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michael scheuer


Scheuer was a CIA agent who worked on national security issues related to Islamic extremism from 1985 until his retirement in 2004. He formed the CIA unit responsible for trying to capture Osama bin Laden and headed it from December 1995 to June 1999. Scheuer was also involved in setting up the CIA's rendition program in which terrorist suspects are taken to a third country for interrogation. Critics argue that rendition is "outsourcing torture," but Scheuer defends the program. He says the primary point was to get terrorist suspects who were planning an imminent attack on U.S. interests off the streets and to incarcerate them in a country willing to accept them. Those countries had to provide the U.S. with a guarantee that the suspects would be treated lawfully. "I worked in covert action for 20 years, and there was no covert action program I was involved in that was ever more scrutinized by lawyers," he says. Here, Scheuer also describes the CIA's perspective in its turf battles with the FBI over what to do with captured terrorist suspect Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi. "I think you have to decide what's in the best interest of America," he says. "… Why bother putting him through the court system in the United States when you might be able to save American lives by using him in another manner?" This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 21, 2005.

… Did we know a lot about [Osama bin Laden] and [Al Qaeda] in the summer of 2001?

… There was never a terrorist group which we knew more about in terms of goals, organization, method of operation, personnel than Al Qaeda. And that was not only true in 2001, but by the summer of 1998, we had accumulated an extraordinary array of information about this group and about its intentions.

And how much of what we gathered came from interrogation?

None, basically. Let me speak firsthand, what I know. Until June of 1999, the information we had gathered was either from assets that were run, penetrations that were run by the Central Intelligence Agency, signals intelligence and intelligence, which is always very important, from people who walk into you at various places around the world and deliver something. They always want something. They want protection; they want money; they want relocation.

And they say in the intelligence business the worst thing is a walk-in and the best thing is a walk-in. And fortunately we had several walk-ins who were stellar and helped to fill in many gaps. So those were the three things that we got the best information from.

So somebody like [Jamal] al-Fadl?


I guess the FBI was basically living with him and extracting information from him.

Well, initially Jamal al-Fadl was agency operation, and he gave us information that was startling, not only because of its detail, but because it began to flesh out the information we had already gathered on Osama bin Laden. And so he was as tremendous. We were very lucky. Sometimes you have to work hard, and you get lucky, and Jamal al-Fadl was a stroke of luck for us.

And then shortly thereafter, within four or five months, a friendly intelligence service elsewhere in the Middle East had a similar person who they said was driving them crazy because he was giving them a lot of information that they couldn't understand, and they asked us to take a look at it. And it corroborated basically what Jamal al-Fadl said. And both packages corroborated most of what we had collected before those two people appeared.

Again, by 1998 there was no question that Al Qaeda was a group unlike any other we had ever seen. …

So when we get down into this territory of actionable intelligence, strategic versus tactical, … help me understand the agency's perspective and the FBI's perspective.

Well, the FBI was in a tough position, because the FBI, when it goes overseas, has to obey the laws of the countries they're in, whether they're in France or Ghana or Malaysia. The agency is obligated only to obey the laws of the United States. We're statutorily empowered to break any other law in the world in the defense of American interests and citizens.

Guantanamo from the very beginning has been training the toughest, most dedicated and probably the most healthy battalion of mujahideen that ever existed...

So our view of how things are done is necessarily different and statutorily different than the FBI does. The FBI always likes to build a case and arrest somebody and put them in jail in the United States. Well, it doesn't work that way overseas. And so the FBI was always in a position where they would like to arrest someone, but another police force, especially in the Third World, doesn't allow the FBI to come into the country and run the show. And you know from the way American law works, when someone is arrested, the FBI officer involved has to be able to testify in court that he was there when it happened, and the man was not abused; the man was not roughed up; the man was not deprived or tortured or anything like that. So it very seldom happens that that can be done in a Third World country.

In addition, some of the most important information we get from people who are captured comes in either hardcopy documents or documents on a laptop or a Palm Pilot or a floppy disk or a CD-ROM. Again, for American courts, the FBI officer has to swear that he was there when that information was picked up, and he had, if you will, rode herd on it over the whole process. It was never tampered with; it was never changed; it was never added to or subtracted from.

