Let me explain this one. Ali Soufan, the well-respected retired FBI agent and al-Qaeda expert who recently wrote about his experiences interrogating Abu Zubaydah without torturing him, testifies before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee tomorrow morning. In advance of his testimony, I went through last year’s Justice Department inspector-general report on the role of the FBI in torture. I’ll confess to you right now: I read the executive summary when it came out last year and that was it. It’s over 400 pages long. But I went back through it because I saw some apparent discrepancies between what Soufan wrote and what the Red Cross found from the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah.
The Washington Independent published what I found today. Bottom line is that the report mostly backs up Soufan. The further away you get from the details, the more it supports his account. But when you drill down, you see some discrepancies — not just about him, but about the broader narrative that the FBI was an outpost of institutional opposition to torture.
According to the report, the FBI’s role in Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation caused significant internal alarm as to whether the bureau was acting outside its legal authority. The incident “led to the decision” from Director Robert Mueller that “FBI agents should not participate in interrogations using non-FBI techniques.” But it took the FBI two years after that decision to issue a “formal policy addressing participation in joint interrogations with other agencies in overseas locations,” in May 2004. The inspector general was unable to establish when exactly Mueller made that decision, as numerous Justice Department and FBI officials said they could not recall when exactly it occurred, estimating that Mueller gave his guidance “in approximately August 2002.” Afterward, however, FBI agents participated in numerous interrogations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay that went far beyond the traditional “relationship-building techniques” employed by the bureau.
One such interrogation involved “Thomas.” ["Thomas" is likely a pseudonym for Soufan.] At Guantanamo Bay, beginning in late July or early August 2002 — very soon after being withdrawn from the Abu Zubaydah interrogation — “Thomas” interrogated Mohammed al-Qatani, who was suspected of being a part of the 9/11 conspiracy and who was detained in Afghanistan after he was unable to enter the U.S. through Orlando in the summer of 2001. “Thomas,” the report reads, “had already obtained confessions from several detainees” at Guantanamo; the commander of the detention facility called him “a national treasure.”
“Thomas” does not appear to have objected to the interrogation of al-Qatani, whatever his objections to the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah a few months prior. According to the report, “Thomas” recommended the use of non-FBI interrogation techniques on al-Qatani, including moving him “to a more remote location at GTMO so that he would not get social support from the other detainees.” The FBI case agent at Guantanamo, known by the pseudonym “Demeter,” noted to the inspector general that “isolation is not normally employed by law enforcement agencies” but could be “a very effective technique,” and so “Demeter” and “Thomas” received approval from unnamed “senior officials… up their chain of command” for use of the technique.”
Read the whole thing. It’s a nuanced piece; or it is if I succeeded.
Now: why’d I write it? Why’d I want to write it? Just to be clear here: I have no interest in attacking Soufan. It concerned me that the details of the FBI’s role in all this were getting glossed over by a reductive portrait of them as the White Hats. If the piece reads like a purity hunt, then I failed. Instead, what I wanted to do was match the new information Soufan put into the public record with the information that the IG report compiled, ahead of Soufan’s testimony. The picture is a complicated one, and I’ll be covering the hearing tomorrow to see if Soufan addresses those complexities.