February 2002. “So tell me,” I asked the elderly Afghani man sitting across from me in a detention cell in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, “what do you know about New York and Washington?”
“I don’t know what they’ve done,” he replied, “but I’m sure they are good people.”
The Afghani knew nothing about al-Qaeda or 9/11, and even thought “New York” and “Washington” were the names of people. Our first challenge at Guantánamo was to distinguish al-Qaeda and Taliban members from those wrongfully rounded up.
I arrived at Gitmo in early February 2002. The United States had just begun bringing detainees captured in Afghanistan to the U.S. detention facility. Little was known about our new prisoners, and U.S. government agencies had sent their top investigators and interrogators to help the military question and sort them. Among those gathered at the base were Bob McFadden; Ed, the CIA officer with whom I later worked [3 words redacted]; and Andre Khoury and John Anticev.
We had all heard stories of how Northern Alliance fighters would drive in their trucks though Pashtun tribal areas in Afghanistan and offer villagers a ride. Many had never been in a car before and eagerly took the ride. The Northern Alliance fighters, who were mostly Tajiks and hated Pashtuns, would then drive to a nearby U.S. base and tell officials that their passengers were “Taliban/al-Qaeda,” and receive a reward of fifty dollars a head for their efforts.
Other detainees, however, were important figures in the al-Qaeda and Taliban networks. Early on, Andre, Ed, and I interrogated Abdul Aziz al-Matrafi, head of the Afghan offices of al-Wafa, an NGO listed as a terrorist-affiliated entity by the United States. We knew that he was viewed in the Islamic world (and that he viewed himself) as an important person, so we treated him with a great deal of respect in order to make him feel comfortable. We steadily established rapport with him, first discussing non–al-Qaeda-related matters, like his family. When we asked about his children, he started crying and told us that he missed his daughters. We then started prodding him to see if he had had any disagreements with bin Laden.
He soon told us that bin Laden had upset him, and many Saudi clerics, when he had declared that traveling to Afghanistan with one’s family was the Hijra of today, implying that anyone who didn’t make the pilgrimage wasn’t a proper Muslim. It was a clear insult to Matrafi’s backers in Saudi Arabia and to many sympathetic clerics who weren’t taking their families to Afghanistan.
Once Matrafi began listing his disagreements with bin Laden, we convinced him to cooperate with us, which he did, even telling us how his own supposedly humanitarian organization would purchase weapons for jihad. Matrafi was present at several key al-Qaeda meetings, including a lunch with bin Laden, Zawahiri, KSM, and the paraplegic Saudi mullah Khalid al-Harbi, who appeared with bin Laden in the infamous video praising the 9/11 attacks. (Found on November 9, 2001, the video was released by the Department of Defense on December 13.)
Many al-Qaeda sympathizers had traveled to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, thinking that divine prophecies were being fulfilled and that it was the end of America. They quoted to each other apocalyptic hadith similar to the ones citing the black banners from Khurasan. Harbi is heard on bin Laden’s 9/11 video speaking about mujahideen everywhere flying to Afghanistan as part of a heavenly plan.
Al-Wafa sponsored Harbi’s trip, and he flew to Iran and from there was smuggled across the border into Afghanistan. Bin Laden, who considered Harbi a friend, held a lunch honoring him—the lunch attended by Matrafi. It was then, with KSM apparently videotaping, that bin Laden read his poem celebrating 9/11 and gave credit to Mokhtar, or KSM.
When fighters were picked up in Afghanistan after 9/11, they often had their real passports with them, as they were trying to flee the country; but their names meant little to us, as we primarily knew al-Qaeda members by their aliases. Our first challenge at Gitmo, therefore, was to match real names to aliases.
I looked through photos of detainees. One man of interest appeared to be Moroccan and in his forties, and fit Abu Jandal’s description of Abu Assim al-Maghrebi, who supervised bin Laden’s bodyguards. His name, according to the file, was Abdullah Tabarak, and the notes in the file said that he had been captured, with others, crossing the Afghani border into Pakistan. The whole group claimed that they were in Afghanistan to teach the Quran. Their cover story seemed suspicious. I began looking through the photos of the other group members to see if I recognized any of them as well. Ibrahim al-Qosi, a Sudanese, seemed to match a description I had been given by several al-Qaeda members, including L’Houssaine Kherchtou, Fahd al-Quso, and Abu Jandal, of Abu Khubaib al-Sudani, who had been with bin Laden from the start and served at one point as an accountant for al-Qaeda. He was also Abu Assim al-Maghrebi’s son-in-law.
