MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent: [voice-over] 6:00 AM, October 12th, 2000. FBI agent Ali Soufan was on his way to work.
ALI SOUFAN, Special Agent, FBI, 1997-05: I remember I was on the Brooklyn Bridge. I was driving to the office. And I got a phone call saying to come to the office fast.
NEWSCASTER: -a suicide bomb attack on a U.S. Navy warship-
ALI SOUFAN: A ship, a Navy ship, was attacked in Yemen.
MARTIN SMITH: Soufan was only 29 at the time.
[on camera] How soon did you go to Yemen?
ALI SOUFAN: Same day.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] He was badly needed.
[on camera] How many people in the FBI spoke Arabic?
ALI SOUFAN: Eight, nine, something like that.
MARTIN SMITH: How many of them were working on al Qaeda?
ALI SOUFAN: I don’t know. I think maybe I was the only one.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Soufan was made chief investigator on the USS Cole case, a major assignment. That’s Soufan there, in a meeting with Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and FBI director Louis Freeh.
[on camera] You began the investigation. How do you begin something like that? Where do you start?
ALI SOUFAN: 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.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The story of what Ali Soufan began to uncover in Yemen through a series of detailed interrogations is now told in his new book, The Black Banners. It follows a trail of evidence that goes far beyond the Cole bombing into the 9/11 plot itself. Ultimately, the book is an indictment of the government’s failure to prevent the attack and of its reliance on coercive interrogations after 9/11.
Soufan had taken an unusual path to the FBI- childhood in war-torn Lebanon, high school and college in rural Pennsylvania. He only applied to FBI after a dare from some friends. Two years later, he was hired. It was 1997. He brought with him an interest in a relatively obscure figure at the time, Osama bin Laden. One of his first assignments was to write a report about him.
ALI SOUFAN: And I gave it to my supervisor, and that paper ended up with John O’Neill. And it was about the threat that bin Laden will cause for the United States.
MARTIN SMITH: O’Neill, a legendary FBI agent with his own al Qaeda obsession, immediately took Soufan under his wing. By the time he got to Yemen, Soufan knew al Qaeda as well as anyone in the FBI. And he had a special approach to his interrogations.
ALI SOUFAN: What we did all the time in cases like these is to outsmart that individual. You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] You compared interrogations- interrogating somebody as like dating.
ALI SOUFAN: Sometimes it is. And I tried to basically- because it’s about building- 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.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] During his interrogation of an al Qaeda operative named Fahd al Quso, a key player in the Cole bombing, Soufan used his knowledge and skills to get inside his subject’s head.
ALI SOUFAN: Quso did not believe that anyone from outside the group will 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.”
[www.pbs.org: Soufan's interrogation methods]
MARTIN SMITH: Soufan had never been to Kandahar. But after just a few days, Quso would take Soufan deep inside the terrorist organization.
ALI SOUFAN: Quso 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.
MARTIN SMITH: During one session, al Quso mentioned an operative named Tawfiq bin Attash, or Khallad, a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden’s and one of al Qaeda’s top men.
ALI SOUFAN: The very logical question- “When is the last time you saw Khallad?” And he said, “Well, I saw him last time in Bangkok.” And for me, what the heck this guy is doing in Bangkok?
MARTIN SMITH: Quso explained that Khallad had asked him to deliver some cash. But Soufan wondered, if al Qaeda had been planning the Cole attack in Yemen, why would they have been moving money to Bangkok?
ALI SOUFAN: The amount was $36,000. Many questions came to our mind. We thought maybe al Qaeda was planning to do something in Southeast Asia. However, the very first logical step we can do is share it with the agency.
MARTIN SMITH: The agency- the CIA. Soufan hoped they could help fill in some blanks, tell him something he didn’t know about Khallad being in Southeast Asia.
[on camera] Did you learn any more about what had gone on?
ALI SOUFAN: No.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Soufan ran into what agents called “the wall.” Routinely, the Justice Department prohibited FBI agents doing criminal investigations from access to some types of CIA intelligence. But often, definitions were unclear. At the time Soufan was in Yemen, there was a lot of confusion.
