Ali Soufan: The World Would Be Very Different Today
September 13, 2011, 2:25 pm ET
As an Arabic-speaking FBI agent, Soufan was at the center of several Al Qaeda investigations before and after 9/11. He tells FRONTLINE that critical CIA intelligence about Al Qaeda was not communicated to the FBI before 9/11, and had that information been shared, “The world would be very different today.” After 9/11, Soufan conducted interrogations of key Al Qaeda figures, including Abu Zubaydah. Soufan says he gained actionable intelligence while interrogating Zubaydah, but the information dried up after the detainee became the test case for new, harsher methods of interrogation that would come to be known as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He argues the techniques have not worked, and in one case, even resulted in faulty intelligence that helped build the case to go to war in Iraq. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 30, 2011.
The Black Banners. Why did you decide to write this book?
I decided to share the experiences that I went through in the war against Al Qaeda.
There is part of this story that hasn’t been told, and it is the involvement also of the law enforcement entities of the United States with the intelligence entities [and] with the people in the field and how they worked together in predicting the threat of Al Qaeda really early on and in fighting Al Qaeda when bin Laden was in Sudan, after the East Africa embassy bombing, after bin Laden went to Afghanistan, with the U.S.S. Cole.
Unfortunately, 10 years after 9/11, Al Qaeda is this ghost that people don’t know, and people usually fear the unknown. So I hope that [the] book, 10 years after 9/11, can be a small little piece of the history of what happened in the fight against Al Qaeda from 1997 until today.
1997 is –
“They hit the glass ceiling with waterboarding. So what do you do? You do it again and again and again: with Abu Zubaydah, 83 times; with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 183 times. When you repeat a tactic on an individual 183 times, do you think the technique is working? Because if it’s working, you don’t need to do it 183 times. This is just logic.”
When I joined the bureau. So firsthand experience. Now, in the book, I also talk about the actions of so many people in the FBI, the CIA, the other law enforcement and intelligence agencies that have been fighting with the threat way longer than I joined the FBI. And I hope that with this book, 10 years after 9/11, people can get some answers, both to what we did right, what we did wrong and what really happened on that September day 10 years ago.
You wanted people to understand the nature of the enemy. It’s a bit surprising when you think about it, that after 10 years, we still don’t have a grasp on the nature of the enemy we’ve been fighting.
Absolutely. And we’re really behind the eight ball on this. We think they are Muslims, so we summarize it: Everyone who’s a Muslim must be Al Qaeda. We think they are jihadi, so the term “jihad” means Sept. 11, means the U.S.S. Cole or means the East Africa embassy bombing. Things are more complicated than this. Al Qaeda killed way more Muslims, for example, than they killed Americans. They have been attacking places all over the world, from Bali, Madrid, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, bombing mosques, killing anyone who opposed them.
So this is a terrorist organization. This is an evil organization that has no religion whatsoever.
And I talk in the book about some of the leaders of Al Qaeda, or the midlevel managers, the operatives, people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, [considered the mastermind of 9/11]; people like Mohammed Atta, who was the leader of the 9/11 attack; people like Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, [then-Al Qaeda's chief of military operations]. And the way they were living does not live up to the Islamic preaching that they claim they believe in. …
Why is it that Americans have such a hard time understanding the nature of Al Qaeda?
I think simply it wasn’t explained. It’s as simple as that. It wasn’t properly explained. It wasn’t put in a context.
We were so busy with 9/11 and understanding what happened in our soul in 9/11, and then we were so busy fighting wars overseas. And people were just told about threats. People were told something, somewhere is going to happen — we don’t know when; we don’t know where.
So people lived in fear, and usually people fear the unknown. And nobody tried to basically put that threat in an appropriate context.
What strikes me about the book is how you get to know these guys through these various interrogations as ordinary guys with problems with money, with their wives, with their children, with internal matters within Al Qaeda. There’s a kind of portrait here that brings you to understand how ordinary their day-to-day concerns are.
Sure, if you look at each one of the individuals that we spoke about in the group and how we called them in the first place and then how we interviewed them, interrogated them and got their information from them, it’s exactly what you said.
These people all have issues, sometimes with their families, sometimes inside the group itself. The Qaeda, for example, as an organization is a terrorist organization. They want to unify the Islamic ummah [community]. This is at least one of their claims: Make the whole world an Islamic ummah.
However, there’s deep divisions inside the group, between people from the Arabian Peninsula and people who are Egyptians, and they really hate each other. And we use sometimes these kind of divisions to our advantage in the interviews [with] these guys.
They argue about promotions; they argue about money.
They argue about who’s getting paid more than who, why you’re paying the Egyptians more than you pay the Sudanese or more than you pay the Yemenis. They argue about who’s going to be the leader. Why I am from Saudi Arabia and there is an Egyptian leading me? …
They argue about ideological reasons when they start discussing religion, trying to justify a lot of evil work that they do and see it through a religious prism.
So they’re not unified in any way, shape or form. However, the hatred to the United States, the hatred to the West is kind of unifying them in putting people together to conduct terrorist attacks.
You talk about your approach to interrogation. It has to do with the fact that these people are human beings with problems. Your philosophy of interrogation is that you have to adjust a different approach to each one of these people. Talk a little bit about how you solve the art of interrogation.
There’s no cookie-cutter approach for interrogation. What works on Mr. X will never work on Mr. Y, so you have to be very flexible.
The very first thing you need is basically knowledge. You need to know the group first and how the group is divided and how the group is structured, and use your knowledge to your advantage in the interrogation. And the interrogation became like a chess game or a poker mental game with the person that you’re interviewing or the person that you’re interrogating.
Also, in [sic] the same time, you have to try to learn as much as you can about the individual that you’re interviewing — … for example, why do you think he joined the group? Who are his friends in the group? Where does he fit in the different cliques that exist in the group? — and utilize a lot of these things to your advantage in conducting the interview.
You said your major weapon is information.
Absolutely. And you need information to get information.
This doesn’t seem surprising. On the other hand, you were around a lot of people who took different approaches to this.
Absolutely. And there’s different approaches. Every individual has their own style that works for them, and that creates that appropriate chemistry with the person that you’re trying to interrogate.
I saw people, for example, who are older than me, so their technique was different from me. But it works for them. They [re]presented a father figure in the interrogation for that specific detainee. I saw some other people who used the fact that, “Look, you think you’re a soldier; I am a soldier. Let’s talk from one soldier to another, regardless of our ideology.” That works for them.
Everyone has their own strengths and their own weaknesses, and they develop their own interrogation style based on that. And that’s why it’s very interesting.
And these things we didn’t invent. These things have been used in law enforcement for many, many, many years.
You compare interrogating somebody [to] dating.
Sometimes it is, because it’s about building a rapport with an individual. It’s about building the chemistry. It’s about building a trust, a little bit, because if he’s going to tell you something, he needs to have some sense of trust about you.
Why did you join the FBI in the first place?
That’s the last thing I wanted to do. I never thought [about] a career in law enforcement or in intelligence or in counterterrorism. For me, [it] was like somebody telling me to join the circus or telling me to be a Formula 1 driver.
I think somebody suggested it in college. People thought that it can never happen. So I said, hey, you know, I’ll apply and see what happens. And about two years later, finally, I get a letter offering me a job as a special agent.
A fraternity brother had made a bet that you –
It’s actually a bunch of them. It became a joke, like: “Yeah, right, you’re going to be in the FBI. They will probably send you back the application.”
But you at the same time had come from the Middle East and were paying attention to what was developing as a hobby, in a sense.
Yes, I was always interested. My major in college was political science. I have two majors in undergrad, one political science and one international studies. And I was always interested in the non-state actors and their effect on regional and global security — non-state actors meaning mostly terrorist groups. And I was interested in that guy, Osama bin Laden, because in 1996, he did this declaration of jihad that was widely distributed in the Middle East and published in different newspapers. And his rhetoric was really kind of dangerous. And I felt that a lot of people will basically listen to what he was saying, especially from Saudi Arabia, from the Arab Afghan, as they used to call them at the time.
Every now and then, if I read something in the Arabic press, in Al Hayat or Asharq Al-Awsat, they always mentioned bin Laden. I used to be interested in reading what he said.
He made these declarations in 1996. How many people were really paying attention to it?
I think in the government, people were paying attention in the CIA and the FBI. And I didn’t know that until I came to the bureau. And I actually spoke with someone in the FBI about this guy bin Laden, and they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, we have actually people working [on] him.”
And I met some of the people who were focusing on bin Laden, but it was kind of like a bureaucratic focus. I don’t think it came to a policy focus in 1996 or 1997, or even after the East Africa embassy in 1998.
So you get a letter from the FBI saying, “Come on in for an interview.”
No, it’s actually, that letter was offering me a job. I went through all the interviews in about two years — two years of testings, interviews, polygraph, everything you can imagine. And they don’t tell you anything. You wait. And I wasn’t even that focused on it. I was getting ready to do my Ph.D. at the time, also in the same topic, international relations. And I wanted my focus in my Ph.D. to be on non-state actors.
And I received a letter, I think it was on a Tuesday, and they told me to report to Quantico on a Sunday. I remember it was July 6.
That’s their training facility.
Yes, in Quantico, Va. And it was difficult to make a decision. Life of academia — that’s what I wanted to do — or go into the FBI?
And at that time, I was going to the U.K. to do my Ph.D. The average age of my major in Ph.D. at the time was 36 years old; I was 25. So I thought, you know what? I can go for 10 years in the FBI and then maybe I can do my Ph.D. after that. I’m still too young for the Ph.D. And I decided to join the bureau, to give it a try.
You joined the bureau, and then you did what exactly? You had conversations about your interest in bin Laden?
Right. I was appointed to the Joint Terrorism Task Force [JTTF] by John O’Neill at the time.
Can you talk about your first meeting with John O’Neill and how that went and what your impressions were?
Yes. I was scared. I mean, this is your SAC, special agent in charge, who ran the national security division in the New York office, which is, I think, the largest national security division in the bureau.
And I was taken to his office by Pat D’Amuro, who was the assistant special agent in charge, and he was heading the Joint Terrorism Task Force at the time. Under Pat, the task force was probably about 30, 35 different organizations. We’re talking early on in the ’90s.
And when I went to see John, it was kind of, wow, this guy’s a legend; he’s known. So me, as a new agent who just came to the office, was very intimidated.
How did it go?
I think it went good, from what I remember.
I think I was very nervous to remember a lot of things that happened. I remember he has a beautiful view from his office. You can see all the way to the Empire State Building. And Pat introduced me to him, and John basically just talked about the importance of the work in terrorism, just [a] very short meeting. It was like, “Do you want to come to the task force?” I said yes. We joined the task force.
What was your assignment?
My assignment was a squad called I-40, and it handled at the time Palestinian terrorist groups and Iraqi FCI, foreign counterintelligence. …
I wanted to go to that squad because I knew a lot of people from the squad. Also [at] the same time, the supervisor of the squad at the time, Tommy Donlon, was one of the case agents on the first World Trade Center bombing. …
Then when do you begin to focus on Al Qaeda?
When I was on I-40, I wrote a paper, and I gave it to my supervisor, and that paper ended up with John O’Neill. It was about bin Laden and about the threat that bin Laden will cause for the United States.
What prompted you to write that paper?
I think the very first paper was prompted by the 1998 fatwa, I believe, to kill Americans.
This is before the East African –
This is before the East Africa embassy bombing. This is around February of 1998. And at the time, I started focusing more and more [on] what was a hobby before.
[Now] it’s kind of like part of my job. And in a way, I [began] working with two squads, I-40 and I-49, that was handling at the time [Egyptian Islamic] Jihad, EIJ, Al Qaeda and the World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef, all these cases.
And so this was a very important memo. This caught John’s attention.
Yes, it caught his attention. I think he distributed it to all the supervisors at the time, and he wrote “Great job,” or something like that.
And I think John then maybe thought that I was an individual that not only speaks Arabic, but I have genuine interest in stuff that he’s interested in. And he started kind of like asking me to go out with him sometimes for dinner or for a drink, and we’d discuss issues about terrorism, about the Middle East.
I believe he was kind of testing me at the time and seeing if I really know my stuff, if I’m worth his time.
I hope that I was. He took care of me. He took me under his wing, and I learned a lot from him. Nobody knows how to work terrorism cases [better] than John. I mean, he was really a very demanding boss, but in the same time, very knowledgeable boss.
… He has a lot of knowledge about the group, about the Arab Afghan. Unfortunately, at the time, not a lot of people were listening.
I don’t know. That’s politics, I guess. Who wants a problem? The easiest thing to handle a problem is put your [head] in the sand, sometimes.
They were focused on state actors, Saddam [Hussein]?
They were focused on a lot of things. They were focused on definitely state actors. There was a lot of problems in the Middle East. There was a lot of issues in the Middle East. Who wanted to put another problem on their table?
But there are other people who were very focused on that, especially the Southern District. And at the time, terrorism and organized crime was led by Pat Fitzgerald, [then- assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York].
What you haven’t mentioned is that there had been an attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 that had gotten people’s attention, and you began to draw the lines between the group that did that attack and Al Qaeda.
We began to basically focus on the ideology that was behind the attack on the World Trade Center, the ideology and the background of some of the people who were involved in the World Trade Center attack and between what bin Laden was talking about.
For example, in the fatwa of 1998, he mentioned the “blind sheik,” Omar Abdel Rahman, [who was investigated for the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993]. So it does not mean that bin Laden was supporting Omar Abdel Rahman, but it is very difficult not to start looking at the ideology that bin Laden represented, at the history of that ideology that bin Laden represented, and the ideology and the history of the ideology that the blind sheik represented.
So there were ideological links.
There were ideological and historical ones. Afghanistan, for example — the Arab mujahideen against the Soviets; Abdullah Azzam, [a teacher and mentor of Osama bin Laden]. There’s a lot of links between these two entities.
Tell me about John himself. What kind of man was he?
He was a great boss, but he was a very, very demanding boss. And he knew the threat. He understood it, not superficially, but he knew the details of it. Also, in the same time, he’s a guy that he expects you, if you work for him, to give it 110 percent. Forget about having days off. Forget about nights and evenings for your family. That doesn’t work like this with John. If he’s working, you’re working. …
John O’Neill also rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
Well, when you are demanding like this, that’s because you have different kind of personality. And people who don’t like his attitude or even sometimes his work ethics, he did not give them the time of the day. And people like this definitely were upset with John.
And also, John’s personal life in an organization like the FBI can rub people the wrong way. So it wasn’t [so much] professional as it was also personal.
His flamboyance? What do you mean when you say his personal life?
His flamboyance, the stuff that has been published and talked about his marriage and all these kind of things. So some people were very judgmental. I never saw any of these things affecting John’s judgment in any way, shape or form, and I was honored to work and to learn from somebody like John. …
There’s long been tension between the FBI and the CIA.
When I joined the bureau, I joined under Director [Louis] Freeh, and in my generation, the people who came during that time period, we were taught that we all work together. Actually, my very first partner in the JTTF, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, was a CIA officer.
So I worked a lot with the agency before 9/11 and after 9/11 in joint operations. So I saw sometimes tension, absolutely. But also at the time, it wasn’t different than any tension that existed with any of the other entities that we were working with at the time. So they were very helpful overseas; we were very helpful in the U.S.
But there’s an institutional rivalry.
There is an institution[al rivalry], absolutely.
Many of the people listening to this may not fully understand. What is the role of the FBI versus the CIA? Both gather intelligence. What is the difference, and what leads to the sort of institutional tension?
Well, the CIA is an intelligence agency. Their jurisdiction is mostly overseas. Their focus is to collect intelligence overseas. As an intelligence agency, they operate in the dark. And the reason they are successful is because they operate in the dark.
In the FBI, we are an intelligence agency, too, one of the intelligence agencies in the United States. We have the primacy over, for example, foreign counterintelligence work. But also, in the same time, we’re a law enforcement entity, and we don’t operate in the dark like the agency.
In other words, undercover.
We do a lot of undercover, but we’re not the dark side. Everything that we do, there’s a possibility that one day [it] is going to end up in court. So that by itself creates some kind of institutional culture. …
But when we start talking about terrorism, for example — and President Reagan put the FBI and the Department of Justice as the lead agency — actually, terrorism is a crime under U.S. Code 18, and then also you’re working with the CIA. Then you have the institutional culture clashing. When you’re talking about things that have some kind of U.S. dimension, you’re going to have the institutional culture clashing.
And it’s not that the FBI is wrong and the CIA is right, or the CIA is wrong and the FBI is right. This is not the issue. This is basically, there is two different missions, and they are trying to work together.
And I think a lot of good things happened under Director Freeh when the FBI start opening the legat [or legal attaché] offices overseas and having their own relationships with the law enforcement and intelligence entities in the different countries and worked with the CIA on that. It created additional tension, because now the CIA viewed the FBI being their on own turf, but also that tension exists when the CIA is trying to do something domestically and the FBI viewed the agency as they are on their own turf.
And the same thing happens with Director [Robert] Mueller. He worked hard in having a better working relationship among the intelligence agencies and the FBI, especially the CIA. This is a really hard thing to do because of the mentality, because of the institutional culture of each agency. And it does not mean that one agency is right and one agency is wrong. …
Let’s jump to the first incidents of terrorism that happens on your watch. Basically that’s August of 1998.
Yep, the East Africa embassy bombing.
I learned about it by getting a phone call from my supervisor at the time, and I came to the office. I was convinced from the very beginning that it was Al Qaeda who was behind the attack. And many people in the JTTF — Pat D’Amuro, John O’Neill — also were convinced that Al Qaeda was behind the attack.
I was taken to the command post by my supervisor at the time, Tom Donlon, and Pat D’Amuro and John O’Neill were both there, and I had to explain to John and to Pat why do I believe Al Qaeda was behind it. And I think John and Pat, both of them agreed with the assumption.
Why did you think Al Qaeda was behind it?
Many reasons. First of all, you have the fatwa of 1998. Then you have the interview with John Miller [of] ABC News, which was kind of like a final threat. And you work in Al Qaeda, and you’re seeing what’s going on. You’re looking into the intelligence; you’re looking into the threat; you’re looking into bin Laden’s giving final warning in June of 1998.
Remember, the New York office, the JTTF, the Southern District of New York indicted Osama bin Laden in June of 1998. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were indicted before the East Africa embassy bombing, which indicated that we were really following that threat.
What were they indicted for?
Terrorism. So we were focused on that, and we knew that something is going to happen.
And at the time, there was some kind of discussions in Washington, in headquarters, if Al Qaeda was behind [this] or some other terrorists, because if Al Qaeda’s behind it, then the investigators will go all from the New York office, because Al Qaeda’s office of origin, if you want to call it, is New York. If it’s another terrorist group, then the Washington Field Office of the FBI, WFO, will work the case.
So there was a debate at the time, the very first day, who was going to go to East Africa, to Nairobi, [Kenya], and to Dar es Salaam, [Tunisia], and work this investigation.
