extraordinary rendition

Interviews: Jack Cloonan

Jack Cloonan

Stephen Grey: Could you briefly tell us the background to the FBI investigation into the 1998 embassy bombings [in Kenya and Tanzania]? And how you came to identify Fazul Abdullah Mohammed as an important player in this whole investigation.

Jack Cloonan: The way it evolved is really quite simple. In early 1996, then President Clinton signed an Executive Finding or an Intelligence Summary, and it basically declared bin Laden and al Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri enemies of the state and directed that the CIA, the NSA and the FBI combine forces to eliminate bin Laden and al Qaeda as a threat to U.S. national security. In the course of that, we got the New York office of the FBI with the southern district of New York. That is to say, the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District was charged with building a prosecutable case against Osama bin Laden. And that’s how it all evolved. Ultimately, that led to our cooperation with overseas intelligence and law enforcement circles to access some members of al Qaeda.

Watch Interview with Jack Cloonan
Jack Cloonan is a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent assigned to the Osama bin Laden team in the FBI’s New York field office. He joined the FBI in 1972 and worked on the bin Laden case from 1996 until he left the bureau in October 2002. He is currently president of Clayton Consultants, a global risk firm, based in New York and California. In this interview, he discusses the case of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a key al Qaeda suspect in the 1998 African embassy bombings still at large. He also explains why he believes the government’s extraordinary rendition program does not work. This interview took place on September 28th, 2007.

What was Fazul Abdullah’s role?
His role was the emir of the cell. Let’s be very clear about that. He had responsibility for renting the estate [in Nairobi], where the bomb team assembled the bomb. He was intimately involved in acquiring the vehicle that was used to house the bomb. And he arranged all that. So he was the logistical head, if you will. And he helped facilitate the movement of the engineer who came to assemble the bomb. On the day of the attack, he led the bomb truck to the circle near the U.S. Embassy. When the bomb went up, he was there. And he saw it.

How did you find out that Fazul was the emir of the al Qaeda cell that attacked the embassies in Africa?
We had two principle sources for that: Jamal al-Fadl and Ali Mohammed, both members of al Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic jihad and both interacted with Fazul. All knew him to be the emir and watched his progression. The rumor has been around for a long time that he is a diminutive man but a real fighter. He goes all the way back with bin Laden to the days when al Qaeda was created and preceding that. So he's a true, hardened member. All the information was [collected] sitting across from a table. It wasn’t in a swimming pool [or] some place threatening somebody with waterboarding. It was done the old-fashioned way. Good cop, bad cop. Finding out what motivates them.

You know, as it’s been reported in some instances, [that] we smuggled members of these peoples’ families out of countries. We took them and we treated them fairly, and you know what? They, in their own words, [would] tell you if they were here, “We had a moral obligation to cooperate with the United States.” In fact, it got to a point you couldn’t stop them from talking.

Fazul has remained a fugitive and the U.S. government, the military, the FBI, the CIA are still looking for him. How big a threat is he to the U.S. now?
At this particular point in time, the FBI, CIA and others, have directed a lot of attention toward him. After all, he was indicted for the murder of 302 lives. There is a capital case against him. So the United States government sees him as one of the top 22 terrorists in the world and that we need to bring him to justice. We got very close to him in the Comoros [an African island nation in the Indian Ocean north of Madagascar]. We missed him probably by a short period of time. This was subsequent to the [African embassy] bombings in 1998. So I don’t believe that he poses a mortal threat to the United States. But we need to get him, to bring justice, because he has been indicted and he needs to stand trial.

This year Fazul’s wife and children were arrested as they fled from Somalia. [They were] held in Kenya and sent back to Somalia and then on to Ethiopia. [They were] held for several months in interrogation and secret detention. What's the purpose of holding Fazul’s wife and children for so long?
I think it’s twofold. Number one is to find out why she left the Comoros (or wherever she was) and went to Somalia. The expectation was that [Fazul] was in contact with people -- intermediaries. Secondly, the most important thing, is that word would travel that she is being held and this would, in effect, force Fazul perhaps to come out of hiding and turn himself in. I don’t think there was any question about that. The information we had about Fazul was that he was fairly close to his family. And this has worked, by the way, in the past. I mean, you don’t think that these guys are hooked to this ideology and that they don’t have a personal life and they don’t care about their family. That’s not true. Many of them do, and I think that’s a real weak spot with Fazul. I think if he felt that he could save his family, particularly his wife, from harsh methods of interrogation. I’m sure that’s what the whole purpose of this was. Force him to come forward.

