What Ali Soufan does not teach us about the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah
After Barack Obama shut down the CIA’s terrorist-interrogation program, the FBI retook the lead in the interrogation business. They have not had many subjects to work on in the last three years, since the Obama administration kills virtually every high-value terrorist it finds. But if Mitt Romney is elected this fall, chances are America will again be capturing and interrogating senior terrorist leaders — and the debate between the FBI’s “rapport building” techniques and the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques will come roaring back.
The most vocal advocate of the rapport-building approach has been former FBI agent Ali Soufan. In 2009, Soufan came to public attention when he testified before Congress from behind a black curtain to declare the CIA’s techniques useless and say he could have extracted the same intelligence from al-Qaeda terrorists using the FBI’s traditional, non-coercive methods. Since then, Soufan has traded the black curtain for a book deal and appearances on Colbert and Jon Stewart — but his story remains the same.
To support his claims, he regularly cites his purported success questioning a senior al-Qaeda facilitator named Abu Zubaydah in 2002. In a Newsweek story subtitled “How Ali Soufan, an FBI agent, got Abu Zubaydah to talk without torture,” Soufan described how he used rapport-building techniques — nursing the wounds Zubaydah had sustained during his capture and debating Islamic theory with him — to win Zubaydah over and get him to provide actionable intelligence. “As the sessions continued,” the Newsweek story recounted, “Soufan engaged Abu Zubaydah in long discussions about his world view, which included a tinge of socialism. After Abu Zubaydah railed one day about the influence of American imperialist corporations, he asked Soufan to get him a Coca-Cola — a request that prompted the two of them to laugh.” In Soufan’s telling, Zubaydah gave Soufan information that led to the arrest of American al-Qaeda operative Jose Padilla as he arrived in Chicago to carry out a terrorist attack. Then, just as Zubaydah was opening up to him, Soufan claims, the CIA took over his interrogation — with disastrous results.
In his new book, Hard Measures, Jose Rodriguez — the man who ran the CIA’s interrogation program — breaks his silence and offers an inside account of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. It is starkly different from the one Soufan has been peddling for years.
While Rodriguez does not mention Soufan by name (referring to him simply as a “Muslim FBI agent”), he makes clear that Soufan has left out a lot of unflattering details about the FBI’s interactions with Zubaydah. “Despite the current claims by former FBI agents that they had bonded with AZ [Abu Zubaydah] and were able to charm information out of him,” Rodriguez writes, “the facts are quite different.”
Far from opening up, Zubaydah stopped talking after repeated missteps by the Soufan-led interrogators. “AZ told CIA interrogators that he respected all of our team, especially the female chief of base (whom he called ‘the Emira,’ Arabic for ‘princess’ or ‘leader’) of the black site. He respected them all, he said, except for a Muslim FBI agent, who had offended him early on.” That would be Soufan.
What had the Muslim agent done to anger Zubaydah? “The agent, it turned out, had tried to debate Islamic theory with AZ, who thought the agent had insufficient grounding in the facts,” Rodriguez writes. He describes an interrogation session in which “the Bureau guys decided to try to ‘recruit’ AZ. In a meeting with the terrorist, the Arab-American agent told AZ, ‘Don’t pay attention to those CIA people . . . you work with me,’ and he gave him a candy bar. AZ was offended that the agent would think that he could be bought for a Snickers bar.”
Later, “the FBI man tried to use his Arab heritage as an opening to get AZ to talk, but it turned out to be counterproductive. ‘You are the worst kind of Arab,’ AZ told him, ‘you are a traitor!’”
Then the FBI agent tried to bribe Zubaydah. “The FBI agent told him, ‘America knows who its friends and who its enemies are. Work with us and we can make you a wealthy man.’ AZ responded, ‘What makes you think I would turn my back on Allah for money?’”
During the raid that brought Zubaydah to justice, the CIA had captured the terrorist’s personal diary and was using it to create the illusion of omniscience — shocking Zubaydah with details about his life that he thought were secret — until one day the FBI blew the ruse. “That cost us the benefit of surprise.”
