My Job Was Telling Bush Things He Didn’t Want To Hear
Once upon a time, John Nixon was a senior CIA leadership analyst. When Saddam Hussein was captured, John was the man the agency picked to interrogate him (he wrote a book about that). And afterward, he briefed President George W. Bush about it on two separate occasions. One of those visits went well. One did not. John has the relatively rare experience of having to tell a sitting U.S. president something he did not want to hear. That's getting to be a slightly more common experience these days, so we figured, "Hey, let's ask John what that's like, rather than simply asking him a bunch of questions about how Saddam Hussein smelled." (Bad, we assume.) Here's what he told us about having an intellectual throwdown with the most powerful man on earth.
The Isolation Of The President Is A Huge Problem
John first briefed President Bush in 2007. He was there to talk about an influential Shia cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr, who'd given the U.S. a lot of trouble and was currently hiding out in Iran. This was a pretty rough time in old Muqtada's life, and the president liked what he heard. Then he and John talked about Saddam Hussein, which was apparently one of Bush's favorite subjects. It went great. Pro-Tip: If you ever meet the president, say something about how his archnemesis sucks. Generally a good icebreaker.
That was John's first journey into the Oval Office, and he was most surprised by how completely isolated the president actually is: "This guy walked by with a tray of Diet Cokes with the seal of the POTUS on them. I remember seeing them and just going, whoa ..."
You can't even share soda branding with the common man? Now that's isolation.
"Better use two stickers on the RC. Don't want anyone to think we're pandering to the British."
Those presidential Cokes aren't sheer novelty, either. John saw them as a sign: "These guys are so cut off from the real world. It's just so odd. You walk in there and the air feels different, everything feels different. It's very hushed, very quiet." And yeah, that weirdness and isolation have an impact on the people who deliver news to the president.
Every item in this room will end up in a museum. There's no shooting the shit in that environment.
"You go in there and you're nervous. This is the most important guy on the planet and you're going in there and you're giving him your view on something. But as an intelligence analyst ... I was always taught that regardless of what it is, you've got to tell him the truth. As long as you can back up what you're saying and you believe this ... you give him your best truth."
That worked out well for John on his first trip to the White House. Yes, that was foreshadowing. Good on you for spotting it!
You'll Have To Overcome The Inherent Arrogance Of The President
On John's next visit with the president, he was there to back up another analyst. He wasn't even expected to speak. Kind of like the CIA equivalent of those guys that stand in the back during rap battles and make "oh shit" faces after the really good lines.
Likewise, a deep rolling crew is essential in geopolitics.
"That morning, I was not supposed to brief him -- someone else was briefing him on a different topic, and Bush turned to me and said he wanted an update right then and there." This update was on Muqtada Al-Sadr, who was no longer chilling out in Iran, but now controlled one of the most potent militias in Baghdad.
"I didn't have a lot of time to prepare one, but I told him what I thought." At that time, the standard thinking was that Al-Sadr was your run-of-the-mill extremist militia leader: "I knew that throughout the intelligence community ... they didn't like Sadr, they thought he was a nutcase ..."
"Don't like" is actually a fairly common opinion for the government to hold on dangerous militants.
At one point John would have agreed, but it turns out that -- while still and always and forever a dick -- Saddam was right about some things. During their sessions together, he'd warned John that his ousting would lead to a resurgence in terrorism throughout Iraq. John had spent years at the CIA watching Saddam's prediction come true, and now he saw the president making the same wrong assumption about Muqtada al-Sadr -- another dangerous, intelligent, total asshole.
"I thought they had an unrealistic and unrealistically negative view of him, and didn't quite appreciate some of the nuances and certainly some of the pressures he was facing. In many ways, it was similar to how we viewed Saddam. And that's the thing that really kinda struck me after my meeting with him that day. Y'know, these people have learned nothing."
"Look, we caught Saddam, and it only took $2,000,000,000,000. I'm sure we can do the same for this guy."
Muqtada Al-Sadr wasn't exactly sporting a stars and stripes thong, but he wasn't entirely averse to working with us or the government in Baghdad. John thought he was someone the U.S. ought to try to understand and maybe work with, rather than just try to murder. But George W. Bush friggin' hated that guy.