Do you think that to hold someone in order to “smoke out” her husband is a legitimate tactic?
I’m not opposed to holding people under some sort of detention if their rights are respected and they are treated humanely. I am not in favor of holding people just arbitrarily and then putting them in some prison [or] some place, and abusing them. That’s off the table as far as I’m concerned. It’s unacceptable. And I hope that wasn’t the case with her. But you don’t control, necessarily, what the Ethiopian authorities do or what the Eritrean authorities might do. But you have to insist that the United States is somehow interested in all this; the United States has to insist that [detainees] be treated humanely. No one wants to abuse a woman. I don’t care who she's married to.

We saw a pattern of detentions without trial for several months this year. [There was the instance when] up to 100 people fled from Somalia to Kenya, where they were picked up and sent back to Somalia and on to detention in Addis Ababa, [Ethiopia]. They were then questioned, not only by the Ethiopians, but by U.S. intelligence agencies and, it appears, the FBI. What kind of pressure has been placed on the governments of Ethiopia and Kenya to do these kinds of operations?
First of all, I want to put something into context that is a unique operation in and of itself. The fact of the matter is that the United States government has not had a very robust relationship with either of those countries that you just described -- Ethiopia and Eritrea -- at least on the terrorism front. Now that has evolved since 2001. So what sort of pressure can the United States bring to bear on either country? A lot. It can use foreign aid. It can provide law enforcement and intelligence services in those countries with a host of equipment and funding. In fact, that’s often the case. In return, these countries do our bidding. Now to the extent that the FBI would cooperate with this, I think the FBI would get access to those people but under very, very strict circumstances. And frankly, I think the bureau would be reluctant to engage anybody that would be in custody, unless [FBI personnel] were absolutely certain that [the detainees]] were being treated humanely. The FBI is kind of the fly in the ointment here, because when the FBI engages, even overseas with people who are detained, there's a certain protocol that they have to follow.

You mention Eritrea in your last answer, but are you also referring to Kenya and Ethiopia?
A reason why I mentioned Eritrea is because we have cooperated with the Eritrean authorities before. But the Kenyan’s cooperation with both the CIA and the FBI is long-standing. The Kenyan CID [Criminal Investigation Department], their version of intelligence services, cooperated with us during the bombings of the embassies in 1998. So this is nothing new. The extent, though, that they facilitate and help people move from one country to another is a little bit different than anything I’ve experienced or was aware of.

Let me put it specifically about Kenya and Ethiopia: What kind of pressure do you think has been placed on the Kenyans and the Ethiopians to round up these kind of people and make them available to the United States?
I think there’s an enormous amount of pressure, and I think it began right with the President of the United States who articulated this message on the war on terror – that is, “You're either with us or against us.” So what can the United States bring to bear? Well, the United States can bring to bear lot of pressure on the government. Whether it’s human rights related. Whether it’s foreign aid. Whether it’s legal assistance. Whether it’s military assistance. There's any number of pressure points that the United States can put on the Kenyan authorities or elsewhere. And this is standard operating procedure. This is not new. I mean the Kenyan government is in need of all kinds of stuff. And so the United States, with its largesse, can get what it wants. This is our foreign policy of approach that has been well tested, and it works. Very well.

We’ve seen many stories of the United States flying prisoners from one place to the other, rendering them. In this case, the Kenyans flew these people out to Somalia and then the Ethiopians flew them on to Addis Ababa, the capital. It was there that most of [the detainees] we met said they were interrogated by U.S. agents of different kinds. To what extent do you think the U.S. was calling the shots? Do you think these countries [were] doing what they would have done anyway?
I don’t think it’s a question of these countries just acting as they would normally. This is a coordinated effort. We don’t have a history of doing these things too often in terrorism-related investigations. So this is very much a coordinated effort. It’s been replicated across the world, frankly. This isn’t the only place where this has taken hold. These people are not acting unilaterally.

So the U.S. is calling the shots here?
Well, the United States has said this is one of our priorities. We’re trying to protect the homeland. We’re going to seek out these people wherever they are. And if you see activity such as this happening, assume -- and I think correctly -- that the United States is behind the scenes using its influence and its pressure to get this done. And personally, I’m not opposed to this. I mean this is something that we do and we do very effectively. It’s when you get the people in custody -- that’s where I may differ with some of my colleagues about what you should do and not do.

