Among this growing genre, John Nixon’s Debriefing the President is nearly unique, resembling nothing so much as a workplace comedy. Forget American Sniper or Zero Dark Thirty — the nearest analogue to Nixon’s story of meetings going nowhere and supervisors talking past each other may very well be The Office.
The bureaucratic absurdism appears right at the start, and only increases. In 2003, CIA analyst Nixon was stationed in Iraq, sorting through intelligence briefings. A five-year veteran of the Agency at this point, he had previously spent his time at Langley monitoring Iraq in general, and Saddam in particular. When US forces captured Saddam on December 13, 2003, following a lead from one of the leader’s former bodyguards, Nixon made an ideal candidate for debriefing him. He couldn’t help but be excited at the prospect of speaking to a world historical figure at length. He hoped to ask Saddam the questions he had been pondering for years, to gain invaluable insights into his background and motivations. However, Nixon was alone in his enthusiasm. Everyone else seemed to regard the debriefing of High Value Target Number One as, at best, an inconvenience. Nixon writes:
[It never] occurred to me that our government had never prepared for capturing Saddam alive. U.S. officials took it as a foregone conclusion that Saddam would kill himself rather than be captured, or be killed as he tried to escape. When he was captured alive, no one knew what to do.
This is a microcosm of the ineptitude that went into launching the war, the first example of many in the book.
After a week of dithering, during which crucial opportunities for extracting intelligence from the rattled subject were squandered, Nixon begins his debriefing. But his hands are still tied: he receives orders to not question Saddam about terrorism. The FBI will handle that when they arrive and start to build their criminal case against him.
Nothing about terrorism? Isn’t that why they’re here in the first place? Nixon is frustrated, but realizes this could allow him to focus on Saddam’s character and history without worrying about gleaning the right piece of intelligence under deadline. This open-ended approach suits Nixon, who has a scholar’s interest in Saddam. But it’s an interest that few of his colleagues share.
The portrait Nixon sketches here is fascinating, offering details that have been misrepresented or completely missed elsewhere. For example, it was widely known that Saddam grew up poor in Tikrit, a backwater village north of Baghdad. After the death of his father when Saddam was very young, one of his uncles became his stepfather and raised him. The going theory in the intelligence community was that Saddam’s stepfather was cruel, beating him from a young age, and that withstanding such abuse made Saddam into a cruel dictator.
Saddam was certainly vicious, but not for this reason. Nixon learns that Saddam loved his stepfather, “the kindest man he knew.” A minor discrepancy, perhaps, but one that speaks to a larger laziness on the part of US leaders to understand Saddam on his own terms, within the context that shaped him, rather than the pop psychology of a supervillain. Indeed, this Dr. Doom view of Saddam informed US policy in Iraq since the administration of Bush the Elder, and almost certainly did more harm than good.
Take the military. The popular view held that the Iraqi army was effectively an extension of Saddam himself, the fearsome Republican Guard ready to defend their leader at all costs. But as Nixon writes, Saddam had little idea what the military was actually doing:
In his final years, Saddam appeared to be as clueless about what was happening inside Iraq as his British and American enemies were […] Saddam had deep respect for the military but only a primitive understanding of military affairs. He seemed to have learned little from Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran.
This is not how US forces saw the matter. As part of their “de-Ba’athification” effort to rid the country of every last trace of Saddam, the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by L. Paul Bremer, eliminated the upper ranks of the Iraqi military. Thousands of generals, colonels, and lieutenants were fired en masse, forcing them to look for work. Though the military was not without blemish, it was relatively stable, and its stability likely owed something to the fact that Saddam didn’t manage it too closely. Had the command infrastructure remained, it could have provided the CPA with a foundation for establishing a more stable Iraqi society. Instead, the streets were flooded with disgruntled military officers looking to put their skills to use. And they did: many of them were absorbed into the insurgency forces that coalesced into ISIS. Second-guessing is perhaps too easy when it comes to history, but it is likely that this decision — made by Bremer, who carried out orders from Donald Rumsfeld — did much to fortify the Islamic State that terrorizes Iraqi citizens to this day.