So they decided by sending two contingencies.
Well, because they didn’t know. And we went there because of what we believed and because of what we wrote at the time, myself and other agents who were working on the JTTF, and especially from I-49, about why we believe Al Qaeda was behind the East Africa embassy bombing.
And later on, evidence, the investigation on the ground, both in Dar es Salaam and in Nairobi showed that Al Qaeda was behind it. So the contingency from the Washington field office left and the New York agents continued to stay and finish the investigation. …
So you don’t go over to Africa, but you worked that case from –
I continued to work the case from here, because John said there was a lot of agents on the ground, but he needs me to be with him. So I stayed with him. And then I ended up going to different places, following leads from the East Africa embassy bombing that were generating.
I ended up, for example, in the U.K., working with Scotland Yard, SY13 at the time when Operation Challenge ended up in different areas, like in Albania and Italy, basically following up the leads.
That eventually gave us the whole kind of link between Al Qaeda and between Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and with what happened in East Africa, both in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi.
So your learning curve at this point is very steep. You’re learning a lot about Al Qaeda. You’re talking to people like [bin Laden aide Jamal Ahmed] al-Fadl.
Absolutely. I’m talking to a lot of people, but also at the same time I’m reading a lot. I mean, Operation Challenge was, for me, probably the best thing that ever happened to me, even though I was annoyed when I got the case because I had boxes and boxes that included thousands of pieces, literally thousands of pieces of documents, and I had to read it. We cannot wait for all the things to be translated and given to us; we were running against time. And I had to figure out a system, how can I know what’s in these boxes, just in case we needed something.
And that probably was the best thing that ever happened to me. Sometimes I really didn’t go to my apartment. I just stayed in the office. That helped me tremendously — reading letters between people, not terrorist-connected, like sometimes they were talking about their family with each other, Egyptian Islamic Jihad members, for example, or Al Qaeda; fights inside the Egyptian Islamic Jihad about joining Al Qaeda or not joining Al Qaeda; memos; fatwas; ideology, ideological debates; internal hearings in the groups.
It made me basically live with them by learning and by reading a lot about what’s going on. It made me learn and be very familiar with their ideology. That helped me tremendously later on in fighting the group and in investigating their actions and interviewing their operatives.
It’s fair to say at this point you’re reading original source material in Arabic.
You’re one of only a handful of how many people in the FBI?
At the time I think it was maybe eight, nine, something like that.
How many of them were working on Al Qaeda?
I don’t know. I think maybe I was the only one. At least in the New York office I was the only one.
That seems a little surprising.
Yeah. I never even thought about it at the time.
I mean, here we have a major emerging terrorist threat, two embassies bombed, a number of other attacks, and we’ve got one guy, Ali Soufan, inside the FBI who speaks Arabic and can read the materials that were being –
But we have other people who definitely speak Arabic and can read, but they were not working Al Qaeda, or they were assigned to organized crime; they were assigned to computer crimes, different investigations.
So you’re up all night, poring through these boxes of all this material that’s been collected, and you have nobody to help you that spoke Arabic.
Yeah, I learned a lot, though. It definitely helped me tremendously down the road. And I was able to basically walk the walk and talk the talk with this group, to include doing undercover. I think Operation Challenge was probably a turning point in my career. …
But you could have used some help, right?
Well, I can use some help, but I felt that I’m helping others, because remember, at that time I was still the new kid on the block. So you’re working with legends in terrorism. You’re working with people like John O’Neill; people like Pat D’Amuro; people like from NYPD, for example, Tommy Corrigan, who worked the World Trade Center bombing. You’re working with John Anticev, who was one of the case agents for TERRSTOP. You’re working with people that you read books about and you saw them in movies, you know what I mean?
You’re just hoping, I hope one day I will be as good as them. You know what I mean? So it’s a learning process. …
Here you are, this young kid, but you’re at the tip of the spear in terms of this investigation. What were you learning about Al Qaeda? How was it different than what you might have perceived a few years back when it was your hobby?
I was learning that there are different individuals, basically. It’s not one entity called Al Qaeda and everyone in that entity is so brainwashed, like a borg, to use —
They weren’t all marching in lockstep to –
Yeah, I was learning that there’s a lot of divisions inside the group.
It was less impressive?
Yeah, it was less impressive. It was a group of people who basically were trying to figure ways how to deceive others. I learned that ideologically some of them really don’t even believe in what they are preaching. I know that many of them are motivated by money.
For example, the whole merge between Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda, in [bin Laden's second in command, Ayman] al-Zawahiri’s perspective, was to find somebody who can fund Islamic Egyptian Jihad [sic]. And a lot of the oppositions from the group to al-Zawahiri’s merging with Al Qaeda — and that goes back to 1998 — all the fights and the arguments were about money.
I learned a lot about what motivated them, how do they brainwash their people, how the threat actually evolved. The threat did not start with the U.S. The threat started with different regimes around the Middle East, and then that kind of like, over the years, when they failed to do any substantial changes in Egypt or in Libya or in Algeria or in Saudi Arabia, they ended up in Afghanistan with that rich kid, Osama bin Laden, who has a lot of money to put a lot of people under his umbrella.
So I learned a lot about the group dynamics, internal dynamics: who likes who; who really hates who; how they do their own logistics; how they buy their stuff — a lot of these things. I think it was extremely beneficial for me at that time. …
I’m going to move forward. I don’t want to dwell. From the African embassy bombings, though, you’re learning about an organization that is far less impressive, far less monolithic than you made out in the U.S. press. It’s less the bogeyman. But they were a dangerous organization.
They were very lethal. When you’re like this, you’re probably more lethal than when you’re all unified, because there’s a lot of things happening. There’s a lot of dynamics going on in the group that makes it sometimes less predictable.
Did you think at that time that this was a group of, say, a few hundred people that was going to be around for a while, could be defeated? What was your assessment of how difficult it would be –
Well, I thought at the time, the only reason that they were able to operate effectively is because they are in Afghanistan, and nobody is going to make any decision to go to Afghanistan to get these guys. In the back of the collective memory, I believe, of everyone who was working this threat is what happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Red Army. The Red Army was defeated in Afghanistan.
So we knew that we’re going to be dealing with this, and the only thing we can do is disrupt the threats, is trying to basically disrupt the organization. But we cannot end the organization. That is not an intelligence operation. That’s not a law enforcement operation. That has to be a strategic decision by Washington. Unfortunately, nobody made that decision.
So the best you could do was to investigate.
The best at the time, we were using only one tool in the tool box, which is intelligence and the law enforcement. That’s it. We were using that, and that tool, I considered it one at the time, not two different tools. And we had a lot of other tools in the tool box that we should have used. Unfortunately, at the time, as you know, nobody was paying attention. They say now nobody was paying attention to John. But it was bigger than John. Nobody was paying attention to this threat.
You guys were paying attention.
We were. I’m talking about strategically, as a strategic decision. People, for example, in the White House, there are some people who basically believed in the threat, like [counterterrorism expert] Dick Clarke, for example, people in DOJ [Department of Justice], people in the agency. But that did not accumulate into a strategic decision on how can we defeat this group and eliminate. That never happened.
We continued doing what we were doing on a daily basis. That’s it. Even after the U.S.S. Cole, which was absolutely an act of war, we never responded. We never responded against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We didn’t do anything after the Cole.
Did you expect after the East African bombing to see more than what happened? There were bombings in Sudan, missiles fired at Sudan [in 1998].
In my personal opinion, that was totally wrong, what we did, especially the bombing in Sudan. I think that helped Al Qaeda to recruit more people and helped Al Qaeda in its own propaganda, because I think regardless of what we believed the target was in Sudan, toward the end it was broadcasted all over the world that it was a pharmaceutical factory.
I think we should have hit harder in Afghanistan, focused only on Afghanistan. Bin Laden wasn’t in Sudan anymore. The Sudanese already kicked him out. And that shows kind of the disconnect between the reality on the ground and between the decisions that were being made in D.C.
So I think we should have done more, but also I think we should have done more when we knew that Al Qaeda was behind the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in killing 17 sailors on the Cole. But unfortunately, we didn’t do a thing. Not a thing.
So on East Africa, I remember at the time, it was a surprise. Why was this organization located in Afghanistan attacking two embassies in East Africa? What was the reason for attacking these two embassies in Tanzania and Kenya?
Well, at the time, you have to put it in the context of what was happening. First of all, you have the 1998 fatwa. Then you have all the statements of bin Laden that took place between the 1998 fatwa and between the June statement, or the June interview that he gave to ABC News and to John Miller. And he discussed publicly why Al Qaeda, why they hate the United States, why Al Qaeda is issuing a fatwa to kill Americans.
He talks about presence in the Arabian Peninsula and Saudi Arabia as an invasion. He talks about [how] the United States wanted to basically steal the wealth of the Muslims, talking about oil. He talked about the sanctions we had on Iraq at the time and all the Iraqi children who were dying. He talks about the moral corruption of the Saudi oil family. He talks about supporting dictatorships in the Middle East.
So he mentioned why Al Qaeda wanted to hit America. Now, the East Africa embassy bombings, both in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, the target, the geographic target did not come as a surprise to us, because we were informed, and we knew when bin Laden was in Sudan that that was his area of operation, especially they built a cell in Nairobi, and that cell was headed by Khalid al Fawwaz, who later started the cell in London that led us to Operation Challenge. So that geographic area of operation of Al Qaeda was very well known to people in the agency and people in the FBI at the time, to the U.S. government.
Do you think that it was communicated to the American people by the government as to what was happening? It seemed very confusing at the time.
Well, you know, it is very confusing, even after the East African embassy bombing. A friend of mine was telling me, from the task force, we were in Yemen when the conviction came out on the East Africa embassy bombing trial, when all these subjects were found guilty, and that was something major. The cover of the New York papers at the time was about a shooting that took place with Jennifer Lopez and P. Diddy in one club in New York. It didn’t even make the first page in New York newspapers, so you can imagine in other market newspapers. You follow what I’m saying?
People usually are not interested in these kind of things. And as much as you try to educate them and tell them there’s a threat, I don’t think a lot of people are going to pay attention to it until they really touch it, they really feel it, they really see it next to them. And that, unfortunately, would happen on 9/11.
From talking to members of Al Qaeda, were they frustrated? Was there frustration within the organization that they couldn’t get America’s attention?
No, because they believed that they got America’s attention. They totally see it from a totally different prism than us. But they look at our lack of action as cowardness [sic]. And that’s what bin Laden used to tell them: “America are a bunch of cowards. Look how they ran away after the Marines were bombed in Beirut. Look how they ran away from Somalia after Black Hawk Down [Battle of Mogadishu].” And you can see that in his speeches again and again and again.
And many Qaeda operatives told me that they believed that. These terrorists truly believe that Americans are a bunch of cowards and we run away. Immediately when somebody faces us, we run away. And one of them actually told me, he said: “Look, if you want to blame anybody for 9/11, you have to blame yourself. You guys did not do anything after the U.S.S. Cole, so the old man wanted to really get your attention.”
So during the 1998 investigation of the African embassy bombings, you learn about a switchboard. You called the Al Qaeda switchboard. What’s that about?
That’s actually a telephone number in a house owned by an old man known as Ahmed al-Hada. And we came to know about the number with the interview of [Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-]‘Owhali, who is one of the suicide bombers that survived the Nairobi bombing.
He decided basically that he did his job, and if he dies then it’s suicide. And suicide is forbidden, so he ran away. And in the hospital, one of the agents was asking him about who he was. And the guy’s denying. Basically, he’s like: “No, I was here on business. I was in the area. I got injured. I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
So slowly, he started asking him about Abdullah Azzam, and he noticed that ‘Owhali smiled a little bit when he heard the name, so he knew that the guy, this individual is not only a businessman who was here by mistake; this was —
Azzam was a legendary leader.
For the Arab Afghan.
He was a precursor to bin Laden, a mentor.
A mentor to bin Laden. So at the time, the agent who was doing that interview is John Anticev, who worked the World Trade Center bombing, who worked the TERRSTOP operation, the operation that disrupted the bombing of the U.N. building, the federal building and a few tunnels and bridges around New York City. So he was very familiar with the group, with the ideas of the group and what they stand for.
So Johnny knew, just from that small little smile that ‘Owhali gave when he was talking to him, that there was more to this guy than just merely “I was at the wrong time at the wrong place.” So he continued to talking to him, and then suddenly he said, “Give me the number that you called after the bombing.”
And he basically bluffed. He didn’t know; John did not know that the guy called any number. But he said it with so much determination, because he knew if this individual survived the bombing, he has to report about what happened. So he had to call someone.
So he said it with such a determination that ‘Owhali thought, definitely they know. And he gave him a paper and a pen, and he said, “Give me the number now, the number that you called.” And ‘Owhali actually automatically just — he wrote the number.
He decides not to lie.
It was a 200578 number, which is al-Hada’s number in Yemen. We checked the number. We found that that number has been also in contact with bin Laden’s satellite at the time in Afghanistan, with ‘Owhali’s call. So somebody has been reported over what happened.
And then ‘Owhali later gave us that he wanted money and he wanted a passport to get out, and that what he asked them to do — and that number became an important number in the war against Al Qaeda.
You then shared that information with the CIA.
Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, we were working very closely together. not only with the CIA. We shared it with the entire intelligence community of the United States.
And at the time, you say in the book that you had an operating agreement with the CIA that was reciprocal, that they would share information that they derived from that al-Hada phone number.
Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. It was something that’s going on between all the different intelligence agencies. When it comes to this story, we’re working together. They have people detailed to us, we have people detailed to them, and we worked very close together. We didn’t have any reason to believe otherwise.
So you both were monitoring that switchboard, if you will.
I cannot talk about monitoring the switchboard or not monitoring the switchboard, but I can tell you that we were working closely together.
You were watching al-Hada and what calls were coming in.
We were watching Al Qaeda, and al-Hada’s center or al-Hada’s house was just another place in the total picture that we have, another piece of the puzzle.
Later it would prove to be very important.
There was a fellow named L’Houssaine Kherchtou. Who was he?
He was a member of Al Qaeda when bin Laden was in Sudan, and he was sent by bin Laden to Nairobi for flight school training. Bin Laden was grooming him to be his own personal pilot. He was a Moroccan, and he joined Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He went to Afghanistan, fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, so he’s one of the very early members of Al Qaeda, and later moved to Sudan and Nairobi when bin Laden relocated the organization.
He was involved with setting up the Nairobi cell of Al Qaeda. He worked closely with Khalid al-Fawwaz and then later with Wadih el-Hage. And he was a person that can bring a lot of good information to us in knowing the details of not only what happened in the East Africa embassy bombing, but the overall Al Qaeda operation in the Horn of Africa.
So how did you get to him?
Well, it was a long process. Some people in the task force, on I-49, that was their focus. And they did a phenomenal job in tracking his movement and finally were able to locate him with the help of other intelligence agencies from our allies. And then we went in to have a chat with him. …
After the people in the task force were able to basically work with others in putting him pocket, as we say, have him, he’s available. I was asked by John O’Neill to join him, to go to Morocco and to talk to L’Houssaine. Also the team included prosecutors from the Southern District of New York. John O’Neill definitely was there; a few people from the JTTF, including the individual who has been tracking him, and she did most of the work in trying to get to Joe.
Joe the Moroccan. His alias in Al Qaeda is Yusuf, and Yusuf means Joe, Joseph. So we called him Joe, by his Al Qaeda name. And I learned a lot during the dealing with him. I think I learned how you don’t put all your cards on the table. Even people who are acting [like] they are cooperating with you, they will always try to hide things. And it’s your knowledge; it’s what you know. It’s playing that poker mental game with them that is going to give you the information that you want and guarantee that, to the most part, you’re going to get everything you need from them. I don’t think you get everything 100 percent from any individual you interrogate. That’s not possible. But I think you’ll get enough from these individuals.
And I think with Joe, the deal was, or the mission was at the time with Joe, was that we also want his cooperation, not only to give us information during an interview, not only to interrogate him and get what we need from him, but also to have him cooperate and work with us, to have him actually switch sides from being Al Qaeda member to being a witness for the United States government.
And how did you do that?
I think it was a great teamwork, definitely. You cannot do any of these things if you don’t have the Justice Department onboard with you and working with you. And I think the credit [for] the most part goes to Pat Fitzgerald, who was the AUSA [assistant U.S. attorney] handling that case.
But you had received some specific information about his attitudes toward bin Laden.
Oh, absolutely. And that helped us tremendously.
First of all, there’s a reason when all Al Qaeda left Sudan and went to Afghanistan. The guy stayed there. That by itself is very telling. Now, yes, for many years, all his friends are Qaeda members. It does not mean that he’s not still friends with them. But what is his ideological commitment? What is his operational commitment to the group if he didn’t go with them to Afghanistan?
So this was a guy you thought you might be able to pick off because he wasn’t making the pilgrimage to –
He wasn’t making the journey to Afghanistan. And also in the same time, we have from different sources that he had some problems, financial issues with bin Laden. And basically, Joe is a very caring husband and very caring father. And when he was working on Al Qaeda business in Nairobi, he came back to Sudan to find his wife almost living in the street. And that hurt him that they were not taking care of her.
She was supposed to be provided for by the Al Qaeda office.
By Al Qaeda office, by their administrative office. Also in the same time, she was sick. She was pregnant; she needed Caesarean operation, and Al Qaeda won’t give him the money — a few hundred dollars. But they said they don’t have any money. And he gets really upset. He said if he was Egyptian, they will give him the money, because Egyptians were in control of the organization — or he thought they were in control of the organization.
And so they told him why don’t you go to a hospital that was a free hospital. It was a horrible hospital, and he will never take his wife there. So that left in Joe’s heart and in Joe’s mind a lot of resentment about Al Qaeda. And he knew that these guys will throw him under the bus in a second. And he truly believed it [was] his nationality that made them act like this with him.
You knew this about him.
We knew that about him.
Information, as you write in the book, is your weapon.
Absolutely, absolutely. So when you talk to an emotional individual, a loving husband, regardless [that] he was a member of Al Qaeda, but it does not mean that he does not love his children or love his wife, and tell him that “I know what happened,” I think emotionally you’re pressing a button. Luckily with Joe the Moroccan, it was a very bright button that we needed to press in order for him to spill his guts for you.
So you brought this up with him.
We brought this up with him, yeah.
You were out having pizza.
Yeah, actually the people that were helping us — the Moroccans — took us out. We went for prayers, for Friday prayers, and we went to a pizza parlor. And it was such an interesting situation where you’re sitting eating a pizza with Al Qaeda terrorist.
And then we’re walking to the car, and it was so surreal. And I think it was so surreal for him and so surreal for me. And he kind of looked at me, and I looked at him. I said: “You know what? It’s very weird for me, too, to be in this situation.” But I think we developed a good rapport. We bonded. And I think that helped him make the decision to cooperate and come over.
