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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > March 2017 > Spooked

Spooked

Spies see everything, and they’ve seen everything before. Except Donald Trump
Playing in the shadows: Donald Trump has a strained relationship with the US security agencies

On December 13th 2003, John Nixon was taken out to Baghdad International Airport. It was nighttime. He arrived with a small group and together they passed assorted outbuildings until they came to a location a little way off from the main airport area. Nixon got out of the vehicle. “We were standing there waiting,” he recalls, “and then someone from the military came by and said, ‘OK. It’s your turn.’ So we walked in.” He passed down a long hallway and stopped by a door. Somebody opened it. “And there he was, sitting there,” Nixon told me. “I remember, I just couldn’t believe it was him. I thought it was going to be him, but it still struck me very hard because somehow deep in the back of my mind I thought, ‘we’re never going to find this guy.’”

The man in the chair was Saddam Hussein. He had been captured earlier that night by special forces close to Tikrit, a city 90 miles northwest of Baghdad. The search for the former dictator had become frenzied. The war was going wrong and a desperate US government turned to its supposedly most trusted arm: the CIA. Nixon, after five years in the CIA, had become an authoritative specialist on Saddam: he would be the first intelligence officer to interrogate him. But the Iraqi leader was famous for his use of body doubles. So before any interrogation, Nixon had to work out whether the man in the chair was really him.

“I was looking for certain characteristics,” he told me. “Tribal tattoos, and a scar from a bullet wound that he had suffered many years ago. To be honest, from the minute I saw him, there was no doubt in my mind. I looked at hundreds of hours of videotape of this guy over many years and pictures all the time. He was just sitting there two feet away from me.” Listening to him today—in the context of Donald Trump’s America—one wonders who would now make such a crucial identification in a world where the government had ceased to trust its spies.

Not that everything was rosy back in 2003, of course. The situation in Iraq was terrible. And among the sectarian bloodshed, the terrible destruction and the attacks on coalition troops there was another casualty—the reputation of the west’s intelligence agencies. The coalition’s (official) justification for war had been that Saddam had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and that they posed an immediate threat. Urged on by political leaders, western intelligence agencies the CIA included had endorsed that claim. But they were mistaken. Saddam had no such weapons, and as that fact became clear, the justification for the invasion drained away. So what went wrong, and who was to blame? Robin Butler, the former cabinet secretary who conducted the official British inquiry into the debacle, concluded that the interpretation of intelligence “was stretched to the limit,” and the spies’ information was expected to do more work than it could bear. That is a fair summary, but it does not settle the bitter blame game between politicians and the spooks.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s March issue: Sam Tanenhaus, George Magnus and Dahlia Lithwick examine the state of America after Donald Trump’s first couple of weeks. Tanenhaus looks at the situation faced by the American press, Magnus looks at the state of global trade and Lithwick inspects the diminishing right to choice women face over abortion. Anne Perkins explores the rise of Theresa May through the political ranks and David Edmonds looks at how empathy affects our decision making. Also in this issue: Jay Elwes on Trump’s relationship with America’s intelligence agencies, Anita Charlesworth on the state of the NHS and Nick Cohen on what is done in the name of “the people” by politicians
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