In this particular case, the CIA and the FBI have said [the United States] didn’t carry out those renditions. This wasn’t a U.S. operation. Do you believe that?
It’s called plausible deniability. I mean the agency and the bureau are not going to admit that they were witting of this at all. We never comment necessarily on operations that are underway. It would be naive, frankly, in this day and age to think that the FBI or the CIA, primarily the CIA, is not witting of what's going on. In fact, I’d suggest that they probably were witting and they were the power brokers behind the scenes pushing this forward.

We’ve spoken to a number of the prisoners who came out from detention. They were held in these prisons in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. They’ve made a number of allegations, including being threatened with torture and worse things. Some said they were beaten.  Where would you draw the line in seeing what could credibly have been done by agents of the FBI and what is not believable?
I know pretty well having been an FBI agent for many years and having dealt in situations such as these. The FBI would not engage in conduct that would be condemned by the international tribunals, by the international community of the Red Cross, by the international law or do things that would shock the conscience of any court. I don’t care where it is. This is what the FBI does. And it has a standard protocol. Would the FBI interview somebody who was in custody such as you’ve just described? The answer is, yes, under certain circumstances. I cannot imagine and would not accept the idea that the FBI threatened people the way you’ve just described.

If you look back at what's happened over the last several years -- and I’m referring now to some extent to Abu Ghraib [and more] importantly to Guantanamo Bay -- who are the people who have brought some of these so-called abuses to the forefront? Who are the ones who have gone on paper, whether it’s in emails, electronic communications and full-fledged reports, complaining about some of these techniques? It has been the FBI. In fact, I’d say that the FBI has been responsible for some of the changes that have gone on. When the director of the FBI speaks to the chief legal counsel at the Department of Defense and then has a briefing with then [Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld to complain about some of these abuses, you know that it’s a very serious matter. Once that agent goes on record to complain about these things, there's no turning back. So I do not think for a moment that the FBI would engage in that type of stuff at all.

So when these prisoners say they’ve been threatened, beaten up by the Ethiopians in preparation for their interrogation by Americans, do you think the prisoners are making this up?
You know, I don’t know. There have been instances in the past where people have made things up for obvious reasons. We also know that there have been instances when people have been quote “softened up” prior to being interrogated. You'd have to be the best judge of that by speaking to these people. If there are physical signs of abuse, it’s certainly something that you'd have to pay a lot of attention to. But I can only tell you from my personal experience. I can tell you that I’ve gone to places in the world where there has been no sense of jurisprudence -- certainly not from what the British system or the United States. I would force intelligence agencies to let me take a look at the victim, the suspect, being held. In fact, [I would] take pictures of them, because I never wanted to be accused of abusing anybody or threatening anybody. Believe me, when the FBI goes into a situation such as that, they may even take pictures. And they're going to make a note. They're going to keep an interview log, and they're going to comment on that interview log about what the physical condition of that person is. And if that person being interviewed says, “Well, I was spoken to the other day and these people threatened me,” I’m willing to bet that there's a record of that and the FBI would record that. That’s not a good day if the FBI is recording information about threats that another U.S. agency made.

There’s more than one agency operating in these places and talking to these prisoners. Is it a case of the FBI being blamed for the tactics used by others? Do you have the same rules as other agencies?
We don’t have the same rules as other agencies. In fact, the FBI rules are much more strict than perhaps rules governing the CIA. The FBI is governed by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. And [it is] very strictly enforced. So this would preclude them from engaging in the antics that I think you’ve just described. It just wouldn’t happen. And I don’t know of instances where it’s ever happened.

Have there been instances where the DOD and the CIA have represented themselves as FBI agents when, in fact, they're not? The answer is, yes. And that’s what caused the FBI really a lot of heartache, and they're very angry about that and have made it a matter of record. There's an interesting juxtaposition of facts here, and it’s rather ironic that sometimes the FBI finds itself actually investigating. They may be part of this team as you’ve described, but they may be the ones who are investigating alleged abuses. And [they may] end up prosecuting those people who have abused the victims.

