Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein

Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein

In December 2003, after one of the largest, most aggressive manhunts in history, US military forces captured Iraqi president Saddam Hussein near his hometown of Tikrit. Beset by body-double rumors and false alarms during a nine-month search, the Bush administration needed positive identification of the prisoner before it could make the announcement that would rocket around...

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Title:Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein
Author:John Nixon
Rating:
ISBN:0399575812
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:272 pages

Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein Reviews

  • Christopher Lawson
    Dec 22, 2016

    For Years At The CIA, I Lived And Breathed Saddam

    DEBRIEFING THE PRESIDENT is an informative look into the life of a senior CIA analyst, John Nixon, who happens to also be the one who debriefed Saddam Hussein. When he was first confronted with the dictator, Nixon thought, “Holy shit, it’s Saddam!” Nixon was introduced as "Mr. Steve."

    Although he spoke cordially with Hussein, the author makes it clear that he wasn't fooled; he knew exactly what this man stood for: "He was a ruthless dictator who,

    For Years At The CIA, I Lived And Breathed Saddam

    DEBRIEFING THE PRESIDENT is an informative look into the life of a senior CIA analyst, John Nixon, who happens to also be the one who debriefed Saddam Hussein. When he was first confronted with the dictator, Nixon thought, “Holy shit, it’s Saddam!” Nixon was introduced as "Mr. Steve."

    Although he spoke cordially with Hussein, the author makes it clear that he wasn't fooled; he knew exactly what this man stood for: "He was a ruthless dictator who, at times, made decisions that plunged his region into chaos and bloodshed." And, "Saddam was tough, shrewd, and manipulative."

    The author explains that for interrogating Hussein, he was given a $75 gift certificate to a local Italian restaurant!

    Nixon believes, like many others, that the U.S. effort to capture the dictator was misguided, and came at too high a price. Looking back, it just seemed not worth it: "In hindsight, the thought of having Saddam Hussein in power seems almost comforting in comparison with the awful events and wasted effort of America’s brave young men and women in uniform, not to mention the $ 3 trillion and still counting we have spent to build a new Iraq."

    Nixon's offers withering criticism of the Bush administration; they just didn't understand Iraq, and especially Saddam: "The United States had vastly misunderstood both him and his role as a determined foe of radical currents in the Islamic world, including Sunni extremism." Nixon sees Saddam's removal as a tragic mistake, with lots of unintended consequences: "Saddam’s removal created a power vacuum that turned religious differences in Iraq into a sectarian bloodbath."

    DEBRIEFING THE PRESIDENT is a deadly serious book, but it does have a few light moments. Describing the CIA staff living in Iraq, Nixon recalls their poor conditions: "We lived in trailers, and often four or five of us were packed into each one." Longing for American food was common, and there was a single "Burger King" restaurant not too far away--they just had to make sure they weren't blown up on the way there: "Like other service personnel, CIA officers made special trips to the airport, braving the gauntlet of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) for a Whopper and fries."

    Mr. Nixon expresses frustration with the marginal competence of his superiors, as well as the inexperience of his fellow analysts. The agency is not what people might think: "The CIA, like most large bureaucracies , was plagued with competing fiefdoms."

    After the Iraq invasion, tons of newbie analysts were brought in, and the CIA thought they could be brought up to speed quickly. Nixon says they were simply not up to the job: "Few of them had analytic skills, and most were content to cut and paste material from previously published intelligence reports. . . " The agency foolishly thought that a good analyst could be developed quickly: "The Agency still thought it could take anyone and make him or her a first-rate analyst within a few months. I can say from hard experience that this approach simply doesn’t work."

    Nixon relates his frustration with the Bush administration and their pre-conceived ideas of the situation in Iraq. As a senior analyst, he was frustrated that they stuck to their options, "No matter what the intelligence showed."

    The author also has harsh words for CIA management, complaining of the "CYA" culture and just telling higher-ups what they wanted to hear, whether it was precise or not: "The CIA’s cover-your-ass culture is a formidable obstacle. Expertise is not valued, indeed not trusted, because experts can be wrong."

