Soufan’s Testimony

Soufan’s Testimony May 18, 2009

The testimony of FBI agent Ali Soufan before a Congressional committee last week should serve to pretty much destroy any serious arguments in favor of torture as an interrogation tool. Some of the highlights of his prepared testimony follow. He began by speaking about the successful interrogation of a key terror suspect using traditional interrogation techniques:

There are many examples of successful interrogations of terrorists that have taken place before and after 9/11. Many of them are classified, but one that is already public and mirrors the other cases, is the interrogation of al Qaeda terrorist Nasser Ahmad Nasser al-Bahri, known as Abu Jandal. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, together with my partner Special Agent Robert McFadden, a first-class intelligence operative from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), (which, from my experience, is one of the classiest agencies I encountered in the intelligence community), I interrogated Abu Jandal.

Through our interrogation, which was done completely by the book (including advising him of his rights), we obtained a treasure trove of highly significant actionable intelligence. For example, Abu Jandal gave us extensive information on Osama Bin Laden’s terror network, structure, leadership, membership, security details, facilities, family, communication methods, travels, training, ammunitions, and weaponry, including a breakdown of what machine guns, rifles, rocket launchers, and anti-tank missiles they used. He also provided explicit details of the 9/11plot operatives, and identified many terrorists who we later successfully apprehended.

The information was important for the preparation of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. It also provided an important background to the 9/11 Commission report; it provided a foundation for the trials so far held in Guantanamo Bay; and it also has been invaluable in helping to capture and identify top al Qaeda operatives and thus disrupt plots.

And he explained how these traditional methods work:

The approach used in these successful interrogations can be called the Informed Interrogation Approach. Until the introduction of the “enhanced” technique, it was the sole approach used by our military, intelligence, and law enforcement community.

It is an approach rooted in experiences and lessons learned during World War II and from our Counter-insurgency experience in Vietnam – experiences and lessons that generated the Army Field Manual.

This was then refined over the decades to include how to interrogate terrorism suspects specifically, as experience was gained from interrogations following the first World Trade Center bombing, the East Africa Embassy bombings, and the USS Cole bombing. To sum up, it is an approach derived from the cumulative experiences, wisdom, and successes of the most effective operational people our country has produced.

Before I joined the Bureau, for example, traditional investigative strategies along with intelligence derived from human sources successfully thwarted the 1993 New York City Landmark Bomb Plot (TERRSTOP), a plot by the Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, to attack the UN Headquarters, the FBI’s New York office, and tunnels and bridges across New York City, — as a follow-up to the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. That remains to this day the largest thwarted attack on our homeland. I had the privilege of working with, and learning from, those who conducted this successful operation.

The Informed Interrogation Approach is based on leveraging our knowledge of the detainee’s culture and mindset, together with using information we already know about him.

The interrogator knows that there are three primary points of influence on the detainee:

First, there is the fear that the detainee feels as a result of his capture and isolation from his support base. People crave human contact, and this is especially true in some cultures more than others. The interrogator turns this knowledge into an advantage by becoming the one person the detainee can talk to and who listens to what he has to say, and uses this to encourage the detainee to open up.
In addition, acting in a non-threatening way isn’t how the detainee is trained to expect a U.S. interrogator to act. This adds to the detainee’s confusion and makes him more likely to cooperate.

Second, and connected, there is the need the detainee feels to sustain a position of respect and value to interrogator. As the interrogator is the one person speaking to and listening to the detainee, a relationship is built – and the detainee doesn’t want to jeopardize it. The interrogator capitalizes on this and compels the detainee to give up more information.

And third, there is the impression the detainee has of the evidence against him. The interrogator has to do his or her homework and become an expert in every detail known to the intelligence community about the detainee. The interrogator then uses that knowledge to impress upon the detainee that everything about him is known and that any lie will be easily caught.

For example, in my first interrogation of the terrorist Abu Zubaydah, who had strong links to al Qaeda’s leaders and who knew the details of the 9/11 plot before it happened, I asked him his name. He replied with his alias. I then asked him, “how about if I call you Hani?” That was the name his mother nicknamed him as a child. He looked at me in shock, said “ok,” and we started talking.

The Army Field Manual is not about being nice or soft. It is a knowledge-based approach. It is about outwitting the detainee by using a combination of interpersonal, cognitive, and emotional strategies to get the information needed. If done correctly it’s an approach that works quickly and effectively because it outwits the detainee using a method that he is not trained, or able, to resist.

And he described why abusive interrogation techniques don’t work:

A major problem is that it is ineffective. Al Qaeda terrorists are trained to resist torture. As shocking as these techniques are to us, the al Qaeda training prepares them for much worse – the torture they would expect to receive if caught by dictatorships for example.

This is why, as we see from the recently released Department of Justice memos on interrogation, the contractors had to keep getting authorization to use harsher and harsher methods, until they reached waterboarding and then there was nothing they could do but use that technique again and again. Abu Zubaydah had to be waterboarded 83 times and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times. In a democracy there is a glass ceiling of harsh techniques the interrogator cannot breach, and a detainee can eventually call the interrogator’s bluff.

In addition the harsh techniques only serves to reinforce what the detainee has been prepared to expect if captured. This gives him a greater sense of control and predictability about his experience, and strengthens his will to resist.

A second major problem with this technique is that evidence gained from it is unreliable. There is no way to know whether the detainee is being truthful, or just speaking to either mitigate his discomfort or to deliberately provide false information. As the interrogator isn’t an expert on the detainee or the subject matter, nor has he spent time going over the details of the case, the interrogator cannot easily know if the detainee is telling the truth. This unfortunately has happened and we have had problems ranging from agents chasing false leads to the disastrous case of Ibn Sheikh al-Libby who gave false information on Iraq, al Qaeda, and WMD.

