Last week, Politico and USA Today reported about a secret 2008 Pentagon study which concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defining characteristic is…autism. The Office of Net Assessment’s Body Leads project asserted that scrutinizing hours of Putin footage revealed “that the Russian President carries a neurological abnormality…identified by leading neuroscientists as Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic disorder which affects all of his decisions.”
Putin’s spokesman dismissed the claim as “stupidity not worthy of comment.” But it was far from the first time the intelligence community has tried to diagnose foreign leaders from afar on behalf of American politicians and diplomats. The CIA has a long history of crafting psychological and political profiles of international figures, with varying degrees of depth and accuracy. A sampling of these attempts to get inside the heads of heads of state:
In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s World War II-era predecessor, commissioned Henry A. Murray of the Harvard Psychological Clinic to evaluate Hitler’s personality based on remote observations.
Findings: In an unsparing 240-page assessment, Murray and his colleagues concluded that Hitler was an insecure, impotent, masochistic, and suicidal neurotic narcissist who saw himself as “the destroyer of an antiquated Hebraic Christian superego.” Also:
There is little disagreement among professional, or even among amateur, psychologists that Hitler’s personality is an example of the counteractive type, a type that is marked by intense and stubborn efforts (i) to overcome early disabilities, weaknesses and humiliations (wounds to self-esteem), and sometimes also by efforts (ii) to revenge injuries and insults to pride.
The report stated that Hitler had suffered from “hysterical blindness” while he was a soldier in World War I. “This psychosomatic illness was concomitant with the final defeat of Mother Germany, and it was after hearing of her capitulation that he had his vision of his task as savior. Suddenly his sight was restored.” (See photo above.) It went on:
Sexually he is a full-fledged masochist…Hitler’s long-concealed secret heterosexual fantasy has been exposed by the systemic analysis and correlation of the three thousand odd metaphors he uses in Mein Kampf…and yet—Hitler himself is Impotent. [original emphasis] He is unmarried and his old acquaintances say that he is incapable of consumating the sexual act in a normal fashion.
The dossier predicted eight possible finales for the Führer, including going insane, sacrificing himself in battle, contriving to be killed by a Jewish assassin, and committing suicide: “Hitler has often vowed that he would commit suicide if his plans miscarried; but if he chooses this course he will do it at the last moment and in the most dramatic possible manner…For us it would be an undesirable outcome.”
Fun fact: In 1972, the study’s primary author, psychoanalyst Walter Langer, published his findings as a book, The Mind of Adolf Hitler. It became a bestseller.
Ho Chi Minh
The CIA studied the Vietnamese leader and revolutionary in the 1950s.
Findings: The report remains classified, but a 1994 article by Thomas Omestad in Foreign Policy (not online) cites a retired Marine who saw it while working with the agency. The source told Omestad that the CIA misread Ho’s political motivations and goals. A product of the Cold War, the profile “exaggerated Ho’s Marxism and underestimated his ardent nationalism.”
The CIA profiled the Soviet premier in advance of his 1961 meeting with President John F. Kennedy in Vienna. Reading up on his adversary got JFK hooked on CIA personality profiles—particularly “salacious secrets about foreign leaders,” according to historian Michael Beschloss. The Soviets also profiled Kennedy for Khrushchev, describing him as a “typical pragmatist” whose “‘liberalism’ is rather relative.”
Findings: The CIA portrayed Khrushchev as “a crude peasant who liked to be unpredictable and two-faced,” Gunter Bischof and Martin Kofler wrote in a book on the summit. The dossier described him as:
An uninhibited ham actor, who sometimes illustrates his points with the crudest sort of barnyard humor, Khrushchev is endowed on occasion with considerable personal dignity. He has a truly unusual ability to project the force of his own powerful personality…
[H]e is immoderately sensitive to slights—real or imagined, direct or inferred—to himself, his political faith, or his nation, all of which he views more or less interchangeably…
Capable of extraordinary frankness, and in his own eyes no doubt unusually honest, Khrushchev can also on occasion be a gambler and a dissembler expert in calculated bluffing. It is often hard to distinguish when Khruschev is in his own eyes voicing real conviction and when he is dissembling…
It is also difficult with Khrushchev to tell whether his anger is real or feigned…He is less able to conceal his formidable temper when he is tired…
The CIA’s psychiatric staff published a secret report on the Cuban leader in December 1961.
