In a small, dark room somewhere in Iraq, John Nixon is about to come face to face with one of history’s most notorious dictators. So it is that he approaches a bedraggled-looking man with a wild beard, sitting without shackles or restraints. Is this really the most wanted person in the world?
Saddam Hussein became Iraq’s president in 1979, and during his time as leader the Middle Eastern country made many enemies around the world. Then, when U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, Saddam and his supporters withdrew to the capital, Baghdad.
Later, on April 9, millions tuned in to watch a group of U.S. Marines topple a 39-foot statue of Saddam in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. The Iraqi government had fallen – and its leader subsequently disappeared.
What’s more, as the first stage of the war subsequently drew to a close, Saddam remained missing. Although there were several alleged sightings of him during this period, Iraq’s most wanted man continued to evade capture.
Then, on December 13, U.S. forces traced Saddam to a farm on the outskirts of Tikrit, 90 miles from Baghdad. And while they were initially unable to locate him, they eventually discovered the 66-year-old hiding in a tiny “spider hole” bunker.
Still, despite the success of the Operation Red Dawn mission, Saddam’s captors needed to prove that they had the right man. So amid speculation that the deposed leader had used body doubles, an expert was brought in to identify the captive.
And that role fell to John Nixon, a leadership analyst at the CIA. His job was to gather intelligence on world leaders’ motivations – and he’d been studying Saddam, in fact, ever since he arrived at the agency five years earlier.
When Saddam was captured, Nixon was actually already in Iraq. Shortly afterwards, then, the analyst found himself face to face with a man reviled by both the West and many of his own people.
It proved to be one of the most bizarre experiences of Nixon’s life. And the moment he stepped into the room, the agent was convinced that the man sitting on the metal chair before him was indeed Saddam.
“There was no doubt in my mind as soon as I saw him,” Nixon told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire program in January 2017. “It was him.” Satisfied about Saddam’s identity, then, Nixon went on to conduct the first substantial interview with the deposed dictator since his capture.
Nixon, who kept a book about Saddam on his desk, found it totally surreal to face him in the flesh. “I had to keep pinching myself that I was questioning the most wanted man in the world,” he added. “It seemed ludicrous.”
According to Nixon, Saddam was a man of many contradictions. Despite being regularly portrayed as a brutal dictator by the West, he apparently also had a human, almost personable, side.
“He was one of the most charismatic individuals I’ve ever encountered,” Nixon explained in his BBC interview. “When he wanted to he could be charming, nice, funny and polite.”
Initially, Saddam seemed pleased to speak with someone after having spent several months in hiding. And so during their first conversation, Nixon worked hard to build a relationship with his interviewee – and the early signs were good.
Apparently, Saddam went so far as to tell Nixon that he had enjoyed talking with him. However, by the time their next meeting rolled around, everything had changed – and not for the better.
Overnight, in fact, Saddam’s attitude completely transformed. According to Nixon, the next day’s interview was characterized by suspicion and paranoia. “He is one of the most suspicious men I’ve ever met,” Nixon added. “Every question I asked him he had one for me.”
During the course of the interviews, Nixon saw that Saddam was quite capable of being unpleasant. Indeed, when the line of questioning displeased him, Saddam revealed himself to have a frightening temper.
The process was particularly difficult for Nixon, as he had few bargaining chips at his disposal. “We had to appeal to sense of history and the prospect of him getting his views heard on record,” the ex-agent explained to the BBC, “and by the highest of powers in the world.”
Unsurprisingly, Nixon was under real pressure to persuade Saddam to reveal details about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, which were the primary justification for the U.S.-led invasion. However, Nixon himself concluded after the interviews that the country had not had nuclear weapons for many years.
In fact, Nixon came away from the experience ashamed of his country’s involvement in Iraqi affairs; he’s even speculated on whether Iraq would be better off today if Saddam were still in charge. And as one of the few people to have met both Saddam and George W. Bush, he claims to have preferred the company of the deposed dictator, who was executed in December 2006, over that of the former president, whom – in his BBC interview – he called “isolated from reality.”