I talked to him about the United States. I talked to him about being an Arab in the United States and a lot of these kind of things, and cable television, stuff that he was interested to know about. Silly stuff, but also very important stuff.
So, as you put it, he sang.
Yep. Like a bird.
And where is Joe the Moroccan now?
Living somewhere under the protection of the U.S. government?
Yep. And his statement, when he testified in the East Africa embassy bombing, was extremely important, because the casing for the Nairobi embassy that took place prior to the terrorist attack was done from his own apartment. So he witnessed what happened. He witnessed the surveillance photos. He witnessed the discussions, everything that took place.
So his statement as a witness was essential for the conviction of all those who were convicted for being involved in the conspiracy of attacking all two embassies in Dar es Salaam and in Nairobi.
And from that, you learned a great deal about what you could accomplish with these guys.
Absolutely, absolutely. Yep. Because with Joe, it was from the beginning. With Fadl, yes, I saw him a couple of times, but I wasn’t involved in basically recruiting him. I wasn’t involved in getting all the information from him at the very beginning, because this is the hardest time, because you think these people are cooperating with you, but my God, it’s a process. They’re not going to be honest with you immediately.
But Joe was different, because Joe was from the very beginning. I worked a little bit on trying to track him down, but [for] the most part, I worked on trying to flip him. And I think I learned that with knowledge, you can accomplish a lot. And also I learned that you can catch way more flies with honey than with vinegar.
So he was really your first significant case, if you will.
He was. And I wasn’t the lead on him; I was part of the team. However, I learned a lot. This is a case that, to know how to use not only what information you have, but how and when in your interrogation strategy you should use the information that you have, and I learned that from witnessing and participating in the Joe the Moroccan operation.
It almost sounds like you liked him.
Yes, absolutely. As an individual, he’s a caring father; he’s a loving husband. He is a person who felt betrayed by Al Qaeda after he joined them to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At the time, we supported the mujahideen against the Soviets. And I think after Sudan, he felt that Al Qaeda was taking advantage of him, and he left the group.
Now, you can like an individual, you can like sitting with him, dealing with him, but also at the same time you have to keep in the back of your mind why you’re sitting with him and why you’re dealing with him. You cannot forget that.
But it’s very important that you were able to relate to him and to others as we go forward, not as monsters, not as evildoers, but as –
You have to make that connection. You have to have some empathy when you’re dealing with individuals. As least everyone is a human being at one level. Now, some people are way more evil than others, but my goal was to get what I need from the individual. That’s what my goal is: to get actionable intelligence, to get information that can help in the investigation, that can help my government in accomplishing its aims and its goals. And if I needed to build a rapport with an individual to do that, I will. But these individuals, like any other human being, have a tendency to really cooperate with you when there is some kind of rapport going on, because I differentiate greatly between compliance and between cooperation. I don’t want compliance. I’m not looking for compliance. Compliance means you will tell me whatever I need you to tell me. That’s not what I need. I want actionable intelligence. I want true information, not false leads. That can only be achieved through cooperation, not through compliance. …
Many of them are motivated by the fact that they live under dictators in the Middle East, repressive, cruel dictatorships.
Sure. That helped in their recruitment.
And they were fooled, perhaps, in your view, by joining Al Qaeda. But their motivation was something that you must have felt some kinship with. Nobody who lives in the Middle East can ignore that there are, in some cases, U.S.-supported dictatorships there perpetuating terrible –
Right. I am not there to basically debate foreign policy with these individuals, right? There’s a lot of people who oppose our foreign policy in the world. There’s a lot of Americans who have criticism for our foreign policy in every region around the globe, not only the Middle East. That does not mean that they are killing innocent people. That does not mean that they are blowing up buildings. That does not mean that they are attacking nightclubs. That does not mean that they are blowing up mosques.
Having that choice, having the freedom to oppose something is one thing. Killing the innocent because you believe that it’s your way or not way is something else. So what I am focusing on is how we can save lives. What I’m focusing on [is] how can we prevent these guys from killing more people. That is the focus of what we’re doing. That’s the focus of any intelligence officer, any law enforcement agent, any person who is involved in this fight.
And if you will talk about this with people who are fighting Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia or people who are fighting Al Qaeda in Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world, or people who are fighting Al Qaeda in the United States, there is no difference in the focus against the group.
Where were you? How did you learn about the Cole bombing? What was the first thing that came to mind?
I remember I was on the Brooklyn Bridge. It was early in the morning. It was early in the morning. I was driving to the office, and I got a phone call saying to come to the office fast. I was told that a ship, a Navy ship, was attacked in Aden, in the Port of Aden. …
So I went to the office, and the only thing I can think of [is] why the heck do we have a Navy ship in Aden? I mean, that was not something new, that there’s heavy presence of Al Qaeda in Yemen. That is not new that there was a threat against attacking possibly a ship, an American ship in Aden. We got that during the interview with ‘Owhali.
‘Owhali told Steve Gaudin — who was the agent that built the rapport with ‘Owhali and was able to create that relationship with him — that he heard a person known as Nashiri talk to another individual about attacking a Navy ship using missiles in Yemen. And that was disseminated to the entire intelligence law enforcement and military community.
So in the back of my mind: Why the heck do we have a Navy ship in Aden? I mean, hello? I honestly thought at the time that we don’t use the Port of Aden. I didn’t know any better.
So I went to the office, and again, it was the issue of who did it. Was it Al Qaeda, or was it some other group? So who’s going to respond? The New York office or the Washington Field Office?
The tug-of-war began.
The tug-of-war began again. And then the decision was to send two teams, one from the WFO and one from New York. And in this way, when we knew who did it, the other team can faze out so the investigations don’t get hurt.
Was there any doubt who did it?
No, absolutely not. We had no doubt whatsoever.
… I think when we went to Yemen and we started doing the investigation, we were very sure that it was an Al Qaeda operation; it wasn’t any other group. It has all the hallmarks of a bin Laden operation.
How soon did you go to Yemen?
Same day. I actually left to Yemen wearing the same clothes in October, I think Oct. 12 of 2000. …
And you began the investigation. How do you begin something like that? Where do you start?
Oh, my God. Luckily, you have excellent people working with you. You start from the crime scene. You start taking statements from people who were on the ship, or people in the harbor, anybody who saw something, and you start building on that.
Then you start interviewing people seen about that fit the description. You start following the paper trail of rental agreements and boats, ownership, look into the car that you found at the launch site, who owns the car. So it’s kind of like, it’s a long investigative process. You start putting the pieces together, the puzzle together, small, little pieces at a time.
When you get to Aden in Yemen, you’re not always dealing with the crime scene, but you’re dealing with your hosts in the country. It was a very difficult investigation.
Yes. Our first obstacle was that our host did not believe that the attack on the Cole was a result of a terrorist attack. At the beginning they believed it was just an accident. And then, after taking a high-level delegation to the ship, showing them the impact of the explosion that it’s going inward, not outward, them hearing from witnesses of what happened with the boat coming and everything, at least they were convinced that it was a terrorist attack; somebody attacked the ship; it was not a bombing or internal explosion that took place, as they claimed initially.
Then, after the trip to the ship, we went back to the Mövenpick Hotel where we were staying at the time, and it was a Yemeni delegation on one side and the U.S. delegation on the other side, a long conference room-type of a table in the business center of the hotel. The Yemeni side, you had the head of the PSO [Political Security Office] in Aden, Yemen, the local PSO, some people from the different Yemeni entities, plus the head of the presidential security of President [Ali Abdullah] Saleh. And on our side it was John O’Neill, some of the people from the bureau, from DOJ, David Kelly and myself. And it was interesting that the person from the PSO, the Political Security Office, their intelligence service, started the conversation by saying: “Look, you are right. It was a result of a terrorist attack, we agree, but the suicide bombers had been killed in the process, so there’s nothing to investigate, because both of them are dead, so you can just go home.” As you probably can predict, it didn’t go well.
Eventually we met with President Saleh. Director [Freeh] came to Yemen, and President Saleh put the investigation in the hand of Ghalib [al-]Qamish who was the head of the Political Security Office, the PSO. He came from San’a. And John O’Neill at the time and us starting dealing straight with Ghalib Qamish, and this was the beginning of working together with the Yemenis on this case, but it was significantly difficult at the very beginning. Imagine going to a country where your counterpart doesn’t even want you there in the first place.
It didn’t immediately get easy for you, though, did it?
No. It was building also a rapport with Qamish. The visit helped tremendously, showed that we are very serious. There was the political support from the White House at the time, from the State Department for our investigation. The Yemenis knew that “You know what? You really have to cooperate on this investigation. That’s important for us.” And that was obvious with us dealing with Qamish on all the things that were taking place, and we developed a personal relationship with Ghalib Qamish. Ghalib wasn’t a guy who gave us anything we wanted.
So you’re in Yemen, you’ve got this incredible maze of leads to follow, you’re not getting cooperation from the Yemenis, and you’re beginning also to run up against what we call “the wall.” What’s going on here?
When we started the investigation, we divided the group, our investigative team, to different units, if you want to call it. My co-case agent at the time, Steve Bongardt, he had a back injury, but he insisted to come with us to Yemen anyway, and he endured the very difficult flight on a military plane to Yemen. So he cannot be that mobile outside, so he was in the Command Post, and he was in charge of the intelligence.
At the very first meeting that we had, we found out that if he wanted to be, or if he is going to handle intelligence, he cannot share any of the information with us, because we’re considered criminal agents, and he is going to be handling intelligence. Now, all of us have been working in this world for a long period of time. We never encountered that. That was something new. That was what was later referred to as between intelligence and between criminal. There was misunderstanding of the Attorney General Guidelines of the time period that brought this interpretation that intelligence cannot be shared with people who are working on criminal investigations. And this misrepresentation of the facts and this misunderstanding of the Attorney General Guideline was very clear later with the 9/11 Commission.
Now, Steve did not agree that if you share anything with me I cannot tell it to my team on the ground. There is intelligence sometimes about threats, and we know how to use that intelligence and for the system not to be abused. We’ve been doing it for a long period of time. That is the very first time we noticed that there was something different going on, that now people who are handling intelligence are not allowed to share the information with people who are working criminal cases. We never had this problem to that extent in previous investigations we worked with. As I told you before, we were working closely with the agency, and now there is this new wall that we have. Now there is this new interpretation of protocol. It’s the same Attorney General Guideline, but it’s a new interpretation of this guideline.
By the agency.
By the Department of Justice, by the agency, and by the FBI, by people in the FBI, so it was by the U.S. government in general.
So you’re being boxed out.
We’re being boxed out from the intelligence world, yes.
So if the CIA came across a piece of intelligence that might have helped your investigation and would have helped your investigation, you couldn’t be told about it.
Because of that wall.
What sense does that make?
Nothing. It didn’t make any sense. We fought back. We fought back. We even at one point had a delegation, I think the end of June or July, come from the Department of Justice to the New York office to talk to agents and members of the JTTF about how silly that interpretation is. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the battle.
You write about how Steve used to take to putting on the recording of The Wall by Pink Floyd.
We did that. Steve was on the forefront of that, and the reason he was on the forefront of that was because he was the first person to be designated as an intelligence agent on the team to deal with the agency, to deal with the other intelligence agencies that’s operating and get the intelligence in order to share it with the investigative team. And he continued to fight this battle. He continued to fight these battles on different fronts.
Steve is a Navy pilot. He’s a Top Gun pilot. He has a Top Gun mentality. He’s not convinced; he does not take no for an answer, and he continued to fight this until 9/11. And he was prophetic in some of the stuff that he said to people at the time. He said: “Wall or no wall, people won’t understand. People will die.” And the reason is, we felt that there was something going on. Unfortunately, because of the rules, or the alleged rules, “You guys cannot know about it.” And unfortunately, it took almost 3,000 innocent lives to perish until somebody decided that it’s time for us to know about it.
To take down that wall.
So you’re going forward with your investigation. Who is the first person that you’re able to interrogate?
The very first person was Jamal Badawi. Jamal Badawi was a member of Al Qaeda. Before joining Al Qaeda he fought in Bosnia. He met many of the terrorists, the operational terrorists who were involved in the Cole and other terrorist activities, back in Bosnia, actually. Then he went to Afghanistan. He became close to other members of Al Qaeda that coordinated the Cole attack. He was the kind of on-the-ground liaison for the Cole attack.
And you get onto him after a lot of groundwork.
We got to him after groundwork. We got to him after witnesses’ statements, people who saw him. I mean, you’re talking about a small little neighborhood called the Tiwal neighborhood in Aden, and people in that neighborhood know each other. And that neighborhood in Aden, some people call it Little Kandahar, because many youth from that neighborhood went to Afghanistan and fought in Afghanistan or became members of Al Qaeda. So this wasn’t brain surgery to figure out where the people were who were involved in it. And many witnesses, especially at the site that was considered to be the bomb factory, if you call it, stated that Jamal Badawi, a person that they know, they recognize he’s from their neighborhood, is a person who brought the unknown subs to run that specific location, so he was our logical lead.
So you asked for him to be picked up, or you picked him up?
Well, we did not pick up people. The Yemen government picked him up, and we were allowed to have access to him and to interrogate him.
And so how did you approach that? What happened?
It was difficult at the beginning, because Mr. Badawi didn’t want to cooperate. He was just giving you what you think you know, which is a typical counter-interrogation, a very intuitive counter-interrogation technique. And it took some time. The only knowledge we have at the time is our knowledge of Al Qaeda. We didn’t know much about what happened in the Cole. So we were taking these pieces and putting it together to develop our own interrogation plan. And Badawi tried to present himself as a leader, as a person who is very well known, and a pious Muslim, and he would never lie, and he’s not scared of anyone. And actually, that gave me a lot of things to work with. Every time he talks, he provided lies, we let it go, and then we face him with evidence that contradicts his lies.
One of the biggest problems Badawi had, and many of the people we interrogated in Yemen [had], was that they cannot keep a timeline; they are not linear thinkers. Most educated people have the tendency to be linear thinkers; everything leads to another thing; there is logic. With them, and I see that with many Al Qaeda people, Al Qaeda terrorists that I interrogated, they more believe in conspiracies. There’s a big conspiracy that controls everything that happens in the world. People who believe in conspiracies have the tendency not to be linear thinkers, to suspend logic, to suspend critical thinking, and that is the area where I approached the interrogation plan with Jamal Badawi.
That is the area [where] you approached the interrogation. What do you mean by that?
This is the angle that I used to develop my interrogation plan.
For example, Badawi, number one, doesn’t want to get caught lying. Number two, he cannot keep a timeline, so let him give his timeline and show him that he was lying. That will embarrass him, so he will give you more. Then you keep doing it again and again and again, not necessarily with the timeline, but every story he is telling you there is a timeline associated with the story; there is events that evolved into each other to get to the story that he was talking about — his trip to Bosnia, his trip to Afghanistan, him being in the training camps in Afghanistan, him getting sick in Afghanistan, how he met and how he became close associates with those who were involved in coordinating and carrying out the attack. So it’s small little things, but you have to take it one piece at a time.
You catch him in inconsistencies.
You catch him in inconsistencies. Sometimes people get annoyed with me when I tell them to repeat the story, and I actually act like [the TV detective] Columbo: “I’m sorry. I don’t remember. What did you mention?” But I remember everything you said before, and we’re trying to see where are you lying, where the story doesn’t fit, where there is some kind of inconsistencies, so then we can check why you’re giving that inconsistency. And sometimes it’s based on a hunch; it’s not based on anything else.
For example, he was talking about going to Afghanistan, so I said to him, “What passport did you use to go to Afghanistan?,” knowing that many Al Qaeda operatives, especially in Yemen, have multiple passports, because it was so easy to get a passport in Yemen under any name you want. So he said, “It’s my passport.” “Well, I know it’s your passport, but what name?” He said, “My name.” I said, “What’s your name?” He said, “Jamal.” I said: “I understand, but is it Jamal Badawi? Is it another Jamal? I mean, come on. We’re going to play this game forever?” And so he thought, how the heck do I know that Jamal — I said Jamal, but he has another passport with a different last name, so he basically said, “Well, yeah, it is Jamal al-Tali.”
Well, that was significant, because a pager that was used in the attack to send —
— the bombers, yeah, the code, the 01010 code, that pager was purchased by a guy with the name Jamal al-Tali. So actually you nailed him to the call itself. Then you don’t face him with this information. You keep it going. Later on you say, “Well,” when we’re talking more about the call now — this is the stuff that he doesn’t want to give you — “you were involved.” “No, I am not involved with that.” “OK, so how come a name that you just gave me, Jamal al-Tali, has been used to purchase a pager that was used in the attack?” Now he’s back. Now he is trying to collect his thoughts again. Most probably he’ll give you another lie, and you go with it, and you do another thing to catch him in it.
So it’s a combination of intelligence that you have. It’s a combination of information that you have. It’s a combination of gut feeling based on your knowledge, because I believe knowledge creates a sixth sense, and when you know how the group functions, you can predict their moves, and when you predict their moves, you know what the logical step is going to be. And when he is lying about that logical step, your role as an interrogator [is] to explore why [he] is lying about that stuff.
You had a partner during that interrogation.
NCIS agent Ken Reuwer.
So Ken, he was taking notes.
Ken was sitting there. Bob couldn’t do the interrogation with me, so — Ken does not speak Arabic. Now, we have another person who kind of translated, but Ken was sitting kind of to the end of the table, so he wasn’t actually really knowing —
He wasn’t knowing what was being said.
Yeah, Ken was sitting, and Ken was just focusing on Badawi, looking at him. And every now and then, Ken remembers something, because he doesn’t understand what’s really happening, not verbatim. So he used to send me a yellow sticky — he had some yellow stickies on him– send a note: “Did you ask him about this? Did you mention this?” And, interestingly enough, Badawi for some reason, he became very suspicious about that. And I noticed that he started looking at Ken, looking at me, looking at the notes, so I asked him, I said, “It seems that you’re a little bit interested in these notes.” And he basically said: “No, that’s your job. I don’t care about it.” I said: “Well, I’ll explain to you. I told you that I will be very transparent with you. My friend here is an expert in human behavior. He’s a human polygraph machine. He looks at you. He tells me every time you’re lying, or he tells me at least when you’re not saying the truth. He tells me when you’re trying to hide things.”
So every time after that, because Badawi — in the interrogation room we have kind of a window, and he’s on the other side of the window — now every time Badawi was trying to hide something or not to be truthful, he, in the corner of his eyes, [is] looking at Ken and trying to move away from his eyesight. So actually Jamal Badawi became his own polygraph machine, so we start knowing every time he was lying to us just because of his behavior, trying to avoid Ken. Interestingly enough, Ken did not know what’s happening until the end, and we used it for the rest of our interrogation with him.
That’s the story of the human polygraph.
This is the story of the human polygraph machine.
Is it from Badawi that you learn about Khallad, his deputy [Fahd al-]Quso?
We learned [a lot about] Khallad from both of them, but we also learned about Khallad before we interrogated them from our meetings with —
Until you talked to Quso?
No. The meeting in Southeast Asia?
Yes, but not in any details. We knew that he, back in November — and this is from the PSO, the Political Security Office — that Quso said that he traveled to Southeast Asia back in November of 2000, but we didn’t know much details until later on when we interrogated him and he provided more intelligence. But the meeting in Southeast Asia we knew about from Quso.
So you learn about Khallad from Badawi, and you’d also heard about him earlier. You’re starting to collect information.
Right. We know about Khallad because of his involvement with Badawi and with Quso. And Badawi and Quso, we determined that they were directly linked, and they admitted that they were directly linked to the bombing of the Cole.
So after Badawi — this is the only guy you’ve been able to really get your hands on – and you’re continuing to get resistance from the Yemenis, and you were getting resistance also for just being in the country from the ambassador. Tell me what was going on.
I think the ambassador [Barbara Bodine], it’s not fair to say that she was resisting us being in the country. The ambassador had a different view of what the FBI should do. I mean, from her perspective, we should trust the Yemenis more; we should work closely with the Yemenis. We were working closely with the Yemenis, but we have a problem with the issue of trust. She had the different view that Yemen is a safe place for us; we really don’t need the security that we needed. And that was, I think, the biggest problem between her and between the bureau at the time.
She also had an issue with the amount of people that we need initially for the investigation. This is a major investigation, and we look at it as an investigation where you need the technical people. You need the bomb tech; you need the divers to collect evidence; you need the investigators to interview people, to talk to witnesses. From her perspective, “Why don’t you have a small little delegation that can work closely with the Yemenis and investigate this together?”
Editor’s Note: In 2002, Amb. Bodine was quoted in New Yorker magazine, “The idea that John or his people or the FBI were somehow barred from doing their job is insulting to the U.S. government, which was working on Al Qaeda before John ever showed up. This is all my embassy did for 10 months.”
Unfortunately, the events that we witnessed in Yemen, systematically witnessed in Yemen, prevented us from trusting our counterpart at that time. The relationship became better later on, but initially, especially when we’re in Aden, we had a significant problem with that.
What kind of events were leading you not to trust?
First of all, the person who was in charge of the PSO in Aden, as I mentioned, even after he was convinced and we showed him evidence that it was a terrorist attack, he basically said, “The people are dead; go home; there’s nothing to investigate.” So this is a mentality.
Many other things happened. Every time, for example, he knew about a witness talking to us, he used to go and punish the witness for talking to us. Sometimes he’d interrupt the interrogations of Quso, for example. He goes in, gives him hugs and kisses on both cheeks. Another individual who was cooperating with us from the group that helped Al Qaeda procure government passports — he’s an official in the Yemeni government — he basically at one point slapped him in front of us. That’s an indication that you don’t cooperate.
One day he allows access. If his boss is not in town, Ghalib Qamish, the PSO, he does not give access. So it’s a continuation process.
At one point, there was a poster needed to be published in all Yemeni newspapers. It’s the Rewards for Justice program by the State Department, basically putting a reward for anyone who provides information, secret information very confidentially to lead to those who were involved in the U.S.S. Cole. That helped us tremendously in East Africa. That gave us the phone call that led to the arrest in Tawfiq [bin Attash, also known as Khallad], the suicide bomber, in the first place. So, we did the same thing, and they did it through the embassy. The next day in all the papers, it’s basically warning people not to cooperate with us.
It was reprinted to say exactly the opposite of what you had handed the paper.
So somebody got in the way.
They say it’s a translation error.
I mean, [it was] one thing after the other. It made us very uncomfortable sometimes.
So you continued to have these problems, and Ambassador Bodine thinks your presence is too strong, that you’re not trusting the Yemenis enough, and John O’Neill and Barbara Bodine are having a difficult time getting along.
Right. I think that Ambassador Bodine was looking at it from a State Department perspective. She has to deal with the Yemenis. We’re looking at it from a different perspective. There are 17 sailors who were killed, and we need to find justice for them.
And I think it did not help that both Ambassador Bodine and John have very strong personalities, and it caused a clash, and then I think it became more personal than people focusing on the matter at hand.
John was very upset.
John was very upset, absolutely. I mean, John, I think, was the very first U.S. government senior manager that was PNG’d from a country by the ambassador, by the U.S. ambassador.
Persona non grata.
Persona non grata. She won’t allow him to come back and finish leading the investigation.
So he had gone back to New York to do some work and wasn’t allowed back in the country.
He came back to New York after Thanksgiving, I believe, and he wasn’t allowed back in the country. That never happened before. So it’s very difficult for him also not to take it personal. It’s very difficult for the FBI not to take it personal.
What is the sense that you’re picking up as to what the support is at the higher levels of the government back in Washington?
We were getting a lot of good support from the director of the FBI who actually visited the country and from the attorney general at the time. We had almost daily conference calls, daily VDCs with them, and they were updated daily on the investigation. But I think everyone in Washington at the time was busy with the election, and then everyone was busy with Bush vs. Gore, and not a lot of people were focusing on what we were doing in Yemen.
You write about the resistance to linking the Cole bombing to Al Qaeda. What was that?
What we were hearing at the time, and we were told that by a chief of staff of a senator, that the country is not unified behind the president — I’m talking about President Bush now — that if we say that Al Qaeda was behind the Cole, the president has to do something about it, and if he doesn’t do something about it, he will look weak on national security.
However, the political environment prevents him from doing anything at this time in Afghanistan, because the country is not unified behind him. And at the time, our response was, “Well, sorry, sir, but this is way above our grade level.” Al Qaeda did it. We knew Al Qaeda did it back in November of 2000. And that ended that meeting. And the person, to be fair for him, was just saying that they disagree with the White House on this, but this is what’s happening.
And later on, we found out that even in the 9/11 Commission, some senior members of the administration called — to include the Secretary of Defense — called the Cole case old or too many times had passed or stale, in the word of [Deputy] Secretary [of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz, so that was the mentality of the administration of the time in looking at the Cole. It’s a stale case; it’s old; why focus on it?
How much time is there between Badawi and Quso’s interrogation?
Immediately after each other.
So after you talk to Badawi, you’ve got a lead; there’s somebody else you now want to talk to. Tell me who that is.
Well, after Badawi we wanted to talk to Quso, because in a way operationally, yes, he was a deputy. He was a person who managed the guesthouse in Aden. And Badawi told us that he delegated the videotaping of the operation to Quso, so we know Quso is involved. So we had access to talk to him.
In other words, at this point the Yemenis agreed to let you talk to Quso. Prior to that, without Badawi’s –
We had also an agreement that was signed by Ambassador Bodine and the Yemeni government about the way that we can proceed with the investigation. That agreement was negotiated by the Department of Justice here and their Ministry of Justice over there.
And it took weeks.
It took weeks if not months to get to it.
Right. Which delayed you.
Which delayed us.
But finally, after interviewing Badawi, you requested to see the deputy.
And Quso was also another example, very similar interrogation style to Badawi. But Quso was more humble than Badawi was, and he provided significant information, not only about the Cole itself and what happened and his knowledge about it, but he provided a lot of information about Afghanistan, about the training camps, about people he met over in Afghanistan.
He talked about an emir of a guesthouse in Kandahar known as Abu Jandal. He talks about different people that he met when he was in Afghanistan. He talks about his close relationship with an operative known as Khallad. He talked about a person that he actually picked him up and drove him to Al Qaeda guesthouse in Kandahar. He’s a Sudanese Al Qaeda member. … So he provided a lot of good information.
Why is he talking to you?
Again, very similar interrogation technique that we used with Badawi. It wasn’t easy. It took days. It took maybe about a week in talking to him, and every day we used to get more information using the same style.
Quso was one of these people who basically believed at one point that he saw me in Afghanistan. He did not believe that anyone from outside the group would know so much about the group, and he was convinced at one point that — he told me: “I saw you in Kandahar. Now I remember you.” I said, “Maybe.”
I used it to my advantage, because the ego of these guys, they believe that they are the best in what they do. There’s no way America would know so much about them. So we used that to our benefit.
Quso was also a guy that when I was waiting for him in the interrogation room, and he came over, I asked him how was he doing, and he looked at me, and he said, “I’ll wait for the American interrogator to come.” I said, “Well, it’s me.” And he was really shocked.
He thought you were a translator.
A person like me, looks like me, Muslim from my name — it’s obvious —
Speaking Arabic to him, and I am an FBI agent? There’s no way. There’s no way. That’s against everything he believes in. So we utilized all these small little things as part of our interrogation plan. So in so many ways it’s similar to Badawi, but in so many ways it’s also very different than Badawi.
Each one is different.
Each one is different. There is no cookie-cutter approach.
He tells you about the December 1999 phone call.
Well, Khallad was a very important person for us. We knew about Khallad for a while now, and we knew about Khallad’s involvement in Al Qaeda, not necessarily in the Cole and with Quso. So Khallad was an important person, so when he said his connection to this whole operation starts with Khallad, the very logical question [is], “When is the last time you saw Khallad?” And he said, “Well, I saw him last time in Bangkok.”
For me, what the heck [is] this guy doing in Bangkok? I said: “So tell me the story about Bangkok. Why did you go to Bangkok? Who did you go with?” To make a long story short, he said Khallad contacted him at his house. He asked him to go San’a, meet Ibrahim Nibras or Ibrahim al-Thawar, aka Nibras. Nibras was one of the suicide bombers in the Cole. That was in December of 1999.
So 10 or 11 months before the bombing.
Yup. And he told him to help Nibras deliver some money to him in Southeast Asia from Saudi Arabia.
From Saudi Arabia. Some Al Qaeda operative had brought it to him, so he had this money.
So he had this money, and the idea was to send two people, because they can spread the money among them, and it will be less than the amount declarable by customs, so nobody will be suspicious if they separate it between them. The amount was $36,000, and Khallad told them to basically deliver it to Singapore.
They bought the tickets. They went to Singapore through Bangkok. However, they did not know that they actually needed visas to go to Singapore, so they ended up in Bangkok. They did not know how to reach Khallad, so they decided to call Yemen, call the Al Qaeda operative in Yemen that they know that Khallad will call him, and Quso also talked to his family and told them, “If this guy calls me, tell him I’m at this number.” And they gave him a number.
So Khallad called them at the hotel, and later on he came over, traveled to Bangkok, and went and saw them at the Washington Hotel and took the $36,000 from them. That’s what Quso told us. He provided information about when he received the call, how he traveled, how Khallad called his house and called Nibras’ house looking for them. We pieced all these things together, and we found out that the phone number that has been in contact with the Washington Hotel has been in contact with Quso’s house and has been in contact in the common number. And this is just regular investigative work. It’s a number in Malaysia. And that’s how we got to the Malaysia number.
So Khallad is calling to the Washington Hotel –
To the Washington Hotel.
– from Malaysia.
According to the story that Quso told us. We investigated all the phone numbers, and we found out —
Why does Quso think he’s delivering $36,000 with Khallad?
Well, Quso claimed that he doesn’t know. He said maybe because Khallad wants to get a new leg, but a new leg over there costs about $1,600 — this is a top-of-the-line leg, so that amount is more than that. And later on, we found out that Khallad already got a new leg before the money was delivered, so it was definitely not for the leg.
So Quso doesn’t know why he’s doing this errand.
At least he claimed he did not know, and I believe that he didn’t know. I believe that at this instant he was truthful.
So you’re starting to think about why this is going on.
Oh, absolutely. We thought about many different things. The number one, the very first thing that came in our mind maybe it happened during the millennium.
Remember, during the millennium there is many operations from Al Qaeda. There is [Ahmed] Ressam trying to do something in LAX. There is a millennium plot in Jordan that was coordinated by [9/11 suspect] Abu Zubaydah. There is also, we found out, uncovered, a failed attack on a Navy ship in Aden, the U.S.S. The Sullivans.
So we thought maybe Al Qaeda at the time, because it happened [at] the end of December, the money, maybe Al Qaeda was planning to do something in Southeast Asia. Maybe they were planning to do something in Singapore. So that was one option.
The other option that we thought of, maybe this is leftover money from the attack on The Sullivans, and they are taking it back. But if it’s a leftover money, why does it come from Saudi Arabia, number one? It should be local, right? But more importantly, number two, because maybe Khallad didn’t tell him the truth, so maybe it came from Saudi Arabia or didn’t come from Saudi Arabia. But number two is why is it going to Southeast Asia? If it’s a leftover money, it should go back to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
That’s a good question.
So we didn’t think it’s leftover money from The Sullivans, because The Sullivans didn’t happen until a few days later.
So we thought that there was definitely something going on in Southeast Asia. Why was Khallad in Southeast Asia? Why was he in Malaysia? Why [did he meet] them in Bangkok? Why [is there] $36,000 being delivered over there? Was there some sort of a meeting going on for two people, the person who later became the suicide bomber, plus the person who was videotaping him blowing himself up, delivering money to a person who was heavily involved in the initial planning and coordination of the Cole attack? Many questions came to our mind.
However, the very first logical step we can do is share it with the agency, because overseas is our jurisdiction in so many different ways.
So you called the CIA.
Absolutely. And we were working with them very closely, and we had excellent working relationships — well, we thought.
You had the wall. You had this separation.
Yes, but John O’Neill and Hank Crumpton at the time, he was there on the ground, and they figured out a way around it, at least to share information, so we were actually sharing information, working together, and the wall, on the operational level, we didn’t feel it as much when we were working over there.
Before we go forward, you took this information that Quso told you to John O’Neill right away.
Oh, yeah, absolutely.
What did John make of it?
Well, let’s ask the agency what’s going on. All the steps were definitely coordinated with our leaders. However, when they didn’t give us an answer, when they said that they did not know, we didn’t have any reason to doubt them.
And every time we get more information — for example, first it was only about Bangkok, but then after a lengthy investigation with the phone calls and phone lines and all these things, typical law enforcement police work, we get to a common number that has been in contact with all these numbers around the same time in Malaysia, so now we have Malaysia.
It’s in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Exactly, and step by step by step by step. And every time we get new information, we used to share it with people who can hopefully help us and shed some light —
With the CIA.
You go back to the CIA, and you say, “We’ve got this phone call.”
Yeah. We actually talked to them a lot face-to-face, but also we documented it on paper, too.
So you went back to the CIA. You say: “We’ve got this phone number in Kuala Lumpur. Do you know anything about it?” And they said?
They said no. How many times did you go back to them and ask them about it?
Well, we talked about it a lot on the ground, but we have a saying in the bureau. If it’s not on paper, it doesn’t exist. On paper, it’s at least three times.
It’s a teletype that goes from the FBI to the CIA.
Do you learn any more about what had gone on?
Not until 9/11.
Not until 9/11, yeah. 9/12, actually.
In June 11 of 2001, Steve Bongardt, who is your co-case agent, has a meeting with the CIA in New York.
It was with the bureau, with two people from the bureau, one person from the agency, analysts. And we were in Yemen at the time, in June. And the meeting was one of the weirdest meetings until today. We keep thinking about it and shaking our heads.
It was called by the agency.
Actually, it included two FBI analysts and one CIA analyst, and they came over, and they wanted to meet with the Cole team. And definitely Steve was a co-case agent, and he was here. Most of the team was in Yemen. They showed him a photo, and they said, “Do you recognize that person?” We don’t recognize that person. They won’t tell him who the person was. They won’t tell him why they are showing him the photo, where the photo was taken. And it just created a storm, that meeting.
Steve had come all the way from D.C. “You haven’t told me anything. You just showed me a photo, and you say you cannot tell me anything? What is this? Why do you believe that this is connected to the Cole? Who is that person in that photograph? Why are you telling me about him? Why is he significant for my investigation? Why do you think the Cole investigation should be able to identify this guy?” No answers.
The CIA agents wouldn’t say anything.
The analysts and the FBI analysts, too, both, because of the wall, or at least they claimed because of the wall.
So both the CIA analyst and the two FBI analysts who were on the intelligence side of the wall wouldn’t say why they were showing this picture.
Because if they did, then they would be in violation of their security clearances.
If I recall correctly, that picture that they showed was a guy that looked a little bit like Quso, but it wasn’t Quso.
So what do you think they were doing, when you look back?
I have no idea. This is one of the reasons that we keep shaking our head and saying, “What is the significance of that meeting?” And later on, after a lot of debates and fights, they said, “Well, this is a guy,” and they mentioned the name Khalid [al-]Mihdhar to him. But at the time, without putting it in context, Steve had no reason to believe that Khalid al-Mihdhar is connected to the call. “Who is Khalid al-Mihdhar? So why is he connected?” “We cannot tell you anything.”
And that continued through a series of e-mails that took place around August, when Steve sent his very powerful e-mail when they were doing immigration announcements that Khalid al-Mihdhar is in the United States. He said: “Do you mean the same Khalid al-Mihdhar that you told us about in June? That’s the same guy? He’s in America? And by the way, why is he connected to the Cole? Why do you believe that?”
Then they said, “Well — ” He said, “If Khalid al-Mihdhar is in the United States, he didn’t come to effing Disneyland.” And he said, “One day people will die and people won’t understand. Wall or no wall, people won’t understand that.” And he was so right and so accurate.
And later on, on Sept. 12, we found that the significance about Khalid al-Mihdhar is he was in Bangkok with [hijackler Nawaf] al-Hazmi and Khallad. They traveled with him to come to Bangkok, and days after the money was delivered, they paid [for] first-class tickets and traveled from Bangkok to LAX, and started setting up the operation in San Diego.
So that’s what the money was for, the $36,000.
How did you learn this? How did you react?
After Sept. 11, nobody slept. We’re in Yemen. We finally get an order to evacuate, and we were at the airport ready to go on a plane when the person from the CIA came and said to me: “Call your headquarters. They want to talk to you.” And we set up a satellite communication outside the terminal and we contacted headquarters. And basically it was [FBI Agent] Dina Corsi on the other line, and she said that Bob McFadden and myself need to stay. Everybody can come back, but we have instructions from the top that we need to stay, and the reason we need to stay is —
Basically, when she said that I was really upset, because in my perspective, something just hit New York and Washington. We have dozens of our colleagues missing. Everybody has families here. The last thing we want to be is in Aden, Yemen. There’s a lot of things happening back home.
Including John O’Neill.
Exactly. And I said: “America is attacked now. We can do the Cole later.” She said, “No, it’s actually about what just happened here.” I said, “What do you mean what happened here?” And she said, “Well, it’s about Quso is the only lead we have.” And it was kind of like a knife; somebody put a knife in me. I’m like: “Quso? How the heck is Quso involved in what just happened? What did we miss? What did we just miss? We caused this.” So I was sick to my stomach.
I went to Bob, and I told Bob what happened. He’s like: “Quso? What’s the link?” So a couple of other guys volunteered to stay with us, and then we went to the embassy, and I was handed a manila envelope, and I looked at it, and it was just the whole thing.