You’ve described the serious threat from people like Fazul. What do you make of what happened? Where you had people -- not Fazul himself, but his wife, his children and many other women and children -- held for several months without trial, without access to lawyers or the Red Cross? Do you think this kind of tactic is justified given the scale of the threat out there?
I don’t believe in that type of approach, and I don’t think holding people such as you’ve described -- having them incommunicado, possibly threatened, without access to legal representation or international Red Cross and the like – [is acceptable]. It’s not the way I would ever approach the problem, and I’m not in favor of it. If that’s indeed what happened, I would be very critical of that approach, and I don’t think it’s worked. I don’t think it'll ever work, and it stands the United States up as if we’ve participated as a proxy. I’m saddened by it because I don’t think we need to operate that way. We’re better than that. It’s just that simple. And we ought not to be outsourcing this type of activity and then running and hiding and saying that we didn’t do it. We’ve been very successful at getting people to cooperate with the United States, even hardened terrorists -- those people who have killed United States citizens, those people who have swore allegiance to bin Laden. We’ve been successful at gaining their cooperation the old-fashioned way. And that is rapport building, not relying on these extraordinary techniques that I’m very much opposed to.

We've seen people flown in U.S. planes to places like Egypt, Syria, and Morocco. We've seen people sent to the CIA’s own black sites. We’ve seen people sent to Guantanamo. In the case of prisoners being held in foreign jails and outsourced to Ethiopia or Kenya, do you think this is a new tactic in the war on terror?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a new tactic. I think what it’s done, though, is told us that we’re expanding this program. For a certain period of time, there was only a couple of countries that we would render people to. Egypt being one, Morocco possibly and Jordan. This era of going into African and outsourcing this stuff is new.

There was a policy before September the 11th and a policy after September the 11th of outsourcing the interrogation and detention of prisoners to other countries. And then [the United States government] had the CIA and the military creating their own prisons for terror suspects. Are we going back to that previous policy of putting more emphasis on the outsourcing?
I think we’re trying to rein that in. There are certain pressures that are being brought to bear on the agency and the DOD, [pressure] not to engage in these things because of what we know to be a faulty theory -- that this was going to work. So I would think that the pressure actually is going to result in us not engaging. It’s not proven to be that effective. The number of people who would have information of real value, the so-called high-value targets, the ones who would be in a position to know what might be in the pipeline, the people who would actually have access to bin Laden -- [like] Zawahiri and the top leadership -- are so few, one wonders why would we engage in this in the first instance. The people who were picked up off the battlefield, the people who might have been picked up in Kenya or Somalia or some other place, they may hate the United States and they may be jihadists at heart, but I don’t necessarily think that they are being directed by the top leadership of al Qaeda. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

What is the preference then for how we deal with an individual terror suspect?
There was a preference certainly right after 9/11 to do as you’ve described -- to outsource it, to rely upon renditions. There's pressure being brought on the United States government to abandon that policy. There's no question that there was a sea change after 9/11. There is no question that we were going to take the gloves off, as has been described. So it was necessary for the government, our government, to get the right policies in place and find the right people to write the memorandums to say we’re not in violation of international law -- that this is not torture. And so that whole framework was put together. Now we’re reversing ourselves. Now we’ve found out that it didn’t work, was not that effective. Now we’ve got to change the rules, and I think you're slowly beginning to see that happen. One of the organizations that did bring about that change was the FBI.

Are you against rendition?
I am against rendition. I would prefer extradition, where you understand what the legal context is. We have treaties with countries. Where there isn’t an extradition treaty you can get a mutual legal assistance letter. You can work it out so the person who is being extradited back to the United States is going to be treated with all the rights and privileges [of] any U.S. citizen.

Is there a right way of doing a rendition?
There is a right way of doing a rendition. It’s to work with the host country. Explain what the situation is. Explain what your evidence is. Lay it out in a sense of cooperation and transparency, and then work through the legal systems, internationally speaking, to get the subject rendered back to the United States. I don’t think you just pick somebody up arbitrarily because you think they're a terrorist. You could make a mistake and send them some place [where they are] tortured. It’s not good policy.

But almost everything that the United States has done to deal with terror suspects since 9/11 has come under attack and almost all has been declared illegal.
We have to be absolutely clear on something. There are some people who say it’s illegal; there are others who argue just the opposite -- that there are legal ways of doing this and that what we engaged in was legal, not in violation of international law. I’m not a lawyer. I’m just saying as a general rule, it’s bad policy. We were interested in finding out right away what was going on. We thought that the way the war on terror or the way we handled terrorism instances before 9/11 -- using the legal process, law enforcement issues as opposed to foreign intelligence issue -- was the wrong way.  There are some people within the United States government who believe earnestly that because we handled terrorism as a law enforcement problem that 9/11 happened. That had we engaged in this type of robust, aggressive activity, 9/11 never would have happened. I think that’s foolish. Period.