ALI SOUFAN: 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. We never had this problem to that extent in previous investigations. It didn’t make any sense to me.
MARTIN SMITH: Working on his own, Soufan would continue to uncover more details, including the fact that before the Bangkok meeting, Khallad had called Quso from a phone number in Malaysia. Soufan wondered what Khallad was doing there.
[on camera] So you went back to the CIA. You say, “We’ve got this phone number in Kuala Lumpur.
ALI SOUFAN: Right.
MARTIN SMITH: Do you know anything about it?”
ALI SOUFAN: Yeah.
MARTIN SMITH: And they said?
ALI SOUFAN: No.
MARTIN SMITH: They said no.
ALI SOUFAN: Uh-huh.
MARTIN SMITH: How many times did you go back to them and ask them about it?
ALI SOUFAN: 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.
MARTIN SMITH: Three times?
ALI SOUFAN: It’s a teletype that goes from the FBI to the CIA.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Soufan’s last request was sent to the agency in July 2001.
On 9/11, Soufan watched in horror from Yemen. He thought the Cole investigation would be put on hold. He had no idea that his investigation had taken him to the edges of the 9/11 plot itself. He prepared to return to New York.
ALI SOUFAN: We were at the airport ready to go on a plane when the person from the CIA came and said to me, you know, “Call your headquarters. They want to talk to you.”
MARTIN SMITH: Soufan was ordered to stay in Yemen. He was told, “Go back and talk to Quso about 9/11 and that trip to Southeast Asia.”
ALI SOUFAN: And it was kind of like a- like a knife. Somebody put a knife, you know, in me. I was, like, “Quso? How the heck Quso is involved in what just happened? What did we miss? What did we just miss? We caused this.” So I was sick to my stomach. 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.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Who handed you a manila envelope?
ALI SOUFAN: The CIA person on the ground.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Soufan opened the envelope. After many months of having his requests for information ignored by the CIA, he now had three CIA surveillance photos taken at a 9/11 planning meeting in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. The CIA wanted to know if one of the men was Khallad. Soufan took the photo back to Quso.
ALI SOUFAN: And he said, “This guy looks like Khallad, but he just looks like him. I’m not sure if it’s him.”
MARTIN SMITH: Soufan was incensed that the agency hadn’t shared their intelligence months earlier. The CIA asked him to look at yet another photo.
ALI SOUFAN: 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. I mean, I didn’t need to ask Quso. Obviously, it’s Khallad. We know what he looks like. This is definitely Khallad bin Attash.
MARTIN SMITH: Khallad was linked to the 9/11 plot. From Malaysia, he had flown with two of the hijackers, Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, to Bangkok. From there, Mihdhar and Hazmi bought tickets and flew to Los Angeles.
ALI SOUFAN: Now we know why Quso delivered the money.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] So you’re looking at this, and you’re seeing al Mihdhar with Khallad, and you’re told in the report that al Mihdhar was on Flight 77-
ALI SOUFAN: Yes.
MARTIN SMITH: -that crashed into the Pentagon.
ALI SOUFAN: Yes.
MARTIN SMITH: How did you react?
ALI SOUFAN: I- I basically ran to the bathroom and puked.
MARTIN SMITH: What if that information had been shared? How would it have been played out?
ALI SOUFAN: 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.
MARTIN SMITH: No 9/11?
ALI SOUFAN: The world would be very different.
MARTIN SMITH: You would have put a track on Mihdhar and Hazmi?
ALI SOUFAN: I think we could have done so many different things. We could have been on those guys like white on rice.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] In fact, the 9/11 commission, formed to investigate the 2001 attacks, concluded that the failure of the CIA to share information with Soufan’s team in Yemen regarding Khallad, al Mihdhar and al Hazmi prevented a possible early detection of the 9/11 plot.
[on camera] So had they simply been put on a watch list, they would have been picked up-
ALI SOUFAN: Absolutely.
