by Michael Buozis
If public discourse is any measure, as a nation we’ve become comfortable with the idea that the national security apparatus is working. To what extent it’s working, is less agreed upon. But fewer and fewer of us are disputing the contention that if the men and women who serve protecting our interests abroad and American lives at home were not doing what they’re doing, we would all be considerably less safe. This is not to say there are no voices of dissent. In May, Harper’s Magazine ran an article in the Readings section called “Eye of the Drone,” a series of statements from the families of victims and survivors of a March 17, 2011, drone attack in the village of Datta Khel in the Pakistani region of North Waziristan. The collateral damage of counterterrorism, counterinsurgency’s small-footed brother, is still devastating.
“The tribal elders who had been killed could not be identified because there were body parts strewn about. The smell was awful. I just collected the pieces of flesh that I believed belonged to my father and placed them in a small coffin.”
“The mothers and wives plead with the men not to congregate together. They do not want to lose any more of their husbands, sons, brothers, and nephews. People in the same family now sleep apart because they do not want their togetherness to be viewed suspiciously through the eye of the drone. They do not want to become the next target.”
Whether capturing the bad guys is worth this innocent blood on our collective hands is not clear, but there’s no doubt we are capturing (or killing) the bad guys. However, two important narratives concerning the methods we use to capture and interrogate said villains are emerging as the national security and anti-terrorism community loosens its lips to the media, and the publishing world, about the last ten years of its operations. These two positions pit the FBI against the CIA, a rivalry as old as the institutions themselves. In the media, Ali Soufan and Jose Rodriguez, two men with firsthand experience of opposite sides of this coin, have brought interesting new facts to light regarding the treatment of suspected terrorists at the hands of U.S. interrogators. Both men are affirmed patriots. They are less concerned with the moral implications of the way they treat prisoners than they are with the efficacy of their methods. They say they will do anything to save American lives.
By what methods do we get information from a hardened criminal, when that information may stop a terrorist attack on our interests abroad or on our people at home? Should the nature of the information sought, or the attitude of the suspect, change those methods? Soufan and Rodriguez think they know the answers to these questions and they don’t agree.
Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. thrust himself into the spotlight recently upon the publication of a memoir of his career in intelligence. That book, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, particularly its description of the destruction of tapes showing the torture of Abu Zubaydah, was the subject of a controversial 60 Minutes interview in April. In the interview, Rodriguez claims he destroyed the tapes to erase any ugly images which might incite violence toward his fellow officers and other Americans. He never questions the moral implications of the behavior shown in the footage. In fact, Rodriguez goes so far as to claim the enhanced interrogation methods used by the CIA, particularly in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was only identified as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks after Zubaydah’s arrest, helped thwart numerous terrorist attacks. Lesley Stahl, the 60 Minutes interviewer, never directly confronts Rodriguez on his use of torture. She tiptoes around the issue, though President Obama has identified the use of enhanced interrogation as torture for years.
“So you were getting pressure from Congress and the White House to take the gloves off. Did you go to the dark side?”
“We are the dark side.”
“But I mean, these were enhanced interrogation techniques. Other people call it torture. This was– this wasn’t benign in any– any sense of the word.”
“I’m not trying to say that they were benign. But the problem here is that people don’t understand that this program was not about hurting anybody. This program was about instilling a sense of hopelessness and despair on the terrorist, on the detainee, so that he would conclude on his own that he was better off cooperating with us.”
Dana Priest, a reporter for the Washington Post, described Rodriguez as “a big-city police detective stuffed uncomfortably into a tailored suit” with the ruddy complexion and walrus mustache to match, when she met him in 2005 while he was still an undercover boss at the CIA. He’s a bit of a cowboy, a Latin George W. Bush. In his memoir, undercover in Latin America, he woos a dictatorial warlord with his horseback riding prowess, befriends Manuel Noriega’s witch doctor, and runs straight to the office on 9/11, ready to take on America’s newly confirmed enemy number one. Though this all sounds like the stuff of spy thrillers, Rodriguez’s James Bond is always filtered through the lens of Will Ferrell, a ready-made parody of itself, full of stifled laughter.
In response to the president labeling his agency’s practices as torture, Rodriguez says, “When President Obama condemns the covert action activities of a previous government, he is breaking the covenant that exists between intelligence officers who are at the pointy end of the spear, hanging way out there, and the government that authorized them and directed them to go there.” Rodriguez’s loyalty to the agency, and his fellow agents, trumps his loyalty to his country. Moral ambiguity does not exist in this worldview.
What Rodriguez fails to address is the fact that the information leading to the arrest of KSM, as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is known, was extracted from Zubaydah under the FBI’s routine interrogation procedures. Ali Soufan, along with his partner, Steve Gaudin, interrogated Zubaydah when he was captured in Pakistan in March 2002. The CIA already had the mandate from the Bush Administration to head up all investigations of terrorist activity in the world of radical Islam, but was still pulling itself together for a task not practiced much in its illustrious history – namely the collection of actionable intelligence from captive enemies of the United States.
The “sense of hopelessness and despair” Rodriguez hoped to evoke in a detainee so he “would conclude on his own that he was better off cooperating with us” turned out to inspire detainees to provide false information. In his recent Frontline interview, Soufan reflects on how information obtained through enhanced interrogation and passed up through the intelligence community to the White House, fueled Colin Powell’s argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq War was predicated on false leads procured through torture. This much we know.
Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer’s new book, The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, opens with a description of Abu Zubaydah’s apprehension and interrogation. Ali Soufan, a young FBI agent who’d become familiar with the big shots and the bit players of violent jihad in his years working the anti-terrorism beat, and his partner Steve Gaudin, fly from the U.S. to Pakistan, where Zubaydah has been apprehended. In the boondoggle of intelligence bureaucracy after 9/11, they don’t even know who the other people on the government-chartered jet are or why so many people would be accompanying them. When they reach Zubaydah, critically wounded in his capture, this becomes clear. The other passengers are medical professionals who spend hours stabilizing Zubaydah’s condition.
