The terrorist has been captured, and the clock is ticking. FBI agents know they need to use humane interrogation methods to get the information that could stop a deadly attack. But clueless politicians in Washington want to use torture, wasting precious minutes and putting the mission at risk.
It sounds like a parody of a post-9/11 spy thriller. But it’s a scenario that keeps recurring in Ali Soufan’s autobiography, The Black Banners (Declassified). Soufan, a retired FBI agent who was pursuing Al Qaeda long before it was a household name, argues that secrecy and the thirst for torture made it harder to protect Americans. We would have been better served, he shows, if Washington had treated terrorism as a law enforcement problem, not an exception to the law.
Much of Soufan’s story has already been told, both in the heavily censored 2011 edition of his book and in the official 9/11 Commission Report. In the months before September 11, 2001, the CIA failed to give the FBI crucial information that could have stopped the attackers and saved thousands of American lives. In the years that followed, the FBI-CIA rivalry continued to hinder counterterrorism efforts.
The new edition of The Black Banners—finally fully declassified after a lengthy legal battle—paints an even more disturbing picture. FBI agents had been waging an effective fight against Al Qaeda using ordinary interrogation tactics. But after 9/11, the Bush administration unleashed torture methods that were self-sabotaging as well as immoral.
Soufan had been tracking Al Qaeda since the 1990s, building an encyclopedic knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s group. Sometimes he used this knowledge to catch suspects in a lie, flustering them and forcing them to tell the truth. Other times he got suspects to warm up to him with small talk and acts of kindness. Many terrorists knew they would have been viciously tortured by their home countries’ security services; they had no idea what to make of the fearsome FBI sending a likeable Arab Muslim to chat with them over tea.
“Acting in a nonthreatening way isn’t what the terrorist expects from a U.S. interrogator. This adds to the detainee’s confusion and makes him more likely to cooperate,” Soufan writes. “Because the interrogator is the one person speaking to and listening to the detainee, a relationship is built—and the detainee doesn’t want to jeopardize it.”
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