America’s crime

The book by a former senior leadership analyst with the CIA presents a different picture of Saddam Hussein which is in contrast to his public persona and sums up the consequences of his capture on false claims.

Published : Oct 11, 2017 12:30 IST

IT is not fair to exonerate either the state or the country, the United States, or its people from culpability in the crime of attacking, invading and occupying Iraq in 2013 and for staging the murder of its President Saddam Hussein. The people consciously re-elected George W. Bush as President, the man who committed this sordid crime with premeditation, in cold blood. George W. Bush is a man of little knowledge of world affairs, with a feeble temper and dim intelligence. In contrast to Britain, there is little sign or word of indignation or remorse for it. The New York Times blithely called it a “unilateral invasion”; as if invasions are consensual. The expression in vogue is “war of choice”. The result? The birth and rise of the ISIS (Islamic State).

Iraq lies ruined. Its treasures were stolen. Its people were treated virtually as serfs in their own land. Its President, Saddam Hussein, was executed after a farcical trial. Few believed in the stated object of this adventure in international crime; namely, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). One of the ablest British diplomats in recent years, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, dedicated his book The Cost of War to his wife, Anne, “Who suspected, long before I did that Saddam had no WMD.”

It is an authoritative, meticulous record in pages of the diplomacy preceding and following the crime by a man of rectitude and solid competence. He was Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Special Envoy for Iraq.

John Nixon’s book belongs to a different genre. He was a senior leadership analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency from 1998 to 2011; did several tours in Iraq and regularly wrote for, and briefed, the most senior levels of the U.S. government, including President Bush; twice. He is honest to the core. Revulsion at Saddam’s murder and his savage cruelty does not blind him to the truth; nor does it rob him of the compassion due to a head of state imprisoned by a foreign power after the invasion of his country on utterly dishonest pretexts. The book was twice reviewed by the CIA’s Publication Review Board. Black bars indicate where its redactions were applied recklessly.

Bush simply used 9/11 to invade Iraq, as the memoirs of Richard Clarke revealed. “The issue of Saddam and what to do about him went into hyperdrive after the 9/11 attacks. The very next day , according to White House adviser Richard Clarke, Bush asked Clarke to find the links between Saddam and the attacks. Undersecretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz wanted to know how many times Saddam had threatened the United States in speeches or comments made to the media. The CIA was asked to look through its files and find any connections to terrorism. Everything the Iraqi dictator had ever done was now given renewed scrutiny. It was clear in Langley that the White House would look with favour on interpretations that supported its desire to solve the Iraq problem once and for all.”

Exiles are a notoriously unreliable source of information. By the way, where have the Research and Analysis Wing and Ajit Doval’s Baloch friends in exile disappeared? Bush relied on Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, which was notorious for supplying self-serving information. The CIA rejected it. Others gladly lapped it up, especially Donald Rumsfeld’s Defence Department; anything to justify the invasion.

In the very first paragraph of the book, the author sums up the consequences which plague the world still. “The rise of Islamic extremism in Iraq, chiefly under the rubric of ISIS (or Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham), is a catastrophe that the United States needn’t have faced had it been willing to live with an aging and disengaged Saddam Hussein. I do not wish to imply that Saddam was innocent of the charges that were thrown at him over the years. He was a ruthless dictator who, at times, made decisions that plunged his region into chaos and bloodshed. However, in hindsight, the thought of having Saddam Hussein in power seems almost comforting in comparison with the awful events and wasted effort of America’s brave young men and women in uniform, not to mention the $3 trillion and still counting we have spent to build a new Iraq.”

Garnishing a deliberate crime

It was not criminal folly; it was a case of folly garnishing a deliberate crime. The U.S. demonised Saddam and misunderstood him completely. In December 2003 and January 2004, the author was the first American to conduct a prolonged interrogation of Saddam after his capture by U.S. forces. He was a senior CIA leadership analyst who had spent the previous five years studying Iraq and Iran. In the ensuing weeks, he learned that the U.S. had vastly misunderstood both him and his role as a determined foe of radical currents in the Islamic world, including extremism.