Both of those almost always are a non-starter in the Third World. The Kuwaiti police or the Kuwaiti intelligence service are not going to let the FBI knock the door in and go in and make sure the chain of custody is correct. So because that's so impossible overseas, the FBI M.O. is … seldom, I would say, applicable. And that devolves the issue to the Intelligence Service: How do you take care of these people? How do you get these people off the street?

And then we move into an area where the CIA is the lead agency. And you have to, a lot of times, improvise ways of trying to find people you can put away. …

… Describe for me, if you will, the political environment and the way that it felt different, if it did to you, post-9/11.

There was a tremendous amount of rhetoric about -- I remember the [CIA's] chief of [counterterrorism], Cofer Black, saying he wanted bin Laden's head brought to him on ice, or we want flies on their eyes. There's a lot of that kind of warrior rhetoric that came out. But at the end of the day, the U.S. intelligence community is palsied by lawyers, and everything still depends on whether the lawyers approve it or not.

So there was some broadening of the target set in terms of people who could be captured. But generally speaking, the rendition program, which I presume is what you're talking about, remained the same as it was since it was devised in 1995.

It isn't only what I'm talking about. I've read and talked to the lawyers of the Department of Justice, the lawyers at the White House, the lawyers at the Defense Department, the JAGs [judge advocates general] -- everybody -- about this notion of a new legal paradigm, a much broader war powers [resolution] for the president of the United States; a broader definition of torture, for example; a much more aggressive view of what to do, whether to follow Geneva or not, all of those kinds of broader issues. Did you feel that shift in any way?

There was a small broadening in what you could do in terms of trying to get someone to talk, but none of them ever approached what anyone would describe as torture. Sleep deprivation and that sort of thing was broadened, but in terms of what you see in Hollywood, of thumbscrews and the Chinese water torture and that kind of thing, it just didn't happen.

And I think a big part of the reason it didn't happen is the agency has long held that torture gets you virtually nothing. People tell you what you want to hear, or they tell you information that's accurate but very dated, and ultimately ties you in knots and doesn't move the process ahead anywhere.

Is that the view inside the agency [about] interrogation?

I think so. Yes, we were eager to talk to these people, clearly. But yesterday and today, there's kind of three tiers of importance. The most important thing in '95 and as we talk in July of 2005 is to get these people off the street. That's the single most important thing, the idea, of course, being to protect America and Americans.

The second most important is to grab, when they're arrested, whatever paper, hardcopy documents or electronic media they have with them, because in that media is going to be information they never expected the Central Intelligence Agency to be reading.

The third thing is to talk to them. But anything we get in the third level is gravy, for several reasons. First of all, Al Qaeda has trained their fighters that they have only two end points. One is to be a martyr on the battlefield and die, and he'll go to heaven. The other one is to be a martyr in the prison of the United States or one of its allies, and God will be just as happy with that. So they're ready to die. The jihad doesn't stop because they're in jail.

The second thing is we're very confident, through captured documents and manuals, that these people are trained to dissemble under interrogation or, as we mentioned earlier, to tell you a lot of very true and accurate information, but stuff that's dated and won't advance the cause.

And the third thing is [people] too often forget that most of these people grew up in police states. They're used to being roughed up by the police with no concern at all for human rights or physical security, and so they're very tough individuals. And there's nothing that we're going to do that's going to approach what the Saudis would do, for example, to a prisoner.

So on that basis, the talking to them is probably the least important of the goals.

So now let's take the moment where we've decided to go to Afghanistan. … I've heard stories of CIA guys walking around cherry-picking high-value terrorists I guess, HVTs, and saying: "These are our guys. We need to talk to them. We recognize them. We've heard about them." Give me the CIA's rules of the road at that moment, in just the fog of the early war in Afghanistan.

As I saw it, the goal remained the same: We wanted to pay attention to the most senior people we could find, because the goal was to find people within circles that might have knowledge of forthcoming attacks on the United States and/or information leading to the location of [Ayman] al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, take your pick. And so we were, I think, focused on that, finding those levels of people.

