This week saw the premiere of a new season of 24, with CTU agent Jack Bauer preparing to leave the world of counterterrorism for a quiet life as a grandfather in Los Angeles. But he is pulled back into the fight to stop the attempted assassination of a Middle Eastern leader in New York. As he questions an informant, he thrusts a gun into the man’s neck but then pulls back, telling him, “You’re lucky I’m retired.” In another time, the man would have suffered far worse.
The public view of interrogations had been shaped by the fictional Bauer, who captures a terrorist and proceeds to torture him — holding down his head in a bathtub full of water, using a Taser to shock him, lopping off his fingers with a cigar cutter — while screaming questions until the terrorist finally breaks and gives up the location of the nuclear bomb that is about to go off.
For some critics of U.S. interrogation policy, this is not fiction, but a depiction of reality. In Newsweek, Dahlia Lithwick has written that “high-ranking lawyers in the Bush administration erected an entire torture policy around the fictional edifice of Jack Bauer.” And Philippe Sands, author of the book Torture Team, has written that the show has been the “midwife” for torture’s “actual use on real, living human beings.” None of this is true.
Unlike these critics, I have had the chance to actually meet the real Jack Bauers — the CIA officials who questioned Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other senior terrorist leaders and got them to reveal their plans for new terrorist attacks. They explained to my why their approach has nothing in common with the methods used by Bauer on the fictional 24.
On July 31, 2006, I walked up the winding stairs of the Eisenhower Building to a secure conference room in the offices of the National Security Council’s intelligence directorate. I had been assigned to write a speech for President Bush acknowledging the existence of what was then the most highly classified program in the war on terror: the CIA program to detain and question captured terrorists. To write this speech, I was given access to some of the most sensitive intelligence our country possessed on the interrogation of senior al-Qaeda terrorists, as well as to intelligence officers who could explain to me how the program worked and why it had been successful in stopping new terrorist attacks.
Sitting across the table from me were several CIA officials, including two men I will call Harry and Sam (not their real names), I didn’t know anything about the individuals before me except that they were with the CIA and knowledgeable about the interrogation program.
As we began our discussion, I told them I believed the key to the success of the speech was to demonstrate the effectiveness of CIA interrogations with real, concrete examples of how the program saved lives. If Americans knew that CIA interrogations were effective, most would have no problem with the techniques the agency had employed. Some might even be shocked at how restrained they had been. Many Americans, I said, imagined that what went on at the CIA “black sites” mirrored what they saw on 24.
They began by clarifying precisely how the program actually worked. While 24 depicts violent scenes where interrogators inflict severe pain to get time-sensitive intelligence on terrorist dangers, in the real world, they told me, this is not how interrogations take place.
They explained, for example, that there is a difference between “interrogation” and “de-briefing.” Interrogation is not how we got information from the terrorists; it is the process by which we overcome the terrorists’ resistance and secure their cooperation — sometimes with the help of enhanced interrogation techniques.
Once the terrorist agreed to cooperate, I was told, the interrogation stopped and “de-briefing” began, as the terrorists were questioned by CIA analysts, using non-aggressive techniques to extract information that could help disrupt attacks.
The interrogation process was usually brief, they said. According to declassified documents, on average “the actual use of interrogation techniques covers a period of three to seven days, but can vary upwards to 15 days based on the resilience” of the terrorist in custody.
Most detainees, they told me, did not undergo it at all. Two-thirds of those brought into the CIA program did not require the use of any enhanced interrogation techniques. Just the experience of being brought into CIA custody — the “capture shock,” arrival at a sterile location, the isolation, the fact that they did not know where they were, and that no one else knew they were there — was enough to convince most of them to cooperate.
Others, like KSM, demonstrated extraordinary resistance. But even KSM’s interrogation did not take long before he moved into debriefing. He had been captured in early March, they said, and before the end of the month he had already provided information on a plot to fly airplanes into London’s Heathrow airport.
As they described the information the CIA had gotten from KSM and others, I slowly realized that these men were not simply describing what others in the agency had done; I was sitting face to face with the individuals who had actually questioned terrorists at the CIA’s black sites and gotten the information they were describing to me themselves.
Harry, it turned out, had interrogated KSM. He explained that interrogations involved strict oversight. There was no freelancing allowed — every technique had to be approved in advance by headquarters, and any deviation from the meticulously developed interrogation plan would lead to the immediate removal of the interrogator.