When the FBI’s rapport-building techniques failed, the Bureau turned to more aggressive measures. One day, Rodriguez writes, an FBI agent told CIA officers before going into an interrogation session that he “planned to ‘go Sipowicz’ on Abu Zubaydah” — a reference to Andy Sipowicz, a rogue police detective from the 1980s show NYPD Blue. “The FBI man entered AZ’s holding cell and started screaming at him, calling him a ‘motherf***er’ and a ‘son of a bitch.’ Abu Zubaydah, who speaks decent English, apparently mentally translated the slurs literally and later said that the agent was calling his mother ‘a dog.’” Another FBI agent, writes Rodriguez, told Zubaydah “that if he cooperated we would make sure his mother was well taken care of. ‘Stay away from my mother,’ he said; ‘if she thought I was cooperating with you she would be ashamed of me.’”
Zubaydah did eventually reconsider his decision to clam up, Rodriguez says — after the CIA began to employ some initial enhanced-interrogation techniques designed in consultation with a psychologist contractor, “such as limited sleep deprivation, isolation, bombarding his cell with noise, and the like.” These actions “seemed to upset at least one of our FBI colleagues [Soufan], who made a play to take control of the interrogation. He got very confrontational and seemed to blame our contractor for everything.”
Soufan told Newsweek that the contractor “[had taken] charge of the questioning,” but Rodriguez says this is false. “At the time the contractor was still just an advisor. He was not in charge of the interrogation and hadn’t even received all the security clearances to allow him to read the most highly classified cable traffic flowing to and from the black site.”
No matter, Rodriguez writes. “At one point, after being rebuffed at an interrogation attempt with AZ, [Soufan] threatened violence, not against Abu Zubaydah but against the contractor. He eventually calmed down and apologized, blaming his outburst on being ‘hot-blooded.’ He didn’t stay calm for long, however, and eventually departed the black site, saying he did not want to be part of such procedures.”
Eventually, the CIA employed the panoply of enhanced-interrogation techniques on Zubaydah, including waterboarding. It worked. “After Abu Zubaydah broke under waterboarding,” Rodriguez writes, “he told our officers something remarkable. ‘You must do this for all the brothers,’ he said. AZ explained to them that Allah knew that they were only human and once they had been tested to their limits there was no shame in their cooperating with us.” Indeed, Zubaydah said that waterboarding (which he underwent five times, not 83, as is commonly asserted) was a relief because it finally lifted a great moral burden from his shoulders: the burden of resistance.
So he spilled his guts. The information that came from Zubaydah, and later from other CIA detainees such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was a treasure trove that led to the capture of dozens of al-Qaeda operatives and the disruption of numerous planned terrorist attacks. Intelligence from detainees in CIA custody also became the basis for the final report of the 9/11 commission.
“The windfall reported in the intelligence reports coming out of KSM’s interrogation was so dramatic,” writes Rodriguez, “that FBI officials petitioned the CIA to get back into the interrogation program, which they had abandoned during the early days at the first black site. At the time they said they didn’t want to be party to enhanced interrogation. Now they wanted back in.” In the end, however, the CIA turned down the FBI’s request to be readmitted. “In part we were afraid that FBI special agents would only disrupt the program,” Rodriguez writes. “But another factor was that the location of the new sites was not known to them and we didn’t want to expand the circle of witting officials for fear that knowledge of the sites would leak and their effectiveness would be compromised if not ended.”
That eventually happened anyway. And in 2009, President Obama shut down the CIA’s interrogation program and put the FBI back in charge of questioning terrorist “suspects.” It was then that Soufan launched his career as the “good interrogator” who could have gotten the same information without the CIA’s techniques.
So who is right? One eyewitness for the CIA is none other than Soufan’s FBI partner. In 2009 the Department of Justice released an inspector general’s report on the FBI’s involvement in detainee interrogations. In that report, Soufan’s partner (referred to by the alias “Agent Gibson”) said it was the CIA — not Soufan — that got the information on Jose Padilla. According to the inspector general, Gibson told him that “CIA personnel assured him that the procedures being used on Zubaydah had been approved ‘at the highest levels’ and that Gibson would not get in any trouble. Gibson stated that during the CIA interrogations Zubaydah ‘gave up’ Jose Padilla and identified several targets for future al-Qaeda attacks” (emphasis added).
Agent Gibson further told the inspector general that he “did not have a ‘moral objection’ to being present for the CIA techniques because the CIA was acting professionally and [Gibson] himself had undergone comparable harsh interrogation techniques as part of U.S. Army Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training.”
Soufan told Newsweek: “We didn’t have to do any of this. We could have done this the right way.” But if Rodriguez and Gibson are right, we did try it Soufan’s way — and he failed.
– Mr. Thiessen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a columnist for the Washington Post, and the author of Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack.