The CIA analyst charged with interviewing Iraq’s former strongman Saddam Hussein says the US “got it wrong” about the dictator and his intentions in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of the country.
Not only were they mistaken about the despot’s attitude to weapons of mass destruction; they even screwed up on details such as his penchant for cigars and red meat.
The revelations, by CIA operative John Nixon, were published in Britain’s Mail on Sunday newspaper, prior to publication of his book, “Debriefing The President: The Interrogation Of Saddam Hussein.”
The interviews with Saddam, said Nixon, “turned our assumptions upside down.”
Nixon also says then-president George W. Bush blamed the CIA 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,” Nixon concludes in his preview.
“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 [some $3 trillion] spent to build a new Iraq.”
The face-to-face interrogations began in December 2003, after troops found a large bearded man in a tiny underground bunker on a farm near Saddam’s home village of Tikrit.
Nixon was summoned to ensure the man was the real Saddam, because the CIA’s executive director at the time was convinced Hussein maintained multiple doubles.
“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,” Nixon said.
His assessment that this really was Hussein came after he found three identifying signs on the captured man’s body — tribal tattoos on Saddam’s right hand and wrist, a bullet scar on his left leg and a slight droop to one side of his lower lip.
Saddam — who had charisma and conveyed an air of importance, even though he was certain to face execution — denied involvement in the September 11 attacks and even revealed that he had expected the US to partner with Iraq — whose government at that time was secular — to help fight Islamic extremists, Nixon wrote.
Asked about the weapons of mass destruction that had been used to justify the US invasion of Iraq, Hussein mocked “the bunch of ignorant [American] hooligans who did not understand Iraq and were intent on its destruction.”
According to Nixon, he jeered: “You found a traitor who led you to Saddam Hussein. Isn’t there one traitor who can tell you where the weapons of mass destruction are?”
“Iraq is not a terrorist nation,” he asserted. “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 [Bush] said Iraq wanted to attack his daddy and said we had ‘weapons of mass destruction.'”
Saddam reportedly continued: “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?
“The spirit of listening and understanding was not there – I don’t exclude myself from this blame.”
This, says Nixon, was a rare acknowledgment by Hussein that he could have done more to convey Iraq’s intentions more clearly.
Nixon goes on to list that many things caught him by surprise. He had never doubted claims that Hussein’s stepfather had beaten him and that that was why he was so cruel and so intent on getting hold of nuclear weapons. But during an interrogation, Saddam described his stepfather as the kindest man he had ever known.
The CIA’s assertion that Saddam had given up red meat and cigars also proved to be hollow.
“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.”
But he was perceptive, predicting that the US would fail in Iraq, Nixon says.
“You are going to find that it is not so easy to govern Iraq,” he told the analyst.
“Because you do not know the language, the history, and the Arab mind,” he went on. “It’s hard to know the Iraqi people without knowing its weather and its history. The difference is between night and day and winter and summer. That’s why they say the Iraqis are hard-headed – because of the summer heat.”
Hussein was executed in 2006. A year later, Nixon was summoned to see President Bush.
“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, Nixon was summoned again to Bush and asked for a briefing on prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, for which the analyst was unprepared.
Trying to play for time, Nixon 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!'”