The Interrogation of Saddam: An Opportunity of a Lifetime

By John Nixon

John Nixon was a senior leadership analyst with the CIA from 1998 to 2011. He did several tours in Iraq and was recognized by a number of federal agencies for his contribution to the war effort. During his time with the CIA, Nixon regularly wrote for, and briefed, the most senior levels of the US government.  He also taught leadership analysis to the new generation of analysts coming into the CIA at the Sherman Kent School, the Agency's in-house analytic training center. Since leaving the Agency in 2011, Nixon has worked as an international risk consultant in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

This week, The Cipher Brief’s Executive Producer and Reporter Leone Lakhani speaks to John Nixon, author of “Debriefing The President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein.”

John was the first CIA analyst to question the Iraqi leader after his capture. He specialized in profiling world leaders for the CIA and spent much of his career studying Saddam.

In the second part of our interview, John describes the interrogation process, and the challenges of analyzing high-profile targets like Saddam.

The Cipher Brief: Do you remember the first thing Saddam said to you, and do you remember the last thing?

John Nixon: Yes. The first thing was on the first night. I said to him, “I am here to ask you some questions, and you are here to answer them truthfully. Do you understand me?” He said, “Yes.” Then I said, “When was the last time that you saw your two sons alive?” He looked up at me and listened to the translation, and he said (laughing), “Let me ask you something. Who are you guys? Where are you from? Are you military intelligence? Are you regular intelligence? Tell me who you are. Identify yourselves.” It was classic Saddam. At that point, the head of my group said, “We are not here to answer your questions. You are here to answer our questions.”

The last thing was one of the most surreal parts of the whole experience. By the end of my time there, Saddam was starting to get annoyed with me because I would bring up all these uncomfortable topics and subjects, like human rights abuse. He was starting to deflect me every time I talked. So, on that last day, we wanted to make sure there was a good handoff with my replacement.

I decided to say something nice. “Saddam, I’m leaving. I’m sorry that we met under these circumstances, but I want you to know that I understand you, and I understand Iraq a lot better. I want to thank you for that.”

He listened, and he just kind of puts his hands on his legs, and we stood up. Then, I did something that I never did. I put my hand out first. We always waited until he did that, but this time, I put my hand out first.

Then he grabbed my arm with his other hand, and he had me in a lock, and he wasn’t letting go. Then he says, “I just want you to know, I’m not a politician. I don’t like to say things that I don’t mean.”

TCB: Spoken like a good politician.

JN: Exactly. Then he went on. “You have to understand that you are here in your position, and I am here in my position. Naturally, there is going to be some disagreement, but when you go back to your job in Washington, I want you to remember that the two most important qualities that anybody can have is to be just and fair.” He talked on for about five minutes, and it was the only time, I can’t remember everything he said. The funny thing is that I was the only person that he did that to. For everybody else, he’d just be like, “Okay. Bye.”

TCB: He trusted you? He respected the fact that you knew a lot about him?

JN: I think so, yes. And I asked him a lot of challenging questions. He was always trying to win me over to his point of view, but he also felt challenged. It added a little something to the meetings. They were less boring for him.

TCB: How did you feel through that month-long interrogation? Was it exciting for you? Or was it tiring?

JN: It was exciting. It was tiring. One of the last times I met with him, I remember waking up and thinking, “Oh my God, I don’t want to talk to this guy today. I’m tired, and he’s such a nasty person.” The more you got to know him, the less you liked him.

But it was always interesting. There was always something he said that triggered me to ask him more questions. It was like a real game of cat and mouse. That and the historical importance of what it was we were doing, kept me going. It’s very rare that someone get an opportunity to do this.

TCB: Opportunity of a lifetime?

JN: Yes, exactly.

TCB: When you have to interrogate somebody like Saddam, you know all the horrors that he’s committed. At the same time, you have to have some sort of empathy, to speak to him on the same level. So how do you balance that?

JN: It works both ways. The first day or two, I remember thinking, “This guy is a sweetheart. He’s a really nice guy.” You’ve got to grab yourself and say, “Wait. Hold on a second here. This is Saddam Hussein you are talking to.”  Saddam was very charismatic. He was very charming. He could be very funny, and these were things you just don’t expect. Over time, as we got to know each other, you got to see a different side of things, and that is a very human course of action.

