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  • Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein by John Nixon
  • W. Andrew Terrill (bio)
Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, by John Nixon. New York: Blue Rider Press, 2016. 256pages. $25.

John Nixon’s Debriefing the President recounts the author’s encounters with ousted Iraqi president Saddam Husayn while serving as an interrogator for the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As an interrogator, Nixon joined with various CIA associates to hold lengthy and wide-ranging discussions with Saddam while he was in US government custody. Nixon had previously served as a senior CIA analyst focused on Iraq and later Iran, therefore having a knowledge base that allowed him to put Saddam’s answers into context and sometimes catch him in lies or other distortions of the truth. Beyond the discussions with Saddam, the book is also a scathing critique of the George W. Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq, the way that it administered the occupation, and especially what the author views as the failure of the CIA leadership to show much courage when dealing with a highly ideological and opinionated president. Due to the author’s background, this work underwent CIA pre-publication review to excise any potentially classified information that might have been included in the text. A small portion of the text has been replaced by black bars where the CIA has forbidden publication of material that its reviewers view as classified.

Nixon and Saddam’s other interrogators were guided by orders that the ousted dictator must be treated with a level of humanity that was greater than the protections of the Geneva Convention. Such an approach was designed to help the US government avoid any future claims that Saddam was mistreated in custody. Saddam also knew that there was no chance for him to escape execution due to his long list of crimes, and he correspondingly had little incentive to cooperate with US officials except to pass the time. Saddam chose to cooperate despite the lack of incentives and sometimes seemed to enjoy the discussions with CIA officers, which he saw as an opportunity to tell his side of the story and express his bitterness over US policy. Nixon maintains that Saddam was tough, shrewd, and manipulative in their discussions, but the Iraqi leader also “could be remarkably forthright when it suited his purposes” (p. 63). Also, Saddam was not someone who routinely concealed his prejudices and made few noticeable attempts to hide them at this stage of his life. Nixon detested Saddam, but found the experience of debriefing him to be utterly fascinating, both as an Iraq specialist and an intelligence professional.

As the interrogations proceeded, it quickly became apparent that the White House and CIA leaders were primarily interested in where Saddam had hidden his supposed weapons of mass destruction and his equally fanciful ties to al-Qa‘ida. CIA instructions to Nixon and his colleagues clearly centered on getting Saddam to reveal information that would help the Bush Administration justify its decision to go to war by producing evidence that supported their narrative. Unfortunately for the interrogators, Saddam became impatient with them when they kept returning to these topics after he had told them that US allegations on both matters were nonsense. Under these conditions, the debriefers chose to engage in general, free-ranging discussions while trying to obliquely return to the issues of central interest to the White House. In the end, Saddam yielded no information to support the Bush Administration’s theories that Iraq was an al-Qa‘ida–linked aspiring nuclear power since these theories had no merit. [End Page 317]

On the basis of his discussions, Nixon maintains that Saddam’s greatest concerns in his last years of rule involved keeping Iraq’s Sunni Arabs united as a base of support behind his regime. Saddam felt it would be particularly difficult to use his mostly Sunni internal security forces to fight against Sunni anti-regime terrorists if they managed to establish a foothold in Iraq. If Sunni jihadists achieved such a foothold, they would also be difficult to root out without alienating Sunni tribes and Saddam’s power base could “rot from...


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pp. 317-318
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