10 years ago this week, on December 30th, 2006, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was executed. Hussein was toppled soon after the U.S. invasion began in 2003. U.S. President George W. Bush launched the invasion on the false premise that Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction and had ties to al-Qaeda. The invasion destabilized Iraq and the region, leaving over a million people dead. And the fighting continues in Iraq and Syria.
A stunning new book about the Iraq War has just come out from a perspective we have not yet heard from. It is written by John Nixon, the CIA analyst who interrogated Saddam Hussein after his capture 13 years ago. Nixon reveals that much of what the CIA believed they knew about Saddam Hussein at the time of the invasion was wrong. During his interrogation, Hussein revealed that by 2003 he had largely turned over power to his aides so he could concentrate on writing a novel. There was no program of weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam Hussein was also deeply critical of al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups inspired by Wahhabism. In fact, Hussein told Nixon that he felt the United States and Iraq were natural allies in the fight against extremism. During the interrogation, Saddam Hussein also had a warning for the United States about Iraq. He said, “You are going to fail. 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,” Saddam Hussein said.
John Nixon talking:
it’s one thing to be—to see somebody on a TV screen or a film or in pictures, but when you actually meet them up close and then you start talking to them, it’s an entirely different thing. And, you know, instead of finding the “Butcher of Baghdad,” I found myself talking to this aging Iraqi grandfather. And one of the things that really struck me was, in talking to him, he said to me, he said, “You know, I’ve been working on this novel.” And the delegation of power was something that we at the CIA really hadn’t been aware of. We still thought of Saddam as the master manipulator and someone who was always pulling the strings. But really, he had given that power, the day-to-day running of the country, to some of his more senior aides.
I had studied Saddam Hussein ever since joining the agency in 1998. And I think a lot of people knew me in the intelligence community as sort of a go-to person on Saddam. Now, when I was—went to Baghdad in 2003, I was asked to fill in for the—we had an HVT-1 analyst in the station, and their job was to work with the military in trying to locate him.
I replaced him and began working with the military. And I began to despair that we would never find him. And then, right around Thanksgiving time, things started to heat up. And then, into the first week of December, it became very clear we were going to find him. And the night of the capture, I was brought into the station chief’s office and asked how would I identify him, and then I was asked to go out and identify him. And I told them that, you know, I would look for certain markings, certain tribal tattoos. And I was brought out there. You have to understand, the U.S. government was under a lot of—well, we were under a lot of pressure from Washington to find him and also to verify it’s him, because we didn’t want to then turn—say we’ve caught him, and then find out it wasn’t him. And there was also this persistent myth about body doubles, which were never really true to begin with. So, I went out there, and despite the fact that I was looking for these markings, I have to admit, the first time that I even laid eyes on him, I knew it was him.
And one of the interesting things about that first time was, you know, Saddam was sitting there with the military all around him, and he sort of acted like he was the host, that he was the person like every—he came here every Saturday night and had an audience with people, and that we were just guests. And, you know, we had a very—a sort of a confrontational interrogation that night, because it was just, again, about identifying him, although, in my head, it was clear. After that, we had—we began debriefing him. And that’s when—one of the surprising things about Saddam was he was one of the most charismatic individuals I have ever met in my life. I mean, when he walked in a room—even in his diminished status as a prisoner, when he walked in a room, you could feel a change. In the beginning, he was very smart, very polite, very nice, self-deprecating in his humor.
we had—in the room, it was myself, a polygrapher, an interpreter provided by the Army, and Saddam. polygrapher, but he also served as a sort of a facilitator, as a person who would sort of start the conversation off. And in the beginning, it was very—we weren’t sure if Saddam was going to cooperate, and we had really no way to kind of get him to cooperate. So we appealed to his vanity, and we also appealed to his sense of history. And we said to him, “You know, this is your opportunity to set the record straight. This is your opportunity to take all the lies that have been said about you, and what you say will be read by the highest levels of the government,” meaning the president.
