Ex-FBI Official: 'We Left Our Most Important Prisoners To Amateurs'
Former FBI agent Ali Soufan was one of the first to interrogate terror suspects at Guantanamo. He later left the prison and criticized torture methods used by the CIA. He accuses the government of turning interrogations of inmates over to outsourced amateurs.
Ali Soufan, a 43-year-old US citizen, worked as a special agent for the FBI until 2005 as part of its efforts to combat terrorism. In March 2002, he and a colleague were the first to interrogate Abu Zubaydah, who at that point was considered the most important al-Qaida prisoner held by the Americans. Because Soufan was born in Lebanon and speaks Arabic, and because he could quote the Koran during questioning, he was able to build up trust with the prisoner.
He was able to glean extensive information from Zubaydah. Nevertheless, the CIA still chose Zubayadah as the first prisoner on whom to test its "enhanced interrogation techniques". He was forced to undergo waterboarding and other cruel measures at least 83 times. In the prison where Zubaydah was interrogated, Soufan met James Mitchell, one of the two highly controversial men behind the CIA interrogation programs. In protest over the torture methods, Soufan left Guantanamo in the summer of 2002.
SPIEGEL published the following interview with Soufan in its Dec. 15, 2014 issue. We are now posting an English version in conjunction with this week's release of "Guantánamo Diary," by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the first prisoner still being held to detail his torture experiences at the US military facility. You can read an excerpt from Slahi's book here.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Soufan, during your time as an FBI agent, you spent years conducting interrogations. Now you have also written a book about torture at secret American prisons. Were there any surprises for you in the recently released US Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture?
Soufan: Yes, there were few things I didn't know. That we put prisoners (including Zubaydah) in a big box for a total of 266 hours -- that's 11 days and 2 hours -- and that we simply kept one of our most important prisoners, our only high-value-detainee at the time, in total isolation for 47 days instead of questioning him and gaining important information. As a matter of fact, I didn't know about these things.
SPIEGEL: Were details of the report still shocking to you, even though you had known about the allegations for years?
Soufan: At some point it was difficult for me to read on, especially the passages about the torture of the first important prisoner we interrogated, the terror facilitator Zubaydah. The level of unprofessionalism that the report reveals is incredible. It is really shocking. But I should not be surprised, given that 80 percent of this harsh interrogation program was outsourced to outside contractors who had no clue about interrogations. We left our most important prisoners to amateurs.
SPIEGEL: Was this new to you as well?
Soufan: No, I knew about that before. Sadly, I had to experience it firsthand and listen to the contractors' theories. It was awful. There's another interesting fact: After 9/11, we wanted to improve communication between the FBI and the CIA and tear down the so-called Chinese wall between the agencies. After all, it was the lack of information transfer that had rendered 9/11 possible. But what we read in the report now is the exact opposite: the report revealed that there was a clear intent to wall off the FBI and military from the interrogation business of al-Qaida detainees.
SPIEGEL: Has the US made new enemies by publishing all these gruesome details?
Soufan: Our enemies are our enemies. I don't think that there will be notable protests. People around the world knew what we were doing. The world knows that we tortured. And that definitely played into our enemies' narratives: Regardless whether they call themselves the Islamic State, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or al-Shabab, there are thousands of people around the world nowadays adhering to Osama bin Laden's ideas. We did not have the right strategy and sometimes we had bad tactics. We put people in orange jumpsuits, and now our enemies are putting innocent hostages in orange jumpsuits. We are involved in an asymmetrical conflict to win hearts and minds. This is not how you win hearts and minds in the Arab and Muslim worlds. This is not how you counter the narrative of authoritarian regimes and terrorists.
A screenshot from an Islamic State propaganda video shows two Japanese hostages in orange jumpsuits.
Soufan: During the summer of 2002 -- in a secret prison in a country that I still can't name, because it's classified information. It began when this psychologist arrived. Up to that point, we had conducted the traditional questionings and interrogations according to the principle of "rapport building". First you establish a relationship with the prisoner -- you have to win him over -- and then he'll tell you things.
