Q&A with John Nixon, a CIA analyst (R) conducted by Hasan Mesut Önder

John Nixon

Who is John Nixon?

John Nixon was a senior leadership analyst with the CIA from 1998 to 2011. He did several tours in Iraq and was recognized by a number of federal agencies for his contribution to the war effort. During his time with the CIA, Nixon regularly wrote for, and briefed, the most senior levels of the US government. He also taught leadership analysis to the new generation of analysts coming into the CIA at the Sherman Kent School, the Agency’s inhouse analytic training center. Since leaving the Agency in 2011, Nixon has worked as an international risk consultant in Abu Dhabi, UAE. (The Cipherbrief)

Question: Intelligence analysts are faced with two operational handicaps: the first one is the wrong mirror image. Here, the evaluator deals with events by replacing the actor of the subject with his / her own mental codes. The fundamental mistake is to try to think likethe target person without knowing his/her cultural, political and intellectual codes. This increases the amount of mistakes. The second one is the paradox of expertise. Therefore, the analyst evaluates the subject he is working on with his/her mental models that has built up with the experience he/she gained about. That is, the analyst handles each data and information according to the his/her model. This may lead the analyst to ignore the fact that of a very important real data that does not fit the model in his/her mind. Another issue isthe effect of the specialization of analysts which bring them to insensitivity towards important details. What should do an intelligence analyst to get through these two traps? Moreover, how a good analyst should work to see the truth and which are the properties to possess?

Answer: You are corrrect to list these as pitfalls to beware of when doing analysis. For myself, and many of my colleagues at CIA, we struggled to avoid these problems, knowing full well that mistakes sometimes get made. At the end of the day, you can never be assured that you will know the whole truth. You have to try and let the analysis take to where the facts point. You can try and look over the horizon but you always have to make sure that the policymakers know that this is a possibility, not an eventuality. No one can foresee the future, but, if you are doing your homework correctly and have a feel for your subject, you can make educated projections based on your analytic experience. I also think that understanding history is absolutely essential to any sort of intelligence analysis. An understanding of history will give you a sense of where a certain leader might want to go or where an issue will head.

 Question: Which are points that the leadership analysts pay attention while they are working on anyone’s psychological profile?

Answer: If the analyst is going to write a psychological profile of a certain leader, make sure that you have read as much as you can on the person in question. And then consult with a person who is a trained psychiatrist. A lot of arm-chair psycholgizing goes on in intelligence work, especially when it comes to leadership. However, sometimes that which seems an obvious course of action is not always the chosen route of the subject being studied. As i relate in my book, Debrieifing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, everyone I knew at CIA, State, DOD, etc. kept telling me that Saddam would go down with the regime if faced with an invasion. The only people who were fighting this analytic viewpoint were myself and the psychiatrists at CIA who argued that Saddam was a  survivor and would choose to find a way to live and fight another day. Those trained in psychiatry were the best people to answer that question because they rejected the conventional wisdom and relied on their education and training to make an assessment. That is what good analysis can do.

Question: I want to start asking my questions from the last part of the book. In the last part of the book you evaluate the relationship between the CIA and policy makers. In the book you mentioned that in the framework of the CIA’s service understanding, the policy makers produce intelligence in line with their needs, and that decision-makers are interested in information that fits their objectives, not the truth in general. What is the main reason for this situation? Do decision-makers ignore the field facts and impose their own agendas when making policy? Are the Green Belt Project, the Moderate Islam Project and the Greater Middle East Project in this context the strategiesproduced in the CIA’s kitchen and applied as merely political projects or for the continuity of the power of the American empire?

Answer: I never met an analyst who came into the CIA and said ”I want to produce politicized analysis!” Politicization is a top-down phenomenon. It comes when policymakers distrust the intelligence being produced and put pressure on the senior CIA leadership to produce results that are more in line with administration thinking. We analysts always did what we could to resist this pressure. It is an awful thing and will, like a vampire, suck the life-blood out of the intelligence porocess if allowed to continue. The service approach is a building block of intelliegnce failure. It enables the policymaker to set the tone and pace of analysis where CIA analysts are fullfilling the needs and questions of policymakers. This usually leaves the customer happy and the analyst very busy. However, at the end of the day, I think it is too reactive and makes it less likely that the policymaker will hear the things they need to hear because the analyst supplying the information is too focused on serving the needs of the policymaker. One hopes that the analyst will comes across information that is not based on a question and proactively send it up the line to the policymaker, but that, in my exerience, is not always the case.