weapons of mass destruction. He said he stopped his program years ago. And, you know, one of the things with Saddam was he was also one of the most suspicious people I’ve ever met, and he always answered questions with questions of his own. And one of the problems from that was, when we would ask about weapons of mass destruction, he would say, “Oh, well, I stopped that in 1989.” And then you would say, “But, Saddam, right up into the first Gulf War, we found that you had a program that was close to being near completion.” He said, “Oh, well, yes, yes. But after the Gulf War, I stopped it.” And then we would say, “Well, what about 1995, when Hussein Kamel defected, and you showed us all those documents that were on his chicken farm?” He said, “Oh, of course, of course. But after ’95.” So, you were never sure sometimes what he was saying was the truth or not. But based on talking to him, talking to a number of his advisers, and all of the captured documentation and the fact that we never found anything, I came to the conclusion that he was not going to start another program.
one of the arguments made for the war was that he had used weapons of mass destruction on his people. And when I talked to him—and he got very upset, probably the angriest he ever got with me during my time with him. He said that he did not order weapons to—chemical weapons to be used in Halabja against the Kurds. I have to admit, I didn’t believe him at the time. When I went back to Washington, I started looking into this a lot more deeply. I started reading some of the debriefings of other senior government aides. They corroborated that story. And then we found documentation from the Iraqis that also corroborated that. It was a battlefield decision made by an Iraqi commander at the scene. And Saddam actually was angry at the commander for having made that decision, largely because the use of the chemical weapons was in PUK territory. They were allied with Iran. And he was afraid that Iran would make hay out of this with the international media.
he thought we were natural allies in this. And he thought that 9/11 was going to bring the United States and Iraq closer together. And, you know, he—at one point he said to me, he said, “Didn’t you read the letter that I sent, you know, that I sent to you?” And I said, “What letter are you talking about?” He said, “The letter I gave to Tariq Aziz. Didn’t you read it?” And then I said, “Well, I think I’ve—you sent a couple of letters.” And he said, “Well, this one went to Ramsey Clark. You know, didn’t you read it?” And then I told him that, you know, a lot of people in the media tend to dispel what Ramsey Clark says, and the fact that it was coming from you may have been even harder for people to believe. Saddam Hussein did not have a good understanding of America. He didn’t have a good understanding of international relations.
– the response of the CIA in the information? The response of President Bush
All they really wanted to know about was WMD. And when we—when we didn’t have the answer that they wanted, they kind of lost interest. And that’s all it was about, I think. And it was very disappointing and disillusioning, because we could have learned a great deal more from Saddam and about his country. And I felt I did, when I was talking to him.
this undercut President Bush’s justification for this war.
It’s almost like, in January of 2004, President Bush’s attitude was, you know, “I’m done with Iraq. Let’s move on. You know, this is a solved problem.”
clearly, it isn’t, 10 years. More than 10 years later.
Back in 2002, 2003, I believed that if we removed him from power and then made Iraq a better place, that the Iraqis would—you know, that would be better for Iraq and that we could help turn the country into a functioning, hopefully democratic, country that, you know, would be as good as what the Iraqi people deserved.
change that view hundred percent. When people ask me, you know, “Was it worth taking him out of power?” I say, “You know, look around you. Show me something that is positive that happened.” Iraq, right now, is a country that has 2 million displaced people. Parts of its territory are held by ISIS. You have a dysfunctional government that is probably more corrupt than Saddam’s government was. And if ask the average Iraqi—Sunni, Shia or Kurd—you know, “Were things better back then? Were services better? Did the government do more for you?” I think they would say yes. I can’t find one thing. And if you said, “Well, maybe, what about the Kurds? They’re almost independent now,” that was happening already. I can’t find one thing positive that came out of his removal from power.
We finally were asked to brief the president in 2008, which was five years after Saddam’s removal from power. the FBI came out and said in early 2008 that Saddam said he was going to reconstitute his weapons program, which was not true. And then, all of a sudden, the White House came to the CIA and said, “You never told us this. What else did he say?” And we had to kind of walk this all back and say, “Listen, he never said that.” The FBI’s assertion was based on a statement that Saddam said—he was asked by the special agent about weapons of mass destruction: “Were you going to reconstitute your program?” And Saddam gave the answer, “I will do what I have to do to protect my country.” And that was the basis upon which the FBI established that he was going to reconstitute the weapons program. The problem is, Saddam gave that answer to just about everything. And, you know, something—Saddam was deliberately ambiguous in his statements. And it’s one thing to say that, but we found no evidence whatsoever of any plans on the part of Saddam or his government to reconstitute his weapons program.
