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The Black Banners: Six Questions for Ali Soufan


The name and face of former FBI special agent Ali Soufan have only recently become known to the public, but to those inside the U.S. government Soufan has long been something of a legend. He conducted the most effective and fruitful interrogations of Al Qaeda suspects during the war on terrorism, and save for some inexplicable failures by the CIA, he and his team might well have prevented 9/11. Soufan has since left the FBI and written a gripping account of his experiences, brimming with details about Al Qaeda and its historical development, entitled The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. I put six questions to Ali about his work:

1. Republican leaders in Congress, with some support from across the aisle, are pushing measures in the current Defense Appropriations Act that would require terrorism suspects who are not U.S. citizens to be sent to Guantánamo and to stand trial before military commissions, if at all. What do you think of these measures?


They are a mistake. Our top priority when considering where to prosecute terrorists has to be which venue will be most effective — which will ensure that the terrorist is locked up for as long as possible. Sometimes military commissions are better, other times federal courts.

I know both systems well. I’ve been the main witness at several trials held in Guantánamo, such as that of Ali al-Bahlul, Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary and propagandist, and at trials held in civilian courts, such as that of Rafiq Sabir, who pledged bayaat (an oath of allegiance to bin Laden) to me during an undercover operation. From experience, I know that federal courts are often better.

Part of the reason for this is that the federal system has been used successfully for decades to prosecute international terrorism cases — ever since President Ronald Reagan gave them that authority in the eighties. Since 9/11, hundreds of terrorists have been successfully convicted in federal courts.

We should not confuse military commissions with the military code of justice, which is a well-established system. Military commissions were created after 9/11 and so are relatively new and untested. They were also challenged successfully before the Supreme Court, which forced the Bush Administration to revamp them. Because the commissions are new and untested, some Al Qaeda members tried before them received lighter sentences than they would have in a federal court, due to the lack of precedent for sentencing guidelines. In other cases, for instance ones involving terrorists caught on the battlefield, military commissions are likely to give harsher sentences because they have different evidence requirements.

Those best suited to judging the venue are the prosecutors building the case and the agents and analysts who collected the evidence and gained the confessions. The proposed measures would unnecessarily tie these people’s hands.

The threat never to hold trials for some suspects is similarly a mistake. To give one example of why this would be shortsighted, very few foreign legal systems would permit governments to hand over a detainee in the absence of a trial.

2. You write that efforts to investigate the people who attacked the USS Cole and bring them to justice were shoved to the back burner when George W. Bush came to Washington. Now one of the alleged attackers, Hussayn Muhammad al-Nashiri, has filed a motion trying to exploit the politicization of his case. Does political spin make it harder for the FBI and prosecutors to do their job?

I’ve unfortunately seen on many occasions how the politicization of national security harms us — whether it’s orders from the White House to create links between Iraq, Al Qaeda, and weapons of mass destruction; the decision not to respond to Al Qaeda’s role in the USS Cole case; or the mishandling of Salim Hamdan’s case.

Hamdan, bin Laden’s driver and confidante, was a central member of Al Qaeda. While he didn’t cooperate at first, we built a rapport and he became fully cooperative, even telling others to cooperate. But the White House, without consulting our team or prosecutors, declared him an “enemy combatant” after determining that he was perfect to prove the wisdom of the new military-commissions system. Once he was given that label, it became very difficult to get him to cooperate. He ended up being sentenced to a term of only five and a half years, most of which was wiped out based on time served, and he is today free in Yemen. If the White House hadn’t interfered, not only would he still be in jail, he would have made the perfect cooperating witness in upcoming trials.

3. The major still-unanswered question from 9/11 may be this: Why did the CIA keep information about Khalid Al-Mihdhar — the 9/11 team member who was identified before the attacks as having a U.S. visa and tracked into the United States — secret from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies? Clearly this information could have been used to stop the 9/11 plot, yet CIA officials lied about it repeatedly, and have never been held to account either for their failure to inform or their lies. Do you have an answer?

My hands started shaking. I didn’t know what to think. “They just sent these reports,” the [CIA chief of station*] said, seeing my reaction. I walked out of the room, sprinted down the corridor to the bathroom, and fell to the floor next to a stall. There I threw up.

I sat on the floor for a few minutes, although it felt like hours. What I had just seen went through my mind again and again. The same thought kept looping back: “If they had all this information since January 2000, why the hell didn’t they pass it on?” My whole body was shaking…

I got myself to the sink, washed out my mouth, and splashed some water on my face. I covered my face with a paper towel for a few moments. I was still trying to process the fact that the information I had requested about major al-Qaeda operatives, information the CIA had claimed they knew nothing about, had been in the agency’s hands since January 2000.

The SWAT agent asked, “What’s wrong, bud? What the hell did he tell you?”

“They knew, they knew.”

—From The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. (*Redacted in original — text restored by Harper’s). Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., © 2011 Ali Soufan.

Sadly no. To date we’ve never been told why the information wasn’t passed to the team investigating the USS Cole attack, the State Department, or the Immigration and Naturalization Service, nor why he wasn’t put on a no-fly list, all of which were required under U.S. law.

The 9/11 Commission Report noted that “Mihdhar had been the weak link in al Qaeda’s operational planning, a mistake KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] realized could endanger the entire plan,” and listed the failure to place Mihdhar on a watchlist and notify the FBI that he had a U.S. visa as one of the mistakes that could have prevented 9/11. The CIA’s inspector general came to the same conclusion, and recommended that an “accountability board review the performance of the CTC chiefs.” But this never happened, and most of the inspector general’s report is classified.

