Ali Soufan on The Current

First aired on The Current (27/9/11)

In Dick Cheney's recently published memoir, the former U.S. vice president defends the use of waterboarding and other extreme interrogation methods in combating al-Qaeda. But according to former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who was directly involved in questioning terrorist operatives, those techniques aren't really effective.

Soufan is the author of The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. An interrogation specialist who became known as a counter-terrorism expert, he left the agency after the CIA insisted on using what it called "enhanced interrogation techniques" to get information from detainees.

In a recent interview, Soufan spoke with The Current host Anna Maria Tremonti about his experiences in the field, and why he objects to the use of these techniques. His approach involved what he described as a kind of mental poker game, which required "a level of empathy and a lot of knowledge about what you're talking about." Different techniques were used with different subjects. It was not a "cookie-cutter approach," he said.

In his book, Soufan describes interrogating bin Laden's bodyguard, personal driver and secretary. "We basically utilized three different methods," he said. The CIA has heavily redacted The Black Banners: in some chapters whole passages and even pages are blacked out. But Soufan says it's still possible to get the gist of the story.

Soufan belonged to an FBI team sent to Yemen to investigate the attack on the U.S.S. Cole on October 12, 2000. They discovered a link between the Yemeni terrorists and southeast Asia, and repeatedly asked the CIA for any intelligence the agency had about it. But it wasn't until after 9/11 that Soufan received the CIA file, which showed that while the FBI had been looking for terrorist operatives overseas, they were in the U.S., and in fact directly involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Soufan believes that if the CIA had passed along the information earlier, the attacks might have been averted. "I truly believe that 9/11 could have been a totally different day," he said.

Soufan has been involved in interrogating a number of high-profile al-Quaeda operatives, including Abu Zubaydah. He says that the information they got from him was obtained before he was subjected to waterboarding.

Soufan also worries that the testimony obtained through what he calls "half-torture" won't be admissible in court, which means that operatives may not be brought to justice.

Soufan quit the FBI in 2005, in part because he lost belief in the methods being used to combat terrorism. He says the terrorist threat is very different now than it was at the time of 9/11. His advice to those concerned about how we fight terrorism?

"Don't trust what politicians say."

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The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda

by Ali H. Soufan

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From W.W. Norton:

"On September 11, 2001, FBI Special Agent Ali H. Soufan was handed a secret file. Had he received it months earlier—when it was requested—the attacks on New York and Washington could have been prevented. During his time on the front lines, Soufan helped thwart plots around the world and elicited some of the most important confessions from terrorists in the war against al-Qaeda—without laying so much as a hand on them. Most of these stories have never been reported before, and never by anyone with such intimate firsthand knowledge.

This narrative account of America's successes and failures against al-Qaeda is essential to an understanding of the terrorist group. We are taken into hideouts and interrogation rooms. We have a ringside seat at bin Laden's personal celebration of the 9/11 bombings. Such riveting details show us not only how terrorists think and operate but also how they can be beaten and brought to justice."


Read more at W. W. Norton.

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