I asked for copies of the photos of Tabarak and Qosi to be sent to Mike Anticev, John’s brother and a squad mate at I-49 in New York. They would be shown to Junior and L’Houssaine Kherchtou, the former al-Qaeda members who had become U.S. government cooperating witnesses. The message came back a day later from Mike that the witnesses had separately identified the men in the photos as Abu Assim and Abu Khubaib.
When the first detainees were brought to Gitmo, the base was split between two commanders: Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey, the commander of Joint Task Force 170, responsible for military interrogations; and Brig. Gen. Rick Baccus, the commander of Joint Task Force 160, responsible for running the base and guarding prisoners.
FBI agents at Gitmo operated under the auspices of the Defense Department’s Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF), headed by Col. Brittain P. Mallow, from the army’s Criminal Investigation Command. (The latter is referred to as CID, an acronym formed from the original name of the unit, the Criminal Investigation Division.) Colonel Mallow’s deputy was Mark Fallon, from NCIS. CITF was charged with investigating the detainees and deciding who should be prosecuted, a separate function from the military interrogators, whose mandate was just to get intelligence.
I took the pictures of Tabarak and Qosi to General Dunlavey. He told me that while other groups of prisoners were violent and regularly fought with guards and caused trouble, Tabarak, Qosi, and the other detainees in their bloc were “model prisoners.” General Dunlavey asked, “What do you recommend doing?”
“First we need to take them out of their comfort zone,” I said, “and show them that we know who they are and that the game is up. We also need to isolate them from their support base. Tabarak is the most senior al-Qaeda guy we have caught since 9/11. He’s higher up than Abu Jandal. He’s important and should be an amazing source of intelligence, if we handle him correctly.”
General Dunlavey escorted Tabarak to the brig, at the time the only facility at Gitmo available to separate valuable detainees from the general population. One problem, however, was that the brig is located on the top of a hill in the middle of the island, and the cells had windows, enabling inmates to see where they were and who was coming and going. We were not allowed to tell detainees that they were being held in Cuba, though eventually they guessed (and later on they knew for certain, from Red Cross visits). We also didn’t want them to see who was coming and going, so the guards covered the windows.
Once Abu Assim was installed in the brig, I went to see him. “Abu Assim, As-Salamu Alaykum.”
“Wa Alaykum as-Salam.”
Speaking in Arabic, I got straight to the point. “I know who you are and I know your importance. The game is up.”
“You’ve got the wrong person,” he replied. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Denial is pointless,” I told him. “I have witnesses who have identified you, fellow al-Qaeda members. We are aware of your long journey with Sheikh Abu Abdullah. My sources told me a lot about you and your family.” I invoked the bin Laden alias to convey the point that we understood the group’s dynamics.
“My family, what about them?”
“There is a lot, after Abu Ata’a was killed.”
“Who is Abu Ata’a?” he interrupted.
“Abu Ata’a al-Tunisi, your son-in-law, who was killed fighting against Ahmed Shah Massoud. Al-Qaeda even named a mountain after him on the front lines in Afghanistan. Do you remember him?”
Abu Assim did not respond. He was assessing me.
“Now, to go back to your family. Your widowed daughter got remarried to another brother, Abu Khubaib, the one who was apprehended with you.” I wanted him to know that we had successfully identified all those who were picked up with him. The message to him was that we had sources and possibly other detainees already cooperating with us. It would make it easier for him to cooperate if he knew others were talking to us.
“I have to go, but when we next speak I hope you find it in your best interest to cooperate with me. In the meantime, rest up, because we’ve got a lot of talking to do.” I wanted him to reflect on his new circumstances and realize that his cover was blown. Inexplicably, soon after, we were informed that Abu Assim was off-limits and that no one had access to him. I appealed to Blaine Thomas, the CITF commander on the ground. “This is a prisoner we identified. He’s our subject.”
“We’ve been told he is probably already off the island.”
CITF protested up the chain of command, to no avail. When I asked others at the base if they knew what was going on with Abu Assim, no one seemed to have any information. There were plenty of other detainees to deal with, so I put his file to the side.