"I think it's kinda true in every administration. We kinda expect to deal with people who are gonna be strong and strong leaders, but are also gonna accept everything we say at face value ... that they will sorta bow down and accept our dictate. And when that doesn't happen, I think guys like President Bush get confused. 'Why won't they do what we say?' The same happens today in Iran, today, with policymakers ... the minute you attach yourself to that person, you discredit them. And I think it's very hard for policymakers to accept that ... it's a classic case of what Fulbright, former senator from Arkansas, called the arrogance of power."
After all, everyone else does what the president says. If this one jerk won't, he must be the enemy! That seems simplistic, but it's not like humble men seek the presidency. A lot of our presidents were narcissists. You don't strive to be the most powerful person on Earth unless you think you're pretty fuckin' sweet in the first place.
To the point where understanding the actual definition of the word "humble" seems in question.
Insane Political Complexity Is Boiled Down Into Quick Soundbites
John spent months in Iraq, and years more of his life learning about it. During his two briefings with the president, he had to condense an entire library's worth of history, intelligence data, and personal experience into a few sentences.
"You just go with your bottom line up front ..." John explained. "I mean, especially with a guy like Bush. I was told by people who'd already done this you've got about 30 seconds before he starts asking questions. Maybe not even 30 ... and then he likes to start asking questions, and they come all sides ..."
Here's what John managed to get out before the president's questions during his first briefing: "I said, 'Mr. President, Al-Sadr has been having a rough time in Iran, and we think that could impact the lethality of the movement ...'"
And then it was Q&A time. John got off roughly one sentence of his planned remarks. It seems insane, but when you consider how many fucks the president has to give about how many things every day, it couldn't be any other way.
"Keep it concise; I've got two wars to manage, four judges to nominate, and for some reason a turkey to pardon today."
And our current president may force the CIA to take "brevity" to a whole new level. He's already complained about the length of his President's Daily Brief (an intel report the CIA compiles for every president). And he's taken fewer of them at this point in his administration than any of his predecessors. How does John think today's CIA will need to communicate with 45?
"I don't think we've ever quite had a president like this. I think it's going to be one of the more challenging times for the agency. The president doesn't like to read a great deal, from what I hear in the media ... but I think he is capable of taking in information, I think he likes it visually ... I think he might like what he reads presented very small, kind of like tweets. If they are handing him written product, it's probably very short. And that may change over time, you never know. And it also may mean that others, other policymakers ... are going to get briefed up a great deal more."
"I know these briefings aren't part of your job as White House Pastry Chef, but somebody has to deal with the Sudanese."
Which is either very comforting or very terrifying. It swings back and forth depending on who got fired today.
You Have To Combat The Overwhelming Desire To Tell The President What He Wants To Hear
President Bush clearly expressed a desire to have Al-Sadr killed or otherwise removed from power. John thought that was a bad idea. Saddam Hussein had executed Al-Sadr's dad, and his father's martyrdom was a huge part of why Al-Sadr was so popular. If we killed Al-Sadr, one of his kids might take his place and gain even more clout. Plus, y'know, trying to kill people doesn't always work out for us.
When John pointed this out, it did not go over well. President Bush, Yale graduate, mocked him as an "elitist" ivory tower intellectual. Then Bush's posse stepped in -- "I felt like I was talking to a bunch of yahoos," John generously put it -- and they fought to protect the president from sinister things like "nuance."
"When there was disagreement between myself and the president, almost the entire group of advisers who were there, and they were all there -- it was Condoleeza Rice, Steven Hadley ... the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the DNI, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- they all kinda circled the wagons around the president, and I became the enemy. They were going to try to repudiate what I was saying. And I thought to myself, 'This is bizarre.' It was sorta like shoot the messenger at this point. And I remember thinking, 'How does this guy function surrounded by people who are filtering news to him in order to show the president how loyal they are?'"
John was clearly frustrated by this. But he also kinda understood it. "There also is this weird dynamic ... where you get in proximity to the president of the United States, and you're there to tell him something, there is a strong, strong impulse to want to give him good news. It's just natural, y'know? You realize it's a tough job, and it's going to benefit you if he walks away with a smile on his face. And you have to fight that at all costs."