SPIEGEL: And how is that done?
Soufan: By engaging in a mental poker game with them, but consistently presenting them with facts and evidence of their guilt, by speaking their language -- both figuratively and literally -- which is something none of these private contractors for the CIA could do. For example, I questioned Salim Ahmed Hamdan, bin Laden's driver, in Guantanamo. I offered him tea, made it possible for him to call his wife -- those are things that had been promised to him, but the promises weren't kept. During the interrogations, I lay down next to him on the floor, and then we talked. That's classic "rapport building".
SPIEGEL: In 2002, you dealt with Zubaydah, a high-ranking prisoner. He had been captured in Pakistan in March 2002, but suffered serious gunshot wounds during his arrest. At the time, President George W. Bush hailed the arrest as a great victory. He was to be the first prisoner on whom these enhanced interrogation methods would be tried out.
Soufan: Yes, everyone was very excited, and word came clearly from Washington that it was essential that we keep him alive. My FBI colleagues and I were the first people who spoke with him. And Zubaydah cooperated from the start.
SPIEGEL: Even though he was in very bad health?
Soufan: Yes, so bad that we had to later bring him to the hospital, so he wouldn't die on us during the interrogations. It was certainly weird somehow. We were fighting for the life of a terrorist whose declared goal was to kill Americans, but he has information that we badly needed. My partner and I sat by his bed for days, looked after him, held his hand. And we talked with him, in Arabic. When he was too weak to speak, we worked with a chart of the Arabic alphabet. He cooperated with that, too.
SPIEGEL: Did you obtain relevant information using this method?
Soufan: Absolutely. In fact, long before the special interrogation techniques were used on Zubaydah. While he was still in his hospital bed, he began to tell us things. He was the first to identify Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (who went by the codename "Mukhtar") and to explain to us what a crucial role he played in the Sept. 11 attacks. When we showed him pictures, actually in relation to someone else, he suddenly said, "That's Mukhtar, the guy who planned 9/11." He revealed to us the people pulling the strings behind the attacks, entirely without torture, without waterboarding, without us having asked or anticipated that.
SPIEGEL: President Bush later suggested that those things were the result of successful "enhanced interrogation techniques," in other words, of the interrogation program. The CIA claims to this day that that was the case.
Soufan: That is not true. The CIA's contractors hadn't even arrived at the secret prison at that point. To this day, I am not aware of any relevant intelligence that was obtained through the use of torture. The Senate report confirms this as well.
Ali Soufan is pictured here in New York: "I am not aware of any relevant intelligence that was obtained through the use of torture."
Soufan: While he was still in the hospital, the CIA sent us word that the tactics used with him were going to change. Interrogations of Zubaydah would now be orchestrated only by CIA contractors, without the presence of FBI in the room. This change in strategy was contradictory to all the successes we had achieved up to that point. We tried to offer them compromises; these were refused without discussion. The contractors had one set idea: They were convinced that Zubaydah had only given up useless information so far, and kept the important things to himself.
SPIEGEL: And then the CIA's new contractor, psychologist James Mitchell, arrived at the location of this secret prison?
Soufan: Yes, although I can't confirm that name to you. As a former FBI agent, I am still bound not to violate confidentiality. And officially the name of the psychologist remains confidential information. It's absurd, but that's how it is. In my book, I called the psychologist Boris, so let's call him that as well. Boris, after Zubaydah's release from the hospital, took over immediately. The prisoner was taken to a completely white room, without daylight or windows, only four halogen lights on the ceiling. The room's interrogation corner was also sectioned off with a white curtain. All the people he saw, meanwhile, were dressed in black: uniforms, boots, gloves, glasses - everything was black. It was explained to us that the only human contact he has will be with his interrogator.
SPIEGEL: Did you speak with Boris, the psychologist?
Soufan: Yes, and he told me he would force Zubaydah to submit. He should see his interrogator as a sort of god, someone capable of controlling his suffering. In this way, Boris told me, he would quickly become pliable. Zubaydah, he said, needed to understand that he had wasted his chance to cooperate and that we were no longer playing his game. When I told him that he had in fact already divulged information, he wasn't interested.
