John Rizzo: CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation “Necessary and Effective”
September 13, 2011, 2:24 pm ET
A 34-year agency veteran, Rizzo has been described as “the most influential career lawyer in CIA history.” He was the agency’s acting general counsel during the implementation of its controversial “enhanced interrogation” program, which he says the CIA undertook because “measures like this were the only possible effective way to glean” critical intelligence from high-value detainees. Though he says the program was necessary and effective, one “major mistake” he believes the CIA made was not briefing more members of Congress about it. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 8, 2011.
Prior to 9/11, what was the state of information sharing between the bureau, the FBI, and the agency, the CIA? And why?
Short statement, it was a work in progress.
At that point, I had been in the agency for a quarter of a century, so I had had an opportunity to see the relationship between CIA and FBI as it existed and evolved over the years. And it was always clear there was a considerable difference of cultures between the two organizations. There’s always been a cultural divide between the two organizations.
I think beginning with the leadership of Louis Freeh on the FBI side and George Tenet on the CIA side, the relationship was starting to improve. There was more communication, better communication. But it hadn’t arrived at the point, I think, either [as] Freeh or Tenet wanted it to be.
“I continue to believe that the [EIT] program was necessary and effective and that there was no practical alternative other than the one we chose. I can’t think of a single thing I could have done or would have done differently.”
And to some extent, there was a competition, always has been a competition. And in the early years of the ’90s, of course, with the early terrorist acts and prosecutions, there was, I wouldn’t say conflict, but debate about use of intelligence for prosecutions — how much could be used, how much had to be protected.
So by the time 9/11 happened, as I say, I think it was improving. But I don’t think anyone probably on either side would say it was anywhere close to where it needed to be.
There’s an investigation going on of the Cole bombing, and the FBI agents on the ground are frustrated that they’re not getting information from the agency. They called it “the wall.” What explanation could you give for there to be a failure of intelligence sharing?
This is kind of a complicated answer. I’ll try not to be legalistic.
“The wall” was a shorthand term of art used to describe the limitations on intelligence sharing, mostly, at least almost exclusively, in the electronic surveillance area between the FBI and CIA with respect to electronic surveillance conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act [FISA].
That is where the word “the wall” came to be. Part of it was a function of the so-called FISA Court [or FISC, U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] — what was allowed to be shared between the two agencies.
Just to put it in sort of simplistic form, there are intelligence investigations for which FISA Court warrants are obtained. They can evolve into criminal investigations, law enforcement investigations.
The wall came into play at that point in the process of how much of a law enforcement investigation could be shared with the intelligence community, and when the intelligence community would be required or authorized to share raw intelligence with the law enforcement community. So that was basically the wall.
So if I understand you correctly, if there is evidence that is acquired through means that are not going to be allowable in court, for example, if evidence is produced through a wiretap that was not warranted, then that information shouldn’t be shared and therefore [could] taint a criminal investigation?
Yeah. Basically, the requirements for a law enforcement wiretap is what we call — again, we’re getting into the weeds, but — Title III, criminal warrants for electronic surveillance.
FISA also authorizes under its provisions electronic surveillance being carried out for intelligence collection purposes.
Now again, that intelligence investigation may quickly devolve into a criminal investigation. And the conundrum always was when was that line crossed and when could the information be shared from one side to the other.
So there was a certain amount of caution about sharing information because of the fear that you would breach the wall and violate rules?
Yeah. And in the late ’90s, there were a few instances where the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court took either the FBI or the agency or the Department of Justice to task for breaching the wall in an unauthorized fashion.
So yes, it was always approached with considerable caution, I think on both sides.
But there must have been an awareness that there was a risk here that if information wasn’t being freely shared, that signals could be missed, people wouldn’t connect dots, and something unforeseen could happen.
Sure, sure. Again, I can speak for the agency side. We always erred on the side of sharing. When there were questionable cases, we would seek guidance from the office in the Department of Justice that was there for just that purpose. Can we provide this? In the majority of cases, we provided everything that we thought was valuable and useful.
This would come across your desk as the general counsel?
Yeah, the cases that were questionable or close. And we would typically be the office that reached out to the Department of Justice.
Were you aware of any requests made by the FBI for information regarding Malaysia and the Al Qaeda operative Khallad [Tawfiq bin Attash]?
Not at the time. I mean, we’re talking over 10 years ago now.
Should you have been aware of those?
There was considerable daily back-and-forth between the bureau and our counterterrorism division. There were detailed FBI agents to the Counterterrorism Center. So that kind of exchange went on all of the time. I just don’t recall at this point in time ever being aware contemporaneously of that information.
The information that the agency had about Khallad’s presence in Malaysia was taken from surveillance of a phone number in Yemen. There were communications, [and] they’d picked up information about what he was doing. Would that have then therefore prevented that information from being shared with the FBI?
No. From what I know and what I remember, there would have been no legal impediment to sharing that information with the FBI.
There would have been no legal impediment to sharing that information? Can you shed any light on why it wasn’t shared?
I don’t know. I was just never aware there was any issue or dispute about sharing that particular data. As I say, there was no legal reason not to share it.
So later when you read about this in the 9/11 Commission Report, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to what happened?
These things regrettably but inevitably happen sometimes. There was a breakdown of communication, if that’s what it was, where someone on our side thought they had passed it, or the FBI had it. But in my long agency career, these slipups or glitches occur. There’s no ill intent on either side, but they unfortunately do happen.
Ali Soufan talks about a misinterpretation of Department of Justice guidelines on regulating the wall, that criminal investigations that the FBI’s undertaking and intelligence gathering by the agency should not be mixed.
I was aware. That’s true. There was apparently a disagreement, as I recall it, largely between the FBI and the Justice Department. The agency was not part of that dispute, as best I can recall.
So there was a disagreement between Department of Justice and the FBI over just what they should be privy to?
Again, I wasn’t privy to what was going on at the time. All I can tell you was that CIA was not part of that dispute nor was taking a side in that dispute.
As I indicated earlier, there was a particular office in the Justice Department that was created for that very purpose, to oversee and referee the boundaries, or the extent to which intelligence could be shared between the intelligence community and the law enforcement community.
There was a person in charge in the Department of Justice playing referee over who could get what information, essentially the keeper of the wall. So if there’s a keeper of that wall over at the Justice Department, they’re preventing the FBI from getting certain information from the agency. Is that correct?
That’s part of what the wall was. But the wall also governed what information could be passed between portions of the intelligence divisions of the FBI and the criminal divisions of the FBI and the Department of Justice.
So it wasn’t just about information that the criminal investigator in the FBI, like Ali Soufan, could get from the agency; it was also what he could get from intelligence analysts within the FBI itself?
So information that came from the agency that was shared with the FBI analysts would still come up against that wall somewhere inside the FBI?
It could. But again, from what I remember, I don’t — …
What’s the origin of this enhanced interrogation program?
Well, the origin could be traced to the capture of Abu Zubaydah in March of 2002, I believe was the month.
Zubaydah was the first really big-fish, high-ranking Al Qaeda figure that the agency had found and detained. Soon after being detained, he was being questioned jointly by both FBI and CIA officers.
It soon became apparent, certainly to the CIA officers on the ground, that he was withholding what was thought to be potentially critical information about Al Qaeda plans and intentions in the near term to undertake another major terrorist attack against the United States. Keep in mind, this is scarcely four or five months after 9/11.
So the considered judgment of the CIA professionals on the ground was that he was holding back, that he was making frankly no secret of the fact he knew things that he simply was not going to tell his interrogators, and that things were at loggerheads.
So he was kind of smirking and saying, “I’m not going to tell you what I know”?
So what came next?
Well, our people, our counterterrorism analysts and operatives, started casting about or questioning, exploring were there other potential means, more aggressive means of interrogation by which they could obtain what they were convinced was potentially critical information that Zubaydah was withholding.
And that’s how the idea of doing what came to be known as enhanced interrogation techniques [EITs] came into being.
Soufan claims that much of the information that came, or really all of the useful information that came from Abu Zubaydah came prior to the employment of enhanced interrogation techniques.
After the arrival of [Steve] Mitchell, [who] begins to use these techniques, what is derived after the use of those techniques?
There was an enormous amount of intelligence reports generated from the interrogation of Zubaydah.
The techniques themselves, let us remember, lasted for a relatively short period of time. And the techniques themselves were not intended [nor] designed to make Zubaydah talk while actually being subjected to those techniques. The idea of the techniques was to break down his resistance to the questioning or resistance to providing information.
In order that in the next section he would talk because he didn’t want to be subjected to waterboarding or one of these techniques?
I’m a lawyer, not a psychologist, but as I also understand, there’s a theory called learned helplessness, where the idea is once you receive these techniques, and he withstood all he thought he could, that that excused him or liberated him, in the sense that consistent with his religion, having gone down the last mile in resisting, he was now free to talk.
So I think that played a role in it as well, this notion of in his mind liberating him to provide the information. And there was a lot of it.
Is there any piece of information that you can tell me was derived or was produced after the techniques – it began with I think nudity and loud music and sleep deprivation — were applied?
Well, there was a significant amount of information, as I recall, about Al Qaeda plans and intentions, their modus operandi. Abu Zubaydah was — to summarize it — sort of a Broadway —
He ran a safehouse. He was a facilitator. He moved people, got passports.
He wasn’t necessarily a shooter or a guy who would climb into an airplane, fly into a building. But he basically was moralistically chief operating officer, made sure and facilitated the plan, the travel of various high-level Al Qaeda officials. So there was a lot of information derived from him on that score that I recall.
You’re not going to recall all the details, but you’re saying that there was most certainly useful and even actionable intelligence produced after the enhanced interrogation techniques were employed?
No question. And it’s not just me saying it. Subsequent investigations by the CIA inspector general and other independent bodies confirmed that there was valuable, actionable intelligence derived first from Abu Zubaydah and later by other high-value detainees that were subjected to the enhanced techniques. I don’t think there’s any dispute about that.
Were you aware of the tensions between the agency and the FBI over the Abu Zubaydah interrogation?
No, I was not.
I should say that when these proposed techniques were developed, it was left to me as the chief legal officer at CIA to consult other senior lawyers in the Department of Justice, White House, elsewhere. My purpose was to ensure that these proposed techniques were lawful and that the Justice Department would issue an opinion, a definitive opinion, on that.
Your job is to make sure they didn’t violate the torture statute, right?
Now, I know the senior legal officials of the FBI took part certainly [in] the initial briefings I gave about the proposed techniques. They made it clear that the FBI would withdraw from the further interrogations because as a matter of policy, they would not engage in investigations that employed interrogation tools that were not consistent with FBI procedures.
Why did they tell you that they wouldn’t participate in the interrogation anymore?
As I say, it was because, as I rolled out these proposed procedures, I was told — and I probably knew this in advance; I should have known it — that these were not consistent with normal FBI interrogation tools.
Did they complain that they were not effective, or they simply said, “These are not consistent with how we gather evidence for criminal investigations”?
I was never told then or thereafter by any FBI official, senior official, that the techniques would not be effective or that the FBI could acquire any and all information the government would need without the use of techniques. I never once heard that.
Were you aware that there was an overlap, that there was a time that Mitchell — or Boris, as he’s named in Soufan’s book — was employing these techniques and that Ali Soufan and other FBI agents were there at the same time?
I was aware that there were CIA and FBI investigators there for an interim period.
We received the Justice Department opinion on Aug. 1, 2002 [Appendix C of the CIA Inspector General Report]. It was addressed to me. The enhanced interrogation procedures commenced then.
As I recall being told, prior to withdrawing, the FBI interrogators remained on the scene for a short amount of time, which was understandable to me, just to phase in and phase out.
Your understanding is they were pulled out of there because it wasn’t consistent with their practice of interrogation, not that they complained that the interrogation techniques were inhumane or ineffective?
No, I never heard that. I never heard that from any FBI official, certainly in Washington.
In CIA’s Inspector General Report, Soufan and others testified, and they talk in there about how they believe these techniques were not effective.
I remember that.
So was that the first time you heard that there were complaints from the FBI that these techniques didn’t work?
That was the first time that I was made aware that anyone really in the FBI was protesting the effectiveness or the humaneness of the techniques.
What did you make of that?
I thought it was a legitimate difference of opinion. The people I knew at CIA, the professionals I knew and worked with over the years, had come, as I said, to a different conclusion. But I never doubted the sincerity of those beliefs. This is a very difficult road for anyone to go down.
Certainly it was for the agency. So to me, it was understandable and perfectly legitimate if not every part of the community of government officials who conduct investigations might have a different opinion.
Ali Soufan said to us that not one piece of actionable intelligence was produced by the application of enhanced interrogation techniques.
Yes, well, I mean no disrespect to Mr. Soufan, who I don’t know and actually never heard of during the years I was overseeing the legal aspect of the CIA program, but as I mention, the FBI contingent left the facility where Zubaydah was being interrogated at or right around the time that the techniques were commenced.