So empathy is a very important element, but so is professionalism.  If you are trying to get answers from someone like Saddam Hussein, what’s the old phrase, “You get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar?” Empathy is a good tool.

Also, using information is important to show him that you know a great deal, and he just can’t pawn off some answer on you. You have to constantly go back to questions and ask them again to see if there is any sort of variation in his answers. Then use that to pick away and see if you can get at a greater understanding. A lot of times, don’t accept that first answer and try to drill down deeper. And you need patience. Those are all important attributes to have when you are charged with something like this.

TCB: Leadership analysis was your specialty, and you taught that while you were in the Agency. Do you have to be trained in body language, in psychology? I’m curious about the method.

JN: Fortunately, the CIA has psychiatrists who will analyze a subject. I always try to stay away from the psychological, just because I’m not trained in that. In terms of body language, I can only tell you so much.

For me, it was about getting accurate information, taking that information – particularly about a person’s experiences – and seeing how it shaped their world view and actions. You also have to look at the people around this person. Nobody ever rises to power solely by themselves. They need the help of other people, so you need to look at how he interacts with those people, and what kind of people they are.

For example, if you were looking at [Russian President Mikhail] Gorbachev. Gorbachev didn’t suffer from the purges himself, but members of his family did. He came up through that time, in the late 30’s and 40’s.  He was just a very small child, but then how he came of age during the thaw years.  Those are all very powerful forces that shape a political outlook.

With Saddam it’s the same thing. You look at the political situation that is Iraq in the ‘50s and 60’s as he’s developing. Also, you have to understand that he rises very fast to become President of Iraq. You have to ask questions like, “how did he do it?” Again, he couldn’t have done this by himself. Then you start seeing things like he married well. He was willing to do jobs that others weren’t willing to do. He was very good at intrigue. He was also very good at security.

You sort of create a mosaic with all these factors. Then you have the baseline of understanding.

TCB: Psychiatrists say that you can’t judge somebody until you’ve actually diagnosed him/her yourself. These people that you have to analyze are people you’re rarely going to meet. Even with Saddam, you say in the book that there were things that analysts got wrong. So how do you create an accurate picture?

JN: If you’re a good analyst, you’re looking at everything. And if you’re a good analyst, you’re also willing to question your assumptions. I’ll be honest with you. I should have done more of that myself.

I tell the story in the book, and I think this is a good example. I had been told so many times, that Saddam had been mistreated by his step father. One of the reasons he wanted nuclear weapons is because as a young man, he was beaten, and he needed protection for himself. When I asked him, “What was your relationship with your stepfather?” it was the complete opposite of what the so-called experts said.

In doing intelligence work, rarely are you going to get the 100 percent of the information that you need. In dealing with a country like Saddam’s Iraq, it’s not so much reading tea leaves. It’s reading pieces of tea leaves. It’s sort of like a giant jigsaw puzzle and knowing that half the puzzle isn’t there.

Looking at Saddam’s Iraq, I found there were so many myths that had piled up. It was hard not to dispel them, because they came from some people that I really respected, and who had peddled these stories constantly. But that was one of the great things about talking to him.

TCB: John, you were the Saddam expert at the CIA. But were there other leaders that you studied?

JN: I studied a lot of Iranian leaders, particularly clerical leaders. I remember writing a paper on the Supreme Leader that was pretty well received. I also profiled President Khatami, Rafsanjani, and other key Iranian officials. In the last six months of my time at the CIA, I worked on North Korea, and that was around the time that Kim Jong-Il had a stroke and he was not doing well. They were trying to groom Kim Jong-un to be his successor.

TCB: Do leaders follow certain patterns, especially in authoritarian regimes? Are you looking for certain patterns?

JN: Yes. You look at Saddam and you look at the regime of Kim Jong-Il, and they’re very similar. The patterns include great distrust and a willingness to use lethal force and a very dysfunctional family life. For them, everything begins in the party, but as the cult of leadership grows, the party structure and the importance of the party withers. Those are examples at how things evolve over time. Certainly in authoritarian regimes, you see changes and you can anticipate things.

TCB: And then you can strategize about what you’re going to do, and how you can address it?

JN: Yes, and when policy makers come to you and say, “what can we do to shake the tree?” you can offer these as examples. But it’s very hard to tell American policy makers, “don’t do anything.” They’ll probably do it to themselves. Sometimes, doing nothing is the best approach. 

For more on our interview with John Nixon, listen to our 15 Minutes podcast here

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