For the rest of the people, they turned the game over to the amateurs. … The people who went to Gitmo, as far as I understand, were the people who were captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan. … The military and the FBI took people to various places and tried to debrief them as if everybody on the battlefield in Afghanistan would have knowledge of the next 9/11 attack, whereas most of the people that were picked up in Afghanistan were insurgent fighters, guys who might be able to tell you about the organization of Al Qaeda's insurgent arm, what kind of weapons they were trained on. But none of them, virtually none of them, had any knowledge whatsoever useful to either a) preventing an attack on America, or b) locating al-Zawahiri and bin Laden.

And you knew that going in.

Well, we did know it going in, but it's been a very hard sell in the United States government to say: "Listen, Al Qaeda is not a traditional terrorist group. Seventy-five percent of Al Qaeda does insurgency. The people you're going to pick up on the ground in Afghanistan fighting American forces in the Northern Alliance are not the guys that have anything to do with the East Africa bombings, the [USS] Cole or 9/11. And so don't waste your time. Put them in a prison camp, but they're not going to help you stop the next 9/11." But that's a really hard sell in Washington, because bureaucratically Al Qaeda has to fit in the terrorist category because that's the category that's available. There's no other one.

So it's a very difficult thing for an intelligence officer to convince his masters that they really need to think in new ways bureaucratically.

Now, there's a story that gets told about Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, [who] apparently ran a training camp for Al Qaeda. … [He] gets swept up in the war. The FBI has him, and a couple of other guys are debriefing him and getting what they can and making a case about it. And the way the story goes, there's some Washington wrangling, and he is [taken by the CIA to another country for interrogation]. Tell me what you know [about] that story.

Yeah, well, that could be true, but I don't know for sure one way or another. But the real point to make is that once we have him, who cares about a case? What you want from that individual is to try to get information that will lead you to another success either on the battlefield or in some other way. And debriefing someone in order to build a case is a very constricting exercise, because you want to know information, but you only want to know information that makes your case work. And once you have that, in my experience, the FBI won't let you talk to anyone.

So I think you have to decide what's in the best interest of America. Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi was in the senior echelon of Al Qaeda's leaders. He was under arrest; he was not going anywhere. Why bother putting him through the court system in the United States when you might be able to save American lives by using him in another manner? If there is a contest between the FBI and the CIA, it's primarily over that kind of issue, that what are you after here, just another scalp, just another guy in the maximum-security prison in Denver or Colorado or wherever it is, or are you trying to unravel this enemy? And so there's always a conflict there. …

So did they take Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi? I have to tell you, I don't know. I hope they did, because I think he'd be much more valuable in CIA hands than in FBI hands. …

So now let's talk a little bit about rendition, understanding that it starts in '95, continues on through 2001. Is it any different after Sept. 11 as a program, as an idea, as an anything, than it was in 1995?

I think it is, and I think we spoke earlier about it. The ability to interrogate people using U.S. officers, using intelligence officers is new, because primarily in the past, we had been the broker between the entity that arrested an individual and the entity that was going to take him and try him. Physical contact, even conversational -- it almost never occurred. And I think what that reflects is the lack of importance we attached to interrogation at that point. We wanted him off the street, and we wanted his documents.

If something came from the interrogation by another country, we're happy to have it, but we didn't expect much from it.

Does interrogation become more important after 9/11?

Well, sure. I don't know if it becomes more important, but it becomes more of the responsibility of the agency. The politicians want the interrogation to be done by U.S. intelligence officers instead of by a Middle Eastern service or a European service, or whoever is going to incarcerate the person. And so it changes in that manner. I'm not sure if it's a change for the better or not, but it was a change mandated from above.

And the political pressure to get more actionable information -- we need it, we need it, we've got to have it.

Yeah. There's certainly that push after 9/11 -- understandably so. And there's certainly within the agency a desire to do all we could to further the defense of America.

We haven't done this yet, but define what rendition meant post-9/11.

I think it means the same thing as it did before 9/11. [Rendition] is to identify individuals whom we knew were either ready to participate in an attack on the United States or was involved in planning an attack. The emphasis again, from '95 to '05, is to get that person off the street.

The second emphasis, again, [that] is extraordinarily important is hardcopy documents and electronic documents. The importance of interrogation, of interviewing, interrogation, questioning, rises after 9/11 because policy-makers at the NSC [National Security Council], at the White House, around the community begin to insist that U.S. intelligence officers do the interrogation rather than letting third countries do it.


