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What makes a tyrant tick? Ask a political psychologist

How one medical school graduate’s “career in the shadows” began with an unexpected job offer.

Photo by Scott Suchman
During 21 years at the CIA, psychiatrist Jerrold Post developed personal and political profiles of world leaders, including Saddam Hussein, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, as well as al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

In 1965, the CIA presented an unusual job opportunity to the young psychiatrist, then completing his residency at the National Institute of Mental Health, that was enticing enough for him to turn down a faculty position at Harvard.

Asked to develop a pilot program for what he described as “assessing at a distance the personality and political behavior of foreign leaders,” Jerrold M. Post, M.D. ’60, decided this diversion justified delaying a trip into academia. Little did he suspect in 1965 that some of the world’s most important leaders would soon be stretched out on his analyst’s couch—figuratively speaking—and that his CIA side trip would last until 1986.

As founding director of the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior (CAPPB) at the CIA, Post led an interdisciplinary behavioral science unit composed of clinical and research psychiatrists, social psychologists, political sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists. Their job was to develop political personality profiles of foreign leaders.

“We looked at foreign leaders in their cultural and political context and gauged to what degree they were playing out personal conflicts on an international stage,” says Post, who today is frequently quoted on television and in newspapers and magazines.

During what he calls his 21-year “career in the shadows,” Post probed the pathologies and personalities of some of the world’s most dangerous minds. He continued to develop political personality profiles after joining the faculty at George Washington University in Washington, where he is professor of psychiatry, political psychology and international affairs and director of the political psychology program. Among the contemporary leaders he has profiled are Slobodan Milosevic, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, Osama bin Laden and, most famously, Saddam Hussein. His analysis of the Iraqi leader was presented in testimony in December 1990 to the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. Post’s intimate knowledge of the Iraqi leader was called upon again by national media in March 2003, when war with Iraq began, and again last December, when the Iraqi leader was captured.

“No worse beginning is imaginable,” Post says of the dictator’s formative years. “His father and 12-year-old brother died during his mother’s pregnancy. She tried to kill herself and then tried to abort Saddam. She wouldn’t even look at him when he was born in a mud hut in Tikrit.”

According to Post, Saddam was passed off to an uncle, who took care of him, then returned him to his mother after she’d remarried. His stepfather abused him physically and psychologically. But when he was eight, wanting an education that his parents refused, he went back to his uncle, who filled his head with dreams of glory. “As he accumulated power,” Post says, “Saddam created these marvelous palaces, and yet they all had enormous bunkers down below, like the defiant paranoid self beneath his grandiose façade. When he was captured in Tikrit, he wasn’t just back in the mud hut. He was in a hole underneath the mud hut, as low as anyone could go, representing Saddam’s shattered self.”

Among Post’s proudest CIA achievements were the Camp David profiles his unit prepared of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat for President Carter in 1978. Using these assessments, the president was able to ready himself for that groundbreaking summit. In his book, Keeping Faith (1982), Carter acknowledged that these analyses influenced his negotiating strategy and paid rich dividends.

“After Camp David, there was scarcely a major summit without our being asked to prepare profiles and assessments of the foreign leaders,” Post says. “Part of my pride was in crafting an entirely new field of intelligence at the CIA.” Post was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit in 1979.

Since leaving the CIA in 1986, Post has established himself as an expert on “the mind of the terrorist,” which is, in fact, the title of the book he’s currently writing. In addition to consulting for the departments of defense and homeland security, Post was an expert witness at the 1997 trial of an Abu Nidal operative and the July 2001 trial of an al-Qaeda member for the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania.

He is the author of several widely cited books, including When Illness Strikes the Leader (Yale University Press, 1993) and Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World (Cornell University Press, 2004). Post is often quoted on matters related to Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and the psychology of suicide terrorism.

“I have always seen my role, in government and outside it, as communicating complicated concepts in a way that is useful for intelligence professionals, policy officials and the general public,” says Post. “I’m not always reassuring, but I am trying to facilitate understanding.”