real power behind the throne. Why? What ticked you off so much about Bush?
That is an interesting myth that Cheney somehow was the puppet master. Cheney was a very smart guy. He had a lot of influence on the president in the first [Bush] administration. They would get together privately, and then a decision would be made.
Cheney always made sure he was the last person to meet with Bush before a decision. However, I never got the sense, when I was in the room, that anyone but George W. Bush was in charge. I never felt he couldn’t make a decision without looking to Dick Cheney.
I was a supporter of Bush. I voted for him in 2000 enthusiastically. And I voted for him again in 2004, less enthusiastically. Over time, as the war progressed and I began to see what a disaster it was becoming, how the administration was making very bad decisions, I became very disappointed and disillusioned in his leadership.
Certainly when I met him to brief him, I was kind of underwhelmed. There were just things about him that were last straws, that [led me to conclude] ‘okay, I’ve made up my mind that this guy has been a disaster.’ The thing that most bothered me was that, in the end, he still didn’t get it. He was stuck in this mindset that ‘what I am doing is right, that it’s benefiting people.’ Whenever we had the opportunity to make the right decision, the Bush administration made the wrong decision. We kept shooting ourselves in the foot.
What is your prediction for how the intelligence community will fare under President Trump, and what that will mean to countries like Iran and Iraq?
I wish I had a crystal ball and could tell you. When he makes these remarks about the Agency, he is making them about the Agency’s leadership, who had shown themselves to be very partisan. [CIA chief] John Brennan was very close to [former President] Barack Obama. You have to go back to [former President Ronald] Reagan and [former Agency Director William] Casey [to find such a] close relationship between a president and a CIA director. I think Obama and Brennan were even closer than that.
I have been hearing very good things about the new director. I want to be an optimist. One danger is if people dismiss everything that the intelligence community says, and think they have a better understanding of what’s going on – think ideologically. If that happens, we are going back to the Bush years. That would be terrible.
As far as Iran and Iraq go, Donald Trump has said the fight against ISIS will be an important part of his administration. I hope and pray that there is some sort of realization in the administration that the fight against ISIS requires not only a military victory, but also political element as well. And there has to be an element of stability and security in areas that ISIS has been able to control. If you just use arms, they will just come back.
As far as Iran goes, I have been concerned by some of the statements that have come out of the administration’s national security group. They all seem to have a strong animus against the Islamic Republic. I think they are concerned about what they see as Iranian troublemaking in the region. I am not sure how this is going to manifest itself. [Defense Secretary] Gen. [James] Mattis has identified Iran as the chief promoter of instability, or something like that, in the region.
I think that the only way we can tamp down the violence and bring some notion of calm to the region is that the United States has to adopt a more realistic policy and come to some sort of understanding that the Islamic Republic is an important country in the region. If it were up to me, I would say we should recognize the Islamic Republic and have diplomatic relations with it. We have to recognize that there are certain realities in that part of the world, and that the regime of Bashar Al Assad, for example, has proven that it is here to stay. In my opinion, the policies of President Obama have been absolutely disastrous for the region. The Gulf Arabs should not have such sway over Washington.
You say you now believe that the U.S. should not have toppled Saddam. How much of your belief is based on the time you spent with Saddam? And if your answer is “a lot,” why did you believe him as much as you did – when you also say [in your book] that he was a good liar?
I would have to say that my doubts started with the debriefing, and evolved over time. Prior to the debriefing, I was a supporter of the invasion and a supporter of moving Saddam from power. But once I got to spend some time with him and got to know him, I began to learn things about him that developed doubts in my mind about our goals.
As I came back to HQ, went over his answers and went through the records, and also debriefed some other [former Iraqi] officials, I began to really, really, seriously question the underpinnings of the war itself. To be honest, it was hard to believe Saddam Hussein, because he was so secretive and suspicious when talking to you that it created suspiciousness in yourself. There were a lot of times that I did not believe him even when he was telling the truth, simply because of the way he acted.
It wasn’t until I came back to the United States or a few times when I was in Iraq and could check the record that I would see he was actually telling the truth: even on key issues. For example, Halabja [a Kurdish town where Saddam’s regime used chemical weapons against the population in 1988 and killed between 3,000 and 5,000 Kurds]. I didn’t believe it when he said he had nothing to do with it, that he did not order the attacks, that he did not make that decision. Then I began to check through some of the documentation we had captured and some of the other debriefings, and I came to the conclusion that he actually was telling the truth. If pushed, I would say 75-80 percent, maybe even higher, of what he told us was the truth.
You say Saddam was really not involved in running the day-to-day affairs of the government in the last 2 ½ years of his life, that he was busy writing a novel at the time of the invasion. Is that assertion based on your debriefing or other things as well?
It was complemented by other things we learned. It was not just what he conveyed to us but other things we learned from debriefing other detainees.