There's a natural tendency to want your own people to do things. You sometimes think they do them better; they're smarter. There's an element of condescension in it, the assumption that an American can do anything better than an Egyptian or a Pakistani. And also a great thirst to have information that we could smack Al Qaeda and the Taliban with. So there are a combination of things resulting in more U.S. intelligence officers being directly involved in the interrogation.

So the common understanding -- that is, the kind of general sense of rendition -- is guys are somehow grabbed, cherry-picked off the Bagram Air Force Base warehouse and ghosted, put on an airplane, a Gulfstream V, and sent into never-never land forever, never to be heard from again. How close is that to reality?

I don't think it's all that close to reality. I think the numbers are small. The question, of course, of whether they're held forever and ever after 9/11 is not an issue that has anything to do with the Central Intelligence Agency; it has to do with the people we work for. CIA, after all, is a service organization. The direction was find, apprehend and hold senior members of Al Qaeda and try to find out what they know about coming attacks against the United States.

Salute, do your job, but at the end of the day, the problem remains: What does the United States government want to do with these people? And if there's a problem -- and there is, if you read the media -- the problem is not with the agency; the problem is with the politicians who have decided that that's the program they want to execute.

So I think there's many people in the agency that are concerned with just this question. When we set up the program, we said: "Listen, we're not jailers. We don't have arrest authority. Where do you want these people taken?" The NSC at that time said, "Well, over to you." And we said: "No, you don't get it. We don't do these things." And they said, "Over to you." And so we had to design a program that would accommodate the inability to bring these people to the United States.

Why couldn't they come to the United States?

Primarily because the way they were taken was not consonant with legal processes in the United States. And the National Security Council apparently decided that they didn't want to go through the trouble of working with the Congress to find ways to bring them to the United States as prisoners of war, as enemy combatants, whatever.

And so the agency was left with a situation where we had direction to take these people off the street and break up Al Qaeda cells, but we also had to find places where they could be arrested and then places where they could be taken for incarceration. So it was a very difficult process, but we did it admirably. The American people today, though it's hard to believe, are very much safer because the agency has been involved in this practice for the past 10 years.

So help me practically understand what it means to take people off the streets, put them somewhere.

Once we had the assignment from Mr. [Samuel] Berger and Mr. [Richard] Clarke and the president in '95, we had to address ourselves to what is the universe of Al Qaeda people? Senior operators that we know through intelligence are either engaged in preparing an attack against the United States or will participate in an attack when it comes.

So the first thing you do is identify that set, that universe. Then, because we could not bring those people to the United States, we had to meet several requirements. First, we had to identify a person who was worth incarcerating. Second, that person had to be in a country that was willing to help us arrest him. Third, that person had to be wanted in a third country in a legal process. Either a warrant had to be issued for him, or he had been tried in absentia.

... For example, if we found an Al Qaeda member of X nationality in country Y, we would first have to persuade country Y to arrest him and then persuade country X to accept him from country Y. And really, the agency's role was a brokering role, trying to mediate between those two. And that's what renditions were about. And that's how they were done. It wasn't just reaching out and grabbing someone. Lord knows there are hundreds of Al Qaeda people we would have liked to take off the street, but we couldn't do it because we couldn't make them fit into the mold of acceptable operations.

And post-9/11, is there anything different about that program?

There is, because now the U.S. government is willing to hold these people at its various incarceration sites around the world. You can pick them up. If you identify them, you still have to build a case that satisfies the lawyers. The lawyers are involved in every step of this process. I worked in covert action for 20 years, and there was no covert action program I was involved in that was ever more scrutinized by lawyers, not only at the agency, but at DOJ -- Department of Justice -- and NSC. You still have to build a legal case against them. Prove that they're bad guys, and then you can pick them up.

But still we're in this position where kind of the horse is out of the barn. These guys now are very much aware that every aspect of the American government is chasing them, so they're much harder to find, identify and pick up than they were before 9/11. So although we have rules of engagement that are a little bit broader, the target is tougher because it's more cognizant of the need to hide.

And I think the perception is that once you get one of these high-value terrorists -- and because you're the CIA you know they are high-value terrorists in a lot of cases -- they will be treated to much harsher, more draconian, more whatever methods.