If Saddam wasn’t overseeing the military, what was he doing? Writing novels, of all things. He considered himself a man of letters, naming The Old Man and the Sea as his favorite book. He tells Nixon, “A man, a boat and a fishing line. These are the only ingredients to the book, but they tell us so much about man’s condition. A marvelous story.” In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Saddam spent his time not preparing for war, but going over the manuscript for his latest historical epic, sending it out to one of his ministers for a critique. The Romans fiddled as their city burned. When Baghdad went to war, Saddam workshopped his fiction.
Saddam, so everyone said, was a cancer on the Iraqi body politic. This gets Saddam right, but mischaracterizes the patient. There is an episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns visits a doctor and learns that he is “the sickest man in the United States,” afflicted with every disease known to science along with a few ones unique to him. However, the diseases are so numerous that they keep one another in check, preventing any one from overtaking Mr. Burns’s health. A harmony of sickness, you could say. This is not unlike the political situation in Iraq, a complex state that US warmongers failed to appreciate, spectacularly so.
Saddam didn’t see himself as a cancer, of course. He was the great leader that Iraq needed, the heir of Mesopotamian glories. But he discerned the other diseases afflicting the country with far greater acuity than anyone in the Bush administration. More than Iran, more than the majority Shi’a population, Saddam feared the Wahhabist-influenced extremists who were making a name for themselves throughout the Arab world. What Saddam found so worrisome about such fundamentalists was that their ideology was religious more than nationalistic, allowing them to appeal to marginalized communities in many different countries with failed despotic leaders. Likely because he was such an ardent nationalist, with delusions of Iraqi grandeur, he saw the threat that transnational extremist groups posed to his own country far more accurately than leaders ensconced in the Beltway. Get rid of Iraq’s leader, dismantle its military, and fundamentalists would swarm the country like locusts. In this regard, time has proven Saddam exactly right.
So the United States had sketchy intelligence regarding the political situation before the war. But once Saddam was captured and thoroughly debriefed, weren’t leaders better equipped to handle the growing insurgency? Answering that question is where Nixon’s book becomes not just compelling, but enraging.
After completing the debriefing process, Nixon returns to the United States, working a desk at Langley again. The final chapters detail several encounters with the Bush White House itself, briefing the president on several issues unfolding in Iraq. No matter the topic at hand, whether it’s rising Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr or Iraqi sovereignty, Bush proves himself again and again to have little interest in the nuances and subtleties that constitute foreign policy. If it’s not cut and dry, he’s not interested. This worldview has been well documented, but Nixon has the unique perspective of one who has sat in rooms with George W. Bush and his avowed enemy. The way he writes it, they seemed to be made for each other:
One of the great ironies of the Iraq War was that brutal dictator Saddam Hussein and freedom fighter George W. Bush were alike in many ways. Both had haughty, imperious demeanors. Both were fairly ignorant of the outside world and had rarely traveled abroad. Both tended to see things as black and white, good and bad, or for and against, and became uncomfortable when presented with multiple alternatives. Both surrounded themselves with compliant advisers and had little tolerance for dissent.
Nixon is frustrated by Bush’s insistence on easy answers, but what really draws his ire is the CIA’s willingness to dole them out. From its inception, the CIA’s stated goal has been to inform the president, enabling him to perform his duties. But the way Nixon tells it, the CIA used to approach the president like a doctor would a patient, delivering unpleasant truths for the benefit of his own health. Now the “service” approach is enshrined as best practice, and the president is treated as less of a patient and more of a customer. According to Nixon, “The service approach can have disastrous results when a president has strong preconceptions, a short attention span, and little time until the next election.” This co-dependent dynamic led to the perfect storm of hubris, mismanagement, and disinformation that became the legacy of the war. Nixon writes:
Discarded reporting was suddenly presented as solid intelligence. The era of analytic mediocrity had begun, and Iraq was its first casualty. It made the CIA complicit in the tragedy of Iraq.
Where does this leave the CIA today? Say the Agency rethinks the service approach and takes a more hard-nosed approach to briefing the president. Will the president even hear it, or will he simply dismiss intelligence, substantiated or otherwise, as fake news?