Harry said the average age of CIA interrogators was 43 and that each interrogator received 250 hours of training before being allowed to come in contact with a terrorist. And even after that, he said, they had to complete another 20 hours working together with an experienced interrogator before they could lead an interrogation on their own. Contrary to the claims later made by some critics, such as FBI agent Ali Soufan, the CIA did not send a bunch of inexperienced people to question high-value detainees.
Harry explained that the interrogations were not violent, as some imagined. He said that the interrogators’ credo was to use “the least coercive method necessary” and that “each of us is put through the measures so we can feel it.” He added: “It is very respectful. The detainee knows that we are not there to gratuitously inflict pain. He knows what he needs to do to stop. We see each other as professional adversaries in war.” (Indeed, Mike Hayden told me years later that KSM referred to Harry as “emir” — a title of great respect in the jihadist ranks.)
Critics have charged that enhanced interrogation techniques are not effective because those undergoing them will say anything to get them to stop. Soufan, the FBI agent and CIA critic, has written: “When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them. . . . That means the information you’re getting is useless.”
What this statement reveals is that Soufan knows nothing about how the CIA actually employed enhanced interrogation techniques. In an interview for my book, former national-security adviser Steve Hadley explained to me, “The interrogation techniques were not to elicit information. So the whole argument that people tell you lies under torture misses the point.” Hadley said the purpose of the techniques was to “bring them to the point where they are willing to cooperate, and once they are willing to cooperate, then the techniques stop and you do all the things the FBI agents say you ought to do to build trust and all the rest.”
Former CIA director Mike Hayden explained to me that, as enhanced techniques are applied, CIA interrogators like Harry would ask detainees questions to which the interrogators already know the answers — allowing them to judge whether the detainees were being truthful and determine when the terrorists had reached a level of compliance. Hayden said, “They are designed to create a state of cooperation, not to get specific truthful answers to a specific question.”
Indeed, the first terrorist to be subjected to enhanced techniques, Zubaydah, told his interrogators something stunning. According to the Justice Department memos released by the Obama administration, Zubaydah explained that “brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship.” In other words, the terrorists are called by their religious ideology to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know.
Several senior officials told me that, after undergoing waterboarding, Zubaydah actually thanked his interrogators and said, “You must do this for all the brothers.” The enhanced interrogation techniques were a relief for Zubaydah, they said, because they lifted a moral burden from his shoulders — the responsibility to continue resisting.
The importance of this revelation cannot be overstated: Zubaydah had given the CIA the secret code for breaking al-Qaeda detainees. CIA officials now understood that the job of the interrogator was to give the captured terrorist something to resist, so he could do his duty to Allah and then feel liberated to speak. So they developed techniques that would allow terrorists to resist safely, without any lasting harm. Indeed, they specifically designed techniques to give the terrorists the false perception that what they were enduring was far worse than what was actually taking place.
Once interrogators like Harry had secured a detainee’s cooperation, the enhanced techniques stopped, and the de-briefers entered the picture. Sam was a de-briefer — a subject matter expert with years of experience studying and tracking al-Qaeda members. His expertise had contributed to the capture of the terrorists he was now questioning — and now he put that expertise to work to find out what they knew.
Like the interrogators, de-briefers were carefully selected and trained before coming into contact with a detainee. They knew each detainee’s personal history, and what information they should know — allowing them to hone in on key details, maintain a fast pace of questions, and verify the truthfulness of the terrorists’ responses.
Sam had spent countless hours with KSM and the other terrorists held by the agency. When he elicited new information, he and the other de-briefers did not simply take the terrorists at their word. They checked their statements against other forms of intelligence and information from other captured terrorists — and confronted the detainees with evidence when they were holding information back or trying to mislead them.
Indeed, one reason the program was so effective, Sam told me, is that the de-briefers had 24/7 access to the detainees, many of whom were held in the same location. This allowed de-briefers to play one terrorist against the other. If KSM told them something about another terrorist in their custody, they could immediately confront the other terrorist with KSM’s revelations and get him to provide more details — and then go back with that information to get more from KSM.