Who handed you a manila envelope?
The CIA person on the ground. And it was the same person who asked me about the phone call. And it was all there. They end with the details of what happened, the Malaysia meeting and Bangkok and Khallad, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Hazmi and visas to the United States.
What do you see, and what do you read?
First of all, we see three surveillance photos, three pictures, three surveillance pictures of people that at the time, people I didn’t recognize.
You told were told they were taken in Kuala Lumpur.
I was told they were taken in Malaysia, yeah. And still by then, I still did not make a link to the June meeting, by the way. Surveillance photos. But there is one photo of a person who looks like Quso. That made me think maybe there is something here; maybe it’s connected. But it was just like a really small little voice in the back of my mind.
And there is a detailed report about the travel of Khalid al-Mihdhar, of Khallad, Malaysia, the alias that he was using in Malaysia, then going to Bangkok.
And al-Mihdhar, was a person known to you?
No, not at the time.
So all you knew about was?
That he was with Khallad.
Khallad. And these two guys, the airport, what happened. And it was everything that we had been asking for in these three different reports. Now we know why Quso and Nibras delivered the money. There was a big meeting going on over there, and now we know that that meeting, just because of what just happened hours ago in New York and in Washington was for the 9/11 attack.
So you’re looking at this, and you’re seeing al-Mihdhar with Khallad, maybe with Quso, and you’re told in the report that al-Mihdhar was on Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon.
How did you realize it?
I basically ran to the bathroom and puked. At the time, remember, we thought there were 50,000 people there. We were missing at least 30 people from the task force. We thought that they were missing, they had probably died. And later on, they basically ran into a building adjacent to the World Trade Center. And we thought that the building collapsed on them, but they thought they’d get stuck in the basement. But they were alive and well.
And your former boss, John O’Neill?
My former boss, John, we could not get a hold of him. It was difficult. It was very difficult.
How do you learn about John?
From the office. They told us. We had a feeling that — when we could not get a hold of him.
You tried to call him on 9/11?
Yeah, many times. And we had a feeling that something probably happened to him. And I think a few days later, they pulled his body.
… Everything we’ve been asking for since November of 2000 regarding that meeting in Malaysia and regarding the money that was delivered by Quso was just there. And magically, magically, because of the wall, this information was not shared on a timely basis.
What if that information had been shared? How would it have been played out?
Oh, my God, this is a huge if. This is a huge if. I think the world would be very different today. I’m convinced.
The world would be very different.
Do you think it would have stopped the attack?
You’re telling me that two people who were involved with the suicide bomber of the Cole, who was involved with the person who was videotaping the operation, they were involved with one of the operational masterminds of that time. After meeting with the person who became the suicide bomber, after meeting with the person who videotaped the operation, took money from them, came to the United States, they are in California, and we’re just going to let them get away with it?
How did you know that, from the agency, that they had intelligence on Khallad? You would have put a track on Mihdhar, in hindsight?
I think we could have done so many different things. And as we know now, all the hijackers were in contact with each other. They hang out together, lived together; they went together to get driver’s licenses.
Absolutely. Absolutely. There is a lot of things that could have been done. I mean, there is a lot of things that could have been done. We could have been on those guys like white on rice.
We were looking for people like them in Yemen, under very dangerous situations, very dangerous circumstances, fighting with everyone in order to solve that case. Many people who have answers for us are in America, and we’re going to let them all get away with it.
So the evidence that you saw indicated that the agency knew Khallad had been in touch with al-Mihdhar.
And Hazmi. Both of them.
Actually, they flew together from Malaysia to Bangkok, Khallad, Hazmi and Mihdhar.
And they knew that at the time that you were asking about it?
Yes. And this came up in the 9/11 Commission Report. And this came up in the executive summary of the CIA IG [inspector general] report. So it’s not only what I say now; it is basically what the CIA IG concluded.
The inspector general in his internal report.
Absolutely, in his internal report that the executive summary has been declassified [PDF]. And it’s widely available on the Internet. Plus the 9/11 Commission. They put details [about] this, and people can check it out and read it. So this issue is not an issue of FBI versus CIA. I think we all let the American people down. This issue is not an institutional battle bickering. This issue is more than that.
If we don’t look squarely in the face of what happened and made the mistakes that we did, we’re going to repeat it again and again and again. And this is something that the FBI talked about. This was something the Department of Justice talked about. This is something the 9/11 Commission concluded. And this is something the CIA IG, in the executive summary that has been declassified, also concluded, that this information was not passed on a timely basis.
Not only to the FBI — it wasn’t passed to State Department. They were not put on a no-fly list. It was not passed to Immigration and Naturalization Services. It wasn’t passed to any of the entities that they need to know, “You have two terrorists with American visas coming to the United States.”
And they flew from Bangkok?
They flew from Bangkok to LAX, and they moved into San Diego.
Rented an apartment.
Applied for driver’s licenses.
They lived among us. It wasn’t very difficult to find them out.
So had they simply been put on a watch list, they would have been picked up at Immigration at L.A.?
Absolutely. And they definitely could have been picked up after we reached the conclusion, months and months later, that these guys might be involved in the Cole, because they came to the United States in January of 2000.
Had you picked them up on suspicion of being, whether they were involved in the Cole or something else —
Well, we know that they are individuals —
I mean, remember, the 9/11 Commission, the CIA IG, Director [of Central Intelligence George] Tenet in his book, he talks [about how] the CIA [sought] the help of intelligence services in that region to follow up with these guys, to monitor them.
So we talked to people in Malaysia, we talked to people in Thailand, but we don’t talk to people in the United States. Why?
I don’t know. I don’t know. There was no explanation given until today. Black hole.
So on Sept. 12, after you’re shown there’s three pictures and a report that there had been a meeting in Malaysia, and so you started putting all this together. … Then there’s another picture that comes to you the next day.
They gave us this picture. So we went to Quso, and we start talking about the meeting in Southeast Asia. “Why did you deliver the money?,” basically repeating the story again and again, trying to figure any information, because now we know at that meeting, we were told that that meeting that we’d been asking about since November, two of the people who were in that meeting were on Flight 77. That’s very significant.
So now we went back, and we start talking to him about this. We showed him the three photos. He did not identify anyone in the three photos. One of the photos, he looked at it, and he said, “I know what you think. You think this is me, but it’s not me,” because the person looks like him. And he was honest. It wasn’t him. Later on, we figured out who the guy was, and he is currently, I think, in Guantanamo Bay, if I’m not mistaken.
But the other two photos, he looked at one of them, and he said: “This guy looks like Khallad, but he just looks like him. I’m not sure if it’s him.”
You must have said to him, “So, do you think Khallad was there at the meeting?”
Well, yeah, he told us that Khallad was. He told us that he delivered the money to Khallad.
Right. But this is a surveillance photo in Malaysia.
Well, he didn’t know. And, at the time, we didn’t know if he basically made it to Malaysia or not. This is an investigation in progress, you know. So he already admitted that Khallad was there. He already admitted that [he] gave him the money. But he didn’t admit seeing these two individuals over there when he was there. He said: “We only met Khallad, gave him the money. He said goodbye to us, and he left.” That’s it. That’s what happens over there.
Now, with that, we came back, and we wrote our report that one of the individuals in the photo, in the three photos that were shown, and Quso said he looks like Khallad. But he was actually identifying Khalid al-Mihdhar as a person who looks like Khallad. So we get a phone call in the middle of the night, basically saying: “Uh-uh. Are you sure? Because this is extremely important…” Remember, you’re talking about 12th, 13th now, you know, Sept. 13. People are trying to put the things together.
We said: “Well, I cannot say it is definitely him. He said he looks like him. And, to be honest with you, I think he wasn’t sure, right.” So they said, “Well, the agency is going to give you another photo.” And basically, my answer was: “How many people need to die in order to know how many freaking photos there is out there?” So we get another photo. And I didn’t need to ask Quso, obviously. It’s Khallad. We know what he looks like. This is definitely Khallad.
So we went to Quso, and the moment Quso looked at the photo, he said, “Yep, that’s Khallad.” So that was important, because that means, in that meeting that took place in Malaysia, the two hijackers on Flight 77, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Hazmi, were in a meeting with Khallad. And that’s now proven through basically law enforcement channels.
So then you have photographic evidence.
That they were there together. However, it was already in their report that they were there together. But we’re still — again, put yourself on Sept. 13. We’re trying to figure out who’s who, how they were connected. Everything is brand-new to us, but it’s not brand-new to people who had this information for a long period of time.
So then I showed other photos that [were] sent to us, but this time from the headquarters about the suspected hijackers. Some people were proven to be hijackers later on. Some people were innocent, not the hijackers.
We show the pictures to Quso. Quso identified Marwan al-Shehhi as an individual that he remembered seeing in Afghanistan in the guesthouse.
And that’s another one of the hijackers?
That’s another one of the hijackers. He gave us some details about him, who he went to Afghanistan with, how he was sick in 1999 in Afghanistan, how because he stapled his stomach and he was fasting —
Somehow [I don't] think of Al Qaeda operatives as getting their stomachs stapled.
I think he tried to lose weight, maybe to participate in the operation.
This is very Beverly Hills.
Yeah. I told you, these guys were not what you think they are. So he said the emir of the guesthouse in Kandahar was taking care of him. Now, we had been trying to get to Abu Jandal for a long period of time in Yemen, and the Yemenis said they won’t give us an access to Jandal because he is not connected to the Cole, and our agreement is only for those who are connected to the U.S.S. Cole.
I remember Quso telling us before that Jandal was emir of the guesthouse in Kandahar, so I said: “Emir was taking care of him? Who is that?” He said, “Abu Jandal.” I said, “Thank you.” So we let Quso go back to jail. They took him back to the cell. Then he asked the Yemenis for Abu Jandal, and the Yemenis said, “What’s his connection?” He said: “Oh, this guy is one of the pilots. I need to talk to Jandal.” And he made some phone calls.
This is one of the pilots. And he knows Jandal?
Yep, because we were told who’s who. He’s one of the hijackers.
So Jandal walks to the room. And the only thing we have on Abu Jandal at this point is what we know about his role in Al Qaeda as a whole. But the only thing we really know about him is the fact that he knows [Marwan al-Shehhi, one of the 9/11 hijackers, and took care of him when he was sick]. That’s it. We don’t know anything else. And we had to develop our whole interrogation plan around that piece of evidence that we have.
How did you do it?
Again, his interrogation was very different than any other interviews we did before. Abu Jandal is a different person. He is more educated than the typical Al Qaeda, at least in history, Islamic theology and so forth. And he has some leadership skills. He likes to lecture. And we use that.
We took advantage of this for him to educate us about Al Qaeda and about who they are. And that’s what opened the door with him. So, you know, he can lecture us.
He didn’t think Osama bin Laden was capable of concocting a plot around 9/11?
Absolutely. He thought that bin Laden was crazy to do an operation like this. At the beginning, Abu Jandal didn’t want to even talk to us. He refused to acknowledge [my partner] and I were in the room. Step by step, with small, little acts of kindness, he eventually started recognizing that we existed. That took probably only one night.
At this point, why aren’t you attempting to slap him around a little bit and get a little angry? This is right after 9/11.
What can you do? I mean, this guy was trying to be tortured, literally tortured. He is the person that is not interested in his own life. He’s a personal bodyguard of bin Laden. He was not selected for that position just because he got scared if you scream at him or threw a chair at the wall. So what are we going to do? He is expecting, and I’m sure he thought about it so many different times, that if he gets caught, he will be tortured; he will be beaten; he will be assaulted. He will probably die under the torture to get information.
And that’s something we don’t do. So why go down on that route that’s going to make it very difficult for you [to get information]? So the best thing to do here is to basically do what we do, and what we did all the time in cases like this is to outsmart that individual.
Again, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So a person like this, you need to get to him psychologically. You need to get to him emotionally. You need to get to him on a human level, because he’s not going to be compliant to you, you know.
So we continued to discuss Al Qaeda with him. And there was a newspaper on the desk in the interrogation room, and it said 200 Yemenis perished in the World Trade Center. That was wrong, but at the time, everybody had different numbers for what happened in New York.
That’s the Yemeni newspaper version?
The Yemeni newspaper version. So we said to him, we said, “Is this act justifiable?” And he said: “No, that’s crazy. So there’s no way bin Laden will do this.” And I said, “No, I know that bin Laden did it.” And he said: “Who told you? How do you know bin Laden did it?” I said, “You did.” And he was really upset, like: “How dare you put words in my mouth? I never said that bin Laden did it.”
And, you know, these guys always say, when you catch them: “Oh, they put words in my mouth. I never said that.” So he thought that that’s actually happening to him. I said, “No, you just told me that bin Laden did 9/11.” And he said, “I didn’t tell you that.” And I took photos of seven or eight people he just identified from the 19 hijackers, put them on the table in front of him, and said, “You know who these people are?” He looked at them, and he said, “Those are the hijackers.”
So you go in there. You have a book.
Yeah. When we did the report, when we started and he started talking to us, we have a book, and that book includes every photo you can imagine, from people who are involved in the East Africa embassy bombing and the Cole and different people who are picked up in the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11, people that we thought they were hijackers. You name it. It was a very, very thick photo book.
So when he was cooperating, when he started acting as if he’s cooperating, we gave him the book. We said, “Hey, can you please look into this photo book and tell us if you recognize anyone in it?” He went through it, page by page. Maybe he recognized two or three people. It’s bin Laden, Zawahiri, you know, the main people that everybody knows who they are. But he’s just like, “No, I don’t know them.”
We said, “Bullshit.” Closed the book. Opened it again. Put it in his lap. Said, “Can you please do it again?” He said, “I just did it.” I said: “Come on, please. Again.” He did it, same thing. Nothing. So I said: “Hey, you know what? Three times is a charm. Why don’t we do it again?” And he looked at me; he said: “Oh, come on. Please.” “For friendship’s sake, let’s do it again.” He did it.
And when I think he reached photo number five or number six, something like this in the very beginning, I looked at Bob [McFadden], and I said: “See? I told you.” … He said, “What?” I said, “Well, I had a bet with my friend that basically you won’t be honest and you won’t identify.” “I don’t know. I am.” I said, “Well, you’re going to tell me you don’t know this guy.” He looked at him; he said, “Mm-hmm.”
I said: “Look, you don’t know when he was sick and going to die in 1999 in Kandahar. You don’t know how you used to care for him and give him soup because he shouldn’t fast and he was fasting anyway. You don’t know about his buddy who came with him and he got killed in a training accident in Kabul. Seriously? You don’t know any of these things? This guy, you cared for him for a month. You nursed him for a month. You have no idea who he is?”
So I said: “Look. Let me tell you something. You don’t know, in this book, you don’t know who I know. You don’t know who is in my custody. You don’t know who’s actually a source, works for me. You don’t know who I have but he’s not talking, and you don’t know who I don’t have and I have no idea who he is. You don’t know. But there’s all kinds of people in this book, and I use this to know if you’re telling me the truth or not.”
Because you knew from Quso that he knew this guy.
I only know [that]. That’s it. That was my only card. I already gave it. I said: “Let’s start from the beginning, and keep that in mind. And, you know, stop the BS,” basically. So he looked at me, you know. And I started. He identified a lot more people, [including] eight of the hijackers. He included Khalid al-Mihdhar.
He didn’t know they were the hijackers. He just knew who they were.
Who they were, and he gave us their aliases. Khalid al-Mihdhar was extremely interesting.
But he didn’t know that they were hijackers.
No, he had no idea. He thought that already most had probably — [that we] already knew who they were. So he identified seven or eight of the hijackers, to include Khalid al-Mihdhar. …. And he basically told us something that shocked us: that Khalid al-Mihdhar is a son-in-law of [Ahmed al-Hada], the famous [Al Qaeda switchboard] number in Yemen.
The guy who ran the so-called switchboard?
Yep. And that was enough to prove, without reasonable doubt, that the operation was Al Qaeda operation, that what happened on Sept. 11 was Al Qaeda operation.
I wouldn’t say anything at the time. But we were shocked, because he gave us aliases. He gave us their nationality. He told us Mohamed Atta was Egyptian. He told us a lot of information at the time we didn’t know, how [Fayez Banihammad] is an Emeriti. We didn’t know any of these kind of things.
But then we continued the interrogation. And there was a newspaper on the table that said, “Two hundred Yemenis perished in the World Trade Center.” That was false, you know, but everyone was making their own numbers after 9/11 because people didn’t know who died, didn’t die, how many people, you know, information. Even in the United States we thought that there is 50,000 people who were killed on that day.
So I showed him that newspaper, and I said, “How can you justify killing 200 Yemenis?” He said: “Al Qaeda didn’t do it. There is no way. This is a crime. There is no way. Bin Laden is not that crazy.” I said, “Well, we know that bin Laden did it.” He said, “How do you know?” I said, “You told me.” And he was really upset. He was upset. He said: “I didn’t tell you. You’re putting words in my mouth.”
So I took the photos of the people who he just identified, the eight hijackers, put them in front of him. I said, “Do you know these guys?” He said, “Yeah.” I said: “Those are the hijackers. You just identified them. We had no idea that they were Al Qaeda people until you just told us they were.” He was totally psychologically and emotionally totally destroyed.
He was visibly shaken. He asked for a few minutes to collect his composure. We left him in the room. We went out, came back. He said: “I know these people. All of them are Al Qaeda. I know them. I used to hang out with them. I think bin Laden went crazy. The sheik went crazy.”
And from that moment, the level of cooperation was very different than before. And that’s why, you know, Abu Jandal’s interview has been released and declassified by the Judiciary Committee, and it’s considered one of the most important interrogations in the world.
… We were told they had delayed the war in Afghanistan because of the information that we were getting from him.
They wanted to digest the information?
And where is Abu Jandal today?
Last time I checked he is in Yemen.
And he’s doing what?
Sometimes I see he’s making videos, writing books.
He’s a free man?
How is that? How can that be?
I don’t know.
He was bin Laden’s bodyguard.
Yeah, personal bodyguard. I don’t know.
Should he be locked up?
He knows a lot about Al Qaeda. He cooperated. But it does not mean that he is not dangerous, you know what I mean? So I don’t know a lot of the details.
… Now, there’s criticism of the FBI. There was the Phoenix memo, [in which FBI agent Kenneth Williams warned before 9/11 that disciples of Osama bin Laden may be training at U.S. flight schools].
Right. I think we have to look at the Phoenix memo objectively.
I’m not saying that there is no criticism. I mentioned that people from the bureau, intelligence analysts, were told not to share their information with the criminal agents, and they went along with it. So there’s a lot of people who at least misunderstood, or wanted to misunderstand, that you need your own guidelines, organizing intelligence versus criminal information.
The Phoenix memo came up not at the 9/11 Commission as much. That was the focus of the Joint Inquiry Committee. And there is a lot of problem with the Congressional Joint Inquiry Committee that came up in the 9/11 Commission.
