Ali Soufan Interviewed: After Waterboarding: How to Make Terrorists Talk?
June 8, 2009
By Bobby Ghosh, Time Magazine
The most successful interrogation of an Al-Qaeda operative by U.S. officials required no sleep deprivation, no slapping or “walling” and no waterboarding. All it took to soften up Abu Jandal, who had been closer to Osama bin Laden than any other terrorist ever captured, was a handful of sugar-free cookies.
Abu Jandal had been in a Yemeni prison for nearly a year when Ali Soufan of the FBI and Robert McFadden of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service arrived to interrogate him in the week after 9/11. Although there was already evidence that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks, American authorities needed conclusive proof, not least to satisfy skeptics like Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose support was essential for any action against the terrorist organization. U.S. intelligence agencies also needed a better understanding of al-Qaeda’s structure and leadership. Abu Jandal was the perfect source: the Yemeni who grew up in Saudi Arabia had been bin Laden’s chief bodyguard, trusted not only to protect him but also to put a bullet in his head rather than let him be captured. (See pictures of do-it-yourself waterboarding attempts.)
Abu Jandal’s guards were so intimidated by him, they wore masks to hide their identities and begged visitors not to refer to them by name in his presence. He had no intention of cooperating with the Americans; at their first meetings, he refused even to look at them and ranted about the evils of the West. Far from confirming al-Qaeda’s involvement in 9/11, he insisted the attacks had been orchestrated by Israel’s Mossad. While Abu Jandal was venting his spleen, Soufan noticed that he didn’t touch any of the cookies that had been served with tea: “He was a diabetic and couldn’t eat anything with sugar in it.” At their next meeting, the Americans brought him some sugar-free cookies, a gesture that took the edge off Abu Jandal’s angry demeanor. “We had showed him respect, and we had done this nice thing for him,” Soufan recalls. “So he started talking to us instead of giving us lectures.”
It took more questioning, and some interrogators’ sleight of hand, before the Yemeni gave up a wealth of information about al-Qaeda – including the identities of seven of the 9/11 bombers – but the cookies were the turning point. “After that, he could no longer think of us as evil Americans,” Soufan says. “Now he was thinking of us as human beings.”
Soufan, now an international-security consultant, has emerged as a powerful critic of the George W. Bush – era interrogation techniques; he has testified against them in congressional hearings and is an expert witness in cases against detainees. He has described the techniques as “borderline torture” and “un-American.” His larger argument is that methods like waterboarding are wholly unnecessary – traditional interrogation methods, a combination of guile and graft, are the best way to break down even the most stubborn subjects. He told a recent hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee that it was these methods, not the harsh techniques, that prompted al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah to give up the identities of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla. Bush Administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, had previously claimed that Abu Zubaydah supplied that information only after he was waterboarded. But Soufan says once the rough treatment began – administered by CIA-hired private contractors with no interrogation experience – Abu Zubaydah actually stopped cooperating. (Read “Dick Cheney: Why So Chatty All of a Sudden?”)
The debate over the CIA’s interrogation techniques and their effectiveness has intensified since President Barack Obama’s decision to release Bush Administration memos authorizing the use of waterboarding and other harsh methods. Defenders of the Bush program, most notably Cheney, say the use of waterboarding produced actionable intelligence that helped the U.S. disrupt terrorist plots. But the experiences of officials like Soufan suggest that the utility of torture is limited at best and counterproductive at worst. Put simply, there’s no definitive evidence that torture works.
The crucial question going forward is, What does? How does an interrogator break down a hardened terrorist without using violence? TIME spoke with several interrogators who have worked for the U.S. military as well as others who have recently retired from the intelligence services (the CIA and FBI turned down requests for interviews with current staffers). All agreed with Soufan: the best way to get intelligence from even the most recalcitrant subject is to apply the subtle arts of interrogation rather than the blunt instruments of torture. “There is nothing intelligent about torture,” says Eric Maddox, an Army staff sergeant whose book Mission: Black List #1 chronicles his interrogations in Iraq that ultimately led to the capture of Saddam Hussein. “If you have to inflict pain, then you’ve lost control of the situation, the subject and yourself.”
