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Sunday, December 18, 2016

The CIA got Saddam Hussein wrong, which is why Trump should listen to them

Why are we skeptical of the Obama administration's claim that Russia stole our election? Because it comes from the CIA, whose record was tainted by the Iraq War.

I think unfairly so. And a story in the Daily Mail illustrated why.

John Nixon was the CIA man brought in to interrogate Saddam Hussein after the Army captured him. In Nixon's new book, Debriefing The President: The Interrogation Of Saddam Hussein, Nixon revealed we got Hussein all wrong. Our intelligence was dumb.

Had we let the sleeping dog lie, we may have had an ally in our war on terrorists.

I have not read the book, but the Daily Mail excerpted a very pertinent passage.

Thirteen years after invading Iraq again, America finds the Islamic State taking parts of Iraq and Syria, Iran having nukes, Muslim refugees and terrorists overrunning Europe, and thousands of soldiers dead or wounded -- and hundreds of thousands of civilians dead or wounded as well.

The last four presidents from the Gulf War to the wrecking of Libya and the arming of Islamic State "rebels" in Aleppo have been waging wars that do not make us or our allies safer.

But I was part of that, wasn't I? The lessons of Vietnam went unheeded, as the lessons of Queen Victoria's wars went unheeded by the architects of World War I.

From John Nixon via the Daily Mail:
Capturing Saddam was all very well, but now we had to get to the truth about his regime, and in particular the weapons of mass destruction that had been the pretext for the invasion. His response was simply to mock us.
‘You found a traitor who led you to Saddam Hussein. Isn’t there one traitor who can tell you where the WMDs are?’ He warmed to the subject, saying Americans were a bunch of ignorant hooligans who did not understand Iraq and were intent on its destruction.
‘Iraq is not a terrorist nation,’ he said. ‘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 neighbours. But the American President [George W Bush] said Iraq wanted to attack his daddy and said we had ‘weapons of mass destruction.’
Ignoring his goading, we asked Saddam if he’d ever considered using WMDs pre-emptively against US troops in Saudi Arabia. ‘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?’
This was not what we had expected to hear. How, then, had America got it so wrong?
Saddam had an answer: ‘The spirit of listening and understanding was not there – I don’t exclude myself from this blame.’ It was a rare acknowledgment that he could have done more to create a clearer picture of Iraq’s intentions.
Listening. Neither side listened.

FDR was pretty good at it. Eisenhower and Reagan too.

Nixon revealed a problem: my years studying Saddam, I never doubted the received wisdom that his stepfather in Tikrit beat him. Many eminent psychiatrists who had analyzed him from afar said this was why Saddam was so cruel and why he wanted nuclear weapons.
Yet, in the course of my further interrogations, Saddam turned our assumptions upside down, saying his stepfather was the kindest man he had ever known: ‘Ibrahim Hasan – God bless him. If he had a secret, he would entrust me with it. I was more dear to him than his son, Idham.’
I asked about the CIA’s belief that Saddam suffered great pain from a bad back and had given up red meat and cigars. He said he didn’t know where I was getting my intelligence, but it was wrong. He told me he smoked four cigars every day and loved red meat. He was also surprisingly fit.
The CIA profile of Saddam suggested he was a chronic liar, yet he could be quite candid. 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.
So despite the bravery of Mike Spann and others, the CIA failed. Maybe it is too bureaucratic. Maybe it is too reliant on technology. Maybe it should get more human beings on the ground who speak the language. I don't know. But I know we must do better.

Surprisingly to me, Bush 43 was not helpful.

Nixon had to brief him on another matter:
Several months later, I was asked to go back to the White House. This time, the President looked annoyed and distracted and asked for a briefing on the Shia cleric called Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, then engaged in dangerous insurgency against the coalition. This was not on the agenda.
Trying to gain a few seconds, I 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!
In his 2010 memoir, Bush wrote: ‘I decided I would not criticize the hardworking patriots of the CIA for the faulty intelligence on Iraq.’ But that is exactly what he did. He blamed the agency for everything that went wrong and called its analysis ‘guesswork’ while hearing only what he wanted to hear.
Bush 43 only listened to what he wanted to hear, and so this is what they told him.

Obama, too.

I am hoping President Trump will be different. Military power must be used judiciously. Blowing off intelligent briefings is not a good start, even if you know what they are telling you is tilted. Trump should work on gaining the trust of the CIA, something Obama did not do, which is why they are telling him what he wants to hear and not what he needs to know.

Trump must do better.

The CIA is depressed. Why try? Presidents don't listen. You don't have the right resources. Covers are blown, and here comes a new president who is flipping the bird at the CIA. Encouraging them may lead to better work.

They call the CIA "The Company." Treat it as such.

Trump needs to turn around that agency or dump it, because right now a lot of good people are risking their lives just to be scorned. If the nation needs a Department That Nobody Listens To, outsource it to CNN, and save money.

And lives.