Frankly, it’s not clear to me how such a blanket statement could be plausibly made by someone who basically left the scene and left the program so early on. This was before any more of the high-value detainees would be detained and interrogated. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured in March 2003. Ramzi bin al-Shibh was captured later in 2002. And by then, the FBI had departed from the scene.
I should add that the intelligence reports that commenced and continued for years after mid-March of 2002 in the first instance, they were disseminated to a very select group of recipients inside the government.
CIA intelligence supports are an amalgamation, a complex of various streams of intelligence from electronic surveillance, from human reporting, from detainee reporting during all these years, thousands of these reports.
The information flows were all combined. Even if an FBI agent somehow had access to all of those reports, frankly, it would be impossible to discern what intelligence ultimately came from what source. We didn’t just send out intelligence reports saying, “Abu Zubaydah says this; KSM says that.”
So frankly, such a sweeping, broad characterization about the value of the program, that kind of simplistic, almost blunderbuss statement just is not only to my mind implausible. Were the issue not so serious, it would be preposterous.
He claims that the CIA’s Inspector General Report comes to the same conclusion, that it can’t name one piece of actionable intelligence that came from enhanced interrogation techniques.
Well, the CIA report on interrogations [PDF], May 2004, has been largely declassified, so I would invite your viewers to, if they were interested, review that report for themselves.
It’s been a while since I looked at it, but I do distinctly remember this report was not a whitewash by any means.
It was critical [of] a number of aspects of the CIA program. But one conclusion it did reach is that the enhanced interrogation program, certainly as of May 2004 — at that point had been in existence for two years — had in fact yielded substantial, valuable intelligence.
I take your point that once this stuff is amalgamated and disseminated, it’s very hard to know what the source of a particular piece of information [is]. It’s all in little puzzle pieces. But his claim is that actionable intelligence was not produced from the employment of these techniques, and that the CIA concurs.
Well, again, [you] shouldn’t take my word for it. Your readers can look at the report [PDF].
In 2005 the tapes of a couple of these interrogations, including Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation, were destroyed. Why?
First of all, let me briefly give you some background, because this is a subject that I am all too familiar with over the years, since I think I was the sole CIA official to be involved in this issue of these tapes and their destruction, from the time they were created in 2002 through the time they were destroyed in 2005, up until December of 2007 when this whole mess was unearthed.
So you were very involved in this issue of the videotapes?
Sadly I was, yes.
And were you responsible for having them made in the first place?
No, no. I did not know of their existence at the time they were made.
Were you consulted on their destruction?
Yes, I was — consulted beginning at the time where the Clandestine Service and the Counterterrorism Center concluded that they needed to be destroyed, which was virtually a very short time after they were created.
So I was consulted, and it was discussed and arranged with me by these folks steadily for three years, up until the time that they were destroyed.
What did you advise?
I advised over those three years in consultation with two Directors of Central Intelligence [DCIs] that the tapes were not to be destroyed.
But they didn’t listen to you.
They went around me.
And so why were they destroyed?
The head of the Counterterrorism Center, who was responsible for the tapes in the program, who later became the head of the CIA Clandestine Service, concluded a couple things; first of all, that they [the tapes] had no further intelligence value.
As best I could piece it together after the fact, the reason the tapes were created in the first place was to ensure that everything and anything Zubaydah and [Al Qaeda chief of military operations Abd al-Rahim] al-Nashiri, the other detainee who was taped, said was picked up so that nothing would be missed. Our people were taking assiduous notes, but again, Zubaydah, being the first high-level CIA detainee, we were new at all this.
Were these tapes of simply an interrogation or also of the application of the enhanced interrogation techniques?
No, there was a small portion. These are hours and hours of tapes, a very small portion of those tapes, because they’re basically 24/7 tapes of Zubaydah. A relatively small portion involved Zubaydah being subjected to the enhanced techniques, but there was clearly a portion that was. And it was very, very clear on the tapes.
The reason why our folks were so strong about destroying them [was] that they had, one, ceased to have any intelligence value. They determined that they were getting all the information they needed from sitting face-to-face with Zubaydah. And it was a matter of fact sometimes the tapes were less distinct than the actual being there, so they had no intelligence value.
Plus, they showed the faces of CIA operatives. And if and when those tapes are ever made public — our folks were convinced that somewhere, somehow, someday, they would be made public — that our people’s identities, not just identities, but lives could be at risk.
