Article — From the November 2009 issue

The Intelligence Factory

How America makes its enemies disappear

( 5 of 9 )

What most of us understand as human relationships, infinitely varied and poignant with ambiguity, criminal investigators understand simply as a series of associations. The mapping of “known associates” is an old and powerful investigative technique. But within the context of the global war on terror, the technique—known variously as “social-network analysis,” “link analysis,” or “contact chaining”—has been used less for solving crimes and more for preventing them. Using large computer arrays and the kind of automated data analysis that already dominate the world of global finance, investigators cobble together every scrap of available information in order to create what they hope is a picture not of a single true past but of an infinite variety of theoretical futures. In such a system, the universe of possible associations—and therefore the universe of possible detainees—also becomes unlimited. When the FBI detained more than a thousand Muslim immigrants in 2001, for instance, it provided judges at secret detention hearings an affidavit explaining that “the business of counterterrorism intelligence gathering in the United States is akin to the construction of a mosaic” and that evidence “that may seem innocuous at first glance” might ultimately “fit into a picture that will reveal how the unseen whole operates.” The FBI reasoned that even the possessors of this intelligence might not be aware of the significance of what they knew, and so they could be detained simply because the agency was “unable to rule out” their value.

It was precisely such a mosaic, in which none of the myriad connections were quite intelligible but all were laden with vague significance, that set off alarms at the FBI and CIA in the months leading up to the moment Siddiqui disappeared in 2003. In early 2002, the FBI became aware of a United Nations investigation into Al Qaeda financing that mentioned Siddiqui. A “confidential source” claimed he had “personally met” her in Liberia, where she was on a mission to “evaluate diamond operations” for her Al Qaeda bosses in Pakistan. Dennis Lormel, an FBI agent who was investigating terrorism financing at the time, told me the agency quickly debunked this specific claim. Nonetheless, the notion that Siddiqui was involved in money laundering had entered the picture.

Then, in late December 2002, two months after her divorce, Siddiqui flew from Pakistan to the United States, where she had a job interview at a hospital in Baltimore. On December 30, she made her way to nearby Gaithersburg, Maryland, and opened a post office box. She listed as a co-owner of the box a man named Majid Khan, whom she falsely identified as her husband. According to court records, the FBI began to monitor the box almost immediately.

On March 1, 2003, intelligence agents in Pakistan arrested Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged operational planner of the September 11 attacks. U.S. interrogators quickly elicited from him the names of dozens of possible co-conspirators. Among them was Majid Khan. Mohammed said he had assigned Khan to deliver “a large sum of money” to Al Qaeda.

On March 5, the ISI arrested Khan, along with his pregnant wife. According to a statement by Khan’s father, “U.S. and Pakistani agents, including FBI agents,” interrogated his son for at least three weeks at a secret detention center in Karachi. What Khan told his captors is not publicly known, but by March 18 the FBI was alarmed enough to issue a bulletin seeking Siddiqui and her ex-husband for questioning.

On March 28, FBI agents in New York City detained a twenty-three-year-old man named Uzair Paracha, who had just arrived there from Pakistan to help his father sell units of a beachfront property in Karachi. His father also owned an import/export business in Manhattan, and Paracha worked from an office there. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had planned to use the company, he told investigators, “to smuggle explosives into the United States.” Among the first questions agents in New York asked Paracha was whether he knew Majid Khan. He said he did. And there was more: he also had the key to his post office box.

At some point that same month, Siddiqui disappeared. Her family would not, or could not, give me a specific date. The last traces of her I found came from news accounts. On March 28, the day the FBI detained Paracha, the Pakistani daily Dawn reported that local authorities took Siddiqui “to an undisclosed location” for questioning and that “FBI agents were also allowed to question the lady.” Three weeks later, on April 21, a “senior U.S. law enforcement official” told Lisa Myers of NBC Nightly News that Siddiqui was in Pakistani custody. The same source retracted the statement the next day without explanation. “At the time,” Myers told me, “we thought there was a possibility perhaps he’d spoken out of turn.”

There was one final association to take into account. On April 29, the Pakistani authorities arrested Ammar al Baluchi, a computer technician they suspected was plotting to bomb the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. Baluchi was the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The FBI and the CIA suspected that he had provided the 9/11 hijackers with almost a quarter of their financing. They had also come to believe, as was later reported in an undated Department of Defense “detainee biography,” that Baluchi had “married Siddiqui shortly before his detention.”

The means by which we assemble such intelligence have become more sophisticated and also more violent. During his initial month of detention, Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times. Khan’s father claims that his son was forced “to sign a statement that he was not even allowed to read,” and Khan later attempted suicide, twice, by chewing through an artery in his arm.

The interrogations yielded a great deal of data, but it is unclear how useful any of that data actually was. Mohammed later said, “I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear.” Paracha told many contradictory stories, and Baluchi, who had maintained his innocence during his U.S. military tribunal hearing, later filed a statement saying, in effect, that he was proud of his involvement in the September 11 attacks.

The roles Siddiqui and Paracha played in the post-office-box affair may have been entirely innocent. Majid Khan said at his own military tribunal hearings that his travel documents had expired while he was in Karachi and he wanted to renew them. He asked his friend Baluchi to enlist Siddiqui and Paracha to help maintain the ruse that he was still in the United States by establishing a mailing address. Khan and Baluchi both contended at Paracha’s trial that he was ignorant of their ties to Al Qaeda.

Such intelligence may actually be worse than useless. In a 2006 Harvard study of the efficacy of preemptive national-security practices, Jessica Stern and Jonathan Wiener note that “taking action based only on worst-case thinking can introduce unforeseen dangers and costs” and propose that “a better approach to managing risk involves an assessment of the full portfolio of risks—those reduced by the proposed intervention, as well as those increased.” Rather than understanding all intelligence as actionable, they write, “decision makers” should create “mechanisms to ensure that sensible risk analysis precedes precautionary actions.” At the moment, no such mechanisms appear to exist. The leader of one FBI conterterrorism squad recently told the New York Times that of the 5,500 terrorism-related leads its twenty-one agents had pursued over the past five years, just 5 percent were credible and not one had foiled an actual terrorist plot. But the gathering of intelligence continues apace.

A writer living in Brooklyn. Her last story for <em>Harper's Magazine</em> "I.O.U. One Terrorist," appeared in the August 2005 issue.

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October 2019