The Phoenix memo is about a few Arabs going on flight training. But if you look into all these Arabs who are going on flight training, none of them is connected, directly or indirectly, in any way, shape or form, with any terrorism activities. So before 9/11, you’re looking at this memo as just a source of kind of like: “So what? There’s also a lot of Italians and a lot of Irish and a lot of Africans and people from every country. They come to the United States for flight training. Mostly every airline around the world, they send their people for flight training in the United States.” You know, investigating each and every one on that list on the Phoenix memo could have not stopped 9/11. That’s a totally different thing.
Was somebody taking flying lessons?
In Minnesota there was a guy, there was [Zacarias] Moussaoui, who is not connected to the plot of 9/11. He’s connected to probably other plots that Al Qaeda was planning to do. He went, and he said: “I wanted to fly a plane. How long does it take me? And I don’t want to know how to land; I just want to know how to fly.” The next day he was in jail.
Now, the whole issue with Moussaoui was his laptop. Did they have enough, when they caught this French guy, because he has a French passport, to get into his laptop or not? Some people at headquarters said, “No, you don’t have enough to get into the laptop.” After 9/11, they got into the laptop. That happened around 9/11. And there was nothing in the laptop. So even if we get to the laptop immediately upon his arrest, that could have not stopped 9/11 either.
But what could have stopped 9/11 is knowing that Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who met with the person who became a suicide bomber later on the U.S.S. Cole, and the person who was videotaping the operation and Khallad, who was a senior member in the operation division in Al Qaeda, the terrorism division in Al Qaeda, they met in Southeast Asia. After money was delivered by the people who were involved in the Cole attack, they flew to the United States and they set up shop. That could have stopped 9/11.
And instead of focusing on the actionable intelligence that could have derailed the plot of Al Qaeda, we are focusing on Phoenix memo and Minnesota, which is a very important thing. I’m not denying that they are not important, right, but even if we get to the bottom of [those], at the time, [that] could have not derailed the operation of 9/11.
Yes. Everything about Abu Zubaydah we’ll talk about we’ll do it within the context of my statement to the Senate, since that chapter, even the pronouns, the fact that I was there has been heavily redacted.
What is that? In your book, pronouns, “I,” “we,” “us,” are redacted?
Yeah, and the fact that myself and Steve Gaudin, my partner on that mission from the bureau, we’ve been redacted from that chapter as if we were not there.
The fact is you were there?
And this is part of public record. This is part of the Judiciary Committee hearing that took place. The statement was approved by the FBI. You know, the FBI acknowledged that we were there. Different reports have been published regarding that issue. Yeah, so we will put it in the context of the Senate statement and the context of other documents [that have] been published about this issue rather than the book.
But the CIA officially has you not there?
Even in the CIA I guess — and it’s a great report — but the CIA IG does not mention the fact that Abu Zubaydah was spoken to by anyone before the EIT [enhanced interrogation techniques], as if we didn’t exist over there. We’ve been purged from the whole Abu Zubaydah episode as FBI from one narrative, definitely from one perspective.
But you did interrogate him?
Yes, I did.
Who was he, and how did you approach that interrogation? What did you learn? What then happened?
Abu Zubaydah is a terrorist facilitator. He has been involved in running the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan, and the Khalden camp was one of these camps that’s basically hosted many people, especially from the North African region, but also worked closely with Al Qaeda in identifying recruits that might be good for operations of Al Qaeda. Ressam, for example, is a perfect example of people who went through the Khalden camp, an Algerian [who] went through the Khalden camp. He ended up doing an operation on behalf of Al Qaeda.
The millennium plot?
The millennium plot in LAX. Abu Zubaydah was a known terrorist facilitator. He was involved in not only the Ressam plot, but also he was involved in a series of plots during the millennium in Jordan, for example, plots to attack American and Israeli targets, and even to attack the pope during his visit to the Holy Lands. So Abu Zubaydah was a dangerous fellow.
He’s not a member of Al Qaeda. He’s just a guy who likes to keep his independence?
He’s a guy who likes to keep his independence, but he’s closely associated himself with the group, or helped them, worked with them. You have to work with Al Qaeda in order to be able to survive and function in that region as an Arab. So he worked closely with him, but he greatly valued his independence, and he continued to be separate from Al Qaeda.
So when you find him, when you’re brought in to see him, what kind of shape is he in, and what do you do?
He was injured, so we had to actually manage, Steve and I, to get information from him.
He was seriously injured, right?
He was seriously injured.
He was on life support?
Yes. At the very beginning, he was obviously injured. The doctors who were looking at him decided that we need to take him to a hospital, which we basically did. And they even flew a doctor from Washington, D.C., to basically oversee his situation. And we continued talking to him, but also at the same time keeping in mind his medical situations, to balance both. And we talked to him for probably about 10 days before the CTC [CIA's Counterterrorism Center] team arrived.
[So the CTC team arrives,] and you’re trying to keep him alive, and you’re trying not to wear him out, but you’re deriving a lot of good intelligence from him?
Well, you know, at the time, for example, the biggest piece of intelligence that we can talk about that we’ve got — we can only talk about what has been declassified in the public domain — was the fact that KSM was a mastermind of 9/11.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind.
And that information came from an interrogation of Abu Zubaydah?
Without any tricks, without any –
No, no. And that came before even the CTC team arrived, that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is basically Mukhtar, [an alias], who is basically the mastermind of 9/11. At the time, we did not know that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was a member of Al Qaeda when Steve and I were interviewing him.
And immediately after that, I contacted my ASAC [assistant special agent in charge] in New York, Ken Maxwell, over a secure line, and basically I told him he was the mastermind, and he was totally shocked. He said, “But he’s not a member of Al Qaeda, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.” I said, “Well, think again.”
And this got all around Washington?
Absolutely. That was a huge development. That was a big development that we got. We got some good information even before about different threats that was going on.
[Despite the redaction,] any reader reading your book can understand that it was you there interrogating Abu Zubaydah?
And also at the same time, I testified publicly on this issue, and my statement was cleared by the FBI before I submitted it to the judiciary committee. People can hear about what happened to Abu Zubaydah and the details of what happened to Abu Zubaydah on YouTube when looking into the public hearing that was held.
So there is nothing classified about myself and Steve Gaudin being there, nothing classified at all. Steve actually was also given permission to talk to media outlets about our experience with Abu Zubaydah by the FBI. So I was really surprised to see the redactions. It didn’t make any sense to me.
You tell a very powerful narrative.
I tell the facts of what happened. … All the tactics that I describe, that evolved later to become known as enhanced interrogation techniques, are listed.
It began with Abu Zubaydah, with a person who you describe with a pseudonym, [Boris]?
Right. I never used real names. I only used pseudonyms in the book.
His real name is well known as Steve Mitchell?
I don’t —
You cannot confirm it?
I cannot confirm or deny the individual’s name in any way, shape or form. So I describe him in the book as Boris.
So the agency sends in this fellow, a contractor [you call Boris], and he takes over the investigation? Or he takes over the interrogation?
Boris arrives, and we believed we were getting some headway with Abu Zubaydah. But he has different opinions about how to handle this interrogation. He discussed about going through a path that we were not comfortable with, because first of all, the first rule is if it’s working, why break it, you know? If we already got the identification of KSM, details about 9/11, plots that was going on, we said, “Why [are we] stopping this?” And this is when he’s in the hospital and we’re trying to treat him at the same time. So let’s continue with it.
[Boris'] idea was very different, something that we never heard of before. His idea: that one individual is going to be his [Zubaydah's] god. He will determine if he is comfortable. …
Basically, you take that individual into a path where he has to know that the best thing for him in order for his life to be easy is to cooperate with you.
And this guy is introduced to you as a psychologist, a contractor?
And so in the beginning, did you listen to him?
Well, we listened to the theory. He came with people that we have a lot of respect for from the agency, officers and not —
So you have no reason to be skeptical about him?
Absolutely not. At the beginning, no. At the beginning, the only thing we were worried about: “Why do you want to get us out when it’s working? Let’s continue. We’ll work as one team.” We always worked as one team. I worked with some of these people who were there before in different locations, and we had a very good relationship.
Unfortunately, that was a decision that was already made, and nobody can do anything about it.
At a higher level?
Absolutely. So we said, “What’s your idea?” And he started explaining his idea, that the subject in this case, Abu Zubaydah, needs to understand the best thing for him is to cooperate. And in order to do so, he started to implement techniques that one guy will go in, one of the agency individuals, he will tell him, “Give me everything that I need,” and he shouldn’t say any other word.
And basically if Abu Zubaydah didn’t start immediately providing actionable intelligence, he will walk out, and then Abu Zubaydah’s life will start becoming bad, you know — nudity and then music, loud music, and then sleep deprivation, all these techniques that later became part of EITs.
So from our perspective, you know, we’re like, “Wait a second. Why are you going on that route when you cannot continue?” Remember, this conversation’s taking place around April of 2002. There was nothing yet called enhanced interrogation techniques. There is no plans for these kinds of things.
This has got to be one of the greatest euphemisms of our time, “enhanced interrogation.”
I have a problem with that term. “Enhanced” should [mean] “better.” “Enhanced.” I think it’s not better; it’s worse interrogation techniques. So basically we were: “Well, wait a second. First of all, these guys are ideologically motivated people. They are willing to sacrifice themselves for martyrdom and their life for the sake of what they believe in.” That’s number one.
Their counter-interrogation methods include heavy torture, and everything that Boris was talking about at the time, it is like a joke, even enhanced interrogation techniques later, that accumulate with waterboarding. To be honest with you, comparatively to what they were expecting to receive in Egyptian jails or other jails around the world, [it's] nothing. It’s a joke. It is a welcoming party before the actual special treatments start taking place.
So eventually we’re going to hit a glass ceiling. And when you hit a glass ceiling, what do you do? Because in the United States, we’re not going to cross that line. Maybe we expanded the line a little bit during enhanced interrogation techniques, but the line is not going to be crossed. So why go on a path that’s not taking us anywhere?
A lot of people are uncomfortable with enhanced interrogation techniques because they call them torture. But I’m hearing you saying that you’re opposed to them not so much because of their cruelty but because they don’t work?
Yeah. I oppose them mainly from an efficacy perspective, because I know the mentality of these individuals, Al Qaeda guys. I know how they think. I know what they are expecting. I know when I heard of what happens in jails around the Middle East, and the whole enhanced interrogation techniques is nothing compared to what people will get.
But at the same time, you’re opposed to how they violate the –
No, I’m opposed from a legal perspective, too. But my main opposition — and again, we’re talking about April of 2002 — there’s no enhanced interrogation techniques. There’s something like nudity and then music —
Yeah, loud music, and then sleep deprivation that’s only about, like, 24 hours, and then they said by mistake they approved it to 48 hours. That’s what existed at the time.
Later, in July and in August, these techniques became standardized as enhanced interrogation techniques. And enhanced interrogation techniques is basically the same as what I mentioned. They hit the glass ceiling with waterboarding. So what do you do? You do it again and again and again: with Abu Zubaydah, 83 times; with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 183 times. When you repeat a tactic on an individual 183 times, do you think the technique is working? Because if it’s working, you don’t need to do it 183 times. This is just logic. I wasn’t involved with the KSM interrogation, but I know that KSM had way more information than what he provided.
How do you know that?
For example, KSM gave $100,000 or $200,000 to [Jemaah Islamiyah's] Hambali as congratulations for the first Bali bombing and to do other attacks, and the other attacks took place, and we’re not able to stop it.
So back to Abu Zubaydah. So you’re there watching, and Boris is ramping up with these –
We were there watching. At the beginning, we disagreed; however, we were overruled. Basically, the interrogation, as I mentioned in the statements, one person who is a great officer, very good friend of mine, goes in, asks Abu Zubaydah, “Tell me what I need to know.” Abu Zubaydah tells him, “What do you need to know?” He walks out. OK, now Abu Zubaydah lost his clothes. Again he walks in: “Tell me what I need to know,” “Well, what do you want to know?” He walks out.
So he won’t tolerate that response?
Yeah, he walks out. Now there is loud music, so — until Abu Zubaydah figured out that he needs to cooperate. Well, this is a joke, especially that he was providing actionable intelligence before. So it didn’t work for about three or four days, and then they let us in again because the intelligence stopped.
So Steve and I walked in again, and we tried to bring Abu Zubaydah back to where we were when he was in the hospital mentally. And we get engaged with him, and he provided some good information. But then someone decided that these techniques need to be maybe refined a little bit, but then they will work. And again, we were taken out.
So you went from 24-hour sleep deprivation to 48 hours?
Yeah, and they said later that that was a mistake from some of the e-mails that was declassified now, that wasn’t actually approved, but they thought it was approved.
So it continued like this. And then we felt that every time we leave, and they started this technique again, they are basically accelerating these techniques because they are not working, like they didn’t work before to the point that Steve and I decided to report what happened to headquarters. And we had been reporting on daily reports to headquarters, but we were basically convinced that maybe headquarters is not receiving our reports. So we called, and we told them what happened, and eventually we were pulled out.
It’s stronger in the book. You were clashing with Boris; you were complaining?
Yes, we were clashing. But actually, some of the CIA guys were clashing harder than us. And actually, a CIA officer, one of their experts in the field, left even before me. And eventually, he even left the agency. I left after him.
So there were some people also from the agency that were very concerned. And we have to keep in mind, again, that this issue is not the CIA versus FBI. Many people in the CIA oppose these techniques. Now, remember why these techniques were shelved, and remember when these techniques were shelved: in 2005. And they were shelved in 2005 because so many CIA officers and analysts and employees complained to the inspector general about participating in stuff like this.
So the inspector general conducted an investigation — and this is actually in his own introduction — conducted an investigation, and the results of that investigation was a very damning CIA IG report [PDF] that said even though regular interrogation can be credited for many of the successes on the war on terror, enhanced interrogation techniques, their evaluation is not without concerns. And he continued to say that they cannot verify any actionable intelligence or any imminent plot, as he mentioned, any imminent plot [that was] stopped because of the enhanced interrogation techniques.
What can you tell us about where the orders were coming from? Where was the push coming from? From where you were sitting, what did you know about it?
From where we were sitting — the CIA, the officers; it was one team — and we were concerned. We were concerned that we were actually witnessing these kind of things and we would be held accountable for just witnessing this.
So there was requests for written approval. And the very first thing we got, that these techniques were approved by the White House, by [White House Counsel Alberto] Gonzales, and I asked, “Who’s Alberto Gonzales?” I think the CIA guy who was with me there, he said, “I think they say he’s Bush’s lawyer.” And I said, “He’s the president’s lawyer? Is he a DOJ guy?” I didn’t know. I thought maybe the president’s lawyer is from DOJ, and then we found out that he’s not a Department of Justice guy. Well, that’s not good enough. We need Department of Justice approval to witness these kind of things, to even be in the vicinity of these kind of things.
So they requested that, and then later we get that there was a meeting with some people from DOJ, and they give the verbal approval of some of these kind of things. So written approval was requested, and a lot of these things continued, but from what we understood at the time, at the very, very beginning, that it was coming from the White House, not from any other place.
This is my piece of it. I wasn’t privy to many of the other stuff that was going on. Later on, we knew from the OLC memos, from the Office of Professional Responsibility Report on the Office of the Legal Counsel, from DOJ, that there was a lot of other things going. It wasn’t as simple as what we knew on the ground.
That memos were being written and approvals were being had from DOJ as well as from the agency?
So how far did it go with Abu Zubaydah? What did you see? You left at some point, but up until that point?
Up to that point is exactly what I mentioned in my statement to the Senate. We saw nudity; we saw — I consider it comparatively [less severe] to what we had later, taking place in August, with enhanced interrogation techniques — low-intensity sleep deprivation.
There was a lot of tension between you and this contractor, Boris?
Oh, yeah. There was a tension between all of us and him. Absolutely. And I was really frustrated because I think that this is not going to lead us anywhere.
This guy admitted that he never interrogated a person in his life. He doesn’t know anything about Islamic extremists, and here he is trying to call the shots on one of the most important programs at the time in the nation’s history for antiterrorism programs, against Al Qaeda. So it was difficult to comprehend.
Did you confront him?
Yes, absolutely. We talked about it, we talked about the techniques, and I think he just thought that I was arrogant. And it was mutual; I thought he was arrogant, too, so —
How many interrogations had you done up to that point?
Oh, many. Oh, my God, Guantanamo, the Cole, bin Laden case — I don’t know, dozens.
How many had he done?
And you pointed that out to him, I assume?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I didn’t tell him how many I did, but it’s not only interrogation. More important than interrogation is knowing the enemy and knowing Al Qaeda, too. I mean, knowing how they think, how they function. Just reading a document academically doesn’t make you an expert in the group.
But here you were, somebody who had been into this –
Me and Steve Gaudin. I mean, remember, Steve Gaudin also worked Al Qaeda for a long period of time. Steve Gaudin got the confession from al-Walid in the East African embassy bombing. So Steve knows the group very well. Steve knows how to talk to these people very well. And both Steve and I developed an excellent rapport with Abu Zubaydah, and Steve was doing a phenomenal job with Abu Zubaydah. Both of us were working together.
And later, they had also an individual from the agency that came over. I mentioned him also in my statement to the Senate. And he was phenomenal; he was a great interrogator. And the three of us were tag-teaming Abu Zubaydah just to bring him back to where we want him so we can, from my perspective, fix the damage that Boris did when they put us on the sidelines for a few days.
So there was a lot of things going on at the time. And it was frustrating, because it seems that people decided back in D.C. what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is not what we can do. And eventually that led to us leaving the location, and eventually that led to the FBI not participating in the program, period.
Was any actionable intelligence or any valuable intelligence gained after Boris arrived?
Well, that’s a good question. You mean from the EITs or from the techniques that he was doing when he was there?
Well, he was the beginning of the EIT?
He was the beginning of the EITs. No, we never get any actionable intelligence or any significant intelligence comparatively to what we got before when his techniques were going on.
What happened is when — for four or five days when there was nothing going on, there was people, it seems, asking why the intelligence stopped. So they let us in again, and this is when the three of us went in, and we were tag-teaming the guy, Abu Zubaydah, and we started getting information. We continued where we stopped at the hospital. And that led us to [Jose] Padilla.
This guy’s name, who you call Boris, is known. It’s in the public record; it’s in the press. One can find out who he is easily. In the press, [he's known as Stephen Mitchell], a retired Air Force psychologist.
I was part of an operation. I respect the classification of that operation, the people. I respect the privacy of all the people who were involved in this operation. I cannot confirm or deny any of the names or locations that’s mentioned. And even when I wrote my book, no locations were mentioned, and everybody was given an alias except the people that the FBI admitted to be there, which is myself and Steve Gaudin.
So as far as you’re concerned, if the rules are that something is classified, you won’t divulge it?
Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
You say in the book this was a careless misuse of a valuable asset.