But the tapes could have been treated, and those identities could have been obscured.
The presumption is that there was information on those tapes that would harm the reputation of the agency, and that’s the reason they were destroyed.
Harm the reputation of the agency? Again, I followed this all too closely for many years. I never heard that complaint.
Then why did you oppose the destruction of the tapes?
Well, a couple of reasons, some legal, some nonlegal.
During this timeframe, there were a number of different investigations ongoing on the CIA interrogation program. I mention the IG investigation of ’03 and ’04.
The inspector general, by the way, had representatives of his office review the tapes as well, so they saw them. So as a legal matter, it would have been ill advised at the minimum for us to have destroyed tapes that could be subjected to some ongoing legal procedure. So that was why —
So there were legal reasons to hold onto them.
There were legal reasons. But I have to tell you personally, although I am a lawyer, my main reason for opposing the destruction was the issue of perception that —
That it might look like a cover-up?
One doesn’t destroy videotapes. It looks bad. Especially videotapes and graphic videotapes of an individual being waterboarded.
Did you see the tapes?
I never saw the tapes. The tapes were —
But the tapes showed Abu Zubaydah being waterboarded?
We had a representative in my office early on review all of the tapes, and he came back, did a report. I also spoke to him in some depth about it, and he made it clear that there were portions of the tapes that clearly showed Zubaydah being waterboarded.
Would the tapes have shown us the efficacy of waterboarding? Could they have been used to make the case that the technique worked?
Well, as I indicated earlier, the actual interrogation of the detainee did not take place during the imposition of the techniques.
Right, but it followed it.
It followed it. And that was primarily what was caught on the tapes. So in terms of the efficacy, if someone were to look at the tapes in and of themselves, looking at the waterboarding sessions, you would not have seen Zubaydah suddenly saying: “OK, stop, stop. Here’s what I know.” That’s simply not the way the process was run or intended to run.
These repeated waterboardings, Soufan brings up, he says that that they poured the water many, many times on Abu Zubaydah.
… One thing that I think has sometimes been lost in all these years of controversy over the CIA program, the enhanced interrogation techniques, having been there and playing a key role in what led to the legal approval and initiation of these techniques, I think it’s important for people to remember or understand on the outside that CIA did not go down this road of enhanced interrogation techniques rashly or even enthusiastically.
This kind of thing was something that we had never done, certainly [not] in the previous 25 years of my agency career. And it was something that many of us in the agency — certainly I — recognized from the outset was fraught with potential legal risks and certainly was a potential political minefield for the agency, because we were aware, those of us who had been at the agency for a long time, that absent the second attack, God forbid, that there would be a time when the political winds would change in this country as the memories of 9/11 faded, and extraordinary kinds of activities would come under new and rigorous scrutiny. So we knew all that, and that it would could bring harm to the agency … and put, at least some of us, professionally at risk.
But we collectively decided to pursue it nonetheless, not because we were eager to embark on this kind of thing or eager to throw the FBI out of the interrogation business. It was only because we determined that measures like this were the only possible effective way to glean from these high-value detainees, these psychopathic, remorseless killers, possible information about the next imminent attack upon the homeland. That’s why we did it.
Ali Soufan, in his book, complains about the use of these techniques not because they’re cruel so much as he complains about them because he says they don’t work; that information can be derived by building trust with the subject, not by placing them under what some people would consider torture. [But] the agency determined that the techniques that were employed by the FBI were not sufficient, and they weren’t working. They weren’t producing enough intelligence.
No doubt about that?
That was the judgment of our experts in the field and at headquarters.
Let us assume — and again, I think this is ultimately unnoble — but let us assume that had normal question-and-answer processes been followed, good cop/bad cop, that kind of thing, let us assume that that would have yielded all of the intelligence that was ultimately derived as a result of the use of these extraordinary techniques. How long would that have taken?
Soufan points out that there were waterboarding sessions that went on for a long time, that that wasn’t producing any immediate intelligence either.
Again, nothing against Mr. Soufan, but some of these assertions he’s making, I’m not sure where they come from.
He was long departed from the scene. Abu Zubaydah, the first high-value detainee, was only the first waterboarding.
