Interview with Terror Expert Ron Suskind "The President Knows more than He Lets on"

One hundred suspected terrorists from all over the world are still being held in secret American prisons. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, CIA expert Ron Suskind accuses Washington of "running like a headless chicken" in its war against al-Qaida. He reserves special criticism for the CIA's torture methods, which he argues are unproductive.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Suskind, the Red Cross recently visited all of the prisoners at Guantanamo who had been transferred from secret CIA prisons, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh. Do we know more about these CIA prisons, or "Black Sites" as a result of this visit?

Suskind: We know that almost everything from the tool kit was tried: extraordinary techniques that included hot and cold water-boarding and threats of various kinds. We tried virtually everything with Binalshibh. But he was resistant, and my understanding of that interrogation is that we got very, very little from it. At one point, there was some thinking that we should put out misinformation that Binalshihb had been cooperative, he had received money and he was living in luxury. So that would mean that his friends and family, who obviously are known to al-Qaida, might face retribuition, and we ended up not doing that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what happened to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed?

Suskind: He was really the prize. He is the 9/11 operational planner, a kind of general in the al-Qaida firmament. He was water-boarded, hot and cold, all matter of deprivations, beatings, threats. He told us some things, but frankly things that professional interrogators say could have been gotten otherwise.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: With waterboarding, the prisoner is made to feel as though he is drowing, even if he isn't really at risk of dying. There are reports that Mohammed was a kind of unoffical record-holder when it came to waterboarding.

Suskind: With extraordinary minutes passing he earned a sort of grudging respect from interrogators. The thing they did with Mohammed is that we had captured his children, a boy and a girl, age 7 and 9. And at the darkest moment we threatened grievous injury to his children if he did not cooperate. His response was quite clear: "That's fine. You can do what you want to my children, and they will find a better place with Allah."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why do you think the 14 prisoners were transferred from the Black Sites to Guantanamo?

Suskind: There was a debate simmering inside the US government for over a year. Since early 2004, when things really started to congeal, we were saying we need to think about an end game. People said you need to have a process that has a finish. We didn't have one. We were moving with a kind of improvisional urgency in that first year after 9/11 -- the thinking was, just do anything. We need to find these people, we have almost no human intelligence, and these interrogations may be our most precious material. The years started to pass -- and some of these people were not giving us much information in. Essentially we felt as through their yield had been harvested.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It seems clear that at a certain point CIA agents were asking for some clear assurances that they wouldn't be prosecuted.

Suskind: Absolutely. That cry has been at CIA for years, but it was not until recently that Bush decided to act. I think the White House decided that the fall of this election year would be the ideal time. So now they acknowledge that the Black Sites exist. I don't think there is any doubt that terror would be a key issue this fall in a mid-term election year.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And maybe they thought that everything has already been squeezed out of the 14 men and that there is nothing more they could tell.

Suskind: Well, here is the problem. Whether or not they currently are holding information is a supposition, based on a relationsship between interrogator and captive. You don't want them to talk for minutes or a day, they need to talk for years. For that you need relationships that are nuanced and deep. My sense is that they are not doing that now, for whatever reason. Maybe it is because of the way we interrogated them, or maybe because they have nothing more to say. My guess would be the former rather than the latter.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: With all your access to high-level sources, have you come across anyone who still thinks it is a good idea for the US to torture people?

Suskind: No. Most of the folks involved say that we made mistakes at the start. The president wants to keep all options open because he never wants his hands tied in any fashion, as he says, because he doesn't know what's ahead. But those involved in the interrogation protocol, I think are more or less in concert in saying that, in our panic in the early days, we made some mistakes.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Because they could have gotten information through normal interrogations ...

Suskind: ... yes, and without paying this terrific price, namely: America's moral standing. We poured plenteous gasoline on the fires of jihadist recruitment.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the average interrogator at a Black Site understands more about the mistakes made than the president?