I think that certainly is the perception, and I think the manner in which they are treated probably is different from the way someone is treated if he's arrested for stealing in a store here in the United States. But again, I don't really have a quarrel with people being upset with that process. What I have a quarrel with is that the agency really has nothing to do with that. That's been decided, approved and blessed by numerous lawyers in the United States government. And at the end of the day, I think agency officers would prefer to see these people treated as prisoners of war, because the results of interrogation are not monumentally important. We come back to the primary things, getting them off the street and getting their documents.

The one thing that is worthwhile, strangely enough, is to engage these people in discussions with no physical attributes at all. Al Qaeda is generally a middle-class and an upper-middle-class organization, men from good families, men who have had education, at least high school, many BAs and many with graduate degrees. And they are extraordinarily proud of the work they're doing. … And they're also very cognizant of being a part of Islamic history and resisting the infidel.

And probably some of the best intelligence we have gotten from these men is by having officers who know a lot about what they're up to and how it fits into the course of Islamic history. In just discussing with them the context in which they have lived and worked, you gain a very significant amount of information and insight into their motivation, into their mind-set, into their dedication, into their patience and perseverance. And I think maybe that's probably the most important part of talking to these people.

... It probably is really hard, even in the post-9/11 period, to find places to put them.

I think that's fair enough. And also you're faced with shooting yourself in the foot, because the information you get from them is probably worth having, but I'm not sure if it's worth the pain you get from the rest of the world. If they were treated as we treated Japanese prisoners of war, German prisoners of war, let the Red Cross come in and see them in their little stockades, I think we'd be better off. I think the American people would then realize what a tremendous boon to their interests the rendition program has been.

One of the great problems, of course, in detaining people like this is how long you detain them.

That's exactly right. The agency kind of has made that point repeatedly along the course of events, because incarceration basically makes them harder. Guantanamo from the very beginning has been training the toughest, most dedicated and probably the most healthy battalion of mujahideen that there ever existed, because those people are going to go back to their societies, and they're going to be heroes. They got captured by the Americans, they withstood the interrogation and the imprisonment, and now they're back, and they're going to go back to fighting.

We've seen, I think, about a dozen cases of Afghans and Pakistanis who were released from Guantanamo who have turned up fighting the Americans on the battlefield again.

You mean because they've been radicalized --

No. Simply because they have no perception that they're doing anything wrong. One of the great mistakes Americans make is that somehow these people are going to be contrite when we capture them. And the FBI is constantly surprised by -- they offer an Islamic militant deal if he'll rat out someone, and the guy says to him: "What? I'm proud of this. I want my parents to know that I helped to blow up the East African embassies or helped to almost destroy the Cole." So it's a whole different mind-set. ...

[It's been reported that al-Libi] and others have been taken to Egypt, taken to Morocco, taken to Jordan. Do we know that that's actually happened, that the agency has taken people into those places?

I've explained to you, no one can be moved to a third country unless that country has an outstanding legal process for them. In the media it's often portrayed that if an Al Qaeda person is captured, the agency wants to take him to the place where he'll be tortured the most. And that's a crock. Because of what the lawyers and the U.S. government have decided, people can be picked up if they're wanted somewhere in the world.

And it happens that Al Qaeda, being a Muslim organization, is made up mostly of people from Muslim countries. And so if you're going to do this, you're going to have to deal with Saudis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians, Algerians, Moroccans, Egyptians. There's not many people in the government of Ireland that are going to want a lot of Egyptian terrorists coming to Dublin for incarceration. It doesn't work that way.

Are you saying definitively as you know that the agency is not taking Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other guys to countries we know do bad stuff because we statutorily or culturally can't do it, and we're letting other countries do it, and we're turning a blind eye toward that?

No, I'm not saying that at all. And I can only speak for the period that I was in charge. We took people to the countries of their origin in the Middle East if those countries had a legal process outstanding for them and were willing to take them. Now, in every case, the lawyers at the CIA, the NSC and the DOJ insisted that we get a guarantee from the government who was accepting the person that that person would be treated according to the laws of that country, not to the laws of the United States, but to the laws of take your pick -- Morocco, Egypt, Jordan.

So yes, people were taken to those countries. But again, that's the way the system was set up. That's the way the legal system in our government wanted it run. ...

