Thursday, March 2, 2017

Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, by John Dixon

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Former CIA agent John Nixon's Debriefing the President goes a long way to solving the riddle of Saddam Hussein.

It's amazing to think that Debriefing the President, a close up portrait of Saddam Hussein drawn from first-hand interview material after his capture in 2003, struggled to find a publisher. Having spent trillions deposing Saddam Hussein, a man often compared to Hitler, one would think there would be a huge appetite to discover what he was like in person.

Author John Dixon was a CIA analyst from 1998 to 2011. His area of expertise was Iraq and as a consequence he did several tours of the country. His in-depth knowledge of Iraq brought him a once in a lifetime opportunity: to interview Saddam Hussein after his capture. The extensive interviews, conducted with two analysts present, covered many topics of top interest to the Bush administration: weapons of mass destruction, links to terrorism and Iraq's human rights record. (The use of chemical weapons on the people of Halabja was frequently returned to, much to Saddam's ire.)

What do we learn from Debriefing the President? Quite a lot, but not what you would expect. In some ways, Saddam comes across as a quixotic character. The first thing Nixon was struck by was the ex-dictator's sense of humour, at times self-deprecatory. He appeared almost light-hearted, even though he knew his execution surely awaited.

While we in the West considered him the "butcher of Baghdad", Saddam thought of himself mainly as a writer. At the time of his capture he was working on a novel that was clearly very important to him. Throughout the interviews he became gruff at not being able to access pen and paper to continue on with his novel. As for the running of Iraq, Saddam claimed that in the final years of his rule he had basically delegated the running of the country to his subordinates. (He wanted to spend more time on his writing.) Many human rights abuses he professed to be ignorant about, indicating that his deputies may have authorised certain executions without his knowledge.

While Saddam was mostly agreeable during the interviews, he became angry and uncomfortable when questioned about human rights abuses. He insisted he was not personally responsible for the use of chemicals weapons on the people of Halabja - it must have been one of his lieutenants in the field, he suggested rather foggily. (Nixon believes him on this.)

As for weapons of mass destruction, Saddam admitted some responsibility for not making it clear enough to the west that he didn't have any. His attitude to terrorism is perhaps most surprising. Saddam felt that the 9/11 attacks would bring America and Iraq closer together. He felt the US would rely on him to fight Islamic extremists, as he was fighting them in his own country. Wahhabism, an ideological branch of Islam exported from Saudia Arabia, was a recurring menace to Iraq.

Interestingly enough, the final chapters of the book detail two briefings John Nixon gave to president George W. Bush. Nixon gave respectful yet honest answers to Bush's questions. Because the answers Nixon gave didn't fit in with Bush's preconceived ideas, they were most unwelcome. The tension in the room at the white house is palpable during these scenes as a cool anger erupts on Bush's face. The job of the CIA, it appears, was to confirm the president's biases. No one in the CIA hierarchy would talk to Nixon after this interview with Bush. (It should be noted here that Nixon felt Bush was smart at absorbing intelligence on Iraq and the region, but he just didn't know what to do with it.)

One of the most lamentable lessons of Debriefing the President is the way the CIA (and all those surrounding Bush) were there to maintain the president's confirmation bias. No important, contradictory information could get through. Everyone must laugh at the president's lame jokes, even when thousands of lives were in the balance.

The final analysis of Debriefing the President is that Saddam Hussein was never a threat to the West, was never involved in terrorism and should have been left in place. Nixon admits that Saddam was, during the interviews, a shrewd and manipulative character. The more he got to know him the less he liked him. Nevertheless, the price of removing him was far too high.

Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, by John Dixon. Published by Bantam. ISBN: 9780593077771 RRP: $32.99

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