"How are things going with the housing market?" "They're ... um ... dynamic!"
On that day, John managed to resist the temptation to make the most powerful man on earth happy. But it's a battle that every one of every president's briefers needs to fight, and it's sure as shit not any easier in 2017 than it was in 2007. This isn't merely an ego thing; pleasing the president also means protecting your agency's budget.
"That's one of the problems that plagues the agency from time to time ... it's really a hard message to say to people because when you have agencies all vying for the federal budget ... there's a strong impulse to kind of, y'know, be the good soldier ..."
President Bush and his advisers mocked John for suggesting that Al-Sadr was more than a simple thug and would remain a force in Iraq for years to come. But guess who was right?
No, guess again.
Here's a hint.
Nope. Way off that time.
One more- Jesus, you're terrible at this. We'll just tell you: John. John was right.
Sometimes The President's Attention Is Enough
On his first day in office, the president visited the CIA to speak in front of a wall listing the names of dead operatives and ... bragged about his electoral win. The press coverage of this was not universally positive. But John thinks the president's visit probably went over really well with a lot of CIA people, just because he showed up and paid attention to them. Remember, the CIA hasn't exactly been in any president's good book since the whole "weapons of mass destruction" thing.
Even before that, they're still a political football on the best of days.
"The positive side is, I think President Trump did go out to CIA headquarters on the first day, and I think that's very good ... y'know, and he said he's going to back the CIA ... Time will tell, and certainly when the first crisis hits, we'll see how he handles that ... But speaking to some of my colleagues, they were very reassured by that. And ... they think it was very poorly covered by the media, and very slanted. He spoke in front of the wall of stars, which commemorates people who have died ... and people who crowed the loudest are from my vantage point usually the people who are least likely to get their star up on the wall."
Since the CIA has literally deployed John to an active war zone, he's probably allowed to say stuff like that.
Now, John's opinion is certainly not universal. Former CIA director Brennan gave 45 hell for the speech. But the CIA depends on the president's good graces, and many care less about what the president says, and more about whether or not he's even paying attention to them.
Of course, the fact that the CIA has been reduced to the same criteria as a golden retriever's happiness is a problem in itself.
"The CIA's been treated like a pinata the last 15 years. So for him to come out and say, 'I'm going to back you,' that's pretty good."
What The President Needs To Hear Right Now
After John's disastrous second briefing with George W. Bush, he returned to the CIA feeling "radioactive." He felt like everyone was a little scared to be around him. But he also received missives from Mike Morell, the president's CIA briefer, basically saying, "That was tough, but you did the right thing by telling the president how you felt. Kudos."
I asked John what he'd do if he were briefing 45, particularly in those first 30 seconds before the questions started or he became distracted by today's Twitter feud.
Besides including a lot of hashtags and ending sentences with the word "SAD!"
"I would tell him that Iraq is representative of a number of Middle Eastern countries that are on the edge of failing, and it represents a broader trend in the region ... if you want to solve Iraq, you're going to have to solve Iran as well. You need to come up with a policy on Iran. You decide what policy is, the CIA doesn't, but our country has not really had a policy on Iran since 1978, and we've just been in this position of opposition, every now and then with bouts of cooperation ... You have to come to some sort of realization that either you want to work with these people, that ignoring these people is not based on reality, or that you are going to go the other way, and you need to come up with some very creative methods to contain their influence, knowing that doing so is going to create some frictions."
No matter what a candidate's speech promises, there are no easy answers to this little problem.
John would want to stress to the president that, while the military's a real good way to solve certain problems, it can only be part of any solution we have in Iraq and Iran. "Those solutions are political in nature. They have a military component, but you have to have a political solution as well. One of the things I think is so very important, and I would say this to the president immediately, is that just using your military to solve problems ... look where it has gotten us."
What kind of tragic fucking idiot wouldn't listen to advice like that?
John Nixon wrote a book, Debriefing The President, about his interrogation of Saddam Hussein. It's really good, y'all.
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