– How difficult was it to put this into print?
it was a chore. And it was—it took far too long. I originally submitted the manuscript in 2011. I got it back from them, and then I took a year or two, because I was working abroad, and I didn’t necessarily want to identify myself as a former CIA person. But when I came back in 2014, I immediately gave it back to them, and I didn’t receive it back until October of this year. And it was—and the things they took out were kind of ridiculous.
there were some really great anecdotes. And, you know—but, for example, they took out—we had a certain phrase that we used to describe the building that we worked in. I can’t say that, you know, because they say it’s classified.
in Iraq, where the CIA station was, the kind of vehicles we drove around, which, you know, I can tell you right now they weren’t Toyotas, you know, Camrys. And they took that out. Then there were some—there were a few—as I said, some anecdotes that I thought really gave color to the story. And for reasons that are beyond my understanding, they took them out.
– meeting in 2008 with President Bush in the Oval Office.
that was in February of 2008. And I had actually gone there to brief about something else, about Muqtada al-Sadr. And then, the DNI had said, “Mr. President, this is also the man who was the first to debrief Saddam Hussein.” And he just kind of looked at me, and he said, “How many of you fellas debriefed him? Huh, I mean, there’s been a whole lot.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know who you’ve spoken to, Mr. President, but I was the first one, first one from the CIA.” And then he said, “Well, what kind of man was he?” And then I explained it to him.
he could be very charming. He could be very nice. But he could also be very mean-spirited and vicious and a little scary at times. There were kind of—he was sort of a jumble of contradictions, in that sense. And then I said—he said to me, he said, “Did he know he was going to be executed?” I said, “Yes, Saddam—Saddam knew that somehow this whole process was going to end in his death.” And he said—and I said that he was—he was at ease with that. He was—he felt that, you know, he was at peace with himself and God. And so, that’s when President Bush went—he sort of smirked and went, “Huh! He’s going to have a lot to answer for in the next life.” I said, “Well, OK. I’m sure he’s not the only one.” And then he said—oh, when we were leaving—and this really kind of set me back. And I had heard that President Bush sometimes liked to use humor at inappropriate moments. But we were done, and we were walking out of the Oval Office, and then he turned back to me. He said, “Hey, he didn’t tell you any—where any of those vials of anthrax were, did he?” And, of course, everybody broke up. And I said, “No, sir. You’d be the first to know if that was the case,” and left.
– Saddam Hussein saying there was a letter that he sent to President Bush
He basically expressed sorrow over 9/11. And largely, it was a letter that just said, you know, “I grieve with you, and I grieve for the American people, and that terrorism is a bad thing. Iraq has also been the victim of terrorism”—words along those lines. But it was not the first time that Saddam had reached out to the U.S. government. Even during the Clinton years, Saddam had made entreaties to the U.S. government and said, “Listen, we can help in this battle against Sunni extremism.” He had offered to help—help with our finding the people who were responsible for the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. However, you know, I think our government interpreted this as a sort of a ploy for a quid pro quo, that somehow if we got this, then we would give—we’d let him out from underneath sanctions. And largely, his pleas were ignored, I mean, not even answered. And I think that, in hindsight, you know, these were missed opportunities. And it speaks to this issue about sometimes—sometimes countries have got to—we all do terrible things, but sometimes countries have got to let bygones be bygones and work constructively, because we can achieve things through dialogue rather than just by—through enmity and trying to destroy one another.
– to remove what are essentially secular authoritarian leaders and then not being able to deal with the consequences. Saddam Hussein saying, “You’re going to fail, because you don’t understand the language, you don’t understand the history of this area, and you don’t understand the Arab mind.”
It sent chills down my spine. Yeah, I have to be honest with you. When I was talking to him, there were times when he would say things, and I would—I would just be—you know, this is terrible, because he’s making so much sense. And even 10 years later, when I was going through my notes, I was really struck by some of the things he said. And you know it’s a bad day when Saddam Hussein is making more sense than your own president of the United States. And, you know, he—I believe that when it came to understanding Iraq and Iraqis, he knew his country like the back of his hand, and he knew it far better than we.
