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A Top Interrogator Who’s Against Torture

4 minute read
Bobby Ghosh / Washington

He’s the special agent who came in from the cold — and waded straight into the debate over the use of harsh interrogation techniques. Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent and perhaps the most successful U.S. interrogator of al-Qaeda operatives, says the use of those techniques was unnecessary and often counterproductive. Detainees, he says, provided vital intelligence under non-violent questioning, before they were put through “walling” and waterboarding.

The crux of the argument over the CIA’s techniques lies, not just in whether they constituted torture, but in whether or not they worked: did detainees like Abu Zubaydah — the first to go through the controversial coercive interrogation program — give up vital information? Defenders of the program have claimed that Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaeda recruiter and close associate of Osama bin Laden, did provide crucial information, including the identities of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of 9/11, and “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla. (See six ways to fix the CIA.)

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Soufan says Abu Zubaydah gave up the information between March and June 2002, when he was being interrogated by Soufan, another FBI agent and some CIA officers. But that was not the result of harsh techniques, including waterboarding, which were not introduced until August. “We were getting a lot of useful material from [Abu Zubaydah], and we would have continued to get material from him,” Soufan told TIME. “The rough tactics were not necessary.”

Amid the politically charged debate over the techniques, Soufan’s criticism carries special weight because it comes from someone intimately familiar with the little-understood art of extracting information from hard-as-nails jihadists. As a supervisory special agent from 1997 to 2005 — and one of the FBI’s few Arabic speakers — Soufan was involved in a string of crucial investigations and interrogations, from the Millennium Bombing plot in Jordan to the U.S.S. Cole bombing in Yemen and a number of Gitmo interrogations. His greatest success was the interrogation of Abu Jandal, bin Laden’s former bodyguard. After the 9/11 attacks, Soufan’s interrogation of Abu Jandal yielded a rich trove of information on al-Qaeda, including the identities of some of the 9/11 attackers and the terror group’s top leadership. (See pictures from inside Guantanamo Bay.)

Throughout that period, Soufan says he never felt the need for harsh interrogation methods. He argues that techniques like waterboarding don’t work. “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,” he says. “That means the information you’re getting is useless.” But his main objection to the techniques, Soufan says, is moral. To use violence against detainees, he says, “is [al-Qaeda’s] way, not the American way.”

Soufan says that view was shared by the CIA officials who worked with him on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and others. But then the harsh methods were introduced, he says, by CIA contractors and Soufan protested. He was backed by his bosses at the FBI and pulled out of the interrogations. This led to a rift between the Bureau and the CIA that has not fully healed. Yet Soufan says that if any CIA officials are prosecuted for the use of harsh techniques, he “will be the first person to defend them.” The real blame, he says, lies with “those who told them it is legal to do such things.”

Soufan has left the FBI and now runs a security consultancy. Although he rarely speaks of his past life in public, he has given testimony to several Congressional hearings on Gitmo.

See pictures of the aftermath of Abu Ghraib revelations.

Read “Why Obama Needs to Reveal Even More on Torture.”

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