Suskind: The president understands more about the mistakes than he lets on. He knows what the most-skilled interrogators know too. He gets briefed, and he was deeply involved in this process from the beginning. The president loves to talk to operators.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The government's tenor seems to be that, with the transfer of the 14 prisoners, the system of Black Sites is ending.

Suskind: They were the prizes, the most significant of them. Are there others? Of course, they are in various places, in the sort of loose confederation of prisons that are housed simply within countries. The prisoners are farmed out but not beyond the purview of the United States, which is still interested in what they say. The Egyptians, Jordanians and others keep us informed. I assume there are still about 100 prisoners and that the system of Black Sites is continuing. The president has preserved his right to do that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does the transfer to Guantanamo mean that the system of the Black Sites will come to an end?

Suskind: No, the president reserved the right to continue this program.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you expect the announcement of court proceedings against the Sept. 11 masterminds anytime soon?

Suskind: No. Can you imagine what discovery would look like for their attorneys? Constitutional crises are knitted into every step of that traditional legal process. The process of discovery for who was overseeing the (Black Sites) program would be very complex for the United States, and would lead right into the White House. My guess is that there will be some push-and-shove and court rulings and challenges and that nothing really significant will happen until January 2009, when a new president is in office.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You quote former CIA director George Tenet in your book as saying after Sept. 11: "There is nothing we won't do, nothing we won't try." Are there any other dirty stories?

Suskind: Logically, I would have to say yes. You're dealing with an oddity here, a secret war. Wars tend to be very public things, they are visible. There are correspondents traveling with the troops and you get daily dispatches. This is a new conflict, fought largely in secret. The public is only informed a kind of "need to know basis." Based on that, I would assume that there remains something of an undiscovered country of activity in terms of what we have done over the past five years.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What will Americans say in 10 years about Bushs "War on Terror"?

Suskind: They will say what I said: That the United States and its allies were winning this struggle up until around the end of 2002. Think back to September 12th. That arguably is the most important day, when we mustered ourselves to a response ...

SPIEGEL ONLINE: ... and most of the world stood in unity with the Americans.

Suskind: There were candellight vigils in Tehran -- a nice marker of where much of the world was. Even virulent radicalized Islamists were saying: "That is not my Islam." And virtually all were saying, in unanimity, "Well, the United States is certainly justified in doing whatever it sees fit in Afghanistan with the Taliban and al-Qaida. If any goal of foreign policy is to unite your allies and divide your enemies, it is fair to say that we were successful. Even countries that were not naturally inclined to be helpful were being helpful, especially in the Arab World. Our allies said, "How can I help?"

SPIEGEL ONLINE: During that time there were also defections from al-Qaida.

Suskind: Yes, dissent (inside al-Qaida) helped to provide the seabed for human intelligence that the United States harvested, including Ali. He provided important tips right up until early 2005. And the Emir of Qatar gave us intelligence that helped us to catch Binalshibh, and Mohammed was turned over by another source. He got a $25 million reward and is now living somewhere in America with his family. These are human intelligence assets and they are the how you win these wars.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So things were going well ... at least until the Iraq war?

Suskind: You can almost mark by the day how our human intelligence assets have withered. The chances of someone coming to the US authorities in this period are slim to none and that will blind us at a time when the terrorist threat has metastasized into what I call the franchise model. It is particulary difficult to discover prior to the operational moment.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That has been a source deep frustration for the intelligence community.

Suskind: And that is why people in the counter-terrorism community in the United States are terrified at this point and why many cooperated with this book. They wanted to send out a signal and say: "We need to have a real strategy here that is not only tactically forceful, but where the left hand of the US foreign policy doesn't undermine what the right hand is doing." Right now we often run like a headless chicken. We need a strategy. And we need it immediately because, in some ways, we are less safe then we were on Sept. 12.

This interview was conducted by Matthias Gebauer and Georg Mascolo in Ron Suskind's Washington office.

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