They did this to great effect — confronting KSM and others with the statements of other terrorists in CIA custody, and getting information that helped them unravel planned attacks. Harry and Sam walked me through specific examples of how the interrogations had helped disrupt a series of terrorist plots in this way, showing me how information from a particular terrorist custody had led to the capture of other specific individuals, who in turn led us to other individuals, until the plots had been disrupted. These disrupted plots are detailed in Courting Disaster.
For example, information from detainees in CIA custody led to the arrest of an al-Qaeda terrorist named Jose Padilla, who was sent to America on a mission to blow up high-rise apartment buildings in the United States.
Information from detainees in CIA custody led to the capture of a cell of Southeast Asian terrorists which had been tasked by KSM to hijack a passenger jet and fly it into the Library Tower in Los Angeles.
Information from detainees in CIA custody led to the capture of Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, KSM’s right-hand-man in the 9/11 attacks, just as he was finalizing plans for a plot to hijack airplanes in Europe and fly them into Heathrow airport and buildings in downtown London.
Information from detainees in CIA custody led to the capture of Ammar al-Baluchi and Walid bin Attash, just as they were completing plans to replicate the destruction of our embassies in East Africa by blowing up the U.S. consulate and Western residences in Karachi, Pakistan.
Information from detainees in CIA custody led to the disruption of an al-Qaeda plot to blow up the U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti, in an attack that could have rivaled the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut.
Information from detainees in CIA custody helped break up an al-Qaeda cell that was developing anthrax for terrorist attacks inside the United States.
In addition to helping break up these specific terrorist cells and plots, CIA questioning provided our intelligence community with an unparalleled body of information about al-Qaeda — giving U.S. officials a picture of the terrorist organization as seen from the inside, at a time when we knew almost nothing about the enemy who had attacked us on 9/11.
In addition, CIA detainees helped identify some 86 individuals whom al-Qaeda deemed suitable for Western operations — most of whom we had never heard of before. According to the intelligence community, about half of these individuals were subsequently tracked down and taken off the battlefield. Without CIA questioning, many of these terrorists could still be unknown to us and at large — and may well have carried out attacks against the West by now.
Until the program was temporarily suspended in 2006, well over half of the information our government had about al-Qaeda — how it operates, how it moves money, how it communicates, how it recruits operatives, how it picks targets, how it plans and carries out attacks — came from the interrogation of terrorists in CIA custody.
Another reason the program was so effective, Harry and Sam explained, was that because the terrorists were in a secure location, CIA officials could also expose sensitive information to them — asking them to explain the meaning of materials captured in terrorist raids, and to indentify phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and voices in recordings of intercepted communications. This could never be done if the terrorists were being held in a facility where they had regular contact with the outside world. The danger of this information getting out would have been far too great.
Harry and Sam told me that the agency believed without the program the terrorists would have succeeded in striking our country again.
Harry put it bluntly: “It is the reason we have not had another 9/11.”
Their work was vital, but it was not easy. They took great care to stay within the confines of the law and to ensure the safety of those in their custody. For their efforts, they have been vilified as torturers by critics who know next to nothing about what went on at the “black sites” where they worked. In 2005, CIA director Porter Goss tapped two outside officials to conduct a review of the effectiveness of the CIA interrogation program: Gardner Peckham, the former national-security adviser to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and John Hamre, former deputy secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. Both spent several months at CIA headquarters studying the program and meeting with officials involved.
Peckham recalls having a long conversation late one night with one of the interrogators when he was conducting his review. This was “a very dedicated, capable guy who told me that he had been in with KSM one day, and KSM had basically said to him matter-of-factly, ‘If I ever get out of this hole, I’m going to kill you and your entire family.’ We were sitting there at nine o’clock at night or something, and he said to me, ‘You know, I work long days; this is hard. When I get down about it, I just think back to the film footage of the two people standing on the window of the World Trade Center on the 90-something floor, grasping each other by the hand and stepping out into space.’ He said, ‘I think of those two people, and I just go back to work.’”
Peckham says, “That really got to me. That level of dedication. These guys knew they were, in a lot of ways, limiting their futures by doing this kind of work, I think.They were risking something. But they knew a lot of other people were risking things too. And they knew it was important work, and I just have an enormous amount of respect for the people who are in this program. And I have such profound disrespect for those who ran for the tall grass when it started to become exposed, and even less regard for those who now seek to take political advantage of it.”
– Marc Thiessen is a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. This article is adapted from his new book, Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack, released this week by Regnery. For more information visit: www.courtingdisaster.net