“Ironically, while American neocons tried their best to link Saddam to 9/11 and al-Qaeda, Saddam thought that the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon would move the United States closer to his Ba’athist regime. In Saddam’s mind, the two countries were natural allies in the fight against extremism and, as he said many times during his interrogation, he couldn’t understand why the United States did not see eye to eye with him. Saddam was a Sunni himself, his Ba’ath Party stood for Arab nationalism and socialism, and he saw Sunni extremism as a threat to his power base. Saddam portrayed himself as utterly fearless, but to my surprise, he told me he feared the rise of extremism in his country. He knew how difficult it would be to use his mostly Sunni apparatus of repression to fight an enemy whose galvanising principle was Sunni fundamentalism.” He was secular.

Saddam the writer

After thorough preparation over the years, the author held extensive interviews with Saddam and learned that before the war he had disengaged himself from the chores of governance. He was writing a novel and prided himself on being a writer. “I asked Saddam what he liked to read. He said he liked to read history and Arabic stories. I asked him his favourite book and he said The Old Man and the Sea , by Ernest Hemingway. ‘Think about it,’ he said. ‘A man, a boat, and a fishing line. These are the only ingredients to the book, but they tell us so much about man’s condition. A marvellous story.’ ”

A constant refrain in those debriefings was Saddam’s complaints about his imprisonment and his requests for luxury items. He often railed about his lack of writing materials. “You must understand, I am a writer. And what you are doing by depriving me of pen and paper amounts to human rights abuse!” Saddam would also constantly request reading material to pass the time. “He told us one of the guards had given him the Cliffs Notes for the Arabic version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment . ‘This man Dostoyevsky has a remarkable insight into the human condition,’ Saddam said. He was also a big fan of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and requested that we purchase for him the Arabic text of his Cairo Trilogy .

“For years at the CIA, I was told over and over again that he was a student of Stalin and Hitler, who were supposedly his role models. But Saddam had expressed admiration for de Gaulle, Lenin, Mao, and George Washington. Now he added Tito and Nehru. He was careful to note that he respected Lenin as a thinker. ‘Stalin does not interest me. He was not a thinker. For me, if a person is not a thinker, I lose interest. There were many stories about Stalin: his application on agricultural development and his dealings with owners and kulaks of large pieces of land, and Beria, his intelligence chief. It made him unfavourable, and his style was revolting.’

“Not once during our time together did Saddam say he admired Hitler or Stalin. The idea that Saddam was enthralled by Nazi and Soviet leaders gave many academics a template through which they could explain him to the layman. It was also an easy way to demonise the Iraqi strongman.”

It is dangerous to demonise leaders of countries with which one’s country is locked in dispute. It serves only to impair one’s judgment. It is a favourite sport in which Indian politicians, journalists—especially TV anchors—indulge freely.

The author repeatedly emphasises Saddam’s disengaged style of governance. “In his final years, Saddam had begun to disengage from ruling the country and was mainly occupied with non-governmental pursuits, his writing chief among them. There was reporting suggesting this was happening, but it was never relayed to policymakers and emerged only after the war. We subsequently found out, as the U.S. military prepared to invade Iraq, that Saddam was sending the latest draft of a novel he was writing to Tariq Aziz to critique. This was not a man bracing for a pulverising military attack.

“Frankly, if we’d had this information in real time and conveyed it to the White House, it would not have prevented the hostilities. The Bush administration was set on war and determined to remove Saddam. But as intelligence professionals, we had a responsibility to pass along this information to policymakers. If nothing else, it might have raised the threshold for going to war. It ranked as a failure almost as great as claims that Iraq had stores of WMD.”

Neocon fantasies

The neocons were enveloped in fantasy: alter the shape of the region and introduce democracy. Why do they do not, even now, try to introduce democracy in the most eligible candidate for it—Saudi Arabia? The reason is that Saudi Arabia has ever been willing to act as an American stooge. “We were there because of neocon fantasies about bringing the region under American suzerainty and because of President Bush’s misguided belief that Saddam had tried to kill his father. Was Saddam worth removing from power? I can speak only for myself when I say that the answer must be no. Saddam was busy writing novels in 2003. He was no longer running the government. Would his sons have been able to succeed him? Possibly, but they might not have lasted for long. More likely, someone from the Sunni military-security axis would have grabbed power through a coup. It wouldn’t have been pretty, but at least it would have been an Iraqi solution to the question of ‘Who leads Iraq?’ The United States then could have re-engaged with the new regime.”

Bush was fed stories of a Saddam double, his plans “to murder Bush’s daughters”, his links to Al Qaeda, complicity in 9/11 and the like. Saddam had nothing to do with religious extremists. The U.S. had no humint in Iraq—human intelligence based on reliable spies. The author had no illusions about this “murderous Horatio Alger”.