I met someone who'd recently left the CIA and he described to me a rendition he’d taken part in where they'd captured a group of terrorists red-handed. They had explosive material on them. He didn’t want to give those terrorists to the local government because he knew they would be released rapidly.  And the U.S. government didn’t want them brought back to the United States. So they sent them to somewhere else, where they knew these people would be held for a very long time and, perhaps, mistreated. And he asked me, “Well, what would you do? What is the alternative?”
The question presupposes that the people who were picked up were all terrorists. And they had all this stuff that this guy described. There is a way of handling it. It doesn’t have to mean that you take them and render them to another country. You have no guarantee that the host country is going to release these people. The United States can bring a lot of pressure on these countries. Hold them. Interrogate them. Let us participate in it, rather than taking them from that point and giving them to a third country. I don’t buy the argument that you have to render somebody to a third country because a host country refuses to cooperate. The United States gets generally what it wants. Very rarely does the United States get rebuffed.  

The big fear seems to be if these people are brought back to the United States they’ll be given lawyers and they won't be prosecuted.
What's wrong with getting lawyers? That’s what our system is founded on. That’s what we believe in. It’s the way the system is. It works. The fact that you would be quote “lawyered up” doesn’t mean that you're getting off. It forces the government to walk into a court of law and say this is what we allege. An indictment is an allegation. It’s not proven. And then you have a group of ordinary citizens who listen to that and render a judgment. It doesn’t mean because you're lawyered up that you're going to get off. It doesn’t mean because you walk into a U.S. court of law that you fail. I would argue just the opposite. You want the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a U.S. courtroom. You want the likes of Ramzi Binalshibh in the courtroom. You want Abu Zubaydah in a courtroom. Why do you want them? Because look what happened when they put Zacharias Moussaoui on trial? What did the world see? You saw a person who was not engaged, that is Moussaoui. You saw a person who was, frankly, mentally challenged. You saw him acting bizarrely all the time. That’s what I want to see. Put them in the dock. Let’s see who they are. And you know what? We can all rest at night when they get convicted.

The U.S. government is seeking to put on trial in military commissions some of the high-value prisoners who've been brought to Guantanamo. In your opinion, what will be the consequence of those tribunals and of how they’ve been treated until now?
The world will always wonder whether these trials are fair -- whether the defendant can actually challenge the evidence that’s against him. The way these military tribunals and commissions are structured you don’t get to do that. You don’t get to challenge the evidence against you. I said the record has to be transparent for everybody to see. If you don’t do it, there's always going to be this notion that the United States government has done something illegal.

The way they're being treated, the methods of interrogation, what's going to be the consequence?
That’s what this is all about. We don’t want to find out what has been alleged. We don’t want to hear that people have been waterboarded. We don’t want to hear that people have had sensory depravation, sleep depravation, [put in] stress positions. Because the argument would be, Well, if I gave you information as a result of being in stress positions for 48 hours in a normal court of law, it would be thrown out. It’s the fruit of the poison tree. The argument the United States is making is that once we annunciate these things, the bad guys will know what we’re doing and somehow it’ll stiffen their resolve. We can't go into the legal system now and resurrect it because if they have been abused you know the government or the courts will say, “You know what? We can't accept this information from this defendant because he has been abused; he's been coerced.” So we have created a Catch-22. And the only thing we can do is put up this artifice called a military tribunal or commission and deal with it. It’s not fair. It’s slanted against the defendant. Listen, these people can be despicable. And I have no doubts that many of them are. But give them a fair trial -- let us all take a look at them. There's nothing wrong with that.

Further Reading
FRONTLINE "Al Qaeda’s Global Context"
Read more about the African embassy bombings in this overview of how al Qaeda's rise and international reach gradually came into focus for U.S. intelligence.

FRONTLINE Interview With Jack Cloonan
In this interview with FRONTLINE conducted in July 2005, Cloonan recounts the FBI's battle with the CIA over custody of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who ran an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and who was one of the highest-ranking al Qaeda operatives. captured in the first months of the war in Afghanistan. Cloonan also discusses the FBI's role at Guantanamo and why he believes little good intelligence came out of there. The interview took place on September 28th, 2007.