My Tortured Decision – top FBI agent comes ‘clean’ on torture

by on April 23, 2009 · 6 comments

in Civil Rights, Election, War and Peace, World News

Methods of German torture in Medieval times

By Ali Soufan / The New York Times / Published: April 22, 2009

FOR seven years I have remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. I have spoken only in closed government hearings, as these matters were classified. But the release last week of four Justice Department memos on interrogations allows me to shed light on the story, and on some of the lessons to be learned.

Clockwise from top left: al-Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah; al-Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed shortly after his capture, in 2003; terror suspect Jose Padilla; former British resident and current Guantánamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed.

One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions – all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mr. Padilla. This is false. The information that led to Mr. Shibh’s capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods. As for Mr. Padilla, the dates just don’t add up: the harsh techniques were approved in the memo of August 2002, Mr. Padilla had been arrested that May.

One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An F.B.I. colleague of mine who knew more about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed than anyone in the government was not allowed to speak to him.

It was the right decision to release these memos, as we need the truth to come out. This should not be a partisan matter, because it is in our national security interest to regain our position as the world’s foremost defenders of human rights. Just as important, releasing these memos enables us to begin the tricky process of finally bringing these terrorists to justice.

The debate after the release of these memos has centered on whether C.I.A. officials should be prosecuted for their role in harsh interrogation techniques. That would be a mistake. Almost all the agency officials I worked with on these issues were good people who felt as I did about the use of enhanced techniques: it is un-American, ineffective and harmful to our national security.

Fortunately for me, after I objected to the enhanced techniques, the message came through from Pat D’Amuro, an F.B.I. assistant director, that “we don’t do that,” and I was pulled out of the interrogations by the F.B.I. director, Robert Mueller (this was documented in the report released last year by the Justice Department’s inspector general).

My C.I.A. colleagues who balked at the techniques, on the other hand, were instructed to continue. (It’s worth noting that when reading between the lines of the newly released memos, it seems clear that it was contractors, not C.I.A. officers, who requested the use of these techniques.)

As we move forward, it’s important to not allow the torture issue to harm the reputation, and thus the effectiveness, of the C.I.A. The agency is essential to our national security. We must ensure that the mistakes behind the use of these techniques are never repeated. We’re making a good start: President Obama has limited interrogation techniques to the guidelines set in the Army Field Manual, and Leon Panetta, the C.I.A. director, says he has banned the use of contractors and secret overseas prisons for terrorism suspects (the so-called black sites). Just as important, we need to ensure that no new mistakes are made in the process of moving forward – a real danger right now.

Ali Soufan was an F.B.I. supervisory special agent from 1997 to 2005.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

annagrace April 23, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Did you get the part about “contractors?” Contract torturers?


annagrace April 23, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Rachel Maddow has been providing excellent coverage on this issue.


Gary Gilmore April 23, 2009 at 5:10 pm

I don’t think I’m being naïve by thinking that just a little bit of logic will tell you that torture is not an effective way of obtaining quality information. A person being tortured will tell you whatever he/she thinks you want to hear just so the torture will stop. Common sense tells me that if you show them some respect, argue your case logically & show them the folly of their ways over time they will give the necessary information willingly. Does this make since to anyone else?


Frank Gormlie April 24, 2009 at 8:52 am

The Union Tribune ran this agent’s story today on its op-ed page. See what ya get with the OB Rag blog? We’re at least a day ahead of the U-T!


mr fresh April 26, 2009 at 9:05 am

“As a senior interrogator in Iraq, I conducted more than three hundred interrogations and monitored more than one thousand. I heard numerous foreign fighters state that the reason they came to Iraq to fight was because of the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. Our policy of torture and abuse is Al-Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool. These same insurgents have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of our troops in Iraq, not to mention Iraqi civilians. Torture and abuse are counterproductive in the long term and, ultimately, cost us more lives than they save,” – former senior military interrogator Matthew Alexander.


Rob July 26, 2010 at 2:07 am

Al Qaida and the Taliban are raised and funded by the American Government.
More people die from Peanut Allergy, than terrorism.
Though the insane world politic draws a plan for a future with the complete absence of freedom.
I can’t believe that people can work years for the American Army, and see their good intentions being violated, and still put up with it.
You must be completely brainwashed and without free will if you are able to do this for decades.

The World really needs to wake up.


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