Waterboarding was subsequently conducted on two detainees: Nashiri, the mastermind of the Cole bombing, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
I just find it odd and implausible that he is apparently making these kinds of blanket, categorical statements on the basis of — well, I’m not sure on what basis he’s making these —
Soufan also did interrogations in Guantanamo of at least six detainees, and he also interrogated for some short period of time Ramzi bin al-Shibh and another redacted fellow. So these same issues are cropping up in Guantanamo as to what can be done at a black site, correct?
A secret detention facility, yes.
Otherwise known as black sites. Other people were interrogated in secret detention facilities, but now you have a U.S. military base in Guantanamo, and there was a decision [that] had to be made about what you could apply there. Is that correct?
That is correct. That is a decision that did not involve CIA. I should note, [the] CIA had no detainees at Guantanamo.
So the military had to decide with its joint task force just what they could do there.
That’s a separate decision than what you could [do] at these secret sites, these black sites.
These Justice Department legal opinions that were issued at my request to me only applied to CIA interrogation practices, not to anywhere else in the government. So they were CIA-specific.
So in the middle of 2002, you asked for an opinion from the Justice Department as to what techniques could be applied at your secret detentions sites.
That’s correct. And as I recall, these discussions with the Department of Justice ultimately culminated in the opinions, and the opinions themselves were not shared for a considerable period of time with the Department of Defense or, to my knowledge, the U.S. military.
But the Department of Defense is independently exploring what they legally can do in their facilities, whether it’s in Afghanistan or Iraq or in Guantanamo.
As I understand it, yes.
You went down to Guantanamo in September of 2002. What was the purpose of that trip?
I went down with a number of the other senior lawyers in the government involved in detention and interrogation matters. It was organized by the general counsel of the Department of Defense. My purpose in going was simply to acclimate myself with Guantanamo, the facilities. We did have a presence there because we [were] analyzing the intelligence that the Guantanamo detainees were providing to their military trainers.
But you weren’t conducting interrogations there?
We were not.
And the other members of that team were looking at just what interrogation techniques could be sanctioned?
Well, I can’t speak for them entirely. But frankly, that was not my impression at the time. I think most of them were there for the same reason I was, just [to] look at the facility and the housing and to also talk to the people, the U.S. government officials, who were assigned there.
So at that point, decisions had already been taken as to just what interrogation techniques would be allowed?
Well, the decisions about CIA, yes.
That process that you went through, but also what techniques the military, the joint task force could undertake?
I was generally aware of those. I knew those discussions were going on.
One gets the impression that those secret detention facilities overseas where people were rendered, you had more legal cover to do things there than you could do at Guantanamo.
We certainly had what I thought at the time was explicit, definitive legal authority to engage in a given set of specific techniques.
Up to waterboarding?
Up through waterboarding, yes.
Well, depends on where one places the scale of seriousness of these techniques. Certainly including waterboarding.
Again, my job was to oversee the CIA legal compliance and its interrogation practices. I was aware there were discussions going on between the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice. I was aware that the Department of Defense and the military were drawing up lists of techniques. But to tell you the truth, I wasn’t mixing and matching.
Just as an observer, you’re in the loop on all of this; you’re talking to the other lawyers in the other departments, I assume. Were you aware of the tensions between the FBI and the Department of Defense over interrogations at Guantanamo?
You know, I met regularly with the general counsel [for] the Department of Defense on a weekly basis —
Was it [William J.] Haynes?
He wasn’t a good friend. I seem to recall him mentioning that there were certainly ongoing disputes about treatment of Guantanamo prisoners between FBI and DoD officials —
You knew from the Department of Defense that they were getting pushback from the FBI over what was going on with the detainees?
I was aware that there were differences of opinion about treatment standards for questioning detainees, but I didn’t know much beyond that.
This one case of the reports that came out, [Mohammed al-]Qahtani, is asked to stand nude in front of a female guard; insults are hurled at him about his mother and his sister. What’s your opinion about these?
Well, I thought they were clearly excessive. There was certainly nothing along those lines was ever sought by CIA for authority.
I believe there was an issue about the use of dogs at Guantanamo. Thanks to the new Obama administration, the world can see exactly which techniques we propose to use and which techniques we did use. And that was it.
So that information getting out about how he was treated was not a window on the kinds of things that were going on at your sites?
Qahtani? No, no. It was apples and oranges.
We later see the pictures of Abu Ghraib, which is an indication of some spillover of this sort of lack of discipline, I guess you’d say.
I don’t know. It was damaging. It was not just damaging; it was damaging to the country, damaging to the government.
And helpful to Al Qaeda.