SPIEGEL: According to the report, the CIA implemented its new interrogation methods in mid-April 2002. Were you still there at the time?
Soufan: Not in the room, but I was still there, yes. First they undressed him. That would humiliate him, Boris said, and he would cooperate in order to get his clothing back. They also bombarded him with loud music. He would eventually talk in order to get the music to stop, Boris said. The same rock song was played again and again, all day. Even in the observation room, the music made us feel sick. Then Boris decided to try sleep deprivation. But that, too, failed to increase Zubaydah's willingness to cooperate. The worst part for us was that for days we had to watch as methods were used that no decent interrogator would ever consider.
SPIEGEL: Were you the only one who saw it that way at the time?
Soufan: No, my partner and also many of the CIA officers saw it the same way, and they contacted headquarters in Langley for instructions.
SPIEGEL: Did you see Zubaydah again later?
Soufan: Yes, after they had no success with their methods, they let us talk to him again. That was difficult. He didn't understand what was happening here. Not even we understood it. He was naked, and we gave him a towel, so he could cover himself. We gave him a chair, so he could sit, and offered him water. He talked to us, and he revealed some details -- an alleged plan to build a "dirty bomb," a radioactive bomb, for example. After that the contractors attempted to take over again. The entire thing was very frustrating, not only for us, also for the CIA personnel on the premises. Again and again, we wrote to our superiors that it couldn't go on like this. These letters of protest can now be read in the Senate report. The report also notes that some of the CIA personnel had tears in their eyes as they watched Zubaydah being waterboarded later on by the contractors. But all that did nothing to change the situation.
SPIEGEL: When did you decide to leave?
Soufan: In late May, I called FBI headquarters and told them about the sleep deprivation, the box, the loud music. The answer from FBI HQ was unambiguous: "We don't do that sort of thing. Come back." It was totally frustrating, and eventually we flew back to the US.
SPIEGEL: How do you explain the fact that the CIA outsourced the interrogation of the United States' most important prisoner to incompetent psychologists and that all the checks and balances within the system failed?
Soufan: It wasn't the entire CIA. Ultimately, I believe the decision was made by just a few people, who chose this course of action for political reasons, security reasons and business reasons. Many of the CIA officers were just as horrified as I was. And by the way, their massive complaints led in 2004 to an investigation and to the very critical report by CIA Inspector General John Helgerson.
SPIEGEL: But to this day, the CIA has not distanced itself from what it did. On the contrary, it continues to defend these methods as necessary in combatting terrorism.
Soufan: Yes, and they didn't just give these two psychologists free rein for months and then call the whole thing off as failed and cruel. The two psychologists were allowed to conduct their nonsensical interrogation program for four years, from 2002 to 2006. And they earned over $80 million in doing so. Unbelievable.
SPIEGEL: What conclusions can be drawn from the Senate report?
Soufan: The good thing is that this report can't be gotten rid of. It's not a political report, it's an impressive collection of facts: Hundreds of thousands of documents and CIA dispatches were analyzed. The report is an impressive 6,800 pages, including 38,000 footnotes. That's an enormous achievement. So far, we've only seen a little under 600 pages of that, so not quite 10 percent. That's something we need to continue to remind ourselves. But we've also shown, as a nation, that we're prepared to extensively illuminate this dark side of our history. A bipartisan vote led to the investigation, and a bipartisan vote lead to the declassification. Devoting attention to this chapter was not a lone decision made by (Democratic) Senator Dianne Feinstein -- she and others like (Republican) Senator John McCain have to be applauded for taking a huge political risk to do the right thing.
SPIEGEL: Should those who conducted the torture and those who approved this program be tried in court?
Soufan: I don't think this chapter can be dealt with through legal action in today's political environment. However, we must ensure that these interrogation methods are never used again. All of us, across party lines, must read this report intensively, take its results seriously and learn from them.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2015
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles