John Nixon has just published a new account of his time with CIA. The book looks closely at his research into Saddam Hussein. Nixon was on hand when the Americans captured Hussein in 2003, and was the go-to expert who was trusted to make the definitive identification of the dictator. Yet Nixon’s take on Hussein wasn’t in line with the official position of the White House.
As part of the promotional junket for his book, Nixon has written a solid article for The Daily Mail on what that time with George W. Bush and Husein was really like.
It begins with his encounter with Husein:
Could this burly, unkempt man truly be Saddam Hussein, the ruthless dictator of Iraq? The most wanted man in the world?
It was December 13, 2003, and I’d been in Iraq for eight weeks – a CIA analyst looking for leads that might take us to Saddam and his notorious henchmen.
[…] The myth – and it was a myth – that Saddam maintained multiple lookalikes was a source of wry amusement to those of us who worked in intelligence, but I decided silence was the better part of valor and started compiling a list of questions only the dictator could answer.
[…]Suddenly the door opened and I immediately found myself sucking in air. There he was, sitting on a metal folding chair, wearing a white dishdasha robe and blue quilted windbreaker.
There was no denying that the man had charisma. He was big – 6ft 1in – and thickly built. Even as a prisoner who was certain to be executed, he exuded an air of importance.
I spoke first through a translator. ‘I have some questions I’d like to ask you, and you are to answer them truthfully. Do you understand?’
Saddam nodded. ‘When was the last time you saw your sons alive?’
I expected Saddam to be defiant, but I was taken aback by the aggression of his reply: ‘Who are you guys? Are you military intelligence? Mukhabarat [civilian intelligence]? Answer me. Identify yourselves!’
I noted his tribal tattoos and that his mouth drooped. Now I needed to see his bullet wound.
There was so much we wanted to know. How had he escaped from Baghdad? Who had helped him? He would not say, answering only the questions he wanted to.
‘Why don’t you ask me about politics? You could learn a lot from me,’ he barked. He was especially vocal on the rough treatment he’d received from the troops who brought him in, launching a long diatribe.
I was incredulous. Here was a man who didn’t think twice about killing his own people complaining about a few scratches. He lifted his dishdasha to show the damage to his left leg. I saw an old scar. Was it the bullet wound, I asked him. He assented with a grunt – the final piece of proof. We’d got him.
When Nixon pressed Hussein on the mythical weapons of mass destruction, Hussein was defiant.
‘You found a traitor who led you to Saddam Hussein. Isn’t there one traitor who can tell you where the WMDs are?’ He warmed to the subject, saying Americans were a bunch of ignorant hooligans who did not understand Iraq and were intent on its destruction.
‘Iraq is not a terrorist nation,’ he said. ‘We did not have a relationship with (Osama) bin Laden, and did not have weapons of mass destruction… and were not a threat to our neighbors. But the American President [George W Bush] said Iraq wanted to attack his daddy and said we had ‘weapons of mass destruction.’
Ignoring his goading, we asked Saddam if he’d ever considered using WMDs per-emptively against US troops in Saudi Arabia. ‘We never thought about using weapons of mass destruction. It was not discussed. Use chemical weapons against the world? Is there anyone with full faculties who would do this? Who would use these weapons when they had not been used against us?’
Saddam had an answer: ‘The spirit of listening and understanding was not there – I don’t exclude myself from this blame.’ It was a rare acknowledgment that he could have done more to create a clearer picture of Iraq’s intentions.
Nixon goes on at length about the question and answer session, and some of it is surprisingly emotional. He talked with the dictator about his children. All told, Hussein knew he was going to die, and so may have been willing to talk more candidly than he would have otherwise.
[…] late 2007, I was summoned to give a detailed presentation to George W. Bush at the Oval Office. What kind of a man had Saddam been, he asked me?
I told him that he was disarming at first and used self-deprecating wit to put you at ease.
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.
He looked at Vice-President Dick Cheney and their eyes locked in a knowing way. As I was leaving, he joked: ‘You sure Saddam didn’t say where he put those vials of anthrax?’ Everyone laughed, but I thought his crack inappropriate. America had lost more than 4,000 troops.
Several months later, I was asked to go back to the White House. This time, the President looked annoyed and distracted and asked for a briefing on the Shia cleric called Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, then engaged in dangerous insurgency against the coalition. This was not on the agenda.
Trying to gain a few seconds, I said: ‘Well, that is the $64,000 question’ Bush looked at me and said: ‘Why don’t you make it the $74,000 question, or whatever your salary is, and answer?’ What an a***hole!
In his 2010 memoir, Bush wrote: ‘I decided I would not criticize the hardworking patriots of the CIA for the faulty intelligence on Iraq.’ But that is exactly what he did. He blamed the agency for everything that went wrong and called its analysis ‘guesswork’ while hearing only what he wanted to hear.
I do not wish to imply that Saddam was innocent. He was a ruthless dictator who plunged his region into chaos and bloodshed. But in hindsight, the thought of having an ageing and disengaged Saddam in power seems almost comforting in comparison with the wasted effort of our brave men and women in uniform and the rise of Islamic State, not to mention the £2.5 trillion spent to build a new Iraq.