Yes. It was also, I think, damaging to the agency by implication. I think there was a tendency around this period of time. Details about the CIA program were slowly but surely leaking out. I think there was a conflation among some members of public, frankly some members in the media, and frankly some politicians to conflate that —
Isn’t that conflation partly the fault of the CIA for keeping so much secret?
Well, CIA by nature is a secret organization. I don’t know how one can blame CIA, that has responsibility for conducting covert actions, for not purging forth with all of their covert actions.
No, but an interrogation program could have been more transparent than it was.
I think the one mistake, the major mistake we made — and I played a role in this — is that we should have from the beginning briefed more members of Congress, from the get-go, about our interrogation program, about the techniques. We should have laid them all out.
What did instead happen was that for the first five years of the program, pursuant to orders from the White House, we only were permitted to brief the senior leaders of Congress.
That was pursuant to orders from the White House? Is that from the vice president’s office?
It was from the White House.
In real life, that kind of order comes from the White House. In my experience, it wouldn’t have been the first time the White House issued a limited notification like that.
So they were saying, “Keep this under the radar”?
And I think that was a mistake, because for five years, I think we should have brought more members of Congress into the loop. So I do accept some responsibility for that.
You take responsibility for that because you advised keeping it secret?
No, but I think not just I but other senior members at the agency who had been around for a while should have pushed back at the White House earlier and harder that we simply needed to tell more [Congress]people about what was becoming an increasingly controversial and frankly leaked program anyway.
Right. Well, you can only keep secrets so long. And as too many people know the secrets, then it’s going to leak.
That’s the conundrum. But my perception was, it was leaking already.
You’ve got a discredited program to begin with, and now a guy is coming out with a book, an FBI agent who was on the ground, interviewed some of the high-value detainees, and he’s coming out and saying not only was it inhumane, it didn’t work. This is going to stir things up. And on top of that, the CIA has heavily redacted certain chapters of the book after their review. This is not a healthy situation for the agency and its reputation. So what would you advise the agency at this point?
Well, this program, frankly, has not proved to be a healthy thing for the agency over the years.
But it was a good program in your view?
It was a good, good program. It was well run. It was carefully run.
And made us safer?
Made us safer. And had there been an easier or less politically risky or less legally risky way to have proceeded, believe me, we wouldn’t have resisted.
This was a collective judgment at the agency from the professionals at the beginning that this admittedly aggressive course of conduct was the only viable way to acquire the information needed both to prevent another catastrophic attack on the homeland, but let’s also not forget, as the Obama administration acknowledged grudgingly after the death of bin Laden, that the CIA interrogation program played a role in helping the trail that led to bin Laden’s end.
How do you know in an interrogation that the information you’re getting is good information?
Again, I’m a lawyer, not a professional interrogator. But the program, as I understood it, there was no information that was acted upon or validated as highly reliable unless it had been or could be corroborated by some other source.
The case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi is brought to mind. This was a case when somebody was whisked away and interrogated and produced dubious information.
Yes, well, unfortunately I’m still precluded from talking about that case, so you’ll have to bear with me on that.
But generally speaking, and this is out in the public, [there have] been many who have concluded that this information [that came from him about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq] was false; that that information derived was false, led us to war, and in some people’s opinion should be a warning that tough interrogations might not always produce reliable information. In theory, is this a cautionary tale?
Again, I am not going to get into that particular case. But I think as a general matter, the history and the evolution of the CIA detention and interrogation program is a cautionary tale, and the cautionary tale being no matter for an agency that was heavily criticized in the wake of 9/11 for being risk-averse, as 9/11 receded inevitably in its shock and horror, the agency, like a lot of entities of government, became subject to political winds it could not control.
The political winds that they couldn’t control meaning?
Meaning that actions that were not only viewed as necessary and justified in the early month and years of 9/11 subsequently became, as time went on and the image of 9/11 receded, became politically and legally controversial, and that the agency was subject to — as some of us always thought we would — to these political pendulum swings.
And I think these things did do harm to the agency and [to] people in the agency who never had any intention other than to do the best job, to operate within the law, to perform a critical mission to protect the country. …
Were the people that were brought in to interrogate Abu Zubaydah knowledgeable about Islamic extremism, about Al Qaeda in particular, as far as you knew?
As far as I knew, the interrogation team was a mixture. There were some professional interrogators, but there were also on the scene CIA experts in Al Qaeda, in Islamic fundamentalism, in the life and times of Abu Zubaydah.