You told headquarters — put us there. What were you feeling? What were you thinking? What were you saying?
Well, I was feeling a huge amount of frustration. Here we are, we go in, Abu Zubaydah is talking to us, and someone decides, “Let’s do these techniques again, and hopefully this time it will work.” And then he stops talking. And then they want to get us in to talk to him. You know, I wish it was kind of like a good cop/bad cop situation, but it wasn’t. It was, what the heck are we doing?
At the beginning we were getting actionable intelligence. The reason they said death is not an option with Abu Zubaydah, the reason they sent a doctor from Washington to go and look into his medical situation, is because of the actionable intelligence he provided in the very first hour we spoke with him. If he didn’t provide that, he would never get that attention. But he provided something.
So why [are they] stopping it? Why experimenting? Literally, what was happening at the time is basically experimenting with some techniques that’s so foreign and so alien from the way we do things in the United States.
So against principles that –
Well, absolutely. Because one of the things we discussed among each other when we were at that undisclosed location, “So what next?” I mean, if we do these kind of things, what is the end game with Abu Zubaydah? We cannot just put a bullet in his head and bury him under a tree. That’s not what we do in the United States. So eventually, Abu Zubaydah needs to be prosecuted.
And let me tell you something about military courts. They are not kangaroo courts. I believe in the military justice system. I believe in the military commissions. I went down to Guantanamo, and I testified in the military commissions. Two of the trials that took place in Guantanamo I participated in because I helped getting the confession from [Ali Hamza] al-]Bahlul and from [Salim] Hamdan, as you know, two of the people who pled guilty in Guantanamo Bay.
I also get the confessions from and I worked with the prosecution and the defense during the process of negotiations. And I know that the military system is not a kangaroo court. So even with the military system, there is no end game for prosecution.
If you screw up the interrogation?
If you screw up the interrogation. If you went through that path of treatment. And remember, we’re talking about what was happening in April, and I left there on May 25, so I did not know what happened in June and July and August.
Aug. 1, as you know, is Judge [Jay Scott] Bybee signing the enhanced interrogation techniques memo, the OLC memo. So we were talking about these simple things that later were elevated into a technique.
That memo that authorized enhanced interrogation techniques had claims in it that those techniques worked?
Had claims to it, and we knew about that before. After we came back, Steve and I, there were stories that were published how enhanced interrogation techniques and how that program, back in I think ’04 –some stories start coming out.
The stories were coming around?
When we came back, there were stories coming out that enhanced interrogation techniques, that this program gave what we need; this program identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of 9/11. This program identified Jose Padilla as a dirty bomber, all the stuff that we now know of. In the OLC memo, especially in the Bradbury memo, [written by Steven Bradbury, acting head of the OLC], you will see that he mentioned that you’ve told us it’s waterboarding that caused KSM to identify Padilla as a dirty bomber who wanted to detonate a dirty bomb in the D.C. area.
Well, there is some problem here. There is some problem with the Bradbury memo; there is some problem in the OLC memos. There’s some problem in the alleged efficacy memo that was quoted in the OLC memos. And the problem is enhanced interrogation techniques did not start until Aug. 1, Aug. 1 of 2002. Padilla was in custody in May of 2002, so how come a guy arrested in May of 2002, after an international manhunt, was arrested because of results of a technique that did not start until August?
It didn’t officially start until August, but in fact Boris was there about a month after you got there, no?
Well, absolutely. However, 10 days. But no, waterboarding wasn’t there, waterboarding as a technique.
So those claims about waterboarding are false?
Those claims about waterboarding is totally false. And it’s not only me who’s saying that these techniques are false. If you look at the Office of Professional Responsibility, the OPR report, they specifically mention that. They actually went back, and they looked at the alleged efficacy of the Padilla thing. And I urge you to look at it and show the viewer.
You go back to the OPR report and see what they said about this specific issue, about basically the idea of KSM and the idea of Padilla. In the efficacy memo, they claim that Padilla was picked up in May of 2003, not May 2002. So then it makes sense. Abu Zubaydah wasn’t cooperating; we start enhanced interrogation techniques in August; finally he identified Padilla, and we arrested Padilla in May of 2003. However, we know that Padilla was picked up in 2002. And they asked, I think, Mr. Bradbury, about this. I think his answer was he’s not there to check the accuracy of the information that people give him; he was just putting [out] the legal opinion. And that’s a debatable issue.
However, the fact that these techniques did not provide what we were told they provided has been reported in government documents to include the DOJ report on the treatment of detainees, and also to include the Office of Professional Responsibility report on the Office of the Legal Counsel, the OPR report on the Office of Legal Counsel. So this is not only what I am saying; this is a result of an investigation that has been declassified, for the most part, by the U.S. government.
And that’s why I only talk to you about things that’s already in the public domain. And the public domain, I don’t mean what’s probably mentioned in The New York Times. By public domain, I mean what has been declassified by the United States government of official government reports and investigations in this matter.
[Are these claims in these reports lies?]
The reports are not lies, but what’s mentioned in them, yes. They are misinformation. Padilla was not picked up in May of 2003; Padilla was picked up in May 2002. And if you say Padilla was picked up in May of 2002, that means it’s not enhanced interrogation techniques that gets Padilla, absolutely, unless you have a time machine and are going backward.
You were there and heard that [DCI] Tenet had called the location where you were doing the interrogation — Thailand, as far as I understand — and congratulated the CIA officers there for the information they were able to extract?
I cannot confirm to you, as you know, where the location was.
However, what’s in my book, I said that we were told at the very beginning, immediately upon the arrest of Abu Zubaydah, as I mentioned, from the first hour we got information, actionable intelligence. So when that was reported in the morning meeting, it was reported to the leadership of the agency. And at that time, we heard, we were told, Steve and I, from people who were there, that the DCI wanted to congratulate [them] because, first of all, Abu Zubaydah is the first high-value target.
Second, immediately he’s talking. So he wanted to congratulate the people who were involved in that interrogation. And that’s very, very good. It’s good for a leader to do that. And he asked who they were, and they told him it’s FBI. And if I’m him, I will do the same thing as he did.
I was upset why my people are not there, why CTC is not there. I mean, the location is agency location, the people who were helping us and supporting us over there. We went there to just guide the interrogations. However, the people who were supposed to do it from CTC didn’t show up. They were also agency people. We were working as one team.
But you know what? I don’t blame him. Why [did we fly] people from the FBI over there, but there’s no people from CTC? I mean, that’s a very good point. And we were told about that, and he was frustrated, and he ordered CTC to go there. And a few days later, CTC showed up.
And that’s when the trouble started?
Boris begins to enforce nudity, loud rock music?
Yeah, it’s all these things that later became part of enhanced interrogation techniques.
You’re upset about this. You call back to the headquarters. What do you say? What are you feeling? What are you thinking?
I conveyed what was happening, and we were told to basically wait, don’t participate. Go out of the location for a couple of days, go to different areas and wait for what the headquarters will decide. And later, the decision was that we don’t do that.
But you had done so much work at this point in your career to try to win this battle against Al Qaeda, to win the war against Al Qaeda. And here you were — I mean, you must have had a sense of it sort of slipping away from your –
Well, absolutely we were frustrated. But we were frustrated because we felt we were losing an opportunity, you know? We felt that let’s not waste our time experimenting when we know us and the CIA can actually do the job. We don’t need outside contractors to tell us how to do the job.
Then why weren’t you being listened to?
I don’t know. I would like to tell you; I would like to get answers. I’ve been reading a lot of things, a lot of different theories. But I would like to stick to the facts, and I really have no idea until today.
[If you want to know what worked and what didn't work with Abu Zubaydah, why wouldn't you just look at the videotapes?] Everything was videotaped?
Well, we know that now, and the videotapes were destroyed.
The videotapes of his interrogation –
– of Boris’s interrogations were all destroyed?
Who did it?
Well, there’s a big investigation into that, as you know. But my notes are still there, all the notes that we took, all the reports that we wrote and we sent to headquarters about what happened day-to-day and what we were able to get from him, the frustrations that Steve and I were going through, and other CIA guys on the ground. All of it exists.
As far as you’re concerned, this is a totally mishandled opportunity and mucked-up investigation?
Yeah, I believe so. I think we mishandled it.
And if we’d wanted to, we could have gotten to the bottom of it. But at this point?
You know, I would like to have an answer. I would like to tell you that I know what happened. My involvement with that was with Abu Zubaydah — the reason I spoke out in my editorial, “My Tortured Decision,” is after the OLC memos have been declassified, all the alleged successes that was given to these techniques when they were applied on Abu Zubaydah, I felt that they were false. I know that they were false. And that’s why I wanted to correct history.
So the kind of credit that was given to people like the vice president?
Absolutely. This was all false.
KSM was not the product of enhanced interrogation techniques. Padilla was not the product of waterboarding. A lot of the other techniques, a lot of the other threats we know about now, about parking-building threats, the Brooklyn Bridge threats and a lot of the other threats, that was not because of enhanced interrogation techniques.
A lot of the information we got from him regarding other individuals, we got it from him when Steve and I were there, and that was not part of enhanced interrogation techniques.
And you decided to go public in 2009 with your editorial because you saw that it was becoming conventional wisdom that these –
Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to give another voice to the truth. Unfortunately, there was a significant amount of attacks against the attorney general at the time for declassifying the Office of Legal Counsel memos. And I think the attacks were not fair. I don’t believe the techniques helped to save America.
I agree with what the CIA inspector general concluded, that we cannot verify that one, not one single imminent threat, was stopped because of these techniques. That’s very significant, and that’s not coming from DOJ; that’s not coming from Congress; it’s coming from the CIA IG.
I’m not saying the CIA program was not successful. The CIA program was very successful. But the CIA program was not only enhanced interrogation techniques, and it’s not fair for the CIA to say that their whole entire program was based on the techniques brought to the agency by Boris and others, you know? Waterboarding, for example — only three people went through waterboarding.
The former vice president always talks about waterboarding. If it was so successful, only three people went through waterboarding. The techniques were repeated dozens and dozens of times, and we didn’t get any actionable intelligence from them, and that was documented. So what is so successful about that program?
So what does this come from? Is this a sort of cowboy mentality that people like Ali Soufan are soft and that these are the kind of techniques that just —
Well, this is a mentality of people who never fought a war. This is a mentality of people who never met a terrorist. This is the mentality of people who never disrupted one terrorist plot, [who] never interrogated anyone, and they can talk tough and talk macho from the sidelines.
I don’t know. They’re probably trying to compensate for something. But people in the field, CIA people in the field, real officers, real FBI agents in the field — I don’t think Gen. [David] Petraeus, for example, or some other military commanders are soft. They were against these techniques because they know the implications of these techniques, because we know now from so many reports what was the number one reason freedom fighters were coming to Iraq to kill our soldiers and create chaos in Iraq. And it was as declared by DoD, the Department of Defense, the Abu Ghraib pictures.
So we look at it from an efficacy perspective. We’re not looking at it from, “Well, we’re soft on the terrorists.” We’re not soft on the terrorists. The history of those people who opposed these techniques speaks for itself.
Talk about the interrogation of [Ibn al-Sheikh] al-Libi.
I wasn’t involved in this interrogation.
But you’re heavily critical of it?
Absolutely. I heard about a lot of the things. Some of the stuff that I heard about is still classified; some of the things we can talk about. However, I think it’s very interesting to look into the declassified [Defense Intelligence Agency] report … specifically about Ibn Sheikh al-Libi.
And this is a perfect example about the difference between compliance and between cooperation that I was talking to you about earlier. Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, after real macho interrogation — I’m saying that sarcastically, definitely —
This is enhanced interrogation techniques?
And other. This is enhanced interrogation techniques on steroids. He admitted that Al Qaeda and Saddam were working together. He admitted that Al Qaeda and Saddam were working together on WMDs [weapons of mass destruction]. That information was widely celebrated with those who were trying to convince the American people about the need to go to Iraq. It was given as evidence to Secretary [of State Colin] Powell, and Colin Powell went to the U.N., and behind him Director Tenet, and he specifically talked about Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, mentioning him by name.
They declassified the interrogation of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, the results of it, for that reason. And he mentioned to the world how Al Qaeda and Saddam are working together and how they are developing a WMD program. Everybody remembers that speech.
After we went to Iraq, after we found out that there’s no WMDs, after we found out that Al Qaeda and Saddam were not working together, they went back to Ibn Sheikh al-Libi — and this is all according to the Armed Services Committee, and they asked him, “Why did you lie?” He said, “Well, I gave you what you want to hear.”
Absolutely. “I want the torture to stop. I gave you anything you want to hear. That’s what you want; I gave you that.”
That is extremely important. And that is the difference between compliance and between cooperation. At the time, if you are waiting for that link that doesn’t exist, you can definitely celebrate it. And how the heck are you going to listen to some insignificant FBI agent or CIA officer telling you that these techniques don’t work? I just got what I want. I got the evidence that I always knew existed, and you never gave it to me because of these techniques.
You want to tell me it doesn’t work? But is it true? That’s a very different question. That is the difference between compliance and cooperation. What we got with Abu Jandal was cooperation.
But the consequences of –
Tragic, absolutely. The world is different. Look at all the blood that we lost in Iraq. Look at our economy because of two wars. Look at how the Iraq war helped Al Qaeda, both with recruits and financially. It’s tragic. It’s tragic. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, absolutely. After 9/11, we had the sympathy of every country around the world. That was not the same after the Iraq war. It’s tragic. This is compliance versus cooperation.
Next, you find yourself in Guantanamo. One of the people you talked to down there is [Mohammed -- the Mahdi -- al-]Qahtani?
You talked to him for a short time?
About two days, maybe. Two to three days maximum, something like that.
And then what happened?
And then I was asked to go to another interrogation outside the island. So I left the island because I was going from one place to another at the time. And we kept Qahtani with the CITF [Criminal Investigation Task Force] and people who were interrogating him from the bureau. First there was a decision that was made to take Qahtani out of the general population because he was identified as the 20th hijacker.
At the time, the jail was different than it was now, the detention facility down there. And the worst thing you can do is identify a 20th hijacker and keep him with all his buddies. So we needed to isolate him, and the only place to isolate at the time from general population, partly for his safety, partly for the interrogation, is the brig. And the brig was the prison, the military prison, where if I get arrested in Guantanamo or you did some violation in Guantanamo, or any of our soldiers or officers, they will end up in it. It’s very small, just a few rooms. So the decision was made to take him to a regular prison from the detention facility. And there was a lot of stories that has been told about that specific move.
What happened to him?
We continued to talk to him ourselves, meaning the FBI guys, the FBI team, Behavior[al] Analysis Unit, some people from CITF. And then later on, about three or four days later, he was taken away from us, and we did not continue with him. And he was taken to an equivalent, if you want to call it, a Guantanamo equivalent of enhanced interrogation techniques.
So again, like Abu Zubaydah, he was taken away?
I don’t know the stuff that he went through firsthand, but I know what I read later about what he went through, and it seems actually, to be honest with you, worse than Abu Zubaydah. I don’t know.
What did you read?
Stuff that has been public, stuff that was mentioned in newspapers and magazines about Qahtani. A couple of times they had to take him to the hospital because his blood pressure went down, and he went through some very bad treatment and [was] attacked by dogs and stuff like that, or [they] made him act as if he’s a dog, something like that. I don’t remember.
They used dogs on him?
I don’t remember all the details, but something from the public domain.
And they stripped him naked and asked him to do dog tricks, perform like a dog?
Yeah, something like that.
[Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey] Miller, who’s been asked to run the place, this happens under his watch?
Yeah, sure. I mean, we start seeing that happening when Gen. Miller went down there.
And again, this is a missed opportunity, because now — we already identified him as being the 20th hijacker. We already have a strong circumstantial case against him as being the 20th hijacker. But he is one of the muscle guys, and because of everything he went through, the U.S. government had to drop the case. Under President Bush, we had to drop the case against Qahtani.
Because of the techniques that had been used against him, the torture?
Absolutely. So now we cannot prosecute him. This is just another example of another missed opportunity. Here you have the 20th hijacker — remember, that’s important. Remember all the hype about [Zacarias] Moussaoui being the 20th? He wasn’t the 20th hijacker. This is the 20th hijacker.
So he was an important –
Absolutely. We have evidence; we have plane tickets; we have communications, phone numbers, calls that took place from the terminal to Mustafa al-Hawsawi, the financial coordinator for 9/11 attack, and he was in the United Arab Emirates at the time. We have all this communication going on. We have a very strong circumstantial case against him, and everything needs to be dropped because of the techniques.
So another detainee, another potential –
Absolutely. We have the 20th hijacker just sitting, and nobody knows what to do with him.
You write about the visit that took place from some officials from Washington in September of 2002?
What was the significance of that?
This is where bureaucrats from Washington, not operational people, not people who were basically CIA experts or FBI experts or DoD experts, operational people, just lawyers from different departments, came to Guantanamo, and they believe they know how to do interrogations. And with them they brought that similar concept to what we know as enhanced interrogation techniques, that things need to be shaken up a little bit down in Guantanamo Bay.
In other words, these officials come down, and they decide to bring to Guantanamo what had been used on the –
And maybe they believe it was successful, because if you look at the efficacy memo, [it] just changed dates. … So when you change dates, yeah, definitely it makes sense.
There’s a huge series here of lost opportunities. You also had successes along the way that only underscore the fact that your interrogations were producing good information. But it’s an enormously frustrating tale across the decade, and a tremendously frustrating tale, because you’d had opportunities to do things that we’ll never know. Had you been able to interrogate KSM or Khalid?
I don’t know how successful I’ll be with KSM because I didn’t know much about him.
There’s other people on my squad that knew about him, specifically one individual I believe who knew about him more than anyone else. But Khalid —
But let’s just say that –
Khalid is a perfect example. Khalid is a guy that I knew a lot about him before, from the Cole, East Africa, from sources. So yeah, that’s a perfect example. The people who knew about Khalid and the people who were involved in the Cole investigation, for example, myself, Bob McFadden from NCIS, other people from the Cole team, unfortunately we were not given access to Khalid at the time.
He went through a program that was off-limits, so we didn’t talk to him. And you always wonder, what if the people who knew the most about the individual were granted access to that individual, what could have happened? …
Your conviction is that these attacks in London, Madrid, progress could have been made into investigating and perhaps stopping them. People who knew those people –
My point is, my conviction is, Al Qaeda is not that huge an organization. Al Qaeda is a small organization. And if they are planning to do something, if they were conducting terrorist attacks, the top leaders of the group, these attacks don’t just happen overnight. They think about it, and they go and blow it up. We know the Cole, it took about a year. East Africa [embassies] bombing, a few years. They take their time.
9/11, it took a long period of time. It takes a long time to do an operation. And when you have the military commander of Al Qaeda, the person in charge of all operations of Al Qaeda, terrorist operation, KSM, when you have the main admin guy for the terrorist branch of Al Qaeda, the eyes and ears, errand boy of bin Laden, every terrorist plot — we saw him involved in East Africa; we saw him involved in the Cole; and then we saw him involved in 9/11, Khalid — why didn’t you have all these people in custody, and we were not able to arrest any cell around the world based on that information?
