The man who nearly stopped 9/11 tells FP why Kathryn Bigelow's movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden gets it wrong.
- By Ty McCormickTy McCormick is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Previously he was a freelance correspondent in Egypt, where he wrote about everything from military trials to revolutionary rap music. A 2011 Pulitzer Center grantee, he has written for Newsweek, the New Republic, the International Herald Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. He has also appeared as a commentator on Fox News and American Public Media’s Marketplace Tech. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, and a master’s from the University of Oxford, where he was a Clarendon Scholar.
If Zero Dark Thirty isn’t the best film of the year, it’s certainly the most controversial. The cinematic portrayal of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker, has already been decried as an Obama puff piece, prompted a Pentagon investigation into possible intelligence leaks, and dumped a cloud of controversy on Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers, a man rumored to be on the shortlist to replace David Petraeus at the CIA.
But as the bin Laden blockbuster hits the big screen in New York and Los Angeles Wednesday night, partisans are buzzing about something else entirely: the film’s portrayal of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs for short). Bigelow and Boal go for the throat with a series of grisly interrogation scenes — featuring waterboarding and sexual humiliation — that indirectly yield the intelligence that leads to the al Qaeda leader. The film was supposedly based on extensive field research and has been billed as a faithful reconstruction of the facts. As Bigelow told New York magazine earlier this month, "The goal was to be as accurate as we possibly could without, obviously, having been there."
But for all its journalistic conceits, Zero Dark Thirty runs afoul of a mounting body of evidence — compiled by the FBI, CIA inspector general, Department of Justice, and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, among others — that EITs simply don’t work. Foreign Policy spoke with Ali Soufan, the lead FBI investigator into the USS Cole bombing and the man who first discovered the identities of the 9/11 hijackers, about this discrepancy and about a wide range of issues related to the war on terror, including drone warfare and Guantánamo Bay.
"The information that was used to get bin Laden did not come as a result of waterboarding or torture," said Soufan, who is the author of The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. "Of all the people that are talking about this, I was the only one that was in the room," he said. "Enhanced interrogation techniques did not work."
FP: What do you make of the way enhanced interrogation techniques are portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Zero Dark Thirty? Is it wrong or misleading?
AS: It’s fiction. Based on all the information that I know, based on the 6,000-page report produced by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and based on what many of the experts that follow these things have said — at least one of whom actually served as an advisor on the film — this is not fact. This is Hollywood. The information that was used to get bin Laden did not come as a result of waterboarding or torture. And the Senate report that has been voted on in the committee — which included at least one Republican — made it very clear that enhanced interrogation techniques and waterboarding did not work. And that just confirms what the CIA inspector general said about that program, and what the Department of Justice said about it. The facts are there. I came to my opinion based on experience. I opposed enhanced interrogation techniques not really because of the moral issues. I opposed it from the efficacy perspective.
FP: In the past, you have raised another objection to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques: that it reinforces the so-called Chinese wall between intelligence agencies. Can you explain why that is and why it’s dangerous?
AS: The "Chinese wall" or the lack of cooperation between agencies — when we don’t talk to each other and work together — caused 9/11. When you have secret jails, and programs that are so highly classified that information is not being shared and people are not working together, that’s dangerous. I gave an example, the details of which are still classified, in my Senate statement back in 2009, when these kinds of techniques backfired. We had a situation where some entities refused to believe that terrorist attacks were being planned because the information came through smart interrogations and didn’t come through their enhanced interrogation program, and, of course, we found out otherwise.
FP: Right, and Lawrence Wright’s profile of you in the New Yorker tells that story — about how information that was withheld by the CIA prevented you from foiling the 9/11 plot. There’s a throwaway line in that article about how after 9/11 you were given orders to identify the hijackers "by any means necessary." Wright notes that that was the first time you had heard such an order, but leaves it at that. What changed after 9/11? Did we essentially abandon the tried and true interrogation techniques that had been developed over decades?
AS: When I heard that line, I never thought in a million years that it meant beating the detainee up, or doing whatever I needed to get the information. You have to put it in the context of what was happening in Yemen at the time. The Yemenis were not giving us access to suspects. For example with Fahd al-Quso, one of the co-conspirators in the USS Cole bombing, they used to say, "He’s in Sanaa," so we’d go to Sanaa. Then they’d say, "No, he’s in Aden." So I interpreted the directive as "Make sure you get to him and get the information." It wasn’t about torture, but now, because of what was done later in the spring and summer of 2002, people have looked at it from a different perspective. They interpreted it as if someone in Washington or in FBI headquarters said that we need to abandon the way we do things. This wasn’t the case. As a matter of fact, when I went back and we identified the hijackers — I talked to Quso, Abu Jandal and many others — I actually read them their Miranda rights every time that I interrogated them. So that line has been taken out of context.
FP: So let’s move forward to 2002. Was there a concerted move away established interrogation tactics? Why the change in 2002?
AS: The people who engineered the enhanced interrogation program were people from outside the government — they were contractors. So the theory of EITs came from the top down, not from the bottom up. There was fear in Washington of the unknown. People did not understand the enemy. Those who were working the target understood the enemy. We had been dealing with al Qaeda since 1996. I started working on al Qaeda in 1997. We had Bin Laden indicted before the East Africa bombings in a sealed indictment in 1998. So I think there was a lot of fear that led to EITs. When somebody came and said, "Hey, the only way you can get information out of these people is by roughing them up," people jumped the gun and said, "You know what, why not?" So I think there was a sense of confusion. I think there was a sense of ignorance about the reality of the enemy, how the enemy operates, and the ideology that motivates the enemy. And there was a lot of fear of another attack happening. Unfortunately, we adopted a system and a program that I truly believe — based on my personal experience and the experience of other professionals — damaged the national security of the United States. It took about 400 people — the people who had pledged the bay’ah, or oath of loyalty, before 9/11 to Bin Laden — and we got a war that’s lasted longer than World War I and World War II.
