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The interrogation programs were wrong, but did they work?

The interrogation programs were wrong, but did they work?

By Philip Zelikow

One other consequence of the declassification of the Justice Department opinions and the revelation of the CIA interrogation program is a debate on the effectiveness of these methods. Some of my friends are troubled, because they have been told so often that these methods work.

I will have more to say on the topic of effectiveness later. But for now, I urge those following this controversy to read the op-ed piece published in the New York Times today by former FBI special agent Ali Soufan. I met and interviewed Soufan in the course of my work at the 9/11 Commission, while he was still doing important work at the FBI. From my commission work, my fellow staffers and I had direct knowledge about several of the specific assertions Soufan makes in this piece: about Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi Binalshibh, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. My fellow staffers and I considered Soufan to be credible. Indeed, Soufan is fluent in Arabic, and he seemed to us to be one of the more impressive intelligence agents — from any agency — that we encountered in our work.

Soufan states, accurately, that some of the CIA claims reprinted in the Justice opinions (and recently repeated in the media) are demonstrably false or overstated. Some of the very claims that Soufan describes were also used, while I was in government, in CIA memos defending the program that were submitted to the White House. Therefore, the declassification of those memos, as Vice President Cheney and others have called for, would only raise questions that would have to be answered with still more disclosures. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence appears to be trying to sort this out.

To be fair to the program’s proponents, many successful intelligence cases are accompanied by rival claims about credit, arguments about which agent or which source provided the key information. That is natural and healthy. And sometimes both sides can be right: a successful stream can have many tributaries. But Soufan’s piece is a reminder to be wary of such claims, and especially wary about claims on the key point: whether the extreme techniques were necessary to get satisfactory results.

Among the many hidden costs to intelligence collection are ones like this point, which Soufan makes: "An F.B.I. colleague of mine who knew more about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed than anyone in the government was not allowed to speak to him." At the 9/11 Commission, we noticed this too. At the time (late 2003), my commission colleagues and I could not understand why this agent was not helping to question KSM. This was part of broader concerns we had about the substantive quality of the interrogations. I raised the issue in writing with the CIA’s General Counsel in our efforts to dig deeper into the way the interrogations were being conducted —  a point that I mentioned in this previously disclosed memo.

FBI Director Robert Mueller has said publicly that he does not believe that coercive techniques made the difference in averting any planned terrorist attacks against the United States. Mueller has sweated the details of innumerable leads and cases over the last eight years. So, though he may or may not be right, his opinion is entitled to some attention, and it is not self-serving.