Review: Debriefing the President: The interrogation of Saddam Hussein

imageIn this interesting book, the author tells you more about the politics and issues within the CIA than about Saddam.  The author, John  Nixon, relates a number of anecdotes and recollections of his conversations with Saddam Hussein in his prison cell before he was turned over to the Iraqi government.  Unlike some previous  books on CIA operations very little is deleted, redacted, (blacked out) , Which often is intended to give the book  more importance than probably deserved.  I enjoyed the book, reading about a   truly remarkable man in the same sense that Stalin and Hitler were remarkable.  Nixon provides some new information on he inner workings of the rings of security/companions  and advisors around Saddam. The most and probably only trusted one was his own family followed by his tribe members.  The second ring was the Himaya, (guards) his companions who escorted him about his domain.  The third and fourth rings were the  Special Guards and Special Escorts , mostly junior officers seconded from the Special Republican Guards and Special Security Organization.

If one were to sum up the substance of Nixon’s book it would be that Saddam was a monster, but sort of a likable monster,  and that while he was a menace to his own people he really had no quarrel with the U.S. Nixon rather ridiculously makes the claim that Saddam had given up his great power ambitions and had contented himself writing novels. As Nixon writes, “Was Saddam worth removing from power? I can only speak for myself when I say that the answer must be no. Saddam was busy writing a novel. Nixon also writes that this  endeavor was the reason he paid so little attention to the preparation for war with the United States. image Saddam’s last and most famous book Zabibah and the King

Nixon  fills the book with interesting anecdotes about Saddam, his powerful personality,   always manipulative and controlling.  By the way  Nixon  asserts there never was any Saddam double as so often portrayed by the  Western media. He provides insight into why…. as  one guest lecturer who came to my classes said…. that  Saddam was stronger than the State, meaning that without Saddam,  Iraq would fall apart….which to a large extent it did.  We learn from this book that Saddam was more interested in money than running the ship of state, at least toward the end, that there no insurgency planned and he had no part in the one that raged in Iraq for years.

But the portrayal of Saddam as gradually becoming uninterested in ruling does not hold up under historical analysis.   Nixon  apparently did not remember how Stalin kept the  State killing machines working full force while  giving personal detailed attention to conferences of artists and writers,  ensuring  the ideological  and politically correct content  of every piece of “art” and intellectual  work produced.  Hitler kept his methodical genocide running smoothly while discussing architecture, the rebuilding on the “new Berlin” with Albert Speer, and closely reviewing the latest German movies.

stalin and arts

Nixon  skewers the CIA, especially the leadership, branding them  as toadying bureaucrats, sucking up to the administration. In particular, George Tenet, the Director of the CIA is pictured as the consummate organization man, and many of the Bush policy-makers as well as George Bush himself are depicted in a very unflattering light. I spent a couple of years working as a contractor for the analytical branch of the CIA and I can relate to his criticisms. It is a ponderously bureaucratic organization and very political. As an Army intelligence officer ( at that time)  I  attended a number of the infamous  National Intelligence Estimates ( NIE), including the one that forecast the ability of the Shah of Iran to  quell the disorder in his country. I observed the efforts of the CIA architects of the Estimates to take all the sharp edges off the estimate to be submitted to the policy makers.  Their estimates were attended by all the various intelligence agencies in town. The CIA operatives that led these NIE’s had the job of smoothing out the different opinions. Their primary job was to ensure that the  CIA estimate was agreed to ( more or less) by all.  At times it was tolerated for an organization e.g. army intelligence, to put in a differing  opinion by way of a footnote to the text, but this was frowned on.  Generally the end product was vanilla pablum. Nixon in his book rightly makes fun of the CIA slogan “dare to be wrong.” In fact it always followed the line of least resistance.  As a contractor analyst making s predictions I realized that most of it was guess work, albeit by knowledgable people.

This is not always true however . After finishing my  work on a particular Arab country,  (Of  which I was very proud)  I was assigned to do military assessments on a Latin American country I knew  very little about.   I did the best I could with a mass of intelligence reports and when the product came out, it was beautifully edited with impressive charts, pictures, and graphs.  I was amazed by my own work!!!    So a word of warning: an intelligence assessment that looks like a work of art is not necessarily better than those on a scratch pad.

As  Nixon points out there has been a problem with CIA headquarters sending intelligence summaries that had been “dumbed down”. This is the inevitable result of the CIA’s low estimation of the political leadership’s understanding of the complexities of Middle East culture. It is one that I sympathize  with.  I remember one occasion distinctly when a visiting congressional delegation (“fact finding”) translated to mean  buying jewelry  for the wives, girlfriends, and staffers) came to Cairo and one member asked what language did they speak there.

I have to say working with CIA guys in the field I saw some of the most solid, patriotic and smart guys in government service. At the time I was working with them, many were ex-military and very mature, sensible folks without the fake aura of  amateur James Bond wannabees that some of the analytical people seem to take on.   I use to get a kick out of the CIA kids briefing my officer students from The Special Warfare Center, using coy references to conceal their identity……. as if anyone really cared.  They complained  about nosey neighbors wanting to know where they worked and their strenuous efforts to keep it a secret. These CIA guys I knew in the field  were  from the covert side of the CIA, in news media  “spies”. In reality they are more friends, shrinks, babysitters, and shoulders for the real spies to cry on. These CIA guys were handlers.  They were the best we produce. Handlers keep  real  spies, mostly  citizens of the particular  country,   content with the money or adventure,  always trying to convince  the spies that what they were doing was not treason, but for the good of mankind.  To the clandestine folks, analysts were second class citizens. I, that time , (early seventies) respected these analysts as true realistic scholars, but as time went on the CIA became  more politicized. And as the  American army recruiting efforts centered around  the slogan “let the army join you” the consequence of similar efforts by the CIA  to  become part of mainstream society led to diminished  capability ( and prestige). It is a fact lost on the present generation of leadership that  the CIA, like the military, must always, to some degree, remain counter cultural.   Killing and enticing others to commit treason are not part of the American way of life ( thankfully).  Competence, not political correctness and diversity, should be the goals.