FP: Let’s stray a little into the broader war on terror. You told the Daily Beast earlier this year that you’d give the Obama administration an A- on its counterterrorism record so far. Do you think drones are a viable long-term option or could they ultimately serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists?
AS: No I don’t necessarily think it will be a recruitment tool. I believe it’s a good tactic to use, but it shouldn’t be a strategy. Our counterterrorism strategy should be a multifaceted. It should include military, intelligence, law enforcement, economic programs, psychological programs, cultural and education issues — we have to use all the tools that we have in the toolbox in combating the enemy. We have to keep in mind that this is asymmetrical warfare, and an essential component of asymmetrical warfare is winning hearts and minds.
FP: Are we doing enough of that in places like Somalia, northern Mali, and Yemen, where we’re losing the ideological battle?
AS: No, I think what we’re doing is trying to react tactically to events that are unfolding. But we never had a strategy from the beginning to combat the motivation and counter the narrative of these groups. And countering the narrative is not just a media event; it involves having intelligence programs and operational programs that diminish the ability of terrorist groups to operate, recruit, and win hearts and minds. Unfortunately, throughout the years — during the Bush administration as well as the Obama administration — we didn’t do enough to combat the radical narrative that was initiated by al Qaeda and promoted by many other groups that came out of al Qaeda, like Ansar Din, Tawhid al-Jihad, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and so forth — many different names for the same problem. And look what happened in Libya. That’s part of not focusing on the narrative.
FP: But how do you focus on the narrative? There’s a new book out about Yemen by Gregory Johnsen, The Last Refuge, in which you play a significant role as the lead investigator of the Cole bombing. According to Johnsen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is stronger — numbers wise — than it was on Sept. 11. What’s wrong with our strategy there? We’re using a record number of drone strikes and sent the government a record aid package, but al Qaeda is actually getting stronger. How should the U.S. be working to change the narrative?
AS: I think we need to merge our policy in Yemen on every level — political, economic — with our counterterrorism strategy. We also need to study the incubating factors that promote terrorism. What are the factors in South Yemen that are making people and tribes join al Qaeda? For example, one sheikh, when asked why he was sheltering al Qaeda fighters, responded that the government had promised to send him six teachers. Fahd al-Quso brought 16 teachers. In some areas al Qaeda has also supplied electricity and water. These things don’t cost much, and we used to give billions of dollars to the Yemeni government, but most of it went to line pockets. It did not reach ordinary people. So we have to deal with the roots of the problem: What are the incubating factors for terrorism? And there’s no cookie-cutter approach to this. What works in South Yemen probably won’t work in the north of the country, and what works in Saudi Arabia probably won’t work in Libya, because there’s a range of incubating factors. Sometimes it’s sectarian, sometimes it’s tribal, sometimes it’s economic, but the roots are never religious or ideological. There is a reason these people are joining. Of all the people I interrogated, I never found one person who joined just because he saw Bin Laden on television or he read al Qaeda’s declaration of war. No, there are local reasons that led these people to hear Bin Laden and later join al Qaeda.
FP: What about Guantánamo? President Obama recently informed Congress that there are still approximately 166 detainees there, four years after he promised to close down the facility. Was his promise a mistake? Should he make good in his next four years?
AS: Closing Guantánamo is a noble act. And I don’t think anyone wanted Guantánamo to be open forever. That doesn’t help us internationally and this is not the way we do things in the United States. However, what do you want to do with these people who are in Guantánamo? What do you want to do with the people that who cannot for various reasons be prosecuted in federal courts in the United States, but who killed many Americans? At the same time, there are individuals — Yemenis, mostly — some whom were even Bin Laden’s bodyguards. Do you send these people back to Yemen? Who is going to be responsible when one of these people, released from Guantánamo, issues a video tape taking responsibility for blowing up an embassy or downing an airplane? These are some of the questions that we need to think about before closing Guantánamo.
FP: Lastly, you have a book out, The Black Banners, in which you touch on the issue of enhanced interrogation. But the book ended up being heavily redacted by the CIA after being cleared by the FBI. What’s the story behind that, and is there a chance we’ll see an un-redacted version of your book anytime soon?
AS: I think it was basically because in the book I tell the story of what really happened throughout our war against al Qaeda — a narrative that in some cases is at odds with what the American people were told at the time. I say, for example, that enhanced interrogation techniques did not work. And yes, there’s a possibility that 9/11 could have been stopped. I put the facts out and let the people draw their conclusions, but unfortunately there are people who don’t want some of those facts released to the public — and so parts of the book have been redacted. I do not believe — nor does the FBI — that there’s any classified information in there, so I’m still hopeful that [the redactions] will be lifted. This is not a book about FBI vs. CIA. It’s a book about all these operational people in the field, and all the successes we had, and all the unfortunate failures that we had, including the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. Many of the heroes from my book are from the CIA and Department of Defense. When I started talking about the flaws of EITs, I was called every name in the book. But now, every report — from the CIA-IG to the DOD to the DOJ to the FBI to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — has come to the same conclusion.