Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein  by John Nixon

Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein by John Nixon


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 are the object of this book's criticism.

Advance Review Copy courtesy of the publisher.

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