MARTIN SMITH: -at immigration at LA International.
ALI SOUFAN: Yes.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The CIA declined FRONTLINE’s request for an interview, but sent a written statement. “Any suggestion that the CIA purposely refused to share critical lead information with the FBI is baseless.”
So why wasn’t the information shared? We asked the CIA’s deputy legal counsel at the time if he knew of any legal reason.
JOHN RIZZO, Dpty. General Counsel, CIA, 1995-01: No. From what I know and what I- what I remember, there would- there would’ve been no legal impediment to sharing that information with the FBI.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Can you shed any light on why it wasn’t shared?
JOHN RIZZO: I don’t know. As I say, there was no legal reason not to share it.
MARTIN SMITH: So when you read about this in the 9/11 commission report, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to what happened?
JOHN RIZZO: Well, I mean, I don’t think- I mean, you know, these things, you know, regrettably but inevitably happen sometimes. There was- there was a breakdown of communication, if that’s what it was. Or someone on our side thought they had passed it, or the FBI had it. But in my long agency career, you know, these kind of slipups or glitches occur. There’s no ill intent on either side. But they, you know, unfortunately do happen.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] After 9/11, bin Laden was able to escape and crossed from Afghanistan to Pakistan. His trail went cold. But a few months later, a shootout at this safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan.
The man taken into custody was believed to be the highest level al Qaeda figure ever arrested, Zayn al Abidin Muhammad Husayn, otherwise known as Abu Zubaydah. Soufan was called in.
[on camera] So in 2002, you get a call to speak to an al Qaeda detainee named Abu Zubaydah.
ALI SOUFAN: Yes. Abu Zubaydah is a terrorist facilitator. He was involved in a series of plots to attack American and Israeli targets, and even to attack- to attack the Pope during his visit to the Holy Land.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] As a result of an extensive pre-publication review by the CIA, the Zubaydah chapter of Soufan’s book is heavily redacted. The interrogation remains a controversial episode in the fight against al Qaeda. The CIA maintains Soufan’s participation is still classified.
[on camera] In your book, pronouns – I, we, us – are redacted.
ALI SOUFAN: Yeah, and the fact that myself and Steve Gaudin, you know, my partner on that mission from the bureau- we’ve been redacted from that chapter as if we were not there.
MARTIN SMITH: But you did interrogate him?
ALI SOUFAN: Yes, I did.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] When Soufan arrived, Zubaydah was in bad shape. He had been shot three times during the raid. But orders from Washington were, quote, “death is not an option.”
[on camera] He’s on life support.
ALI SOUFAN: Yes. They even flew a doctor from Washington, D. C., to basically oversee his situation. We continued talking to him, but keeping in mind his medical situation.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Soufan and his partner comforted Zubaydah, held ice to his lips so he could drink, even changed his bedding and cleaned his wounds.
ALI SOUFAN: And both Steve and I developed an excellent rapport with Abu Zubaydah.
MARTIN SMITH: And according to Soufan, Zubaydah quickly revealed critical information, including identifying the mastermind of the 9/11 plot, Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Soufan called a supervisor.
ALI SOUFAN: We did not know that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was a member of al Qaeda. And immediately, you know, after that, I contacted my ASAC in New York, and he was totally shocked. He said, “But he’s not a member of al Qaeda, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.” I said, “Well, think again.”
MARTIN SMITH: Abu Zubaydah also told Soufan about an active plot, which led to the arrest of an al Qaeda figure named Jose Padilla in Chicago.
But the CIA believed Abu Zubaydah knew much more, so they brought in a special contractor, a retired Air Force psychologist. Although he has been publicly identified since, his name is still technically classified.
[on camera] His real name is Mitchell.
ALI SOUFAN: I don’t-
MARTIN SMITH: You cannot confirm it.
ALI SOUFAN: I cannot confirm or deny the individual’s name in any way, shape or form. So I describe him in the book as “Boris.”
MARTIN SMITH: And so Boris arrives. Tell me. Tell me the story.
