The Interrogation of Abu Jandel
In October 2000, Abu Jandal was arrested by the Yemeni authorities in connection with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. He was a member of Al Qaeda and had served as Osama Bin Laden’s chief bodyguard. After the attacks on September 11, the Yemeni authorities allowed Ali Soufan, one of eight FBI agents who spoke Arabic, to interrogate Abu Jandal.
The attack was fresh in Soufan’s memory. His friend and mentor, John O’Neil, who had dedicated much of his life to fighting Al Qaeda, had been killed in the attacks. Soufan was justifiably, righteously angry. The Yemeni authorities, not known for their squeamishness, gave Soufan wide latitude in the interrogation. The FBI gave Soufan the directive to identify the hijackers “by any means necessary”.
Despite the fact that Abu Jandel refused to cooperate with Soufan at first, Soufan remained respectful. Abu Jandel would rant about the evils of America–the single country, he believed, that was most responsible for the evils of the world. As an additional complicating factor, like many Al Qaeda members, Abu Jandel had been trained in counter-interrogation techniques. He agreed to those facts which Soufan knew and denied everything else. He tried to portray himself as a good Muslim who had at one time flirted with Al Qaeda.
This stonewalling lasted for several days. Soufan was patient, picking up small details he might be able to use. For example, he found that Abu Jandel was diabetic and the next day brought sugarless wafers and a history of America in Arabic. Abu Jandel read the book quickly and was astonished at America’s history. The very fact of Soufan’s existence–as a knowledgeable Muslim who loved America and was in the FBI–was a challenge to Abu Jandel’s conception of America.
Soufan also found that Abu Jandel was troubled that Osama Bin Laden had sworn fealty to Mullah Omar, the messianic leader of the Taliban.
For five days, Soufan and Abu Jandel debated the theology behind suicide bombing, America’s place in the world, and discussed Abu Jandel’s life. He refused to reveal that he had any significant knowledge of Al Qaeda.
On the fifth night, Soufan brought him a news magazine with graphic photos of the twin towers on fire, photos that brought home the scale of the death and destruction. Abu Jandel had heard that something had happened in New York, but was shocked by the events, and insisted that Bin Laden could never do that–he said it must have been the Israelis, or someone else. Soufan showed Abu Jandel a local Yemeni newspaper with the headline: “200 Yemeni Souls Perish in New York Attack.” “The Sheikh is not that crazy,” he insisted, referring to Bin Laden. Soufan asked him to identify a series of mug shots. Still disturbed by the images of the attack, Abu Jandel was able to identify seven men as members of Al Qaeda, but he still insisted that Bin Laden could not have ordered the attack.[digg-reddit-me]
Soufan responded that he knew for sure that the people who did this were Al Qaeda. “How? Who told you?” Abu Jandel asked.
“You did. You just identified the hijackers,” Soufan said.
Abu Jandel asked for a few moments alone. When Soufan came back, he offered to help, to reveal what he knew about the structure of Al Qaeda, the locations of hideouts, and plans for escape. “I think the Sheikh went crazy,”Abu Jandel said.
Abu Jandel’s information proved significant in the Afghanistan campaign.
The Interrogation of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi
In late 2001 or early 2002, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured by Pakistani forces while trying to escape Afghanistan . By the middle of January 2002, he was in US custody. He was one of several high value detainees whose interrogation and detention challenged the limits of what the CIA was willing to do. The Bush administration had just recently authorized “enhanced” interrogation techniques, includes, as revealed by the New York Times in a recent expose, “slaps to the head; hours held naked in a frigid cell; days and nights without sleep while battered by thundering rock music; long periods manacled in stress positions” and waterboarding. According to the New York Times:
With virtually no experience in interrogations, the C.I.A. had constructed its program in a few harried months by consulting Egyptian and Saudi intelligence officials and copying Soviet interrogation methods long used in training American servicemen to withstand capture.
Relatively little is known about the specific techniques used on al-Libi or about his interrogation. It seems certain however that al-Libi was subject to these “enhanced techniques” such as simulated drowning and the rest. Additionally, al-Libi was also transferred for a time to a foreign intelligence service in the rendition program, that began under President Clinton, where he was also physically abused and threatened with torture.
Under pressure and feeling threatened, Al-Libi provided the CIA and other officials questioning him with a wealth of information about planned attacks in Yemen and around the world. Most significant however, al-Libi was the primary source for the faulty pre-war intelligence about Al Qaeda-Iraq links. Al-Libi specifically said that Iraq had been training members of Al Qaeda in the use of chemical and biological weapons, a claim cited by President Bush, Colin Powell, and many others as a justification for the war.
This bit of intelligence, gained by torture and used to justify a war, was found to be false after the invasion.
Torture as a Symbol
These are just two of the most prominent examples of the interrogations of detainees after 9/11. Two examples cannot prove a point. They do illustrate an opinion that is held by many if not most interrogators: torture and other extreme techniques are useful in getting people to talk, but not necessarily to tell the truth. The harder and less television-friendly approach is often the best.
Torture, as a symbol, represents the bankruptcy of the Bush’s administration’s approach to the War on Terror. The decision to begin to torture prisoners was made without public debate of any sort, by distorting current law and common sense, by abandoning America’s long-held positions and values, and without any attempt at resolving questions of tactics or strategy.
The CIA thus began to develop a program that mimicked Soviet techniques America had long condemned–techniques that were not designed to elicit information, but confessions for show trials. While Guiliani, Bush, Cheney, Gonzalez, Addington, Scalia, and others have denied that they endorse torture, they have endorsed “enhanced interrogation techniques” inflicting physical and psychological pain short of death or major organ failure. To embrace torture (which is what these men have done) reveals a tactical and strategic deficiency. The focus is on looking tough and on taking postures of violent masculinity even if they are counter-productive.
E. B. White wrote an essay on New York City at the dawn of the nuclear age, saying:
“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions…In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”
We cannot accept such blunders, such a short-sighted strategy with so much at stake.
My main sources for this information: The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, the Wikipedia entry on Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the New York Times’ various articles, and over the course of time, the blog of Andrew Sullivan.