On September 12, 2001, in Sanaa, Yemen, I was handed a file by the CIA that contained information our team investigating the USS Cole bombing had explicitly requested — on three occasions in writing from the director of the FBI to the CIA: in November 2000, April 2001, and June 2001 — concerning Al Qaeda operatives and meetings, which the CIA had said it didn’t have. It turned out the agency had had information on the 9/11 planning summit in Malaysia, and on Al Qaeda operatives we were looking for in Yemen (who had actually been in the U.S. and among the hijackers), among other intelligence that they were legally obligated to share, but hadn’t.

Ten years after 9/11, we don’t have an answer to your question.

4. One of the focal chapters of your book describes your interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and its interruption by a CIA contract psychologist you call “Boris,” but whom we can identify as James Elmer Mitchell. What did you think of Mitchell’s professionalism, and how did you assess the effectiveness of his “scientific” techniques? Why did you describe Mitchell and his team as “poster boys?”

I cannot confirm or deny who Boris is. But regarding Boris, my colleagues and I were shocked that he had been placed in charge of the U.S. interrogation program. Instead of the proven rapport-building interrogation technique that professional American interrogators have used successfully and refined over decades — in which you use your knowledge of the detainee’s history, mindset, vulnerabilities, and culture to outwit him into cooperating — his method tries to subjugate detainees through humiliation and cruelty.

This method applies a force continuum, each time using harsher and harsher techniques until the detainee submits. It is an exercise in getting compliance, rather then cooperation. With compliance, the detainee tells you what he thinks you want to hear in order to stop the pain. This is why, for example, Abu Zubaydah “admitted” to Boris that he was the number-three man in Al Qaeda, when in reality he wasn’t a member.

Al Qaeda operatives are trained to resist torture far worse than anything the U.S. can legally do, which is one of the reasons Boris’s methods weren’t working and he had to keep getting authorization to use harsher and harsher methods. The limit was waterboarding, so they had to use it again and again — 83 times in all.

The method is also slow, with each stage taking many days. As a DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility report noted in July 2009: in a “ticking timebomb scenario” the techniques would be of no use as they “were not expected nor intended to produce immediate results. Rather, the goal of the CIA interrogation program was to condition the detainee gradually in order to break down his resistance to interrogation.”

With cooperation, you find out what the detainee actually knows. Before Boris took over, Abu Zubaydah had been cooperating with us. When we began the interrogation, I asked him his name, and he replied with an alias. Then I asked him, “How about if I call you Hani?” — the nickname his mother called him as a child. He looked at me in shock, said “okay,” and started talking. He gave us extensive intelligence, including about José Padilla, the alleged dirty bomber, and about KSM’s role as the mastermind of 9/11.

I asked Boris about his experience with interrogation once. After he shared his ridiculous ideas with me, he admitted that he had never met an Islamist terrorist before, let alone interrogated one. But he was still placed in charge. And it wasn’t only FBI agents who objected to him, but CIA officials. One CIA colleague left the location before me, and others complained to the agency’s inspector general, who found the program to be a failure — and that’s why it was shut down by President Bush in 2005.

I later learned that after Abu Zubaydah stopped cooperating with Boris and his backers, they tried to cover up their failure by claiming our successes as their own in secret memos. In the FBI, Boris and his partner were jokingly nicknamed “the poster boys” with the idea that they would one day find themselves on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for the harm they had caused.

5. Anyone reading your book is likely to ask why the FBI doesn’t have more Ali Soufans. But recent press accounts suggest that life must be tough for Muslims and Arabs within the bureau. Did you experience discrimination there? Is the bureau doing what it should to recruit more agents with language and cultural skills like yours?

I had only positive experiences within the FBI. I was fortunate to serve under great leaders like John O’Neill, and alongside outstanding agents whose sole focus was how best to combat America’s enemies and keep our country safe. They trusted me when I was young with important cases, like Operation Challenge in the U.K. and the USS Cole bombing. And when I stood up and opposed the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, and corrected lies that were being told about 9/11, the FBI stood behind me.

I am out of the government today and don’t know what is going on, but I sincerely hope the bureau is doing what is necessary to recruit a diverse and capable force.

6. Your book is filled with redactions, frequently of materials that are publicly available — your testimony before a congressional committee, your testimony at Guantánamo, certain emails and documents, a published summary of a report by the CIA’s inspector general, and so forth. The censored passages almost invariably reflect negatively on the CIA. Do you plan to push back against these redactions and publish the censored materials later?


When I was writing the book, I censored myself to protect sources, methods, and ongoing operations. I then sent the book to the FBI, which spent three months reviewing the book and approved it without a single redaction.

At the last minute, the CIA demanded a series of redactions, which as you correctly note include material in the public domain — also from declassified government documents, the 9/11 Commission, and a book by former CIA director George Tenet. So the redactions are unmerited, as I’ve made clear to the FBI, and from a legal perspective it’s questionable whether the CIA even has the authority to censor me. I never worked for them, nor did I have access to their information channels. The United States has strict laws concerning classification. Not only is covering up mistakes or embarrassment not grounds for classification, it is a criminal offense to do so. I have requested that the FBI review all of the CIA’s redactions and dismiss them, and I am confident that this will be done.

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