ALI SOUFAN: Boris arrives. And we believed we were getting some headway with Abu Zubaydah. But he has different opinion about how to handle this interrogation. So we said, “What’s your idea?” And he start explaining his idea.
MARTIN SMITH: And that’s when the trouble started.
ALI SOUFAN: Yeah.
MARTIN SMITH: Boris begins to enforce nudity, loud rock music.
ALI SOUFAN: Yes.
MARTIN SMITH: So there was a lot of tension between you and this contractor, this psychologist.
ALI SOUFAN: Yes. There was a tension between all of us and him, you know? Absolutely. And I was really frustrated because I think that, you know, this is not going to lead us anywhere. I mean, this guy admitted that he doesn’t know anything about Islamic extremists. And here he is trying to call the shots in one of the most important programs, you know, at the time in the nation’s history.
MARTIN SMITH: Did you confront him?
ALI SOUFAN: Yes. Absolutely. We talked about it. We talked about the techniques. And I think he just thought that I was arrogant. And you know, it was mutual. I thought he was arrogant, too, so-
MARTIN SMITH: How many interrogations had you done up to that point of al Qaeda detainees?
ALI SOUFAN: Oh, many. Oh, my God. You know, I- Guantanamo, the Cole, bin Laden case. I don’t know, dozens.
MARTIN SMITH: How many had he done?
ALI SOUFAN: Zero.
[voice-over] The interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, it turns out, was a test run for a new CIA interrogation program
JOHN RIZZO, General Counsel, CIA, 2001-09: This kind of thing was something that we had never done certainly in the previous 25 years of my agency career. But we collectively decided to pursue it nonetheless, not because we were eager to throw the F.B.I. 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.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] With Soufan standing by, Boris started to experiment with sleep deprivation and low temperatures. After he complained to headquarters, the FBI ordered Soufan home.
But Boris continued. By August, the Justice department approved techniques that were even harsher. Now they could include slapping, shoving, stress positions and confinement boxes with insects.
[on camera] Was any actionable intelligence or any valuable intelligence gained after Boris arrived?
ALI SOUFAN: No. We never get any actionable intelligence or any significant intelligence, comparatively to what we got before, when his techniques were going on.
MARTIN SMITH: And why weren’t you being listened to?
ALI SOUFAN: 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.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Eventually, three men were subject to water-boarding, Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abd al Rahim Al Nashiri.
ALI SOUFAN: They hit the glass ceiling with water-boarding. So what do you do? You keep it- 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.
MARTIN SMITH: The CIA claims it did work.
JOHN RIZZO: It was a good, good program. It was well run. It was carefully run.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] And made us safer?
JOHN RIZZO: And made us safer.
MARTIN SMITH: Good intelligence was derived?
JOHN RIZZO: Valuable intelligence was derived. I don’t think there’s any dispute about that.
DICK CHENEY, Fmr. Vice President of the United States: The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts had failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Officials who approved the use of enhanced interrogation techniques still defend the practice to this day.
DONALD RUMSFELD, Fmr. Secretary of Defense: Anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques – let’s be blunt, water-boarding – did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn’t facing the truth.
MARTIN SMITH: Guantanamo Bay. Soufan would spend much of 2002 at the U.S. military prison here. Without using any coercive methods, he claims many successes.
ALI SOUFAN: I helped getting the confession from al Bahlul and from Hamdan, as you know, two of the people who pled guilty in Guantanamo Bay.
MARTIN SMITH: But here, too, Soufan came into conflict with U.S. military interrogators, who, like the CIA, were exploring harsher methods of interrogation. Time and again, Soufan says, he was pushed aside.
[on camera] One of the people that you talked to down there is Qahtani.
ALI SOUFAN: Yes.
MARTIN SMITH: You talked to him for a short time.
ALI SOUFAN: About two days, maybe.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] But Soufan says in those two days, he uncovered the fact that Mohammed al Qahtani was meant to be the 20th hijacker.
[on camera] And then what happened?