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  1. For starters, the CIA Director, John Brennan, is a partisan hack of Obama. Rumors persist that while in Saudi Arabia he converted to Islam. Once President-Elect Trump is inaugurated he should immediately replace Brennan. Then, while consistently supporting the mission of the CIA, working to improve morale, and having his new Director in control, he can begin placing some trust in what they say. - Elric

    1. Agree, Elric. Heck, Obama cancelled the daily intelligence meetings and told them to just give him paper reports, which I am totally sure he never read. My guess is that DJT will reinstate the meetings with an instruction: I want a single piece of paper with the five most important things of the day, and then you should be prepared to answer to any questions I have. That's how successful businesses operate. Been there done that...

  2. We complain about echo chambers. Think of the cloistered lives within the secret star chambers of the "intelligence" communities. The longest time a person should be in the CIA is ten years. They should be brought in from outside agencies and think in terms of having to live on the outside again. Kind of like SCOTUS justices.

    1. For the guys at the top, I completely agree. Field agents are another matter, Ten years may only have them scratching the surface.

  3. If you ask who I believe the CIA or Saddam, I would reply, "Neither".

    1. Bingo. What would you expect the fox to say to the hounds? Why would you expect the truth from Saddam Hussein?

      -Mikey NTH

  4. And yet there've been reports of chemical weapons found in Iraq.

  5. You're putting a lot of weight on this guy John Nixon. From what I see here, he reminds me of another CIA career foulup - E. Howard Hunt, the genius with his fingers all over both Bay of Pigs and Watergate. I see nothing in Nixon's account which gives me confidence that he understands Arabs at all. Almost everything he quotes Saddam as saying is the classic Arab way to lie.

    I also don't get too excited about Trump skipping intelligence "briefings". Given my own experience of Corporate culture (and it ain't for nothing that CIA is called "The Company"), those are tedious things designed to kill the whole morning, listening to a bunch of guys drone on about what they haven't actually done yet - a obvious ploy to amass credit for future accomplishments which may, or may not, ever materialize. In Trump-Land, a classic waste of time. I can see Trump saying, "Call me as soon as you have something, guys. Now, if there's nothing else ..."

  6. The objective historians haven't gotten to the Iraq war yet. This book and Don's analysis are not convincing to me. The press in the UK hate Tony Blair with a passion and I wasn't surprised to read what a noble fellow Saddam was to his interrogator and how stupid GW appeared to the same guy. Trump needs good people in these positions of intelligence and I'm confident he will get them and try to use their info rightly. He may never find a dictator he cannot let stay in power no matter what happens to his citizen victims. No that I care , myself.
    RE:CIA and Bush: George Tenet who guaranteed the WMD presence was a Clinton left over as I recall.
    GW won the war in Iraq by heroic resistance to the NYT, the leftist defeatists and the now the new lovers of good old Saddam,the Honest and True. Obama lost it and let the MId East fall into chaos all on his own. Those are facts, not speculation about what might have been by some guy with zero political responsibility, as is most of What Don is relying on in this post.

    1. Don't forget, that was conventional wisdom. Clinton got it; seems like everyone believed it.

  7. I agree with the comments that are skeptical of Nixon. I read the article and disagreed with a large part of it. He is just trying to cover the CIA butt.

  8. From your column to #RealPresident Trump's ears! The CIA is horrible, not only useless but dangerous. And *Republican* Congress just keeps on pushing the same agenda, passing the Portman-Murphy Act just last week, to implement another phase of the agreement Obama made with China in Sept 2015 to censor the Internet. :-(

  9. Pretty obvious that there are a lot of people in the CIA with an agenda. Part of the problem may be in the notion that the organization requires an ideology in which to operate. It might be a good idea to separate the information gathering and execution aspects of the organization as much as possible in order to be able to get good information. Information gathering doesn't have to be guided by an overarching ideology, but execution does.

  10. Hussein's invasion and despoiling of the neighboring sovereign country of Kuwait seems to have fallen down the memory hole. In days of yore, that act would have been sufficient justification for declaring a full-scale, total-surrender war against Iraq. Whether US interests were at stake and thus justified US involvement in the way of retaliation is a different question. The new technology of fracking has completely changed the international balance of power with regard to oil supplies, of course, making the Middle East much less crucial to our economic well-being.

    1. Right along the same line the second Iraq war was justified simply on the basis of the continued violations of the agreements signed after the first one. Still a mistake in the execution.

  11. I look at it this way: the hypocrisy of the Democrats knows no bounds. The same people who say we should believe the CIA's claims of Russian hacking today were among those who claimed the CIA lied when, during the Bush administration, it told us Hussein had WMDs. When the Democrats speak, nobody should listen.

  12. There were 13 Iraqi divisions, each with a general in charge. All were interrogated about WMDs after the war. All said their division didn't have because they (the officer) wasn't deemed reliable enough, but the division to either side (one side for the flanking divisions) had them. And they were surprised they weren't used against U.S. troops. So, if after the war, Iraq's flag officers believed Iraq had WMDs, why shouldn't we have believed the same? That, and as someone pointed out, there were chemical weapons found, in working order, though not in the quantity we thought. We still don't know what was in those military convoys to Syria... which has used chemical weapons against its' people.