My more recent observations of the millennial  working in the analytical field has convinced me that the problem is at the bottom s well as the top. Coming from our new educational and parental environment,  it has  imbued the young with the idea that they are indeed the smartest generation that has ever been on this earth, and that having graduated from some Middle East Studies Center they know pretty much all they need to know. I was assigned as a mentor to an Intelligence cell for six months within DOD and I found out that you can’t mentor people who do not think they require mentoring.  They were all very smart young folks, some had learned Arabic very well,  better than I, (with my artillery ears) after all my years in the Arab world.  They could recite the names of a hundred different insurgent groups, their leadership, their cell phone numbers, but nobody much seemed to know what to do with this massive amount of information.  Where did it go? Could the brightest minds assimilate all this information? What did it all mean? I doubt anyone really  knew.  None of these youngsters had extensive time on the ground nor did they care much for history or cultural studies.millennialsWhy do I have to read all those books and  write stuff?) I get all need  from Google  and Twitter

In terms of on the ground experience that might also apply to the author of this book. He was assigned to interrogate Saddam after only a few weeks in country. He apparently had a number of short visits to Iraq and  one longer one of eight months but as far as I could ascertain from his book  he had  no previous in country experience in any other Arab country, He  took International Studies at Georgetown university, in my politically incorrect view, a bastion of defending   Arab causes and  harboring professors with a very “understanding” approach to Islamism.   So perhaps some of that schooling lingered on in his world view.

As Nixon reiterates again and again,  invading Iraq was a tragic mistake, as he posed no real threat to American interests. This opinion, to anyone who has read the plethora of books and  articles on the Iraqi war, is hardly shattering news: quite the opposite in fact. It has become the mantra of academics, politicians, the usual set of leftist historians, Americaphobes,  and  journalists, many of whom,  spent most of their time in the “Green Zone” interviewing each other and finding the right Iraqis to say the appropriate things.

I did share Nixon’s experience in the “Green Zone” as being one of mostly boredom. I was in the Green zone at the same time as Nixon and during the time of Saddam’s capture. I did think some of his descriptions of the life in the Green Zone a bit embellished. The dining facility  was described as serving mostly “rice and potatoes.” Eating in the same dining hall my greatest fear was becoming fat on the generous amount of  food available. Nor do I remember the medical care as being as primitive as  Nixon described it. He might have also  exaggerated the danger within the Green Zone a bit.resting at psyops compoundDodging missiles and rockets in the Green  Reviewer in 2003.

I enjoyed the book as it brought back memories of my  times in Iraq and the good people I met, both Iraqis and Americans, and it was informative, but unfortunately he apparently deemed his knowledge of the Arab world and Iraq…limited as it was in my opinion,  as  sufficient to justify his broad characterizations of people and trends  in the war and his own organization.

I think it is very unhealthy, but typical of this era, that ex  CIA employees feel compelled to write their memoirs. This one is far less destructive and better than  the book by Donald Laux, Left of Boom, which between diatribes about our Syria policies and operations, laments his romantic problems. This millennial is probably the arch example of the arrogant know- it – all attitude of too many of our younger CIA and DOD analysts and operatives.

I have been involved in the Middle East since 1966 and I learn something new about the Middle East every day. Of course at my age I may have forgotten more than I learned. s. I learned from this book as well.  The Middle East and its culture is so complex that it seems every fundamental belief one develops about the region and its people are shattered by events. I  Just wish our officials would take themselves less seriously when they get outside their area of expertise.

Unfortunately George Bush had few supporters as the war dragged on with no end in sight, the people in his administration began pointing fingers at each other and few if any offered a defense.  Some, especially Bush, early on, also had  a string of incompetent military leaders  who let the insurgency grow without much understanding of Iraq, insurgency, or even basic strategy. Bush himself, offered no strong defense of the factors that led to the war.  Nor did he often and strongly defend the way it was fought.

With the elimination of the Islamist threat, at least for now, Iraq   is slowly mending, albeit with an  overseer Iranian regime that wants Iraq as a puppet state, a trend that will ultimately be resisted by the Shi’a as well as Sunni Arabs.  Iran’s money and miitary assistance  will only buy short term good will. Perhaps in revisionist  history some brave soul will endure the slings and arrows of politically correct history and venture a more positive alternative analysis of the war.

In summary, it is a book I would recommend be read and enjoyed but not likely to shed much light on the war  or its origins. It presents a human view of Saddam, much like Hitler’s table talk, but it does not really have any revelations on his  character or method of rule. There are interesting insights on his hatred of the Iranians, a characteristic held by most Sunni Arabs and his lack of interest in the Wahhabi/Salafi movement and his personal quirks. Saddam lies  continually and alternately bridles and gushes with conversation with his “de- briefers” just as any common criminal would. It is a reminder that thugs  with great strength of will and powerful personalities can inflicts misery on many millions but at the end they are shown to be just the thug they alwys were.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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