ALI SOUFAN: About three or four days later, he was taken away from us.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Qahtani’s records reveal that he was interrogated up to 20 hours a day for several weeks. He was kept awake with loud music, denied access to a toilet, forced to strip naked, and made to wear a leash and perform dog tricks. He suffered severe dehydration. Twice he was hospitalized with heart problems.
Slowly, details of the military and the CIA interrogation programs leaked into public view. By 2004, the CIA had completed an internal review of its program.
[www.pbs.org: Read the report]
ALI SOUFAN: 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.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Ali Soufan says that not one piece of actionable intelligence was produced by the application of enhanced interrogation techniques.
JOHN RIZZO: Yes, well, I mean no disrespect to Mr. Soufan, but there was a lot of information derived from KSM, from Abu Zubaydah, from the other detainees who were subjected to these techniques.
Again, whether that intelligence could’ve 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- 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.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Discouraged by all that he had seen, Soufan would leave the FBI in 2005. In 2009, he decided he had to speak out.
ALI SOUFAN: [behind screen] From my experience, I strong believe that it is a mistake to use what has become known as enhanced interrogation techniques.
MARTIN SMITH: He appeared, his identity hidden behind a screen, before a Senate committee investigating how and why the Bush White House approved the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.
ALI SOUFAN: These techniques, from an operational perspective, are slow, ineffective, unreliable and harmful to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda.
MARTIN SMITH: At one point, he alluded to the case of Ibn al Sheikh al Libi.
ALI SOUFAN: We don’t know whether the detainee is being truthful or just speaking to mitigate his discomfort.
MARTIN SMITH: Al Libi was an al Qaeda military instructor. When he was captured in Pakistan in 2001, he cooperated at first with FBI interrogators. But with White House permission, the CIA flew him to Egypt for tougher questioning.
The testimony extracted from al Libi would quickly rise to the highest levels of the Bush administration.
ALI SOUFAN: I wasn’t involved in this interrogation.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] But you’re heavily critical of it?
ALI SOUFAN: 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. Ibn Sheikh al Libi, after real macho interrogation – 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. That information was given as evidence to Secretary Powell, and Colin Powell went to the U.N. Everybody remembers that speech.
COLIN POWELL, Secretary of State: _[at United Nations] I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al Qaeda-
ALI SOUFAN: After we went to Iraq, after we found out that there is 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.”
MARTIN SMITH: He complied.
ALI SOUFAN: Absolutely. “I want the torture to stop. I gave you anything you want to hear.”
MARTIN SMITH: But the consequences of-
ALI SOUFAN: Tragic! Absolutely. The world is different. Look at all the blood that we lost in Iraq. Look about how the Iraq war helped al Qaeda, both with recruits and financially. It’s tragic. Tragic.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Today, Soufan runs his own risk management group advising governments and corporations around the world. His book, just released yesterday, has reignited a debate, a debate about how to fight the war on terror and about just what happened inside those interrogations rooms.
[on camera] A lot of people are uncomfortable with enhanced interrogation techniques, but I hear you saying that you’re opposed to them not so much because of their cruelty but because they don’t work.
ALI SOUFAN: Yeah. I oppose them mainly from an efficacy perspective because I know the mentality of these individuals.
MARTIN SMITH: Would you have been in favor of it if you’d known that it was working?
ALI SOUFAN: If it was saving lives? I don’t believe- 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.
MARTIN SMITH: Yes, maybe?
ALI SOUFAN: Yeah. It’s very hard. But if somebody in DoJ is telling me this is legal and saving lives in the United States or abroad, I think- I think, yeah, maybe. Again, yeah, maybe. I mean, but because I know for a fact it didn’t.
[In 2009, in one of his first acts in office, President Obama banned coercive interrogation methods and set a one-year deadline for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Guantanamo remains open today.]
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY
NEXT ON FRONTLINESecret State of North KoreaEncore PresentationSeptember 2nd
FRONTLINE Watch FRONTLINE About FRONTLINE Contact FRONTLINE
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.