Fidel Castro is not “crazy,” but he is so highly neurotic and unstable a personality as to be quite vulnerable to certain kinds of psychological pressure. The outstanding neurotic elements in his personality are his hunger for power and his need for the recognition and adulation of the masses…
Castro has a constant need to rebel, to find an adversary, and to extend his personal power by overthrowing existing authority. Whenever his self-concept is slightly disrupted by criticism, he becomes so emotionally unstable as to lose to some degree his contact with reality…
Castro’s egoism is his Achilles heel.
Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat
In anticipation of the 1978 Camp David talks, President Jimmy Carter asked the CIA to help him prep with psychological profiles on Israeli Prime Minister Begin and Egyptian President Sadat. Following the summit, Carter praised the spy agency for its dossiers: “After spending 13 days with the two principals, I wouldn’t change a word.”
Findings: Sadat was a big-picture guy and Begin was into the details, but both were willing to negotiate. The CIA reported:
Sadat’s self-confidence and special view of himself has been instrumental in development of his innovative foreign policy, as have his flexibility and his capacity for moving outside of the cultural insularity of the Arab world. He sees himself as a grand strategist and will make tactical concessions if he is persuaded that his overall goals will be achieved…His self-confidence has permitted him to make bold initiatives, often overriding his advisors’ objections.
The profile described Sadat’s desire to grab the limelight as his “Barbara Walters syndrome” and “Nobel Prize complex.”
On the other hand, recalled Jerrold M. Post, the psychiatrist who launched the CIA’s profiling division, Begin was marked by his “predilection for precision and legalism.” His CIA profile noted that “Begin believes that face-to-face meetings between world leaders can bring about changes in their approaches to complex and seemingly intractable international problems.”
In the early 1980s, the CIA tried to make sense of the Libyan strongman, whose erratic actions were worrying the Reagan administration.
Findings: Bob Woodward quotes the study in Veil, his book on the CIA:
Despite popular belief to the contrary, Qaddafi is not psychotic, and for the most part is in contact with reality…Qaddafi is judged to suffer from a severe personality disturbance—a “borderline personality disorder”…Under severe stress, he is subject to bizarre behavior when his judgment may be faulty.
A subsequent CIA profile of the Libyan leader, writes Woodward, attributed his behavior to “an approaching or actual midlife crisis.”
(Fun fact: After realizing that President Ronald Reagan was not a big reader, the CIA started presenting him its leader profiles as videos with narration and music.)
In 1990, Jerrold Post, the founder of the CIA’s now-defunct Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, presented “a comprehensive political psychology profile” of Saddam to the House Armed Services Committee.
The labels “madman of the Middle East” and “megalomaniac” are often affixed to Saddam, but in fact there is no evidence that he is suffering from a psychotic disorder.
Saddam’s pursuit of power for himself and Iraq is boundless. In fact, in his mind, the destiny of Saddam and Iraq are one and indistinguishable…In pursuit of his messianic dreams, there is no evidence he is constrained by conscience; his only loyalty is to Saddam Hussein. In pursuing his goals, Saddam uses aggression instrumentally. He uses whatever force is necessary, and will, if he deems it expedient, go to extremes of violence, including the use of weapons of mass destruction…
While Hussein is not psychotic, he has a strong paranoid orientation…
Saddam has no wish to be a martyr, and survival is his number one priority. A self-proclaimed revolutionary pragmatist, he does not wish a conflict in which Iraq will be grievously damaged and his stature as a leader destroyed…Saddam will not go down to the last flaming bunker if he has a way out, but he can be extremely dangerous and will stop at nothing if he is backed into a corner.
In 1991, the CIA drew up a classified psychological profile of the Haitian president, who had just been ousted in a military coup. As the Clinton administration prepared to restore him to office in 1994, the agency showed the profile to members of Congress, igniting a campaign to withdraw American support for the exiled leader.
Findings: According to the profile, Aristide suffered from manic depression, had sought treatment at a Montreal hospital in the early ’80s, and was taking a powerful antipsychotic drug. The CIA also claimed Aristide was prone to violence and might seek to kill his political opponents upon his return to power.
Based on the CIA’s claims, Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) openly attacked Aristide as a “psychopath” and “a demonstrable killer.” Yet the hospital in question said he’d never been a patient, and Aristide denied that he was on psych meds. “They said worse things about Martin Luther King,” he noted. “As a psychologist, I know about character assassination and about psychological warfare.”
Reviewing the episode in Foreign Policy, Thomas Omestad concluded that it was a black mark on the agency’s reputation for remote profiling: “If policymakers are going to continue demanding profiles, they also ought to demand that the CIA do them right.”
This article has been updated.
Top image: Hitler: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons; Castro: KEYSTONE Pictures USA/ZUMA; Khrushchev: TASS/ZUMA; Qaddafi: Donatella Giagnori/Eidon Press/ZUMA