When we came back to the United States in 2004, all hell was breaking loose in Iraq. And I think that they just decided that, OK, we didn’t find the WMD. It’s—nobody wanted to revisit this. You know, when you say something about President Bush, one of the things that really struck me—there was another session I had with Bush, where, you know, he made this statement that I thought was just unbelievable, especially in light of what’s happening. And this was at a 2008 meeting in May. And I told him that maybe we should—you know, he said, “Well, what do we do about Muqtada al-Sadr?” And I said, “Well, maybe we should let Sadr be Sadr, and he’ll do things against himself. He’ll make mistakes.” And then, Bush said—he cut in, and he just said, “Well, you know something? They said I should let Saddam be Saddam, and I proved them wrong.” And so, even by 2008, he still thought that this was a success, that this—
– Did you torture Saddam Hussein to get information?
Absolutely not. You know, if talking to me is torture, that’s one thing. But, you know—but, no. And to be honest, a member of—the head of my team originally wanted to use enhanced interrogation techniques on him, and that was quickly shut down. And thank God. It would have served no purpose. There was no immediate threat information that we were looking for from him. And, you know, so we didn’t use that. He did claim later, though, that we did.
President-elect Trump, I would just say, I believe, having worked on debriefing prisoners, that it simply doesn’t work. There are better methods to use to get information. And if Donald Trump really is hell-bent on torturing people, he might have to do it himself, because I don’t—after what has happened over the last 10 years and what people went through at the CIA, how are you going to actually find somebody who’s going to be wanting to like cut their own throat by torturing for you and then find themselves the subject of some investigation and legal action?
– CIA, over the past couple of decades, has been increasingly corrupted into an agency that provides the intelligence that the current president wants, rather than what they need to hear.
It’s what I call the cult of current intelligence. And current intelligence are these sort of short, pithy memos that get produced every day and tell a story about a certain important topic. And it becomes like—the policymakers become very addicted to this, because they want to know the latest and the greatest as they go into every meeting. But the thing is, in the analytic cadre at CIA, it creates a mentality of being so focused on the here and now that you can’t see the larger picture. And you don’t have time to study the larger picture, because you’re constantly churning out these sort of—and over time, you go back and you look at these current intelligence pieces, and, A, they’re overtaken by events, so they’re not really useful; B, some areas, they’re just wrong; and, C, it’s sort of like having—being thirsty and—being thirsty for a Coke, and then, all of a sudden, three months later, you go back for the Coke, and you drink it, and it’s flat, and you don’t want it.
One of the other great lessons that we should have learned from Iraq is that it is very important for us to have a presence in the country, and a presence through an embassy. And you know something? Our sources of information came from émigrés and all sorts of people outside the country. And it was—you know, some of it was good, and some of it was terrible. And the thing is, nothing can replace your ability to be—have your feet on the ground there and see what’s going on for yourself.
there’s a passage in my book where he talks about, you know, saying that Sunni jihadism is going to—Iraq is a playing field for this, and it’s—now that he’s out of power, it’s going to be made worse, and that we’re going to have to deal with this issue. He was very concerned. Saddam was not afraid of almost anything, but he was very concerned about the threat that Sunni jihadists had for his regime, largely because they came from within his own community, and it was harder to sort of get—through tribal networks, it was harder to kind of root them out than it would be if they were from the Shia or the Kurds. And also, he understood that this current of Wahhabism that emanated from Saudi Arabia had been infiltrating Iraq for some time, and he was less and less powerful to do something about it. And he also knew that—Saddam was not a jihadist himself, and he didn’t have any alliances with al-Qaeda or—you know, or Sunni fundamentalists.
I even asked him about this, and he just—he just kind of laughed. And he said, “You know, these people are my enemies. And, you know, why would you think that I’m allied with”—and then he would use this counterfactual. He’d say, “Well, who was on the plane that flew into the World Trade Center? How many Iraqis were on that plane? But who were they? There were Saudis. There were Egyptians. There was an Emirati. Those are all your friends. Why do you think that they’re doing that?” And then he would also say—one of the things that was most compelling was he would say, “You know something? When I was a young man, everybody admired America. Everybody wanted to go to America.” You know, he used to say he would see at the American Embassy in Baghdad people lining up to get visas. And he said, “And now, look at you. Look at—you know, no one likes you. No one trusts you.” And that was based on the policies of our government.