There is no definitive textbook on interrogation. The U.S. Army field manual, updated in 2006, lists 19 interrogation techniques, ranging from offering “real or emotional reward” for truthful answers to repeating questions again and again “until the source becomes so thoroughly bored with the procedure, he answers questions fully and candidly.” (Obama has ordered the CIA to follow the Army manual until a review of its interrogation policies has been completed.)
Some of the most interesting techniques are classified as “emotional approaches.” Interrogators may flatter a detainee’s ego by praising some particular skill. Alternatively, the interrogators may attack the detainee’s ego by accusing him of incompetence, goading him to defend himself and possibly give up information in the process. If interrogators choose to go on the attack, however, they may not “cross the line into humiliating and degrading treatment of the detainee.” (See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)
But experienced interrogators don’t limit themselves to the 19 prescribed techniques. Matthew Alexander, a military interrogator whose efforts in Iraq led to the location and killing of al-Qaeda leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, says old-fashioned criminal-investigation techniques work better than the Army manual. “Often I’ll use tricks that are not part of the Army system but that every cop knows,” says Alexander. “Like when you bring in two suspects, you take them to separate rooms and offer a deal to the first one who confesses.” (Alexander, one of the authors of How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq, uses a pseudonym for security purposes.)
Others apply methods familiar to psychologists and those who deprogram cult members. James Fitzsimmons, a retired FBI interviewer who dealt extensively with al-Qaeda members, says terrorism suspects often use their membership in a group as a psychological barrier. The interrogator’s job, he says, “is to bring them out from the collective identity to the personal identity.” To draw them out, Fitzsimmons invites his subjects to talk about their personal histories, all the way back to childhood. This makes them think of themselves as individuals rather than as part of a group.
Ultimately, every interrogation is a cat-and-mouse game, and seasoned interrogators have more than one way to coax, cajole or trick their captives into yielding information. Lying and dissimulation are commonplace. When a high-ranking insurgent spoke of his spendthrift wife, Alexander said he sympathized because he too had a wife who loved to shop. The two men bonded over this common “problem”; the insurgent never knew that Alexander is single. The Army manual even includes a “false flag” technique: interrogators may pretend to be of other nationalities if they feel a captive will not cooperate with Americans. (Read “Beyond Waterboarding: What Interrogators Can Still Do.”)
Other countries that have experienced insurgencies and terrorism have evolved rules too. From Britain, with its Irish separatists, to Israel, with its Palestinian militants, most such countries have tended to move away from harsh techniques. But institutional relapses can occur: human-rights lawyers and Palestinians with experience in Israeli prisons say some violent interrogation techniques have returned in recent years.
Each interrogator has his own idea of how to run an interrogation. Soufan likes to research his captive as thoroughly as possible before entering the interrogation room. “If you can get them to think you know almost everything to know about them – their families, their friends, their movements – then you’ve got an advantage,” he says. “Because then they’re thinking, ‘Well, this guy already knows so much, there’s no point in resisting … I might as well tell him everything.'” When Abu Zubaydah tried to conceal his identity after his capture, Soufan stunned him by using the nickname given to him by his mother. “Once I called him ‘Hani,’ he knew the game was up,” Soufan says.
To get Abu Jandal’s cooperation, Soufan and McFadden laid a trap. After palliating his rage with the sugar-free cookies, they got him to identify a number of al-Qaeda members from an album of photographs, including Mohamed Atta and six other 9/11 hijackers. Next they showed him a local newspaper headline that claimed (erroneously) that more than 200 Yemenis had been killed in the World Trade Center. Abu Jandal agreed that this was a terrible crime and said no Muslim could be behind the attacks. Then Soufan dropped the bombshell: some of the men Abu Jandal had identified in the album had been among the hijackers. Without realizing it, the Yemeni prisoner had admitted that al-Qaeda had been responsible for 9/11: For all his resistance, he had given the Americans what they wanted. “He was broken, completely shattered,” Soufan says. From that moment on, Abu Jandal was completely cooperative, giving Soufan and McFadden reams of information – names and descriptions of scores of al-Qaeda operatives, details of training and tactics.
