Debriefing the President
The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein
Blue Rider Press, New York, 2016, 256 pages
Book Review published on: September 1, 2017
John Nixon’s Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein presents some interesting information from the interrogation of Saddam Hussein, but it additionally depicts the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as dysfunctional at best. Upfront, Nixon apologizes for redactions in his manuscript that at times, detract from the story. Nixon initially takes the reader through the story his life and how he came to find himself as a member of the CIA debriefing team that interviewed Hussein.
Six chapters (four through nine) focus on the actual interrogation of Hussein, which are filled with anecdotes, details, and Nixon’s personal analysis of the debriefing sessions. These chapters are the “meat and potatoes” of the book and actually align with what the title of the book implies: the interrogation of Hussein. There is a focus on the interrogation sessions throughout the book in which Nixon details his frustration with the incredible lack of guidance from CIA headquarters.
The final five chapters detail Nixon’s two experiences briefing President George W. Bush. The first briefing occurred 4 February 2008 on cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Nixon does a terrific job of explaining the details that go into the preparation for such a briefing, especially the effort required the day of the actual briefing. Nixon’s second opportunity to brief Bush came 8 May 2008. The second meeting topic was trends among the region’s Shiites with Nixon being the backup briefer to cover any questions related to Iraq or Iran. Nixon’s second briefing with Bush went from the standard experience (if briefing a president could ever be called a “standard experience”) to incredibly high adventure as the president asked for an update on al-Sadr. Having focused on preparation for the original briefing, Nixon had to fly by the seat of his pants. Putting him at a further disadvantage, there had been no read-ahead prepared for the president—meaning he did not have the usual rough outline of the topics to be covered. Nixon details the intensity of his briefing that did not align with the president’s understanding. From getting grilled by the president himself and being subjected to questions and comments from other leading members of the administration, Nixon coveys the feeling one gets when a briefing goes south quickly.
Throughout his book Nixon expounds on the dysfunction within the CIA and the entire U.S. government intelligence apparatus. The final chapters especially focus on presenting Nixon’s opinion of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations’ lack of understanding of the intelligence community. He essentially asserts their lack of understanding led them all to underutilize our country’s intelligence assets.
At this point, readers of this review are probably wondering about the actual interrogations of Hussein. If so, then this review has made its point. Nixon’s book essentially provides a recap of his career with his interrogation of Hussein as the “gluten” holding the rest of the book together. Nixon does an excellent job of linking his personal knowledge of Hussein and his experience of interrogating him with the remainder of the material in the book.
Readers will find this book interesting but probably more from the dysfunction within the CIA and a Bush administration hamstrung by preconceived ideas than from Hussein’s interrogation itself.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Kevin Lee Watson, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Belvoir, Virginia