– execution of Saddam Hussein
It was chilling. It was—and it was—I knew that it was going—that he was going to be executed. And I thought that this would at least give—he would be tried, he would be—the verdict would be rendered, and then he would be executed, and that maybe this would give the Iraqi people closure, and they could move on, and they would know that the rule of law had been established. But instead what we had was a mob lynching in the middle of the night, where he was taken into the basement of a ministry building and taunted by his executioners. And Saddam looked like the most dignified person in the room.
– then you see, from a cellphone video his throat slit and a gaping wound, head twisting sharply to one side.
it was really awful. And I remember thinking it’s like—”Is this what we fought this war for?” You know? And then, subsequently, every time I went back to Iraq, it just kept getting worse and worse. And I remember thinking, “This is—this is ridiculous. This is not what we—this is not what we expended 4,000 lives for.” Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died.
I don’t believe that these methods work, and I think they’re barbaric, and I would not want to—and I would not participate in anything like that. If Mike Pompeo wants to say that for political reasons, fine. I hope that he—when he’s confirmed as—if he’s confirmed as CIA director, that he does not try to institute anything like that, because, again, he’s not going to find any takers, because I don’t think anybody wants to do this.
– Zarqawi hunt in 2006.
I worked on the—actually, on the portion of the hunt that led to his eventual finding and death by bombing. And it was—I remember thinking to myself, after having interviewed a lot of Baathists, the al-Qaeda in Iraq people made me think like the Baathists were like the royal family in Great Britain, you know, because these people were absolute killers and thugs. And it was something that I said to myself, I remember, “This is what happens when we remove Saddam from power. It’s like ripping the manhole cover off the sewer and seeing what crawls out.” And that was what al-Qaeda in Iraq was like.
– why wrote this book
From the very moment I saw him, I knew I was going to write something someday. But having said that, I would say that I—two things. I began to see the memoirs coming out and the sort of gibberish that were in the memoirs of the principals that were—
President Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet—and talking about Saddam. And talking about Saddam and also talking about the debriefings and then some of the things that happened in Iraq. And I remember thinking, you know, this—there has to be sort of a more accurate record.
– Did they lie about what you found?
yeah, absolutely. For example, one of the first things I worked on was the—this reporting that said that Saddam was going to send—was sending hit squads to the United States to kill George W. Bush’s daughters, Barbara and Jenna—I think that’s their names. Now, we now know Saddam couldn’t even get good reception on his radio, let alone be sending hit squads from his intelligence service to America to kill anyone. And yet, in the memoirs of Bush and Tenet and Rumsfeld, they all talk about this as if it was real, as though this is a justification that they’re holding onto. And you know something? It’s not real, and it’s not truthful.
I see, for the foreseeable future, it being kind of similar to what it is now: a dysfunctional mess, in which you have—it does not achieve its potential, it is dominated by Iran, and it is just sort of a failed state.
– Do you think it can recover from the U.S. invasion?
I think that it would take a great deal to sort of put the genie of sectarianism and sectarian feelings that have been loosed by Saddam’s removal back in the bottle. And I’m not sure if it can.
– Do you think the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a catastrophe for Iraq?
Yes, absolutely. There is not—there is not a shred of doubt in my mind about that.
– Do you think it was a catastrophe for the United States? And for the Middle East?
Yes. We should—we should never have gone in there. And you know something? If the Iraqi people wanted to remove Saddam, that was for the Iraqi people to do, or for God to do. You know? And there should have been an Iraqi solution to what came next, not an American solution.
My biggest regret, in terms of Iraq, was the damage that was done to that country by my country and my own participation in this. And I wish there was some way we could—we could help the Iraqi people and help them rebuild what they—what they may have had. And, you know, it’s a great country with great people, and they have a lot going for them, and there is no reason why it should be failing like it is.
former CIA analyst and author of the new book, Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein.
— source democracynow.org