The way to interrogate — not torture — terror suspects
One of the best books ever written in the wake of the September 11th attacks was The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by journalist and author Lawrence Wright. It paints a clear picture of the terrorist group, Osama bin Laden’s rise to power, American intelligence failures, and — probably most important — how FBI agents successfully questioned terror suspects without resorting to torture.
The book won a slew of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Time magazine called it one of the 100 best nonfiction books ever written, and it has been described as the “definitive history” of al-Qaeda.
For me, the most fascinating part of the book came almost at the very end. It’s when a Lebanese American FBI agent successfully interrogated bin Laden’s bodyguard days after the attacks and was able to get all of the names of the 9/11 hijackers. He did it without waterboarding, “rectal rehydration,” forced nudity, sleep deprivation, or death threats.
He did it by talking to him.
Ali Soufan was the FBI case agent in the investigation of the USS Cole bombing of October 2000 in Yemen, in which 17 sailors died and 39 were wounded. When the plane carrying an FBI team arrived in Yemen to begin the probe, Yemeni soldiers waited on the tarmac in 110-degree heat, aiming AK-47s at the plane. The Americans drew their guns in return.
According to Wright’s account, Soufan quickly saw that the incident could turn into a bloodbath. He calmly left the plane and, speaking in Arabic, offered a bottle of water to one of the nearest soldiers and said he had water for all. The soldiers put down their weapons, and the Americans did the same. Crisis averted.
Soufan was still in Yemen nearly a year later after the 9/11 attacks. The bin Laden bodyguard, Abu Jandal, was being held in a prison in Yemen. Soufan had been given airport surveillance photos of possible hijackers and needed identification. He saw the link between the men and al-Qaeda but needed verification.
At first, Abu Jandal wouldn’t talk to him. The prisoner delivered diatribes against America, which he considered the root of all evil. But Soufan, also a Muslim, started a series of discussions about Islam. They argued about religion and about the true meaning of jihad. Soufan also brought him a history of America, written in Arabic, showing him that America started in a struggle against tyranny. Soufan discovered that Abu Jandal was diabetic, and he arranged for sugarless wafers to be delivered to the prisoner.
By the fifth day of questioning, Soufan showed Abu Jandal photos of the 9/11 bombing, saying, “Bin Laden did this.” He also showed the prisoner a Yemeni newspaper with the headline, “Two Hundred Yemeni Souls Perish in New York Attack.” Abu Jandal was horrified but still refused to believe that bin Laden was responsible.
Soufan finally brought out a book with a series of photos of al-Qaeda members and of the hijackers, telling Abu Jindal that some of these men were in custody. Soufan knew the hijackers had been killed in the plane attacks, but Abu Jandal didn’t.
Abu Jandal conceded that he knew some of the men and identified them. But he still insisted that the men would never commit such an action.
Soufan had the names he needed. According to Wright’s book, Soufan says, “I know for sure that the people who did this were Qaeda guys.”
“How do you know?” asked Abu Jandal. “Who told you?”
“You did,” said Soufan. “These are the hijackers. You just identified them.”
According to Wright’s narrative, Abu Jandal asked for a moment alone. Soufan left the room. When he returned, he asked Abu Jandal what he thought now.
“I think the Sheikh went crazy,” came the answer. Abu Jandal then told Soufan everything he knew.
The narrative in Wright’s book shows that intelligence gained by smart, legal methods is more reliable than that gained from suspects under torture. Soufan went on to question other suspects during his FBI career, often by sitting on the floor with them and drinking tea, speaking to them in Arabic. There were always discussions and arguments about Islam. And he found out what he needed to know.
Soufan testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2009. In his testimony, he stressed that his interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, one of bin Laden’s lieutenants, produced actionable intelligence with the names of other terrorists. After the CIA took over and started waterboarding, the flow of actionable intelligence stopped.
The release of the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA torture contains details most Americans wish they never had to read about. Unnamed CIA agents performed waterboarding on more suspects than previously admitted to. Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded so many times that it really was “a series of near drownings,” despite the fact that the only good information he delivered was gained before the waterboarding started. Many news articles go into detail about the torture described in the Senate report; the lies told; the cover-up; the denials. I will leave those details to them.
Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.) is usually bellicose about war. But the years he spent being tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam taught him an important lesson about torture — that it doesn’t work. On the day the Senate report was released, he gave an eloquent speech on the Senate floor. He ended his speech with these words:
“We gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much. Obviously, we need intelligence to defeat our enemies, but we need reliable intelligence. Torture produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence. And what the advocates of harsh and cruel interrogation methods have never established is that we couldn’t have gathered as good or more reliable intelligence from using humane methods. The most important lead we got in the search for Osama bin Laden came from conventional interrogation methods. I think it’s an insult to the many intelligence officers who have acquired good intelligence without hurting or degrading suspects. Yes, we can and we will.
“But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said and will always maintain that this question isn’t about our enemies, it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be.”