 Question: The book has a strong emphasis on the need for intelligence services not to be politicized. You stress that intelligence organizations are not policy makers and must be aware of the fine line between policy and analysis. Will an intelligence analyst only by giving answers to the “what is” and “what will happen now”, cause policy makers, who do not have time to work in details, to make wrong decisions? Should not they also mention what will happen next and what should be done? What can you say about all these things?

Answer: Answering a question like”what should be done’” is something that always made me feel uncomfortable. I had managers who would tell me we have to give the policymakers options. I thought that was wrong. Because intelligence can be such an imprecise discipline, based a lot on fact, conjecture, signals, rumor, science, etc., it is best to let the policymakers make those decisions. Politicizatoion happens all too frequently. And, if there is a problem, you will be blamed. Although that is nothing new. Intelligence services back to the Roman era have always been blamed for political and military failures.

  Question: What types of sources and information gathering instruments did you use when you were working about the CIA, Saddam, and his regime? What difficulties have you faced? What difficulties have you encountered when you penetrated into the ruling circle of a leader like Saddam, who cares about security and works with his own tribe and firstdegree relatives? What were the similarities and differences between Saddam in your head and the Saddam you were questioning when you wrote your psychological profile?

Answer: We used all sources of information. Probably the hardest part of studying Saddam was seperating fact from fiction. Also,not having an embassy in Iraq cut down on oure ability to collect and feel the pulse of the regime. As for the Saddam I wrote about and the Saddam I met, one thig really stood out to me. He was an incredibly charismatic leader. He had a way about him that made you like him almost instantly. However, that charisma wore off soon after as you got to know him. He soon became very unlikeable.

 Question: In the book you express that Bush’s main reason for the Iraq War was a personal motive. Bush believed that Saddam was planning to kill his father and this was the basic motivation fort he Iraq War. In addition, you wrote the claim that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and the Saddam-Al Qaeda relationship did not reflect the truth. According to some analysts, the US occupation of Iraq can be categorized as follows:

1. The US, by controlling the energy supply in Iraq, will influence the economic growth of China, which could be its rival in the global sense…

 2. As you’ve emphasized, the “A Peaceto EndAll Peace”book was quoted by Bush during his briefing in 2007. According to this, it is clear that after the first world war, the borders drawn by England and France were built without regard to ethnic, religious and sectarian circumstancesand this situation should be changed by the American view… (In this issue, there is a statement that emphasizes Dr. Kissenger’s view to completely change the borders of 1919-20. Besides, Condelezza Rice points out that the borders of 22 countries should change in the Middle East.)

3. In order to ensure the Israel’s security, to divide the powerful Arab states in accordance with theirs ethnic and sectarian fault lines. However, there are some names that stay against this opinion in Israel. One of them is Mossad former Chief, Tamir Pardo. Pardo says that the main reason for chaos and confusion in the Middle East is the US intervention in Iraq and the corrupted balance between Iran and Iraq.

4. It exists the opinion that Iran made US to clean its biggest enemy, Saddam, using Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Council. 5. The Iraqi intervention occured in order to reduce the effectiveness of Russia in Iraq. Which of these evaluations do you think make sense? So what are the geopolitical reasons for the US intervention in Iraq?

Answer: There are a lot of reasons why the decision was made to invade Iraq and remove Saddam from power. There were also a lot of agendas of Washington power players that fit neatly into the “remove Saddam” spectrum. First came the shock of 9/11 and the realization that America had suffered its worst hmeland mass-casualty attack since the American civil war. The realization that this threat came from the Middle East and the desire to do something to ensure that there was no second attack was of paramoount importance. At the top there was George W. Bush who thought Saddam had tried to kill his father, George HW Bush. Bush saw Iraq as unfinished business, as did many who advised hiom on the war. Next there was Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfelt and the neocon cabal. They saw the war as a way to remove the cancer of terrorism from the region, protect Israel, and make the region amenable to US interests. Bush also agreed with these views. Anyone who disagreed with this model or questioned the efficacy of what was being done was marginalized. 7. Question: There are informations that before the Iraq invasion Saddam wrote a letter to Shimon Peres, that he made a request to resque Iraq from the intervention. While you were questioning Saddam did he share such a detail with you? Did Saddam also want to be released or to be saved as remuneration for helping the US?