    Nixon had a handful of visits to the Oval Office, to brief the president and vice-president. I thought these accounts were perhaps the most fascinating part of the book. The author's final meeting with President Bush was tense. He was asked a lot of off-subject questions by the president, who was rude to the author when he didn't quickly respond (Nixon thought to himself, "What an asshole!")

    In this last briefing, Nixon answered the questions as best as he could, but his opinions conflicted with senior officials. Word got around about Nixon's turbulent briefing, and others in the agency seemed to avoid him: "When I walked around headquarters during the next few weeks, it was if I were radioactive."

    The author has critical words, of a different sort, for President Obama. The analysts at the CIA had high hopes for Obama, and thought he would be more interested in truly understanding foreign affairs, but they were disappointed: "The new president could not understand why the government spent so much on intelligence but, in his view, got so little in return."

    All in all, I found DEBRIEFING THE PRESIDENT to be an interesting, informative book. The author seems to me to be a dedicated, intelligent man, who gave his job 100%, under some difficult circumstances. I thought the book was well written, and I found his narrative easy to follow. I appreciate the author's expertise on Iraq--and especially his "insider view" on the life of Saddam Hussein and his last days. I especially appreciated the author's arguments for the need to have highly experienced analysts in the field, as opposed to "yes men" who simply tell higher-ups what they want to hear. It will be interesting to hear the reaction from those who were the object of this book's criticism

    Advance Review Copy courtesy of the publisher.

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  • Keith CARTER
    Jan 13, 2017

    Excellent read, this book really opened my eyes regarding the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces. Nixon was one of the first of many agents of the CIA to debrief Saddam and although the man was a monster he also comes across as intelligent and articulate who was also proud of his country. But most of all it shows us that the U S had absolutely no plan for post-invasion Iraq. Bush Jnr seems to me to be nothing more than (if you will pardon my language) an A-----E.. This is not my normal choice

    Excellent read, this book really opened my eyes regarding the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces. Nixon was one of the first of many agents of the CIA to debrief Saddam and although the man was a monster he also comes across as intelligent and articulate who was also proud of his country. But most of all it shows us that the U S had absolutely no plan for post-invasion Iraq. Bush Jnr seems to me to be nothing more than (if you will pardon my language) an A-----E.. This is not my normal choice of book but boy am I glad I read it.

  • Crisel
    Jan 24, 2017

    Book #5.

    When Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq in December of 2003, they needed someone to confirm his identity and that person was John Nixon, an ex-CIA senior analyst. He then became one of the first to interrogate Saddam during his capture.

    Though being able to identify Saddam, Nixon discovered that what he and the CIA or the American government knew about the deposed Iraqi leader was somewhat different from reality. I think the most unthinkable for me was that Saddam was actually spending m

    Book #5.

    When Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq in December of 2003, they needed someone to confirm his identity and that person was John Nixon, an ex-CIA senior analyst. He then became one of the first to interrogate Saddam during his capture.

    Though being able to identify Saddam, Nixon discovered that what he and the CIA or the American government knew about the deposed Iraqi leader was somewhat different from reality. I think the most unthinkable for me was that Saddam was actually spending most of his time writing a book and his aides are running the government. He wrote that Saddam actually describes himself as President and a writer and that he actually complained about the military taking away his writing materials, thus, keeping him from finishing his book. Moreover, they were also mistaken about Saddam's attitude on the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Iraq's supposed possession of WMDs used to be the American and British governments' reason to justify the invasion of Iraq.

    Interestingly, Mr. Nixon also was very critical of the CIA and the Bush administration. It was quite astonishing to know that the CIA mainly just wanted to please the President and that the President only hears what he wanted to hear.

    Very readable. Very informative read.