I talked to somebody [who] said a lot of times, high-ranking guys know that the Egyptians are very sophisticated about a certain kind of torture, that there is torture in Morocco or Jordan. So an environment can be created almost anywhere, in Pakistan, that feels like Egypt -- the picture on the wall, the music out the window. Can you imagine such a thing?

Yeah, I can imagine all kinds of things. But I have to tell you that in my experience working with Middle Eastern services, whether they're Egyptians or Moroccans, and in for a long time, for almost 20 years, torture is never the first option. The first option is relentless questioning, re-questioning, questioning again and checking what was said.

I'm not going to be a fool and tell you that there's no physical part involved in this, but the Egyptians and the Jordanians are not thugs; they're professional intelligence officers with a different set of rules of engagement than we have. But the idea that they get any useful information from torturing people is probably greatly exaggerated.

I worked with a particular Middle Eastern country for the better part of 15 years, and the people who were working the issue at the start were working it at the end. The people who were working it on the U.S. side who were working with the end are sitting across from you at the moment.

The value that other services put on expertise is astounding. America has no use for expertise. We are all supposed to be generalists. It's generally a career killer if you choose to be an expert.

So it's very easy to assume that it's bamboo under the fingertips and electronic juice applied to various parts of your body. But it's much more sophisticated than that. The people who do the questioning are knowledgeable to the point that they are the peer of the person that they have in custody.

[How effective is the military at gathering intelligence?]

I think to make the point, the military was given a job that was not really their job. And part of the emphasis on this need for actionable intelligence comes from a bipartisan imperative among American leaders not to use their military to its full power, not to kill a lot of people or suffer any casualties. So instead, we've reduced the intelligence process to try to find the silver bullet, the one piece of intelligence from one of these captives that will allow us to kill bin Laden and make all of this bad stuff go away. It's an endeavor not only to gather information, but [to] prevent us from looking bad if you believe that using our military ruthlessly is a bad thing.

And so we talk to the gomers that come out of Afghanistan who are insurgent fighters as if they were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed potentially. And to turn that over to the military, which you said was a blunt instrument, results in things like Abu Ghraib or some of the things that happened in Guantanamo.

I personally don't think that any of those things are irredeemable evil. They're stupid. They're not going to result in any intelligence. And they certainly degraded the prisoners. But it all goes back to a mind-set that there is a piece of information out there that's going to make this nightmare stop, and we can wake up and go ahead with morning in America. And it's not going to happen. But politicians are not convinced of that yet.

You're a man who lived and breathed information, sifting it, understanding it, trying to get it. Do you think Gitmo is the environment to get any information?

Well, if you're looking for the right information, Gitmo in a sense was an opportunity that's been lost. We put together in Gitmo for the first time ... people who knew about Al Qaeda's insurgent organization. What those people should have been was a laboratory for us to find out about how insurgents are trained, what weapons they're trained to use. Are they trained in celestial navigation? What kind of combat medicine? To assemble almost an order of battle, information packet, so the military will know when they go on the field to fight insurgents how the enemy is organized.

Instead we spent the entire time to today looking for the guy who is the cousin of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who knows what's going after 9/11. So I think it's a mistake. It's a mistake because of the questions we didn't ask. We had a good audience for information, a good mass of people to gather information we needed, but not about the next 9/11, about the men we're fighting now on the ground in Afghanistan and in Iraq, for example, the insurgents.

So when Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld called them "the worst of the worst," what does that mean to you?

It means what it always means: He doesn't have a clue about what he's fighting or why he's fighting it. They continue to believe that they think that we're being fought because we love freedom and liberty, instead of what we do in the Islamic world. And they're going to go to their graves, and maybe taking the nation with them, believing that nonsense.

Are they an enemy that needs to be defeated? Absolutely. But, like any other enemy, you'd better understand them, or they're going to whip you. And we're getting whipped.

The insurgency is happening in Iraq. Again, we're gathering lots of people, dragging them into Abu Ghraib. Gen. [Geoffrey D.] Miller comes from Gitmo to Iraq bringing Gitmoization. What does that mean to you, Gitmo-ization, when you heard the phrase?

