The story of how the U.S. learned that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the architect of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 is one of tenacity, guile, and no small measure of serendipity. “We Forrest Gumped ourselves into it,” former FBI agent Ali Soufan, the Bureau member who first discovered the connection in 2002, told TIME on Sept 3.
The admission of accidental good fortune is a strikingly self-effacing assessment from an agent who was at the forefront of the FBI’s investigations into jihadist activity in the 9/11 period. Soufan’s colleagues referred to him as “an American hero” because of his prowess at soliciting intelligence from detainees—eschewing the torture and humiliation that become mainstays of CIA interrogation.
The anecdote about Mohammed was supposed to appear in Soufan’s award-winning 2011 book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. But along with reams of other material, CIA censors redacted sections of the story on national security grounds. The publication of a declassified version on Sept. 8, according to Soufan, marks the first time ever a book by a U.S. intelligence official has been censored and then had that censorship lifted. “It’s a milestone for freedom of information and transparency,” says Soufan, who today heads the New York-based security consultancy The Soufan Group, and The Soufan Center, a non-profit think tank. “Now we know the truth about a very hard time in the world and America.”
Soufan’s chance discovery of Mohammed’s role in 9/11 came in March 2002 when he was interrogating a Saudi Arabia-born terrorist named Abu Zubaydah, America’s first high-value detainee since the attack. Zubaydah had been captured after a gunfight in Pakistan and the CIA flew him to an undisclosed country—where Soufan and his FBI partner were asked to conduct an interrogation. During questioning, Soufan asked Zubaydah to confirm the identity of a jihadi who had been indicted in connection with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in East Africa. But instead of the picture he’d meant to show, Soufan accidentally displayed another photograph on his colleague’s Palm Pilot-like device: that of Mohammed, also known as “KSM,”who featured on the same FBI Most Wanted List. Zubaydah identified Mohammed using a pseudonym Soufan had heard before in reference to a hitherto unknown associate of Osama Bin Laden.
Convinced by Soufan’s bluff that he already knew about Mohammed’s involvement in 9/11, Zubaydah outlined details of Mohammed’s original idea to fly Cessnas into the Twin Towers, his subsequent meeting with Bin Laden, and how the plot was advanced. Until that moment, the U.S. intelligence community had no idea Mohammed was an Al Qaeda member, Soufan writes in Black Banners, let alone the mastermind of 9/11.
Soufan has long argued that the CIA’s redactions constituted an “abuse of power” designed to disguise the failings of the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT) techniques—or torture—as an interrogation method and to obscure the way information was actually gleaned. While the full details may never be known, some of what EIT constituted was writ large in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 “torture report”, which in addition to waterboarding documented extensive use of forced nudity, “rectal rehydration”, and mock executions. [Soufan testified against the efficacy of those techniques in front of a 2009 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on torture.]
In an interview, edited for length and clarity, Soufan discussed the significance of the release of a declassified version of Black Banners, why the CIA for years persisted with torture when it knew it was ineffective, the similarities between the current White Supremacist threat and the Al Qaeda threat he dealt in the 9/11 era, and why now, nine years later, he’s glad his original work was censored.
You write in the foreword to The Black Banners that the CIA never truly believed the information should be classified and had in fact faxed the draft back to you over an unsecured line. Why all the redactions, then?
First, it’s important to differentiate between the institution [of the CIA] and some individuals who used their own power and position to do whatever they wanted; that’s a distinction I make in the book. But it was very obvious to me at the time that it was an abuse of power. It was an attempt to distort by redaction: they were trying to prevent the narrative from going out that torture did not work and they redacted anything that showed torture didn’t work. They also redacted imagery or scenes that showed how the intelligence was obtained. It has been engraved into the public psyche—through Hollywood, through Dick Cheney—that we waterboard a terrorist and he starts singing like a canary. People believe that. I could say “torture did not work, I was there.” But until now, I couldn’t disclose how we got José Padilla, for example, the so-called “dirty bomber,” or the plot on Brooklyn Bridge, I could only say it was not [torture]. Now people can read the truth. The book shows how we got the information that they later claimed we got through waterboarding.
But the CIA has long known torture doesn’t work. In 1989 the CIA told Congress that physical and psychological techniques are “counterproductive” because they “do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers.” Why did the CIA disregard its own findings after 9/11?
Again, it was certain people at the CIA, not necessarily the institution. A lot of the people in the field were totally against [torture]. But essentially, there’s a big difference between co-operation and compliance. Zubaydah was co-operating giving us [the information about Mohammed’s role in 9/11.] Compliance is when after 83 sessions of waterboarding Zubaydah says that he’s the number three guy in Al Qaeda, despite not being a member. Compliance is when Ibn al-Shaykh is tortured and says yes, Saddam and Al Qaeda are working together and they are developing a WMD. Compliance is giving you what you want to hear. Colin Powell was forced to go to the UN and testify that Bin Laden and Sadam were working together to develop a WMD, based on information we got from torture.