One of the claims that Soufan is making is that the FBI had many people who had been looking at Al Qaeda for many years and knew a lot about the organization. And those people were kept out of key interrogations and were not allowed access. Therefore they couldn’t apply their expertise in their style of interrogation, and therefore opportunities were lost.
Well, I certainly don’t dispute the fact that FBI has considerable expertise in Al Qaeda, so I’m not gainsaying that at all. The FBI leadership, by choice, understandably and legitimately decided that once the enhanced interrogation program was approved, it could no longer participate in the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah.
And Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh?
Any of them.
But at times people were let in. In the case of Soufan, he was let in to talk to Ramzi bin al-Shibh, but then he was put aside. He was allowed to interrogate a number of people in Guantanamo, and then he was put aside. He’s saying opportunities were lost to connect dots that only an experienced, knowledgeable expert in Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism could have done.
And let me understand this: And Mr. Soufan says only Mr. Soufan could have discerned that?
No. In fact, he says that in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he wasn’t that familiar with KSM per se, but there was another person inside the FBI who was an expert, who had specialized in studying KSM, and that that person was not allowed to interrogate KSM because it was a decision of the CIA.
Well, that’s false.
I just told you where the decision came from to not have FBI personnel participate in interrogations of [high-value] detainees.
You’re saying it was the FBI’s decision?
It was an FBI decision. It was a legitimate decision. Had the FBI chosen to participate, the CIA would not have objected. It would not have surprised me that there would be time to time where an FBI official would come to one of our facilities, maybe have an opportunity to observe. All of that is entirely possible, entirely proper. …
Well, let’s say it was the FBI’s decision to stand down. But it was certainly somebody’s decision to start up the program and to apply the physical coercion on KSM. And what Soufan would be saying is that they shouldn’t have rushed it. He’s going further. He’s saying not only should they have not done it, they were ineffective. If you have to waterboard somebody 183 times, how effective is waterboarding?
Again, he’s entitled to his opinion.
What about that argument? If you have to waterboard somebody so many times, is that evidence that it’s working or that it’s not working?
Someone would not be waterboarded any longer or any more times than the experts on the ground determine was necessary to get the person to agree and break down his resistance. Waterboarding wasn’t done as a technique or abuse or punishment —
I’m not positing that, and I don’t think he is either. But he’s asking whether or not the fact that someone is waterboarded dozens or scores of times is evidence of it being effective or ineffective?
Well, I think in the case of KSM, it was a case of having an extraordinarily tough, brutal, resistant figure.
But finally good intelligence was derived?
Valuable intelligence was derived from KSM, from Abu Zubaydah, from the other detainees who were subjected to these techniques. Again, whether that intelligence could have been derived without these techniques, I do not know. And to this day, I think it’s unknowable.
I believe strongly that that would not have happened, because we’re talking about the most hardened, the most determined and the most knowledgeable of the Al Qaeda leaders.
I simply can’t accept that they would have succumbed to a normal question-and-answer period to provide the information they provided, and surely not in anything close to the time frame that the country deserved and needed in those first fear-stricken months and years after 9/11.
What Ali Soufan is saying is, look, there’s no scientific method to interrogation; that it has to be individually crafted; that the right key for one detainee doesn’t work for with another. That’s his complaint about these enhanced interrogation techniques, because they pose a science that if you do one thing to somebody long enough, they’ll talk. He says, no, you have to treat each one differently and that you get them to talk because you get them to trust you, and you get a rapport, and therefore they talk.
Let me say that each of the detainees was treated as an individual. There wasn’t a checklist of “These are the techniques you will use on all detainees.” The list of techniques that was approved was all-inclusive. For a number of detainees, very few of the actual enhanced interrogation techniques were employed.
Of all of the high-value detainees, waterboard[ing] was only employed on three of them. So if the notion is that this was a cookie-cutter approach, that all of these techniques were handed out seriatim, no matter who was sitting in the chair, again, it simply is not true, and it betrays a lack of knowledge about how this CIA program was actually conceived and carried out. …
Do you have regrets about the program?
No, no. I continue to believe that the program was necessary and effective and that there was no practical alternative other than the one we chose. I can’t think of a single thing I could have done or would have done differently.
So no, I have no regrets certainly about my actions. Again, it became, I suppose inevitably, a politically controversial and to some extent damaging thing for the agency, and that’s unfortunate. …
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