That makes me ask the questions. It’s a very simple thing. I don’t know the answer for it, but I think it’s very illogical from a person who knew the organization, who worked against the organization for a long period of time.
I find it impossible to believe that we could not disrupt terrorist cells around the world based on knowledge that KSM or Khalid or [chief of military operations] Nashiri might have.
And your contention is that we went down the wrong path exploring, experimenting with enhanced interrogation techniques?
Right. Again, I don’t know what happened with Khalid. I know what you know from things that have been declassified. Nor with KSM.
I did not have access to these interrogations. However, they never claim any of the successes of enhanced interrogation techniques. They never claimed it came from KSM or from Khalid or from Nashiri. They never claimed that. They claimed it came from Abu Zubaydah. That was the example. Those are the things that even President Bush in 2006 mentioned. KSM, dirty bomb — these are the things.
Well, with all due respect, if you want to talk about KSM, if you want to talk about Padilla, if you want to talk about the Brooklyn Bridge, if you want to talk about gas stations, if you want to talk about apartment buildings, all these things, I know how and when we got this information.
Before there were any enhanced interrogation techniques?
It does kind of strike you that this is a group of how many people roughly, all together, in Al Qaeda?
Well, on the eve of 9/11, there were probably around 400.
So 400 guys?
They lasted in a war, longest [of] World War I, World War II and Vietnam War. Now, these guys, to be honest with you, they’re not the smartest people in the world — as I mentioned, many different operations that failed and how they were doing it.
So you want to tell me 400 people, they were able to last in a war longer than Nazi Germany, right? Cost us billions of dollars, and we are the most powerful and the richest country on earth. So that means there’s something wrong [with what] we’re doing. Don’t tell me we’re doing everything right and we’re able to let these guys fight with us for all these years?
A good example of this is the interrogation you had with al-Battar?
This is an example. You know, we have so much bureaucracy going on where we didn’t need a bureaucracy. And where you need oversight and bureaucracy, you had none.
What happened with al-Battar? Who was he, and what happened?
Well, al-Battar was very close to bin Laden. He basically facilitated bin Laden’s marriage to the Yemeni woman. His last wife was found with him.
He was sent to Yemen to fetch a wife for Osama bin Laden?
Yes. And he told us about this. And he basically had a condition. He said, “Look, I know of you; I heard of you from Hamdan.”
Another detainee down there. And he said that “Hamdan decided to cooperate with you. He told me that you can be trusted. I will cooperate with you, but I need one thing. I need to check on my wife and see if she made it home OK.” And at the time we thought, OK, that’s great, if it can make him cooperate.
Home from Afghanistan back to Yemen?
Home from Afghanistan to Yemen. And we thought it was great if we can have this individual cooperate. So he gave me half of his confession, stuff that he believed that we knew, maybe. He talked about a suicide note that he took, a martyrdom note that he [took], talked about different things. And then also in the same time he said, “Look, I’ll give you the other half and more information if I can make the call.”
And one of the interesting things at the time, we thought, my God, he is connected. He’s kind of related to bin Laden’s wife. He’s very close. They are from the same area, and he helped him bringing her to Afghanistan. So hopefully, if we at least get the number, we can see what’s going on with the wife, because if you get to the wife, maybe you can get to bin Laden, because we believed that the wife might be with bin Laden.
You need to help him get his phone call because you want to hear the other half of his confession?
Absolutely. And so we made the argument. We also made the argument that it’s a win-win situation for us.
You made the argument to the authorities at Guantanamo?
To CITF and the bureau, made the argument with, I think, authorities, at the time Gen. Miller. And if we can have him call his wife, we most probably know the wife’s number. …
The Yemeni wife?
The Yemeni wife. And recently, when bin Laden was finally killed and got what he deserved, she was with him. Unfortunately, they told us no.
Miller told you no?
They basically said that he cannot approve it himself; it needs to go to the Pentagon, and it needs to be approved by, what we were told at the time, Deputy Secretary of State Wolfowitz. We waited and waited and waited, and the approval never came. So finally we left, and we never went back to al-Battar. We never went back and talked to him.
You never went back and told him, “I’m sorry, I can’t give you a phone call”?
No, actually I told him, “Sorry, I cannot give you a phone call, and we can’t,” and he did not want to continue.
So you double-crossed him?
No, I didn’t.
You made a deal with him, and then you said you –
We made a deal, but the deal was he gives half the confession and the other half if I was able to get him a phone call. We never promised him a phone call.
And I went down there, and I basically told him, “Sorry, I couldn’t deliver.”
So another opportunity lost?
You know, and I don’t know if that could have led us, but that was a lead.
When you are looking for bin Laden, how many leads did you have at the time? That was a lead. That’s why we have Guantanamo Bay in the first place. And later on, we knew that actually bin Laden’s wife was with him, and there are some press reports that her family might have been — especially when she delivered a baby — might have been in contact with her at one point.
So we don’t know. Maybe it could have got us somewhere, maybe not. But that was, I believe, the missed opportunity, and a significant missed opportunity.
There was another trail, and that was the one of Ahmed al-Qadi [also known as Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti]?
Let me talk about what has been released by the government and about information that I wasn’t privy to when I was in the government.
Al-Qadi is a perfect example about the lack of efficacy of enhanced interrogation techniques. Perfect example. And this is from everything that I’ve read and has been released by the administration since the bin Laden operation took place.
First of all, what we were told, and this is from the U.S. government, from all the releases and what they were saying after bin Laden was killed, that KSM was asked about al-Qadi after he was waterboarded, and he downplayed al-Qadi.
… When Abu Faraj al-Libi was caught, he also downplayed the role of al-Qadi. When Hassan Ghul was caught in Iraq, the Pakistani Al Qaeda operative who was arrested in Iraq, from what we know from Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein [D-Calif.], before he went through any program, he basically said that if you want to reach KSM or any of the leaders, he used to go through al-Qadi.
Including Osama bin Laden?
Right. And that made the analysts say: “Wait a second. Why [are] KSM and al-Libi lying about the importance of this guy?”
Two guys who had been subjected to torture?
Exactly. So he must be important. Now, if this is your example of efficacy of enhanced interrogation techniques –?
And he [Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti] turns out to be bin Laden’s courier?
He turns out to be the courier. He turns up to be a protégé of KSM. He’s a Pakistani Kuwaiti. And who’s also a Pakistani Kuwaiti? KSM. He turned up to be very high and essential for even Al Qaeda guesthouses that was operated by KSM.
And further on down the line, it turns out to be the guy who’s visiting Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad –
Living with him, his link to the world.
His link, his courier?
His link to the world, the protégé of KSM, who basically shared the same background with KSM, and that’s why KSM most probably trusted him with the most important operation in Al Qaeda, which is the life of the leader, of Osama bin Laden.
KSM trusted the Kuwaiti with the most important operation. Why? Because al-Qadi is basically very similar to KSM. Even the background is very similar — Kuwaitis, Pakistani, worked for KSM, was involved in a lot of the planning or a lot of the support of the 9/11 plot and so forth.
Unfortunately, he didn’t say after 183 sessions of waterboarding —
You’re going to be criticized. This book is an attack on CIA, some interrogation techniques that you disapproved of?
No, this is an attack on enhanced interrogation techniques. This is an attack on the failure of 9/11.
This is not in any way an attack on the CIA, absolutely not. Actually, if you look at the acknowledgement section, I dedicated this book not only to FBI and DoD people, but also to CIA officers.
But how will it be perceived?
I don’t care. I don’t care how it’s perceived.
The truth hurts. The truth hurts.
It was a CIA program?
Well, it was part of a CIA program, yes. The CIA was trusted with that program, yes, to run.
And supported by the White House, Department of Justice?
And the Pentagon?
Absolutely. So just to say I’m criticizing the CIA? No, that’s not true. I’m criticizing everyone who basically allowed this program to happen. And I’m telling them the truth.
Maybe deeply in their heart, maybe they don’t know the truth. Maybe they are reading some efficacy memos that we know now from government reports. I did not see the efficacy memo, but I know what the efficacy memos are talking about from all of the declassified government reports that has been made public recently, and they include false information.
People in those organizations –
Now, the government reports that I’m talking about evaluated the efficacy memos and concluded that the efficacy memos include false information or was based on false information.
There are still those who are going to come out and retaliate against your claims.
Absolutely. And they’ve done that when I testified in the Senate. They’ve done that when I wrote my op-eds on these kind of things. I’m not running for a popularity contest here.
You say the truth. The truth hurts some people, especially people who build their career and build their reputation on that false narrative. And I assume we’re going to be attacked, absolutely.
Why is this so important to you, to come forward with this at this point in time?
Because this is, for me, still part of the oath that I took to protect this nation. And when we see a false narrative going in America, shame on us, shame on me, shame on anyone who knew the truth to keep their mouth shut because they are scared of being attacked. 9/11, the war against Al Qaeda, is something very significant.
It’s something that changed my life forever. I will never be the same as I was before after I went through what I went through. And to just say to the American people that this narrative is true, believe it, because if you don’t speak out, shame on you. That’s what you are trying to say.
You’re helping in selling the lie. And that’s why I felt, since all these things have been declassified, I felt that it is my duty to history, my duty to my colleagues who are still in the government, my duty to the future of anyone who wants to join this kind of work, to tell them my piece of history and to tell them what I believe, what I witnessed, what I believe is the truth.
Can you tell if this is a story of the arrogance of those who don’t know what they’re talking about, who had no experience in interrogations, who were bureaucrats, all the way up to the vice president, the president?
Right. And one of the things that frustrates me the most is when we talk about this, people immediately say, “Well, it’s FBI versus CIA,” or, “There is another FBI agent attacking CIA,” or, “There’s a CIA officer attacking the FBI.” This is not about that. That’s why a lot of people didn’t understand why I was against prosecution of CIA officers, because I worked with these guys. I know how patriotic these guys are. And you tell them to do something and then you don’t prosecute the people who told them to do it? You prosecute the people who were doing it? What kind of a message are you sending to everyone in the community? And the CIA program, if you want to call it the CIA program, the enhanced interrogation techniques program, wasn’t stopped because of me, wasn’t stopped because of any FBI agent. It was stopped because of CIA officers who complained to their IG about that.
And every time somebody criticized the CIA interrogation program, you know, or every time somebody criticized enhanced interrogation techniques, they said, “Hey, you’re criticizing the CIA interrogation program.” No, we’re not, because there’s two elements of the CIA interrogation program, and that’s evidenced in the CIA IG report.
There’s EIT that did not result in stopping any imminent threat. At least the IG, after looking at every piece of documents, could not confirm that, right? And then you have the regular interrogation program, playing people against each other, pocket computers, information that we found, all these kind of things, which I put the Abu Zubaydah interrogation under this classification. And that was successful. And the CIA did a phenomenal job in doing their job.
Until Boris showed up?
Well, and even after Boris, because Boris was not the CIA. I think it’s not fair to basically summarize the agency and all their efforts and all their sacrifices with some techniques that Boris brought to the table.
Right. But these were techniques that were promulgated from on high, from the White House, from the Pentagon?
That’s what I experienced.
And from DOJ and from the agency and no one has gone to jail over this; no one has paid for this; no one has been held accountable for this at a high level?
Right. And one of the things that we need to do is basically, so these things won’t happen again, so history won’t repeat itself again, right, we need to say the truth.
And do you believe that people should be prosecuted for this, not the CIA agents as you pointed out, I understand, but people who –
Come on. You know, is there a political will to go and investigate all the way up to the White House? That’s not going to happen, so why even —
I’m asking if it should happen, if it would be better for the country if –
I think it will be better for the country to do some kind of a truth commission, yeah, absolutely, for what happened, not necessarily prosecuting people.
Or was it mistakes made?
Or was it mistakes made? That answer, I believe that it was mistakes made, and I believe that the people who made these mistakes are [too] arrogant to admit that they made a mistake.
You go further than that in the book. You say it’s not just mistakes made; it’s lies told; it’s cover-ups?
Well, this fits with the people who made the mistakes are [too] arrogant to admit it. So, yes. Yeah, absolutely. And they lied.
I believe the president of the United States was not told the truth. President Bush was not told the truth. I truly believe so. I truly believe so. I don’t think President Bush will basically lie to the American people about KSM or waterboarding or anything like that. He truly believed that.
He believed that it was working?
He believed it was working. And why not? I mean, if you look at the OLC —
If it were working, would you have been in favor of it, if you know that it was working?
If it was saving lives? Look, if it was saving lives and I saw it saving lives, I hate to tell you, and probably I will be attacked, but yes, maybe.
Yeah. It’s very hard. It’s very hard.
If you’re saving a life and that life is your brother, or that life is your mother, or that life is your son, it’s very difficult. And I’m a counterterrorism agent. I live in different shades of gray.
But these different shades of gray have a big frame, and it’s the Constitution. I understand that. But if somebody in DOJ is telling me that this is legal, and there’s a little bit of exercise that I’m doing is providing actionable intelligence and saving lives in the United States or abroad, I think yeah, maybe.
But because I know for a fact it didn’t and it’s kind of like saying, “If ice is hot like tea, would you like it?,” you follow what I’m saying? I know that this technique —
But could you ever imagine a situation in which you would engage in some form of physical, harsh interrogation technique if you were pressed and needed information from somebody? Do you think there’s ever a circumstance under which that would work?
It’s difficult to say.
It’s a hypothetical.
It’s very hypothetical. It’s a ticking-bomb theory. And we were given the ticking-bomb theory. The ticking-bomb theory is nothing something that you can see in real-life operation. This is lawyers debating issues, these kind of things, talking about it from a philosophical, or Hollywood trying to convey a message in 45 minutes or half-an-hour TV show, right? …
In your view, why did it take so long for us to kill Osama bin Laden?
I don’t believe we did it right. People who were experts in the field and work in Al Qaeda or expert interrogators or collection officers or counterterrorism officials, CIA, basically we were sidelined. And we trusted the job to contractors, outside contractors who never were [involved in] these things before. This is one element of it.
Another element is we did not understand the enemy. Sun Tzu said a long time ago, “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you will win a thousand times and a thousand battles.” Unfortunately, we forgot about who we are and we didn’t take time to understand our enemy.
You’re saying the reason why we didn’t get bin Laden is we farmed it out and we subcontracted and the people who were doing the interrogations didn’t understand the enemy?
But we could have done it right?
Absolutely. We could have worked together. We could have totally eliminated the Chinese wall that prevented the FBI to work the CIA in one of the most important programs in the United States. As in the FBI, we have a lot to bring to the table.
The interrogation, the investigative elements, yeah, it has a lot to bring to the table — the intelligence, the operations. And I think we owed the American people after 9/11 to work together very closely, especially in dismantling the organization of Al Qaeda. Unfortunately, because of the enhanced interrogation technique program, we lost an opportunity to work together.
A major loss, in your view?
I think so —
I mean, this is why you think we took so long?
I think so, yeah.
And this is dismantled in 2005?
Well, the program was dismantled [in] 2005, but remember, secret jails continued, programs — you know, in so many ways, continues. And these walls that the FBI did not want to participate in such programs, you know, they also continued.
If I can go back over this, when Gen. Miller took over Guantanamo, how did things change?
I think it became different. I think we start seeing some division between some military groups doing their own thing and the CITF.
You write about it in the book as if it was a big sea change in the way it was done; that you were given set start times, set finish times; that this was his idea of running military operations.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Interrogations became like an efficient military operation.
But they weren’t efficient.
Well, they’re not. And there’s no cookie-cutter approach, as I mentioned. There’s no silver bullet in any of these things, and you have to adapt. And he needs that many interviews done. “This is how the interview will be done, from this time to this time.” Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.
What kind of experience did he bring to the job?
I used to fly down to Guantanamo on specific missions, talk to specific individuals on leave. So I did not have the opportunity to deal directly with Gen. Miller. But everything I know is through secondhand information, I think hearsay, as they say, from commanders on the ground who were down there.
They were experiencing frustrations in dealing with Gen. Miller, especially when they start feeling that there was methods being brought to Guantanamo that does not fit with the mission down in Guantanamo.
Enhanced interrogation –
Absolutely, absolutely. Similar to enhanced interrogation techniques. …
And Ramzi bin al-Shibh was arrested on the first anniversary, and another guy is taken in. You’re allowed to interview them for a spell.
And from the second guy, whose name is redacted from your book, you’re able to learn some things?
We were able to learn some things. Unfortunately, everything that we were able to learn has also been redacted, but it led us to initiate an investigation in Yemen. I’m going to continue with what has been redacted today, even though I truly don’t believe that this needs to be redacted. But —
What was the “crystal ball memo”?
It was a memo that we put together based on many different things — based on working with the fusion cell that was headed by Col. Scott Duke in Yemen and when we believed there was a possible plot to attack an oil tanker in Yemen.
You wrote a memo that this was imminent?
Yeah. And that was based on the investigation that he put together.
And what was the result of it?
Nothing. Basically we were not given the opportunity to work to disrupt this plot because they basically believed that some people believed that [we were] making things up —
Who believed that you were making things up?
It’s as difficult to say who without discussing the redactions in the book, but — the resistance came from the agency, you know, at the time the embassy — remember, the agency has to have a lead on counterterrorism.
So the State Department and the CIA –
Well, the State Department has to concur with the CIA.
And they didn’t go forward, and then what happened?
Well, DoD had to stand down, because I was working through the fusion cell. I think they sincerely believed that we have no case here. But you know, we’re seeing things. When they tell you, “Well, we really don’t know what’s happening; we don’t know this information that you’re talking about; this is not intelligence that can be verified,” they give you examples, and they give you stories. And unfortunately everything we mentioned happened. And an attack took place against an oil tanker in Al Mukalla, [Yemen].
Tragically, but luckily also at the same time, if there’s any luck that only one person get killed, and the two suicide bombers.
And tens of thousands of barrels of oil spilled into the gulf –
But the memo predicted this?
And the attack went forward?
It could have been stopped?
Absolutely. No doubt.
What are you most proud of?
Being an FBI agent, serving in the bureau. Yeah, my time was over.
Why did you leave?
It’s an accumulation of a lot of the stuff we discussed. You just feel that you overstayed your welcome. You feel that you’re creating more problems for your organization, for the relationship of your organization with other entities.
The bureau has always been great with me. I love the FBI. Director Mueller has been great with me, and the FBI always supported me. And I really appreciate that.
Even when I spoke out, they never at any time tried to censor me at all. They always were there. All my friends, my best friends, people I hang out with, are still FBI agents.
So yes, I’m proud of everything that I accomplished in the FBI. I’m proud of a lot of the friendships I had during my time in the government with people from different entities — DoD, CIA. And part of me is proud of the enemies that I made.
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