"I know firsthand it didn't work": Former FBI special agent dismantles torturers' lies

Star agent who interrogated the infamous Abu Zubaydah tells Salon why Cheney's torture regime was such a failure

Published January 6, 2015 5:39PM (EST)

Dick Cheney                      (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
Dick Cheney (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

Before the Senate Intelligence Committee's so-called torture report (really an executive summary of a much larger, still-classified document) was even released, many of the people most responsible for the U.S. embrace of "enhanced interrogation techniques" were already mounting an all-out media campaign to discredit its findings and protect themselves from public rebuke. And if a recent Washington Post poll that found Americans support torture and believe it "works" is anything to go by, they've had great success. (Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, at the very least, seems thoroughly convinced.)

According to former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan, however, almost none of what the public has come to believe about the torture program is true. As he argued in his 2011 book "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda" and again in a recent Op-Ed he wrote for the Guardian, responding to the release of the report, Soufan was having great success interrogating a key al-Qaida operative before the CIA — and those in D.C. who wanted to "enhance" the nation's anti-terror interrogations — stepped in. Salon recently spoke with Soufan over the phone about his experience, the torture report, and why the relationship between the CIA and "enhanced interrogation" is more complicated than you might think. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you tell me a bit about your background as an investigator and interrogator?

I was involved in targeting al-Qaida early on. I worked on multiple terrorism investigations and other tough investigations. I worked on the east Africa embassy bombings, and I got the highest award in the FBI — the Director's Award for Excellence in investigation. I was also the lead investigator for the USS Cole case. Then I worked on investigations that surrounded 9/11 ...

As an FBI agent, you do investigations, you put plots together, dismantle [them] — but also, at the same time, you interview and interrogate subjects. And that's where my experience as an investigator/interrogator came from.

As you know, one of the arguments defenders of the torture program make is that Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded (and underwent many other "techniques") because he was refusing to cooperate and because there was fear that another attack could be imminent. But you were interrogating Zubaydah before the CIA stepped in, and that's not how you remember it.

First of all, it's not really me who's saying, you can take my word for it — now there is the largest, most comprehensive oversight investigation in the Senate's history (which included 6,700 pages supported by 38,000 footnotes) that's come to the same conclusion. It's the same conclusion I testified [with] in 2009.

Again, talk is cheap; but I'm the only person who was able to raise his right hand in the Senate and testify under oath about what happened. Now the Senate investigation confirms the story [I told]: Abu Zubaydah was cooperating from the first hour [of interrogation]. He was providing information from the first hour. And when they claim that he stopped cooperating, that is ... when they put him in isolation for 47 days. With no one talking to him for 47 days, they went to confer with headquarters ...

They came back and said that Zubaydah wasn't talking and that was why they had to apply enhanced interrogation techniques and apply torture, because of issues having to do with a ticking time-bomb, yada-yada-yada ... And when [former] President Bush said that Zubaydah had stopped cooperating — yeah, he stopped cooperating because nobody spoke with him for 47 days ... I think the timeline provided in the Senate's report, which is based on CIA documents, is 100 percent accurate and it's exactly what I recall and what I witnessed firsthand.

I'll give you an example: They say, Padilla! Padilla! Padilla; they always talk about the dirty-bomb and [Jose] Padilla [being thwarted due to torture]. Well, the enhanced interrogation program did not start until the summer of 2002; Padilla was in custody in May of 2002; so how could he end up in custody in May of 2002, after an international manhunt, if he was [caught due to information procured with] a technique — i.e., waterboarding — that was not applied until late-July 2002? These are the things that don't make sense ...

As we know now from the Senate report, we see that there was a campaign of deception that surrounded that [torture] program — a campaign of deception that aimed specifically at exaggerating the alleged successes of the program.

When the CIA stepped in and pushed you aside in terms of handling Zubaydah, did you or any other people in the FBI have any sense that these torture techniques were going to be used, potentially?

No, it was more of an evolution; it was kind of "make it as you go." That was my sense. And it wasn't the CIA at the time; yes, the CIA provided cover for the contractors but there was a sense of shock [within the CIA] — and you see that in some of the contents of the many CIA cables that have been declassified as part of the Senate report. And that's something I testified about in the Senate [in] my statements in '09. There was a sense of shock among CIA officers and CIA personnel ... people could not believe that we were doing these kind of things, and that these contractors were allowed to even entertain these ideas.

I mean, the CIA, the FBI, we're all the same; we're trained in the same school — it's Uncle Sam's school on how to do things. And as I testified in the Senate, at least one CIA individual left before me and basically was appalled by what he was seeing ... So I'm glad the Senate's report focused on all the CIA who did the right thing. Remember, it's because of all these CIA people at the black sites who took a stand [against torture], that's why the program was shelved in the first place. Because [these agents] came back to headquarters, they complained to their inspector ieneral (IG), and the CIA IG conducted a thorough investigation into the program, and the results of that investigation basically shelved the program back in '05.

Some of the program's defenders have said that the Senate report is just partisanship, or that the criticism of the CIA is just the usual bureaucratic squabbling between it and the FBI. But it sounds like the role played by contractors made things more complicated than that.

Well, 85 percent of the people who were involved in the [torture] program were outside contractors — 85 percent! There were very, very, very few people in the CIA that were involved, and that was one of the problems I read [of] between the Senate Committee and the CIA about giving aliases [in the report] to the CIA officers who were involved, because then the reader could figure out how small was the number of people who were part of this program within the CIA. Most of the people were outside contractors.

When it comes to Republicans vs. Democrats? We were not like that. We were doing the job of Uncle Sam. We were trying to catch terrorists. We never thought, when the contractors came, This is a Republican way vs. the Democrats' way. I'm sure that there were Democrats who were probably OK with the program, and there were Republicans who were against the program. So it's not like that. That's not what happened.

As you've probably seen, there's a debate happening right now between opponents of the torture program over whether it's worth engaging in a larger conversation with the public over whether torture "works." Some say it's necessary and others say we shouldn't even go down that road, because torture is simply wrong. Where do you land on the question?

My answer is easy: We know now that [torture] didn't work! We have the largest investigation in Senate history and it said that [torture] didn't work! I know firsthand that it didn't work. And, by the way, it's also against what we stand for as a nation.

There's a reason many of us were against these techniques; it's not because we were a bunch of tree-huggers. It's because we know they don't work. If you look at the CIA's own code of conduct, it talks about how these techniques produce false information and false answers and don't work. The CIA IG, long before the Senate report, said that there was no evidence of a single terrorist attack disrupted because of these techniques. And at the conclusion, the CIA IG talked about the dangerous strategic implications on the reputation of the CIA and on the United States from doing something like this.

We repute other nations for doing waterboarding; we prosecuted Japanese officers and executed them because they waterboarded our POWs in WWII. So we can't just become the enemy. These techniques don't work. And if you don't believe my statement, and you don't believe the Senate report, maybe go and talk to Sen. John McCain and ask him if torture works.

Are you worried that, as things stand right now, with the level of accountability (or lack thereof) for the program we've seen so far, the United States may end up torturing again?

Yeah, absolutely. I hope it doesn't, but there is a possibility, if we don't come clean as a nation, if we don't man-up to what happened ... I think there's a possibility that we're going to go back on that path again. Usually, people don't go back on the path if there is accountability — and accountability can come in many different shapes, not necessarily prosecution — but we need to see some leadership ... that prevents us from doing this again.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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