  • Murtaza
    Jan 17, 2017

    Firsthand accounts of historical figures have always been fascinating to me, and this is a particularly captivating recollection by a former CIA officer of his interrogations of Saddam Hussein. John Nixon studied Saddam from afar for years, and later had the rare opportunity of confronting him face to face in weeks of interviews. The simple fact of having quotes from Saddam is amazing, but Nixon is also a smart interlocutor and writer. He eschews cliches and gives a humane and thoughtful account

    Firsthand accounts of historical figures have always been fascinating to me, and this is a particularly captivating recollection by a former CIA officer of his interrogations of Saddam Hussein. John Nixon studied Saddam from afar for years, and later had the rare opportunity of confronting him face to face in weeks of interviews. The simple fact of having quotes from Saddam is amazing, but Nixon is also a smart interlocutor and writer. He eschews cliches and gives a humane and thoughtful account of his discussions with Saddam, as well as the consequences of the American role in Iraq generally.

    A few things that are particularly striking are Nixon's accounts of the organizational dysfunction within the U.S. government and the CIA in particular. The CIA has a public reputation as a highly sophisticated (and nefarious) organization, but from his telling it functions just like any other dysfunctional bureaucracy. While it accomplishes its goals sometimes, it is also full of departmental politics, careerists and time-servers. It is notable that some of those tasked with interviewing Saddam, a highly consequential role, didn't have much knowledge or experience on the subject. Nixon himself had only a few years of study on Iraq and the Middle East and evidently spoke little Arabic (despite this, he seemed to be among the most knowledgable about Saddam in the CIA). Many others in sensitive roles seemed to be similarly situated. Its a reminder that all organizations, even the CIA, are full of people of varying degrees of knowledge and skill, and there are few if any large bureaucracies that are full of supermen. Through his work he also spends some time briefing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and has interesting insights on both (he describes Bush as "an asshole" at one point when he makes a snide comment at him during a briefing).

    The subtext to the entire book is Nixon's relationship with Saddam. The surreality of confronting Saddam in the flesh after years of studying him is well conveyed. Through their conversations he grapples with the difficult question of what America's role should have been when dealing with an undeniably murderous ruler like Saddam. Ultimately, he takes a pragmatic perspective, arguing that Saddam, while a heinous individual, was not the Hitlerian figure he had been caricatured as in the United States. Nixon argues instead that Saddam was a product of the political environment in his country. He describes him as parochial and unworldly, but deeply knowledgable about the currents of his own society; far more so than those who invaded and attempted to make a new political order in the void that he left. Ultimately Nixon describes the invasion as a great error, citing reasons that are humane and thoughtful, regardless of ones own beliefs.

    All in all this is an excellent book, lucidly written and by an author who comes across as quite likeable and self-reflective. Close-quarters accounts of history are always engaging, and this is a particularly good example.

  • Ziad Fahom
    Feb 18, 2017

    "In foreign affairs, the United States is constantly reinventing the wheel by quickly forgetting the lessons learned from the last war. Just as people forget pain, the United States develops a case of amnesia about the blood and treasure expended in a military conflict. We celebrate victories but don't hold the government fully accountable when the use of force does not achieve its objectives, or leaves chaos in its wake.

    Watching the grainy cell phone images being taped by Maliki's national secu

    "In foreign affairs, the United States is constantly reinventing the wheel by quickly forgetting the lessons learned from the last war. Just as people forget pain, the United States develops a case of amnesia about the blood and treasure expended in a military conflict. We celebrate victories but don't hold the government fully accountable when the use of force does not achieve its objectives, or leaves chaos in its wake.

    Watching the grainy cell phone images being taped by Maliki's national security adviser, Muaffaq al-Rubai, I was struck that Saddam looked like the most dignified person in the room. He handled the occasion as I expected he would - defiant and unafraid to the end. It was a rushed execution in a dark basement in Baghdad. For me, the final pillar justifying Operation Iraqi Freedom had collapsed. Saddam was not a likable guy. The more you got to know him, the less you liked him. He had committed horrible crimes against humanity. But we had come to Iraq saying that we would make things better. We would bring democracy and the rule of law. No longer would people be awakened by a threatening knock on the door. And here we were, allowing Saddam to be hanged in the middle of the night."

    Spot on.

  • Chuck
    Jan 17, 2017

    4-stars

    Trust me, you don’t wanna read this. It’s so much easier to believe the blowhards on Fox News. Just forget what the CIA’s top expert on the matter has to say. And just forget the fact that Saddam neither had WMDs nor a thing to do with 9/11. And why should it matter that Saddam thought the attack on 9/11 should actually bring our countries closer together? Because the religious lunatics that attacked us were his enemies as well. It isn’t like Cheney and Rumsfeld and company had been plott

    4-stars

    Trust me, you don’t wanna read this. It’s so much easier to believe the blowhards on Fox News. Just forget what the CIA’s top expert on the matter has to say. And just forget the fact that Saddam neither had WMDs nor a thing to do with 9/11. And why should it matter that Saddam thought the attack on 9/11 should actually bring our countries closer together? Because the religious lunatics that attacked us were his enemies as well. It isn’t like Cheney and Rumsfeld and company had been plotting an invasion into Iraq for many years or that the whole world knew the stabilizing role Saddam played in Iraq and that removing him would end in disaster. Oh, except they did. And that essentially Saddam laughed into our faces and wished us the best of luck with that. Just forget it all. It’s so much easier to believe Saddam was a monster who kept the rule totally by fear and didn’t have any good reasons for anything he did. You don’t want to read something that portrays Saddam as being the least bit logical or rational, do you? Just tune into Fox News. They got your vote, er, back, I mean.

  • Ali
    Jan 19, 2017

    Brief Thoughts

    At first it was hard digesting the book, as the author seemed to normalize Saddam, but as the book progressed it was clear that's not the case - after all I grew up in Kuwait and was 7 during the invasion so I have no sympathy for Saddam and the book didn't change my perception of him. He was a ruthless dictator, he lived in his own arrogant head, acted with little wisdom and forethought. Impulsive and insecure. The intent of the author was to present what he witnessed both on the

    Brief Thoughts

    At first it was hard digesting the book, as the author seemed to normalize Saddam, but as the book progressed it was clear that's not the case - after all I grew up in Kuwait and was 7 during the invasion so I have no sympathy for Saddam and the book didn't change my perception of him. He was a ruthless dictator, he lived in his own arrogant head, acted with little wisdom and forethought. Impulsive and insecure. The intent of the author was to present what he witnessed both on the account of interviewing Saddam and his feeding back of briefings to Washington. And to that extent he did a great job.

    Key Takeaways

  • Matthew Trevithick
    Feb 01, 2017

    Interesting, quick read. Mainly happy this book exists at all. The author provides a book that is 3/4 replay of his working to understand Saddam as an analyst and interacting with him in person, and 1/4 an axe to grind against how USG institutions function (or don't), bureaucratic infighting, political short-sightedness / stupidity, and (not unwarranted) critiques of his former employers.

  • Allison
    Mar 13, 2017

    3.5 stars. The author offers a rare glimpse into details of Saddam Hussein's life as well as the fiefdoms of a competitive US bureaucracy. What I know to be true of the internal competition of many authoritarian regimes also seems to hold on the dynamics between the CIA, military, FBI and executive branch. Less a window into the mind of Iraq's former strongman, and more a disturbing portrait of the state of the Agency.

  • Farhana
    Feb 09, 2017

    very focused writing. The writer looks into what was it all about USA's invasion in Iraq & whether the effort was worth the cost in blood, treasure & regional stability. It focused on how USA often took impulsive decisions regarding their foreign policy rather than deliberative, how intelligence in CIA was highly politicized. Being a middle east expert & first debriefer of Saddam from the CIA, Nixon showed how US authority & policymakers often misunderstood the mind of this man &

    very focused writing. The writer looks into what was it all about USA's invasion in Iraq & whether the effort was worth the cost in blood, treasure & regional stability. It focused on how USA often took impulsive decisions regarding their foreign policy rather than deliberative, how intelligence in CIA was highly politicized. Being a middle east expert & first debriefer of Saddam from the CIA, Nixon showed how US authority & policymakers often misunderstood the mind of this man & how Arab minds work. The Arab Spring quickly turned into an Arab Winter of civil wars and political chaos.