The CIA was not only inept but morally corrupt. It was eager to please Bush & Co. “The initial assessment of Saddam suggested that he was a chronic liar. But not everything Saddam said was a lie—far from it, in fact—and I believe his profiler was mistaken about him. There was a predisposition on the part of almost everyone handling the Iraqi dictator to blow off everything he said, unless he miraculously admitted to having WMD or ordering genocidal attacks.

“Saddam could be quite candid when he chose to be. However, our preconceived ideas about him sometimes got the better of us. We would at times hammer away at an issue, feeling as if we were making no progress when in fact we were. One time, we asked about his relations with neighbouring leaders, and Saddam began to give his unvarnished opinions, mostly negative, about King Abdullah of Jordan and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The next day, when we continued our discussion, Saddam said, ‘I think I said too much yesterday. So now I will say nothing.’ I sometimes wondered if Saddam knew how well he concealed things, or if he consciously exploited the Western depiction of him as the devil incarnate.”

Great charisma

Nixon describes his first encounter with Saddam. “Whatever his atrocities, there was no denying that Saddam had great charisma. He was a big man, six-feet-one and thickly built. I am six-feet-five but Saddam seemed oblivious to the difference. He was a man who had an outsize presence. Even as a prisoner who was certain to be executed, he exuded an air of importance.”

He admired de Gaulle, Lenin, Mao, George Washington, Tito and Nehru. The author confirms The New York Times’ report that Saddam had sent feelers to the U.S. “Saddam was ready to negotiate. During the Clinton and George W. Bush years, Saddam said he was ready to talk to the United States at any time. He said so on many occasions, both before and after his capture.”

He had no plans for escape. Nor had the U.S. any plans for Iraq after its occupation. Secretary of State Colin Powell was opposed to the war and raised questions which every leader must answer before he plunges his country into war. “Is a vital national security interest at stake? Have the risks and costs been fully assessed? Have non-military policies been exhausted? Do we have an exit strategy? Is military action supported at home and abroad?” Powell was shunned and humiliated.

Nixon’s account of his encounters with Bush are breathtaking. The intelligence community debased itself to please him by dumbing down information so that he could understand. The CIA chief George Tenet complied. Bush was ignorant of basic facts. He could not even distinguish between Shias and Sunnis.

The book should be read particularly by those who believe in the professional values of intelligence gathering and assessment. In India they have been debased since Independence. We now have intelligence chiefs making policy and even serving as diplomats. In the U.S., “By 1999, analysts were asked more and more to tell policymakers what options they had—which, in my view, skirted closer to the edge of prescribing policy. As Tenet’s protégé and my former boss Phil told us, ‘They are too busy to know what is going on. Therefore we have to help them come up with the solution.’ This was important to Phil because he intended to drive the point home to his superiors on the seventh floor that he was providing valuable answers for policymakers, namely what to do about Saddam. The seventh floor at Langley wanted to show their relevance to the new crowd. When I came to the Agency, three years before the Bush administration took office, it was drummed into me that we should not be making policy. But now we were told that we needed to be part of the mix downtown, and that the survival of the Agency depended on it.” How many RAW and Intelligence Bureau chiefs have been policymakers?


The Iraqi opposition and the U.S. disgraced themselves by their ill-treatment of a captive. Let Nixon describe the final scene. “On a cell phone video, Saddam was seen ascending a makeshift scaffold and facing down his persecutors. We saw an angry lynch mob of Shiites shouting revenge against their one-time Sunni overlord. This was not what the United States was supposed to be fighting for. This was not what our young men and women were dying for. This was not what President Bush had promised a new Iraq would be.

“Watching the grainy cell phone images being taped by Maliki’s national security adviser, Muaffaq al-Rubai, I was struck that Saddam looked like the most dignified person in the room. He handled the occasion as I expected he would—defiant and unafraid to the end. It was a rushed execution in a dark basement in Baghdad. For me, the final pillar justifying Operation Iraqi Freedom had collapsed. Saddam was not a likable guy. The more you got to know him, the less you liked him. He had committed horrible crimes against humanity. But we had come to Iraq saying that we would make things better. We would bring democracy and the rule of law. No longer would people be awakened by a threatening knock on the door. And here we were, allowing Saddam to be hanged in the middle of the night.”

It reflects a discreditable record—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria—from 2002 to 2011. All helpless Third World countries.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment