CIA Interrogator: At Time of U.S. Invasion, Saddam Hussein Was Focused on Writing Novel, Not WMDs
Ten years ago this week, on December 30, 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. During the interrogation, 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." We speak to former CIA analyst John Nixon, author of the new book, "Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Well, 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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, quote, "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. Well, joining us now is former the CIA analyst, John Nixon, author of the new book, Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein. I mean, what you write in this book is quite stunning. You are the first person that went to interrogate Saddam Hussein. You had studied him—
JOHN NIXON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —for years.
JOHN NIXON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what—yet what you found when you met him shocked you.
JOHN NIXON: Yes. Yes, you know, 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.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And set the scene for us. How were you chosen for this—
JOHN NIXON: Sure.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: —for this mission? And also, how did you carry it out? Who was in the room with you?
JOHN NIXON: Certainly.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And what were the dynamics?
JOHN NIXON: Well, I had been—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.
AMY GOODMAN: You speak Arabic?
JOHN NIXON: No, I do not. I mean, I have smattering of—little bit here and there that I’ve picked up over time. But anyway, we—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. And—
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And did you conduct most of these interviews through an interpreter, or did he speak English?
JOHN NIXON: Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, we had—in the room, it was myself, a polygrapher, an interpreter provided by the Army, and Saddam.
AMY GOODMAN: A polygrapher, meaning he was always taking a polygraph?
JOHN NIXON: No, no. He was a 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.
AMY GOODMAN: What did he say about weapons of mass destruction?
JOHN NIXON: 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.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And you also asked him about chemical weapons being used on his own people.
JOHN NIXON: Yes.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And you were surprised and later confirmed what he said.
JOHN NIXON: Yes, I did. That was shocking, because one of the—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.
AMY GOODMAN: Saddam Hussein said the U.S. and Iraq would be allies in the fight against extremism and al-Qaeda.
JOHN NIXON: Yes. Well, 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we wrap up, though we’ll do Part 2—
JOHN NIXON: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: —and post it online, the response of the CIA in the information that you got? The response of President Bush?
JOHN NIXON: Yeah. 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, this undercut President Bush’s justification for this war.
JOHN NIXON: Yeah, yes, absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: So they just didn’t release or work with this information.
JOHN NIXON: Right. 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."
AMY GOODMAN: Well, clearly, it isn’t, 10 years—
JOHN NIXON: No.
AMY GOODMAN: More than 10 years later. We’re going to do Part 2 of this conversation and post it at democracynow.org. John Nixon is a former CIA senior analyst, author of the new book, Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein.