Ali Soufan, an FBI interrogator of Abu Zubaydah, joins the torture debate on the NY Times op-ed page and explains that the Bush era enhanced interrogation techniques were unnecessary and ineffective. Torture doesn't work, and Mr. Soufan is today's darling of the reality-based community. However, based on earlier Times reporting and the DoJ Inspector General report Mr. Soufan is, well, misleading us.
So, the Times has run an op-ed that dovetails with their current agenda but is contradicted by other strong evidence and their own reporting - does anyone think we will see a clarification or follow-up? Neither do I.
Eventually patient readers will also find my rebuttal to Marcy Wheeler and Andrew Sullivan, who claim that these latest revelations bring down the whole legal structure crafted by the OLC memos. Not to jump ahead, but since the Soufan story is bogus, conclusions based on that story are also shaky. It's castles on sand and another day in reality-world.
Let's start with Mr. Soufan:
One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.
I guess there are different levels of "traditional" techniques - the DoJ IG report (p. 111 of 438) makes it clear that the FBI had concerns about the CIA-led approach from the outset, with one of the agents describing it as "borderline torture".
What "borderline torture" techniques are we talking about? The DoJ IG report has redactions, but this is from David Johnston, writing in the Sept 10 2006 Times:
WASHINGTON, Sept. 9 — Abu Zubaydah, the first Osama bin Laden henchman captured by the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was bloodied and feverish when a C.I.A. security team delivered him to a secret safe house in Thailand for interrogation in the early spring of 2002. Bullet fragments had ripped through his abdomen and groin during a firefight in Pakistan several days earlier when he had been captured.The events that unfolded at the safe house over the next few weeks proved to be fateful for the Bush administration. Within days, Mr. Zubaydah was being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques — he was stripped, held in an icy room and jarred by earsplittingly loud music — the genesis of practices later adopted by some within the military, and widely used by the Central Intelligence Agency in handling prominent terrorism suspects at secret overseas prisons.
The Times returned to Zubaydah last week and apparently believed that the unenhanced enhanced techniques were controversial:
His interrogation, according to multiple accounts, began in Pakistan and continued at the secret C.I.A. site in Thailand, with a traditional, rapport-building approach led by two F.B.I. agents, who even helped care for him as his gunshot wounds healed.
Abu Zubaydah gave up perhaps his single most valuable piece of information early, naming Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whom he knew as Mukhtar, as the main organizer of the 9/11 plot.
A C.I.A. interrogation team that arrived a week or two later, which included former military psychologists, did not change the approach to questioning, but began to keep him awake night and day with blasting rock music, have his clothes removed and keep his cell cold.
Well. One hopes the actual interrogations were done in compliance with FBI guidelines, even if the treatment of the prisoner was "enhanced" a bit on an extra-curricular basis outside of the interrogation room. From the May 30 2005 memo (p. 94 of 124) I infer that the proponents of enhanced techniques scored this as a win for their techniques. And since per the DoJ IG report the FBI withdrew its agents in May and June because of the harsh CIA techniques, we are left wondering just what sort of "traditional" FBI interrogation Mr. Soufan normally conducts.
Switching gears, let me summarize the argument offered by Ms. Wheeler and enthusiastically endorsed by Andrew Sullivan. The OLC legal opinion offered by Bybee included the caveat that "The interrogation team is certain that he has additional information that he refuses to divulge" and warns that
To continue the argument, the interrogations were taking place with both FBI and CIA agents present; therefore, the CIA had to know, as Mr. Soufan did, that the prisoner was cooperating; therefore, the legal opinion is based on a false premise and collapses. Or so says Ms. Wheeler, with a strong second from Sully.
To which I say, well, maybe, if the Inspector General and the Times reporting is all wrong. The Johnston 2006 story included this:
After Mr. Zubaydah’s capture, a C.I.A. interrogation team was dispatched from the agency’s counterterrorism center to take the lead in his questioning, former law enforcement and intelligence officials said, and F.B.I. agents were withdrawn. The group included an agency consultant schooled in the harsher interrogation procedures to which American special forces are subjected in their training. Three former intelligence officials said the techniques had been drawn up on the basis of legal guidance from the Justice Department, but were not yet supported by a formal legal opinion.
In Thailand, the new C.I.A. team concluded that under standard questioning Mr. Zubaydah was revealing only a small fraction of what he knew, and decided that more aggressive techniques were warranted.
At times, Mr. Zubaydah, still weak from his wounds, was stripped and placed in a cell without a bunk or blankets. He stood or lay on the bare floor, sometimes with air-conditioning adjusted so that, one official said, Mr. Zubaydah seemed to turn blue. At other times, the interrogators piped in deafening blasts of music by groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sometimes, the interrogator would use simpler techniques, entering his cell to ask him to confess.
“You know what I want,” the interrogator would say to him, according to one official’s account, departing leaving Mr. Zubaydah to brood over his answer.
Mr. Soufan says that "I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August." As we have seen, something like harsh techniques were already in place. But what happened in July? This high value target of so much attention was left to rock out to the Red Hot Chili Peppers while shivering in his underwear? Probably not. Based on the DoJ IG report the Times story is roughly accurate.
If Mr. Soufan is credible at all then there were divisions within the original CIA team, some members were convinced a tougher approach was warranted, and Bybee was working with them. Or perhaps after the fact some CIA officials involved in the interrogation decided that someone else must have been responsible. CYA at the CIA. Go figure.
And do note that ater the fact the FBI team may have been absolutely correct in their assessment of Zubaydah's compliance but that does not mean that the CIA people requested the legal guidance in bad faith.
MORE ON THE INSPECTOR GENERAL REPORT:
Mr. Soufan makes an interesting claim in his op-ed:
Well, if the DoJ Inspector General's report is reliable, the Soufan story is full of holes. Starting at p. 110 of 438, we see that two FBI agents, Gibson and Thomas (pseudonyms) were involved in the Zubaydah interrogation.
The CIA showed up and took over quickly. Thomas had objections to their techniques, which he described as "borderline torture", and left somewhat thereafter. Gibson was authorized (or instructed) to leave but hung around until early June, several weeks after Thomas left. So let's tentatively infer from that that "Gibson" is Mr. Soufan (the story hardly changes if "Thomas" is Soufan.)
The first and most important point is that the FBI was troubled by the CIA techniques from the outset, not only after August 1. The current op-ed imagines that there was a long period of "traditional" interrogation, but that is contradicted by the IG report.
Secondly, per page 111, "Gibson", (probably Mr. Soufan), told the CIA was told by the CIA upon their arrival that Zubaydah was only providing "throwaway" information and that they "needed to diminish his capacity to resist". Thomas expressed concern about the CIA techniques, calling them "border-line torture"; "Gibson" "did not express as much concern" as Thomas. From which we conclude that somebody from the FBI CIA side thought that more could be gleaned from Zubaydah.
When "Gibson" got home he told FBI Counter terrorism AD D'Amuro that he had no moral qualms about the CIA approach, that they were behaving professionally, and that he had endured similar treatment in SERE school.
Well. If Mr. Soufan is Thomas, then there were obvious divisions even within the FBI; if he is Gibson, there are apparent divisions within himself.
Eventually, after a series of meetings in Washington, the FBI learned about the OLC opinion and decided to withdraw from the enhanced interrogation process.
OOPS: When I summarized the IG report above I had the CIA calling for tougher treatment (as did the Johnston story), but in the version directly above I had "Gibson" of the FBI making that suggestion, which is both wrong and irrelevant.