Alexander, who conducted more than 300 interrogations and supervised more than 1,000 others in Iraq, says the key to a successful interrogation lies in understanding the subject’s motivation. In the spring of 2006, he was interrogating a Sunni imam connected with al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was then run by al-Zarqawi; the imam “blessed” suicide bombers before their final mission. His first words to Alexander were, “If I had a knife right now, I’d slit your throat.” Asked why, the imam said the U.S. invasion had empowered Shi’ite thugs who had evicted his family from their home. Humiliated, he had turned to the insurgency. Alexander’s response was to offer a personal apology: “I said, ‘Look, I’m an American, and I want to say how sorry I am that we made so many mistakes in your country.'”
The imam, Alexander says, broke down in tears. The apology undercut his motivation for hating Americans and allowed him to open up to his interrogator. Alexander then nudged the conversation in a new direction, pointing out that Iraq and the U.S. had a common enemy: Iran. The two countries needed to cooperate in order to prevent Iraq from becoming supplicant to the Shi’ite mullahs in Tehran – a fear commonly expressed by Sunnis. Eventually the imam gave up the location of a safe house for suicide bombers; a raid on the house led to the capture of an al-Qaeda operative who in turn led U.S. troops to al-Zarqawi. (See pictures of U.S. troops’ 6 years in Iraq.)
Proponents of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques say the noncoercive methods are useless in emergencies, when interrogators have just minutes, not days, to extract vital, lifesaving information. The worst-case scenario is often depicted in movies and TV series like 24: a captured terrorist knows where and when a bomb will go off (in a mall, in a school, on Capitol Hill), and his interrogators must make him talk at once or else risk thousands of innocent lives. It’s not just fervid screenwriters who believe that such a scenario calls for the use of brute force. In 2002, Richard Posner, a Court of Appeals judge in Chicago and one of the most respected legal authorities in the U.S., wrote in the New Republic that “if torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used … No one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility.”
The CIA’s controversial methods, argue their defenders, were spawned by precisely that sense of urgency: in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, amid swirling rumors of further attacks to come – including the possibility of a “dirty” nuclear bomb – the Bush Administration had no choice but to authorize the use of whatever means necessary to extract information from suspected terrorists. “We had a lot of blind spots after the attacks on our country,” former Vice President Cheney explained in a May 21 speech in Washington. “We didn’t know about al-Qaeda’s plans, but Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and a few others did know. And with many thousands of innocent lives potentially in the balance, we didn’t think it made sense to let the terrorists answer questions in their own good time, if they answered them at all.”
But professional interrogators say the ticking-time-bomb scenario is no more than a thought experiment; it rarely, if ever, occurs in real life. It’s true that U.S. intelligence managed to extract information about some “aspirational” al-Qaeda plots through interrogation of prisoners captured after 9/11. But none of those plots have been revealed – at least to the public – to have been imminent attacks. And there is still no conclusive proof that any usable intelligence the U.S. did glean through harsh interrogations could not have been extracted using other methods.
In fact, a smart interrogator may be able to turn the ticking-bomb scenario on its head and use a sense of urgency against a captive. During combat raids in Iraq, Maddox grew used to interrogating insurgents on the fly, often at the point of capture. His objective: to quickly extract information on the location of other insurgents hiding out nearby. “I’d say to them, ‘As soon as your friends know you’ve been captured, they’ll assume that you’re going to give them up, and they’ll run for it. So if you want to help yourself, to get a lighter sentence, you’ve got to tell me everything right now, because in a couple of hours you’ll have nothing of value to trade.'”
That trick led to Maddox’s finest hour in Iraq. At 6 a.m. on December 13, 2003, the final day of his tour of duty, two hours before his flight out of Baghdad, he began interrogating Mohammed Ibrahim, a midranking Baath Party leader known to be close to Saddam Hussein. More than 40 of Ibrahim’s friends and family members associated with the insurgency were already in custody. For an hour and a half, Maddox tried to persuade him that giving up Saddam could lead to the release of his friends and family. Then Maddox played his final card: “I told him he had to talk quickly because Saddam might move,” he says. “I also said that once I got on the plane, I would no longer be able to help him. My colleagues would just toss him in prison. Instead of saving 40 of his friends and family, he’d become No. 41.” It worked. That evening, Ibrahim’s directions led U.S. forces to Saddam’s spider hole.
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