A former CIA analyst who personally interrogated Saddam Hussein said the U.S. "got it so wrong" on the invasion of Iraq and should have left the now-deceased leader in power.
In an excerpt from a memoir about his time with the agency, Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, former analyst John Nixon—who was the first officer to question Hussein after his capture in December 2003—writes that the Ba'athist president was not "worth removing from power," and that the decision to do so needs to be viewed in the context of what came next: the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Today, a decade following Saddam's execution, with ISIS's black flags still unfurled over sections of Iraq, we need to ask ourselves some provocative questions. One of them is: What would have happened if we had just kept Saddam in his box or if the successor Iraqi government had shown mercy and commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment?
Hussein was known for his cruel and tyrannical leadership. However, Nixon says, "it is improbable that a group like ISIS would have been able to enjoy the kind of success under his repressive regime that they have had under the Shia-led Baghdad government."
The memoir comes as the U.S. prepares to transition to a Donald Trump administration, with a president-elect known for his unpredictable temperament, lack of government experience, and little understanding of foreign relations. Shaping a new order in the Middle East "will require making tough decisions and, ultimately, recognizing that we may have to deal with people and leaders that we abhor if we want to help bring stability back to the region," Nixon writes.
And while it's long been known that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, the memoir still details an illuminating exchange between Hussein and his CIA interrogators, who asked him whether his regime had considered using WMDs preemptively against American troops. The Iraqi president answered, "We never thought about using weapons of mass destruction. It was not discussed."
Nixon writes, "This was not what we had expected to hear. How, then, had America got it so wrong?"
Nixon also criticizes the CIA for what he paints as a sycophantic work culture, with agents being more interested in pandering to the president than in gathering accurate information. In a review of the upcoming book, New York Times reporter James Risen details how the analyst describes the CIA as "a haven for yes-men excessively eager to please the White House," where expertise "is not valued, indeed not trusted.”
That atmosphere led to an institutional misunderstanding of Hussein's character. Nixon writes:
The CIA profile of Saddam suggested he was a chronic liar, yet he could be quite candid. Our perception that he ruled with an iron grip was also mistaken. It became clear from our interrogations that in his final years, Saddam seemed clueless about what had been happening inside Iraq. He was inattentive to what his government was doing, had no real plan for the defense of Iraq and could not comprehend the immensity of the approaching storm.
Meanwhile, then-President George W. Bush himself heard "only what he wanted to hear" on the topic. In late 2007, Nixon recalls giving a presentation on Hussein to Bush and then-Vice President Dick Cheney, where he described the Iraqi leader as disarming and self-deprecating. "The president looked as if he was going to lose his cool. I quickly explained that the real Saddam was sarcastic, arrogant, and sadistic, which seemed to calm Bush down," Nixon says.
"As I was leaving, he joked: 'You sure Saddam didn't say where he put those vials of anthrax?'" Nixon writes. "Everyone laughed, but I thought his crack inappropriate. America had lost more than 4,000 troops."