When Dr. Jerrold Post met a friend for lunch about a job almost 40 years ago, he was unsure what sort of position they were going to talk about. It turned out that the job was with the CIA.
What the doctor thought would be a two-year stint in “the company” turned out to be a lifelong career as one of the government’s leading political psychological profilers.
“It was really quite serendipitous,” Post said.
Now the world’s foremost expert on Saddam Hussein, Post divides his attention among his students in the Elliott School, the government and the media, all of whom seek his insight into the minds of the world’s most compelling characters. Post has testified before Congress, briefed presidents and diplomats and taught graduate classes on terrorism and political violence at GW.
“It is very easy to describe what shapes a paranoid leader. What can lead masses of people to follow that siren song of hatred is quite another story,” Post said. “And the unfortunate thing about studying these things is that there will always be terrorists and rogue leaders.”
Political psychology and the CIA
Post’s career with the CIA began in 1965 with a casual invitation to lunch from an acquaintance to discuss a job.
“We had this, really, quite strange lunch down in Georgetown and I realized that he seemed to know quite a bit about me,” Post recalled. “When I said, ‘I thought we were here to talk about a job,’ he said, ‘I’d rather not talk about it here.'”
The acquaintance asked Post to follow him in a car.
“We ended up parked overlooking the George Washington Parkway as it overlooks the Potomac,” Post said. “He drove in, I drove in and he looked around and said, ‘Before we talk, sign this.'”
It was a secrecy agreement for the CIA.
Post, who was working in clinical psychiatry, was asked to begin a revolutionary new government program crafting psychological profiles of the world’s leaders from a distance for the president, the secretary of state and others.
There had been programs to assess the psychology of leadership, though nothing of the scale that the government was proposing, Post said, recalling the origins of the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior.
The history of political psychology goes back to the Second World War, when the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, commissioned a psycho-biography of Adolph Hitler.
The 1943 study, “The Mind of Adolph Hitler,” by Walter Langer, detailed the educational background, sexual history, family, physical characteristics, religion, speechmaking techniques and a host of other attributes of the Fuhrer, establishing a “personality assessment.” The study’s purpose was to understand the leader and gain the ability to predict how he would react in future situations.
The study was remarkable in that its author never met Hitler and used only intelligence and interviews to compile it.
While historians argued over the value of psycho-biographies in the study of history, the government found them indispensable.
The profiles Post and his team of analysts created were used to understand the psychology of leaders and how they would react at high-level summit meetings and in crisis situations so the government could know how leaders might react.
Though Post cannot talk openly about much of his work, some of his achievements have been made public.
“One of my big problems is that I am the world’s leading anonymous psycho-biographer because almost all of my work is behind classified doors, which is very frustrating,” Post said.
Camp David to Baghdad
On the shelves of his Elliott School office overlooking the State Department, Post has an autobiography of President Carter, signed by the author in appreciation of Post’s profiles of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at the Camp David accords in 1978. Post said he considers this work the high point of his career, but it is also one of the only personality studies he can discuss.
Though the Camp David profiles may have been the high point of his career, the past few years have been far from mundane.
Post has written a psycho-biography of Saddam Hussein in his new book, which has won him the worldwide attention of the media. He has also testified before numerous congressional bodies on the behavior of world leaders including Hussein.
His expertise makes him a hot commodity in a conflict in which the enemy is not well understood.
In the middle of the latest war in Iraq, Post answered 37 media requests for interviews, television appearances and radio spots in one day. University officials joked that Post is winning the competition among professors for the most interviews given per week.
“It is really a bit embarrassing,” he said.
Post has appeared on all the major news channels and in all the major newspapers, offering his insight on the fate of Hussein and the dictator’s probable behavior in the war.
He warned the Iraqi dictator would have little compunction about using chemical weapons and would probably fight to the end if he stayed in power.
Early on in the conflict, however, Post became convinced the Iraqi leader might be dead, incapacitated or in hiding. The videos and statements purportedly made by Hussein did not match the leader’s pattern of behavior, Post said.
Post explained to the world media what he understood Hussein’s motivations to be – his messianic complex and his paranoia. He also disputed the claim that Hussein was insane, citing a history of calculated political decisions that allowed him to secure and maintain power.
“It is not by accident that Saddam Hussein has survived for more than three decades as his nation’s preeminent leader in this tumultuous part of the world,” Post wrote in his book, “The Psychological Assessment of Political Leadership.” “Hussein is a ruthless political calculator who will go to whatever lengths are necessary to achieve his goals.”
Teaching terrorism in Foggy Bottom
It is not only state leaders Post studies, however. Terrorism has also been a major focus of his work. In the 1970s he began the government’s program for understanding the psychology of terrorism and now teaches classes on the subject at GW.
As the head of the political psychology department, he teaches graduate course in political violence, terrorism and the psychology of leadership.
He assigns his students, some of whom have gone on to work for the CIA, FBI Defense Intelligence Agency and a myriad of other government agencies, to write term papers profiling a major terrorist organization and discuss them in class.
“I had a very interesting experience when I went to the FBI after 9/11 and heard a briefing on Osama bin Laden from a graduate student of mine of two years ago who is now the principle bin Laden expert,” Post said.
Post’s students highly recommend his classes to their friends, not only for the topic but for the professor as well.
“It is interesting and relevant to what is going on today in the world,” said Theresa Rennick, who has taken both of Post’s classes on terrorism. “He has read classified things like the Al Qaida training manual and integrates these ideas into his teaching. He really brings that outside knowledge into class.”
Students in his Political Violence and Terrorism class come from across the world, including Pakistan, which makes for compelling classroom discussions. Topics in the class range from cyber-terrorism and weapons of mass destruction to what motivates terrorist groups and how to stop them.
Post is, in many ways, an ambassador between two worlds.
He studies the complexities of the human mind and its function within society, yet, as the foremost expert in his field, he is frequently asked to reduce these complexities into 20-second sound bytes for mass consumption.
“Part of the terror is not knowing who this person is who seems to hold your destiny in their hands, be it Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden,” Post said. “A better-informed government and a better- informed public is going to make better judgments, and to be able to contribute to that is satisfying.”
“There is a never-ending supply of rogue leaders and terrorist leaders,” Post mused. “In order to deter these threats to our security, one has to have a nuanced political profile of them. We need to understand the people we are dealing with, be it allies or adversaries, and you can’t deal with an adversary you don’t understand.”