Unfortunately, what we see today in our fact-free culture today did not start with the Trump Administration. The war in Iraq, the WMDs, Saddam Hussein’s involvement with 9/11, whether torture works, all became partisan talking points. When Trump is telling his base “waterboarding absolutely works” it’s not about efficacy or national security, it’s about partisanship. Because if you believe in waterboarding, or that Iraq was behind 9/11, you are a true Republican. If you do not believe it, we check your patriotism. That’s why he is getting a lot of applause from people who really don’t know anything about waterboarding. One of the wins today is that we are able to put facts back on the table: torture wasn’t being tough on terrorism; it was stupidity. It didn’t work. The images [of detainee abuse] from inside Abu Ghraib prison were instrumental in recruiting jihadis to come to Iraq to fight against the U.S. So, torture helped our enemies. It hurt our credibility in the world.
Do you see a parallel between the current administration’s disregard for intelligence assessments— Russian interference in the 2016 election, Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal—and the Bush administration ignoring warnings about information obtained by torture?
What’s happening now with the Trump Administration is a logical step from what’s been happening for the last two or three decades. But it’s way more dangerous because these things impact the position of the United States as a global leader. We have the intelligence community coming with an assessment of, let’s say, the Iran deal. And all countries agree with this assessment. Also about Russian interference in 2016. And then all the hard work of people in the field who are risking their lives to get the information; all of the hard work of the analysts and bureaucrats who have nothing to gain or lose except serving the country and giving the political leadership an accurate assessment of what’s happening; all of these things just fly out of the window with a tweet: “So wrong.”
In Michael Schmidt’s new book he writes that President Trump offered John Kelly the FBI directorship but demanded he pledges loyalty to him. There have also been reports White House officials pressured U.S. intelligence agencies to link COVID-19 to Chinese labs. How concerned are you about the intelligence communities’ ability to withstand that pressure?
I think the intelligence community has been withstanding this pressure. I don’t know if they can withstand this pressure if the President has another four years, frankly. So far, they have been doing a good job. They have been speaking the truth. They are putting out reports about China, about Russia, about Iran, and often those reports directly contradict the Twitter account of the President of the United States. As for the loyalty thing, a lot of people have mentioned that. [Former FBI director James] Comey mentioned that. A lot of times, the president seems to be envious of Xi in China or Kim in North Korea. But we’re not North Korea. People take office to defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We don’t give an oath to a leader; we don’t kiss a ring. Presidents come and go but the institutions stay.
The Department of Homeland Security is set to label white supremacists the ‘most persistent and lethal threat’ to the US. How does the information on White Supremacy—and the way it’s treated in government—compare to the warnings you were getting about Al Qaeda in the pre-9/11 era?
There’s a lot of overlap between the White Supremacist movement today and where the jihadis were in the 1990s. There are similarities in rhetoric, narrative, and the anti-globalist message. If you look at [transnational Neo-Nazi group] The Base, it’s a copy of Al Qaeda. They copy Al Qaeda in their recruitment video. They use Al Qaeda manuals. Their flags are black. Atomwaffen Division [another transnational Neo-Nazi group], tries to copy ISIS. White Supremacist groups even have their own Afghanistan, which is Ukraine. Lots of people from across the western world go to different sides of the Ukrainian conflict. But the United States today plays the role Saudi Arabia played in the wars of the jihadis—everything is connected to America! Unfortunately, we’re not focussing on that as we should. We are dealing with the threat in a similar way to how we dealt with jihadis before the 1993 World Trade Center bombing when nobody wanted to acknowledge that they were a threat because, at the time, they were our allies; they had fought the Soviets.
Speaking of Saudi Arabia, has the FBI confirmed the Saudi government is behind the disinformation campaign against you?
I can’t tell you about what the FBI is telling me because it’s an ongoing investigation. But I can tell you the FBI is doing an amazing job in looking into this and they are taking it very seriously. In our own analysis, we were able to forensically connect [the disinformation campaign] to the Saudi government. We looked into it because it came immediately after U.S. intelligence informed me of a threat on my life from the Al Qaeda network and because the online campaign was highly coordinated and did not just seem like I pissed off some people who like [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman.
In our analysis, we found glaring similarities between the campaign against Jamal Khashoggi and the campaign against me. Some of the same people were involved, and there were some of the same bots. Even some of the language was the same: “you’re going to end up in a garbage can,” “the end is near,” etc. I cannot tell you that we found a link between the intelligence threat from Al Qaeda and the threat from the Saudis. But the timing is interesting, the context is interesting, and the similarities with Jamal Khashoggi were glaring. We shared all our findings with the government and they have their own findings.
How do you feel about the redactions being lifted now, nine years after you first published The Black Banners? Does it still matter today?
Nine years later and after a lot of headache and heartache, I’m happy they did what they did. By classifying these lines, they admitted they were true. You don’t classify lies. In a democracy, it’s extremely important to have conversations about the war on terrorism, about torture, and about the techniques that we used. But before we have this conversation we need to have a mutual understanding of truth. If we don’t, the conversation is going to lead us nowhere except for conspiracies, raw emotion, and alternative facts.