Well, it seems to me that the people at Guantanamo were treated with less degradation. I think that's an important step. Really, the danger of Guantanamo, of Abu Ghraib, of whatever the dimensions of the Koranic desecration were, the real danger of that is that the Muslim world begins to hate Americans because they're Americans. The one great saving grace of everything we know in terms of polling data in the Muslim world is that huge majorities oppose American foreign policy. They view it as a threat to Islam and to Muslims.

But at the same time, they admire Americans. In the same countries that show huge majorities opposing our policies, large majorities admire the basic equity of American society, the basic ability of a parent to get his children educated and fed and to find employment. And the real danger is not so much that the first one will go, because that's just about maxed out. It's about 100 percent anti-U.S. foreign policy. But the danger lies in the majorities who admire Americans falling. And the orange jumpsuits, putting these people in cyclone cages, the leash on the people in Iraq, or making them stand around nude in Abu Ghraib -- what that does is make Muslims think Americans are not fair-minded, compassionate people.

And we don't want to be in a position, I think, where 1.3 billion Muslims hate Americans just because they're Americans, and not hate American foreign policy just because it's policy. It's a big difference, and it's a staggering[ly] dangerous thing to play with. ... We don't understand that so many of those men, in especially Guantanamo, are viewed as heroes in the Islamic world. It's mujahideen; it's holy war. And to put them in a mask and an orange jumpsuit and keep them outside in the cyclone-fenced cage like a dog is something that will resound to our discredit as a people -- and all unnecessarily. There was no law that said that's the way they had to be dressed and confined. It's another self-inflicted wound, and a very dangerous one over the long term.

What caused Abu Ghraib?

What caused Abu Ghraib in my own mind is the lack of supervision, first of all. And shockingly in the military, no general officer has been faulted for what happened at Abu Ghraib.

The second thing is clear, that the people who were entrusted with jail and interrogation were not as well trained as they could be. But I think the bottom line is what we talked about earlier. This administration, like the Clinton administration, like the first Bush administration, is looking for the silver bullet. They're looking for the one piece of information that's going to stop this program or allow us to kill bin Laden and make it all go away.

And at base, that message is transmitted from the White House to [Pfc.] Lynndie England, the young lady who was charged [and in September convicted] on Abu Ghraib. And those people are fueled by the desire of the president and the leadership of the country to find that silver bullet. So I think those three things to me are great contributors to what happened at Abu Ghraib.

It's almost like a hunting license.

It is. And what's worse is that it's a hunting license, but it's wrapped in red, white and blue. What you're told you're doing is looking for that piece of information that'll protect the next 3,000 people who might be killed in New York or Los Angeles or wherever it is.

Some of it is done by people who maybe enjoy that kind of treating other human beings. But I think the unbridled passion for defending America is fueled by this request for "actionable" intelligence. …

Cofer Black gets credit or blame for a phrase that I wonder whether you can tell me what it means to you. Everybody says they remember him saying, "The gloves are off." What does that mean?

It means nothing. It's more rhetoric. Cofer is an excellent rhetorician, if you will, and a fellow who sounds like a warrior. But we're still afraid. We're still palsied by lawyers. And I'll give you the best example I can think of showing how the American government remains more concerned about international opinion than in protecting Americans is the first attempt to take Fallujah. The Marines went in there, had the city at the verge of being taken, and they were called off because the British told the Americans, "We can't do this; this is too politically dangerous." Well, all those Marines who got killed in the first attempt on Fallujah were wasted, and we had to go back a second time. So in my mind that clearly shows the gloves are not off.

And in my own experience, and it's a very small thing, but it's been well publicized in the papers that the agency runs a predator, unmanned aerial vehicle in Afghanistan, and it is armed with a missile. And between May of 2002 and November of 2004, when I quit, that vehicle fired four missiles, four in an environment that it would be understating to say that it was target-rich.

That's because when you find a target, you have to build a case almost like one you would take to a federal court. You have to take it to a battery of lawyers who review it and ask questions. And then if they decide that it's a target that's OK, you have to all but guarantee that there will be no collateral damage in terms of property or people.

So at the end of the day, where are the gloves off? Four missiles in two years in a place like Afghanistan, two-plus years, two and a half years.

The American people believe the gloves are off because their leaders tell them they are. But the reality for an intelligence officer is that we're still palsied by a system that is terrified of offending international opinion. …

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posted oct. 18, 2005

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