When a CIA agent asks Soufan why he is not interrogating Zubaydah, Soufan tells him he thought he was being brought in only as support for the CIA’s interrogators. This is not so. Soufan and Gaudin get to work on Zubaydah alone, with frequent pauses for the doctors to see to his wounds.
No enhanced interrogation techniques are used. Soufan and Gaudin open by calling Zubaydah a pet name only his mother uses. They show him pictures of men they know well by reputation and convince him they are legitimate experts and will know when he is lying. Gaudin holds Zubaydah’s hand while he slides into an MRI machine. They gain his trust, and he talks.
It is in these casual, conversational interrogations that Zubaydah reveals the identity of the mastermind behind the attacks of 9/11. Ali Soufan, unlike Jose Rodriguez, is an expert on al-Qaeda. Before 2001, he was one of the few agents working in the U.S. anti-terrorism community to speak Arabic. In his new book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, Soufan describes his years of experience, the methods and organization of the men who developed and carried out terror plots around the world. He knows his stuff.
In his Frontline interview with Martin Smith, Soufan refers to the actionable intelligence he acquired through standard interrogation protocol and to the false leads secured through enhanced techniques. He says “heck” a lot, and “freaking” at least twice. He’s as unpolished as Rodriguez, but much more specific in his narrative, and a whole lot younger.
“You compare interrogating somebody [to] dating.”
“Sometimes it is, because it’s about building a rapport with an individual. It’s about building the chemistry. It’s about building a trust, a little bit, because if he’s going to tell you something, he needs to have some sense of trust about you.”
Some people might cringe at the thought of building chemistry with terrorists. These men don’t deserve to be courted. True. But if courting them provides better information than waterboarding them, Soufan argues, we ought to play nice.
While Soufan’s assertion that he could have prevented 9/11 if the CIA hadn’t interfered with an earlier operation is questionable, McDermott and Meyer’s book supports the idea that Soufan, along with FBI agent Frank Pellegrino and Port Authority officer Matt Besheer, were the best prepared to investigate and interrogate those responsible for 9/11.
While the divergence of the FBI and CIA in post-9/11 anti-terrorism operations is at the heart of The Hunt for KSM, McDermott and Meyer reveal how some of the most notorious terrorists in the world eluded justice despite all odds. Ramzi Yousef, KSM’s nephew, sleeps in for a few hours the day he bombs the World Trade Center in 1993, and his inept partners let him sleep. In the Phillipines, later in the 90s, Yousef and KSM live more like lowlife criminals – bunking with exotic dancers and eating takeout burgers – than ascetic, religious political actors. Yousef’s charisma shows through in his defense of himself in court, in which he calls himself “my client.” His closing statement, despite its violent notions, rings true in some ways.
Much of this narrative is cinematic, such as when Pellegrino and Besheer “oreo” Khalifa, an important link to KSM. Pellegrino, dressed in baggy sweats, and Besheer, in dapper pressed suits, record every word Khalifa speaks in his hotel rooms, from stakeouts in both the room above and below Khalifa’s. You can see the cutaway hotel like a dollhouse. Tom McHale, a Port Authority Police Officer who worked with the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Pakistan, arrests suspects with handcuffs that take on the power of a religious talisman. The cuffs imbue the operation of counterterrorism with a uniting importance. When the cuffs are lost, the Pakistanis working with the JTTF are devastated. Their return to McHale’s hands is a sign of the role of fate in fighting terrorism. Karachi, the cinematic equivalent of the Wild West, with its dusty streets, rampant crime and endless hiding places, provides KSM, the wiliest of outlaws with a perfect backdrop for his evil escapades.
While KSM’s back story is given its fair share of attention, McDermott and Meyer put the hunters in the spotlight, showing the struggles of Pellegrino and Besheer in getting sufficient attention and resources allotted to their investigations. The sense of lost opportunity hits close to home, as anti-terrorism pre-9/11 is repeatedly described as a backwater in the FBI, CIA, and NYPD. The few agents willing to embrace the post, which others considered a career dead end, fought hard to make the bureaucracy understand the importance of thwarting men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Osama Bin Laden before they struck again. If Soufan is right, the FBI could’ve changed the course of history.
In the end McDermott and Meyer’s narrative in The Hunt for KSM comes back to the methodology of anti-terrorism post-9/11. The structural and institutional incompatibility between the FBI, a prosecutorial organization, and the CIA, a preventative organization, makes the investigation of terrorism slipshod at best. The false information KSM supplies to the CIA under enhanced interrogation, shows the inefficiency, not to speak of the immorality of torture. President Obama has given an unofficial pardon to those who broke the Geneva Conventions and tortured America’s captive enemies, saying the U.S. will not prosecute torturers who were acting under duress from the CIA and the Bush Administration. Jose Rodriguez might have mentioned this in his 60 Minutes interview. Instead he cited Obama’s identification of enhanced interrogation as torture as an endangerment of his fellow agents and the American public, by extension. The failure to prosecute, however, may end up being not only a source of America’s moral fallibility, but also a real incentive for further attacks. But the way Rodriguez and Soufan frame their respective arguments, we may never know.
Discussed in this essay:
The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, by Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer. Little, Brown and Company. 2012. 350 pages. $28.
Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, by Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. and Bill Harlow. Threshold. 2012. 288 pages. $27.
The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, by Ali Soufan and Daniel Freedman. W.W. Norton & Company. 2011. 608 pages. $27.
Photo Credit: Corbis