John Nixon spent 14 years as a CIA Analyst, specializing in the Middle East. When Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003, the US Government turned to him to lead the interrogation of the former Iraqi dictator. His book, “Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein,” details those interrogations and reveals the authors’ subsequent misgivings about the nature of intelligence, the war in Iraq, and the life of a CIA Analyst. Professor Mike Yawn and his students spoke with Nixon about his experiences.
Mike Yawn: How did you work your way to a career with the CIA?
John Nixon: If someone would have told me in the 1970s that I would be working for the CIA, I wouldn’t have believed them. I had long hair, and I was an avid Grateful Dead fan—with all the baggage that comes with that. But my parents encouraged me to get a good education, and I did, receiving a Bachelor’s Degree and two Masters Degrees. I applied for the CIA and after an incredibly invasive process, I got a job as an Analyst. When I was hired, my first boss asked me how I liked the application process, and I said, “I hated it.” He said, “Yeah, it’s our version of child abuse.”
Mike Yawn: What advice would you give to students who would like to work for an alphabet agency?
John Nixon: As I mentioned, the background check is extensive, but a single mistake won’t sink you. They look at the whole picture—your work, your integrity, and your professionalism. You want that overall picture to be strong to be noticed. But I would also suggest volunteering, even when the job doesn’t sound interesting. I did that, and my supervisors found I was willing to do things for the team. The more experiences you have, the better positioned you are to take opportunities that arise.
Mike Yawn: Didn’t volunteering lead, indirectly, to you being the lead interrogator of Hussein?
John Nixon: Yes. I began my CIA career focusing on Iraq, but I had transitioned to Iran. The Agency needed volunteers to go to Iraq after the war began. It wasn’t a place a lot of people wanted to be, so I filled in. That led directly to me interrogating Saddam Hussein, and it allowed me to write a book about my experiences.
Mike Yawn: What were some of the inside stories you learned specializing in Iraq and Hussein?
John Nixon: Well, he had this dysfunctional family. There were rifts, jealousies, and backstabbing. It was almost like a soap opera. Hussein’s oldest son, Uday, had been hurt badly in an assassination attempt—he was shot 14 times—and he wasn’t the same afterward. He was addicted to drugs, physically disabled, mentally impaired, and the father-son relationship became tense at times. Uday was obsessed with collecting cars, and he had a very impressive collection of rare vehicles in a showroom. Well, Saddam became angry with Uday one day, and he had his security detail torch the showroom, destroying all the cars. All we saw on the monitors, however, was the smoke and fire, and we thought there might be a coup. In fact, Saddam was just teaching his son a very expensive lesson.
Mike Yawn: When Hussein was captured, one of the first items of business was to ensure it was, in fact, Hussein. How did you do that?
John Nixon: Hussein had tribal markings on his wrist and arms, he had a scar on his leg from the bullet wound, and he had a droopy lip. I also had about 30 questions I planned to ask him that only he would know, but when I walked in I thought, “That’s Saddam,” and I didn’t need all 30 questions.
Makayla Baker: As a CIA Analyst, what were your personal feelings as you watched 9-11 unfold?
John Nixon: I was in the middle of writing a paper on the Iranian Judiciary for the Agency. But following 9-11, no one ever read my paper, because no one gave a damn about the Iranian Judiciary. The focus was on terrorism. When I saw what happened on 9-11, my first thought was Hussein and Iraq, but a colleague said, “No, it’s Bin Laden,” and it was. I lived near the Pentagon, and when I saw the clouds of smoke, the image was distressing and the smell was overwhelming. It was an awful day, but in fairness we haven’t had a day like that since then, and a lot of people thought we would.
Jessica Mizell: How often did you go to Iraq, and what was it like living there?
John Nixon: I went to Iraq eight or nine times. I stayed in the Green Zone, which was the most secure place, but which still faced mortar attacks. People were killed there.
Mike Yawn: Why was the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction so wrong?
John Nixon: Well, there was a pervasive belief that Hussein had WMD, and that belief was held internationally, not just by the CIA. I also believed it, and I supported the war, although I now believe it was a mistake. When President Bush came into power in 2001 with the idea that something would have to be done about Hussein, he and his administration were quick to believe the worst reports on him. We also didn’t have a presence in Iraq, so we couldn’t get accurate information. This created a perfect storm of intelligence failure.
Joshua Nolen: Why did you leave the CIA?
John Nixon: I got to the point where I had done what I wanted to do. Over the course of the Iraq War, I was called in frequently to do a Presidential Daily Briefing. For two years, I briefed President Bush every Monday morning. The Obama Administration, on the other hand, wasn’t as interested in Iraq. In the first two years of his administration, we briefed the President once. The CIA became something of a piñata under the Bush and Obama administrations, and some of the blame was well deserved. But the President is always going to need good intelligence and the CIA has the best intelligence there is to offer. I’m very critical of the agency in the book, but I still recognize that we can do things better than almost anyone, provided we have the right leadership and resources.
Danielle Lieberman: What do you think is the best way to gain analytical skills after college, before starting your profession?
John Nixon: First, you have to read. Think about what you read, and try to apply to the world. Then, write. I encourage blogging, where you can develop your writing style and your reasoning abilities. You’ll need all of those skills in a high-level career.