Answer: No, I never heard that nor did Saddam ever offer us anything in exchange for freedom. 8. Question: During the interrogation, which were the perceptions of Saddam about Turkey and its role in the first and second Gulf War? In addition, how echoed in you and 7th Floor Group the “Hood Event”, which refers to the detention of eleven Turkish Special Forces troops in Sulemaniye, Iraq on July 4, 2003? Answer: I have no information on this question. 9. Question: There are two important events in the book that have changed Saddam’s view about the United States. The first is that Oliver North sells weapons to Iran during the IranIraq war, and the second is the US intervention that comes together with the occupation of Kuwait… There is an indication that Oliver North and Rafsanjani are commercial and friendly.On the basis of Wikeleaks documentsin relation to Saddam’s Kuwait Intervention, the meeting between US Ambassador of Baghdad, April Glaspie and Saddam there are analysts reading the Ambassador Glaspie’s statement as “We are not part of the interArabian affairs”. What did Saddam say during questioning about these two issues? Answer: I think Saddam lost any sort of built-up trust in the US when he learned of the Iran-Contra affair (the selling of arms to Iran in excahnge for relase olof western hostages in Lebanon). April Glaspie’s message to Baghdad was concistent with whatever guidance she hade recieved from the State department. Afterwards, she was blamed by Washington for not being forceful enough with Saddam. That was nonsesnse. If Washington had said to Saddam that it would do everything in its power to oppose an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait there is no doubt in my mind that he would not have invaded. However, Washington sent mixeed signals to Saddam and he believed what he wanted to believe and he invaded. I have never heard of any business contacts between Oliver North and Ayatollah Rafsanjani.

 Question: You mentioned in your book that Saddam paid attention to internal security. Can you tell to which Shia organizations that opposed Saddam’s power and constitutes threat for him, he owned a full control? It is known that he killed or oppressed other important Shiites that he couldn’t control, like Muhammad Bakr Sadr that posed a threat to his government. Which Shia groups have been loyal to the Saddam regime?

Answer: There were many Shia that were loyal to Saddam. I do not remember there being any Shia organizations that publicly supported Saddam. Saddam had a peculiar way of looking at Shia Iraqis. If they supported his regime, they were good arabs. The Shia that opposed Saddam’s regime were regarded as Iranian, even if ther were iraqi Arabs. 11. Question: In the book you have written that the overthrow of Saddam was a mistake, that he wasn’t a real threat for America; while US preparations for war, you said that Saddam was busy writing a novel. In your opinion if Saddam was not overthrown, would al-Qaeda and ISIS appear in Iraq? According to Professor Amatzia Barak, as the result of Saddam’s faith campaign, radicalized security bureaucrats created ISIS. Thus, according to Barak, it can be said that ISIS is the Saddam’s ghosts. You have expressed in your book that Saddam sees Wahhabism a threat as Shiism is, but again as you have highlighted the Saddam’s general, Kamal Saajid have cooperated with the Wahhabis. Do you think that ISIS is the product of Kamal Saajid? There were many Saddam-era officers, such as Haji Bekr at the unity of command of ISIS. If Saddam’s power would be put under restraint, or if Iraqwas ruled by another name from the Sunni community, in your opinion what kind of place would be Iraq today? How do you analyse this?

Answer: I have much respect for Dr. Baram, but i do not agree with his views about Saddam helping create AQI and ISIS. Believe it or not, religion was important to Saddam. However, he sought to control the religous community and would not accept being controlled by either Sunni or Shia Islamists. If Saddam were alive today I think he would still be in control of the government, Iraq would have gotten out from under sanctions, and there would still be pockets of resistance to his rule in the south but there would be nowehre near the amount of violence that Iraq has seen since 2003.

 Question: While you were on duty, you have worked on Iraqi Shiites, especially Muqtada al-Sadr. What do you think about the existence and power of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq? Do you still think that Ishaq Al-Fayyad Afghani will be the highest authority after Sistani? What should the US do or do to prevent Iran from using its Shiite forces to try to be effective in Iraqi politics?

Answer: That is hard to say. I think there will be a lot of pressure put on the hawza to select an Iraqi Arab to be its next leader. Who knows where that will go.

Question: In the book you have said that Muqtada al-Sadr has followed as example Hizbullah leader, Hasan Nasrallah, but has an inconsistent personality structure. You wrote that he wanted to be Ayatollah and that he didn’t want to outlast his durance in Iran. What can you tell about the story of al-Sadr in today’s light and about not being able to play a constructive role in Iraqi politics?

Answer: Sadr will continue to play a role in Iraqi politics. He may not be the predominant leader but he will exert influenmce on the political process. The next leadership struggle for the hawza will be very interesting to watch play out. Ultimately, I see Sadr as opposing Iranian influence in Iraq and continuing his efforts to become a national leader of all Iraqis.

 Question: Together with the operations of US in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is increased the Iran’s influence in these countries and the in Middle East in general. Has the US acted without foreseeing this result, or did US thought that the economic costs of Iran’s extreme expansion could lead to an internal regime change? Is it possible to establish peace in the region without limiting Iran’s activity in the Middle East?

Answer: The Iraq war set in motion many currents that have been hard to turn back. One such current is Iranian expansion and the spread of Iranian influence in the region. We in the intelligence community gave that message to the White House under Bush and we were not believed. Saddam’s regime played a big part in checking Iranian ambitions in the region. When we removed Saddam, we opened the door to Iran and the region has suffered for it. 15. Question: Taking in consideration the recent street actions, do you foresee in the medium term any regime change in Iran? Is there any power of US and Israel to influencethe Iran’s intelligence infrastructureguiding the dissatisfaction in society? In addition in your opinion, what kind of Iran will emerge after the revolution?

Answer: Right now there is a lot of frustration being displayed by the Iranian people towards the regime. The Iraian regime has mismanaged their economy for decades and people are starting to express publicly their dissatisfaction with the regime. Even more so than 2009, I think we are seeing a regime facing a significant threat from large swaths of Iranian society who are completely dissatisfied with their government’s performace. The unrest in Iran today looks a lot like the unrest in Iran that started to heat up in the mid to late 1970s. If I were Supreme Leader Khamenei I would be very concerned by this.

 Question: In Shi’a political theory, there are two understandings: “velayat-i fakih” (governance of clergy) and “velayeti ummah”.In addition, Kum and Najaf occasionally emerge as two separate power centers. Kum is the center of Persian Shia and Najaf is the center of Arab Shia… It seems that after the last elections in Iraq, Iraqi Shia have a distant attitude to Iran. Do you think that the difference between Persian and Arabic Shiites in the medium terms would get bigger? If it happens, do you evaluate as possible an US-Israeli intervention in Iran, that could result in a Shia geopolitics vacuum which opens an alterantive to Iraq for domination?

Answer: Its a bit early to see what the US wants to do in Iran. The Trump administration has pulled out of the nuclear accord (JCPOA) and has renewed sanctions against Iran. My guesss is that Trump wants to strangle Iran’s economy and see then if the people come out in the streets and overthrow the regime. And that seems to be the only strategy the US has now regarding Iran.

 Question: Although the USA has been in contact with the Iraqi Kurds for a long time, this contact continues with the Barzani group, whereas the Talabani group is acting in cooperation with Iran. Where does the conflict of interests between the Kurdish groups in northern Iraq affect the United States?

Answer: I think the Trump administartion would like to see the kurdish region develop and prosper as a prt of the Iraqi nation and would not welcome any more attempts by either the KDP or PUK to seek independence from Baghdad.

 Question: Israel’s relations with the Iraqi Kurds begin in the mid-1960s. It is known that the Mossad President, Meir Amit visited Mullah Mustafa Barzani and that Israeli military advisers gave training support to Kurds. In the independence referendum, Benyamin Netenyahu, while giving clear support to the Iraqi Kurds, the US was more cautious. Is US disconcerted about the Israel’s impact over Kurdish groups? Are there examples of US and Israeli conflicts in Iraq?

Answer: I think the Trump administration is happy to see Israel do whatever it likes in the region. So many senior policy advisers to the President support Israel to the hilt and see Israeli security needs as paramount to its survival. Also, i think the trump administration has been very encouraging of the growing ties between Israel and Gulf Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Especially as this relationship is aimed at hurting Iran. President Trump does not want to go into Iraq or Syria because of the cost and he sees no gain from committing more men and dollars to what he sees probably as an endless and thankless task.

Question: Finally, what can you say if you conduct a SWOT analysis about the Trump administration’s Middle East policy? How can Turkish-American relations become centralized? In the case of Priest Brunson, what can you say about taking the decision for sanctions against the Turkish ministers? What do you think about the way the pastor is required? Do you think this policy is because of US doesn’t know the politics of Turkey, or is US trying deliberately to push Turkey to Russia and China axis?

 Answer: I am not sure I know what you mean by a SWOT analysis. As for US-Turkish relations, since the demise of the USSR the relationship between Ankara and Washington has been fraught with many irritants. The list of differences has grown long over the years. Its too bad. I spent several months in Turkey in 2000 and I loved the country and the Turkish people. They were warm and friendly and Turkish history is fascinating. My hope is that someday both countries can set aside their differences and focus on what unites them.

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