A third major problem with this technique is that it is slow. It takes place over a long period of time, for example preventing the detainee from sleeping for 180 hours as the memos detail, or waterboarding 183 times in the case of KSM. When we have an alleged “ticking timebomb” scenario and need to get information quickly, we can’t afford to wait that long.

A fourth problem with this technique is that ignores the end game. In our country we have due process, which requires evidence to be collected in a certain way. The CIA, because of the sensitivity of its operations, by necessity, operates secretly. These two factors mean that by putting the CIA in charge of interrogations, either secrecy is sacrificed for justice and the CIA’s operations are hampered, or justice is not served. Neither is a desirable outcome.

And he showed why the traditional techniques worked with Abu Zubaydah, while the abusive measures failed:

Immediately after Abu Zubaydah was captured, a fellow FBI agent and I were flown to meet him at an undisclosed location. We were both very familiar with Abu Zubaydah and have successfully interrogated al-Qaeda terrorists. We started interrogating him, supported by CIA officials who were stationed at the location, and within the first hour of the interrogation, using the Informed Interrogation Approach, we gained important actionable intelligence.

The information was so important that, as I later learned from open sources, it went to CIA Director George Tennet who was so impressed that he initially ordered us to be congratulated. That was apparently quickly withdrawn as soon as Mr. Tennet was told that it was FBI agents, who were responsible. He then immediately ordered a CIA CTC interrogation team to leave DC and head to the location to take over from us.

During his capture Abu Zubaydah had been injured. After seeing the extent of his injuries, the CIA medical team supporting us decided they were not equipped to treat him and we had to take him to a hospital or he would die. At the hospital, we continued our questioning as much as possible, while taking into account his medical condition and the need to know all information he might have on existing threats.

We were once again very successful and elicited information regarding the role of KSM as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and lots of other information that remains classified. (It is important to remember that before this we had no idea of KSM’s role in 9/11 or his importance in the al Qaeda leadership structure.) All this happened before the CTC team arrived.

A few days after we started questioning Abu Zubaydah, the CTC interrogation team finally arrived from DC with a contractor who was instructing them on how they should conduct the interrogations, and we were removed. Immediately, on the instructions of the contractor, harsh techniques were introduced, starting with nudity. (The harsher techniques mentioned in the memos were not introduced or even discussed at this point.)

The new techniques did not produce results as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking. At that time nudity and low-level sleep deprivation (between 24 and 48 hours) was being used. After a few days of getting no information, and after repeated inquiries from DC asking why all of sudden no information was being transmitted (when before there had been a steady stream), we again were given control of the interrogation.

We then returned to using the Informed Interrogation Approach. Within a few hours, Abu Zubaydah again started talking and gave us important actionable intelligence.

This included the details of Jose Padilla, the so-called “dirty bomber.” To remind you of how important this information was viewed at the time, the then-Attorney General, John Ashcroft, held a press conference from Moscow to discuss the news. Other important actionable intelligence was also gained that remains classified.

After a few days, the contractor attempted to once again try his untested theory and he started to re-implementing the harsh techniques. He moved this time further along the force continuum, introducing loud noise and then temperature manipulation.

Throughout this time, my fellow FBI agent and I, along with a top CIA interrogator who was working with us, protested, but we were overruled. I should also note that another colleague, an operational psychologist for the CIA, had left the location because he objected to what was being done.

Again, however, the technique wasn’t working and Abu Zubaydah wasn’t revealing any information, so we were once again brought back in to interrogate him. We found it harder to reengage him this time, because of how the techniques had affected him, but eventually, we succeeded, and he re-engaged again.

Once again the contractor insisted on stepping up the notches of his experiment, and this time he requested the authorization to place Abu Zubaydah in a confinement box, as the next stage in the force continuum. While everything I saw to this point were nowhere near the severity later listed in the memos, the evolution of the contractor’s theory, along with what I had seen till then, struck me as “borderline torture.”

As the Department of Justice IG report released last year states, I protested to my superiors in the FBI and refused to be a part of what was happening. The Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, a man I deeply respect, agreed passing the message that “we don’t do that,” and I was pulled out.

And he debunks the claims that torture got actionable intelligence from Zubaydah and KSM:

As you can see from this timeline, many of the claims made in the memos about the success of the enhanced techniques are inaccurate. For example, it is untrue to claim Abu Zubaydah wasn’t cooperating before August 1, 2002. The truth is that we got actionable intelligence from him in the first hour of interrogating him.

In addition, simply by putting together dates cited in the memos with claims made, falsehoods are obvious. For example, it has been claimed that waterboarding got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Jose Padilla. But that doesn’t add up: Waterboarding wasn’t approved until 1August 2002 (verbally it was authorized around mid July 2002), and Padilla was arrested in May 2002.

The same goes for KSM’s involvement in 9/11: That was discovered in April 2002, while waterboarding was not introduced until almost three months later. It speaks volumes that the quoted instances of harsh interrogation methods being a success are false.

Nor can it be said that the harsh techniques were effective, which is why we had to be called back in repeatedly. As we know from the memos, the techniques that were apparently introduced after I left did not appear to work either, which is why the memos granted authorization for harsher techniques. That continued for several months right till waterboarding was introduced, which had to be used 83 times – an indication that Abu Zubaydah had called the interrogator’s bluff knowing the glass ceiling that existed.

Game, set, match.


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