Trump Might Learn From Saddam Hussein's Skipping Of Intelligence Briefings
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President-elect Trump has questioned the value of daily security briefings from the CIA. I'm a smart person, he said, I don't have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years. He's also dismissed CIA reports that Russia had hacked into computers to help his election campaign, saying these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Former CIA officers have been horrified and warn that a president who rejects CIA analysis will weaken U.S. security. But a new book may make you question the intelligence of the Central Intelligence Agency. John Nixon, a former CIA analyst, conducted the U.S. interrogation of Saddam Hussein after his capture. He's written a memoir, "Debriefing The President: The Interrogation Of Saddam Hussein." John Nixon joins us from New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
JOHN NIXON: Oh, thank you for having me.
SIMON: So you were in Baghdad, having studied Saddam for a number of years, and you got a call to ID, what was he called, HVT-1?
NIXON: HVT-1, yes, high-value target number one. I was brought into the station chief's office in Baghdad. And I was asked how I would identify Saddam Hussein. I said, well, you know, tribal markings, he might have some scars on his leg from an assassination attempt. And they said, well, good enough, we want you to go out, the U.S. military has picked up somebody and we think it's him.
And I have to be honest, the minute I saw him, I knew it was him. I had studied him, I had looked at hundreds of hours of video tape and pictures. And he was just sitting there and talking to some military people. And the funny thing is is he sort of was holding court. And he almost acted like that he came there every Saturday night and that these people were his guests. And it was really something to marvel at.
SIMON: First stunner that you have in the book, in many ways, is that when the U.S. - he said that when the U.S. and U.K. invaded Iraq in 2003, he wasn't really running Iraq.
NIXON: Yes. In the early 2000s, we thought he was sort of this master manipulator and somebody who was pulling the strings. And certainly, I know the Bush administration had him as public enemy number one who was ready to blow up the world. And that was not the case.
SIMON: How could the CIA not know that there weren't weapons of mass destruction? Because that's not just personal intelligence...
NIXON: Oh, gosh...
SIMON: ...I mean, there's satellite intelligence, there's overflights, there's sources outside the country.
NIXON: I participated in hundreds of briefings, and I never, ever heard one person ever question whether or not he was pursuing weapons of mass destruction or had a program doing that. And we were all wrong. And even talking to him I still believed - I had this lurking suspicion, even when I got done debriefing him, that somehow he was holding out on this. But I have to say that after talking with him, and then when we talked to a number of other senior advisers of his, and then when we looked at the documentary record and all the intelligence, we really came to the conclusion that he had no program and that we could not find any discernible intention to start a program.
SIMON: At one point, you questioned him about executing so many of his opponents. And he had some words for you, which are kind of appalling under the circumstances but irresistible to quote now.
NIXON: We had a back and forth on this, and he got very annoyed with my questioning. And then at one point he did say, you know, you're going to fail. I said fail? Saddam, you're sitting here imprisoned. Your government is no more. How are we going to fail? And he said, you're going to fail because you're going to find out that it's not so easy to govern this place. And he said, you know, you don't understand our culture, our history, our language and you don't understand the Arab mind. And that's why you're going to fail. And to be quite honest with you, I remember thinking - I didn't want to concede the point to him, but I remember thinking he does have a point.
SIMON: Yeah. Do CIA briefings, in your analysis, suffer from some of the same problems that 24-hour news channels do?
NIXON: Oh, of course. Policymakers want to have the latest and the greatest on any particular issue. So you have analysts churning them out constantly, and when something becomes popular with policymakers, the agency then wants to kind of do more of it and kind of continually feed that beast because they feel that this is buying them gratitude. And, you know, it's a chit they'll be able to cash in at some point. But the downside to all of that is that the analysts end up focusing so much on sort of what is happening in the next 24-72 hours, they don't ever get an opportunity to step back and say, what does all of this mean?
SIMON: Do you have some sympathy for Donald Trump when he says he doesn't need these daily briefings? Have a lot of people overreacted?
NIXON: Oh, I - no. No, I think that is a very dangerous, very, very dangerous idea. I really would hope that the president-elect would reconsider that because the president needs an intelligence community. And the intelligence community needs a president that's going to support them and protect them. Case in point, if I can, if I...
NIXON: ...And it comes back to the book. Saddam Hussein sort of behaved like that. He didn't have daily briefings. And the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saddam never asked any of his advisers, he never asked for his intelligence community to prepare a study. He just announced it one day that he was tired of what Kuwait was doing and he was going to invade. And everybody said, oh, yes, Mr. President, that's a great idea. And it turned out to be the biggest fiasco in, probably, his ruling career. And it was something that happened that he never kind of got out from under that.
Now, as far as President-elect Trump goes, I would say to him, there are still some very good analysts at the agency. And you cannot expect to make a good decision on U.S. foreign policy or national security policy if you just sort of plop in at the beginning of a crisis and you don't understand what has gone on, and you haven't - and you don't understand the backstory or the nuance that's needed to be known in order to make the best decision possible. And if you think that all of these complex foreign issues are intuitive, I would say that, you know, you've got another thing coming to you.
SIMON: John Nixon - his new book, "Debriefing The President: The Interrogation Of Saddam Hussein." Thanks so much for being with us.
NIXON: Oh, thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.