Months later, I was reading an Arabic newspaper and spotted an article saying that Abu Assim had been freed by a Moroccan judge. I made some inquiries and found out that soon after we identified him, the Bush administration had authorized his transfer to Morocco. After questioning him, the Moroccans eventually freed him.
“Is this a joke?” I vented my frustration to my partner Bob McFadden. “Tabarak was the most senior al-Qaeda guy we had in our custody. He was with bin Laden from the start and was his confidant.”
“Man, the amount of intelligence he had surpasses anyone else in our custody,” Bob said. “Not to mention that he deserved to spend his life behind bars.”
Qosi, on the other hand, remained in Gitmo and was interrogated by Bob and me. We took time establishing rapport with him, and he offered valuable information about bin Laden and his security team. As the first bodyguard assigned to protect bin Laden after he was attacked in Sudan, he was well placed to do so. He also provided details on how he delivered money given to him by Abu Hafs al-Masri to an Egyptian operative in Ethiopia. Days after the delivery, the operative led a failed assassination attempt on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa.
At one point Qosi asked me: “Has the U.S. invaded Iraq yet?” The U.S. invasion of Iraq didn’t come until much later, in 2003, so it seemed a very strange question.
“No, we haven’t, but why do you ask?” He told me that there was a hadith saying that the end of days would come after the land that is today Iraq is invaded by armies fighting over its black gold, a reference to oil. Later, other al-Qaeda detainees also quoted the black gold hadith. They all firmly believed al-Qaeda’s rhetoric and use of questionable hadith and saw themselves as part of a divine prophecy.
Qosi also told me that bin Laden often said that his strategy to defeat America was through the death by a thousand cuts. Bin Laden knew that he could never defeat America straight up or with one blow, or even a series of blows, so his aim was to keeping pricking the United States, in a variety of ways, until life was made unbearable. This was not only through carrying out operations in the United States but by creating a constant source of worry. Qosi said that at times bin Laden had operatives talk about nonexistent operations on lines they thought the United States would be listening in on, so that the United States would waste time and resources chasing those “plots.”
Years later, when Qosi’s case went to trial, he pleaded guilty on the advice of his defense team.
There were many initial successes and frustrations at Gitmo. The problem was that there was no plan, and there were no rules of engagement aiming toward an endgame. The seasoned investigators started out doing everything by the book, but soon we were being given contrary orders from above.
The first new directive forbade the reading of the Miranda warning to detainees. Henceforth any confessions we got couldn’t be used as evidence in any court, military or civilian. (The Uniform Code of Military Justice also requires that subjects be advised of their rights.) After many protested, especially the detectives assigned to various JTTFs who were reassigned to Gitmo, the bureau sent down a senior official, Spike Bowman, to tell us that Washington viewed Guantánamo at this stage as just an intelligence collection operation, and that we shouldn’t worry about eventual prosecutions.
General Dunlavey often asked me for help when he was having problems with detainees, and at one point he told me that the detainees were on a hunger strike and the guards didn’t know why. I interviewed some of them and was told that they were protesting because the guards had supposedly replaced the morning call to prayer with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
There was also a series of disagreements between experienced and novice interrogators about how interrogations should be carried out. The problem was that after 9/11, the U.S. military and other government entities rapidly expanded their teams that dealt with terrorism and put people in positions they didn’t have the training or experience for. People were put on the job at Gitmo after just a six-week training course, without having ever conducted a real interrogation, let alone interrogated al-Qaeda terrorists. Their knowledge of al-Qaeda was thin and largely based on media accounts and press conferences.
When these inexperienced interrogators started doing their own interviews, they didn’t have much success, and began trying different methods to get information. They were under pressure from officials in Washington to “produce results.” One interrogator dressed up as a cowboy and blared country music into the interrogation room, thinking that somehow it would shock the detainee into cooperating. Later, I heard of reports of cruelty beginning to seep in, and harsher tactics were employed at Gitmo, such as the use of cinderblocks to hold detainees in stress positions.
The experienced investigators refused to be party to such interrogations and protested up our chain of command. CITF also organized training sessions for these fresh interrogators, and we tried explaining how to sort detainees, how to flip people (get them to cooperate), and how to utilize knowledge of al-Qaeda to gain information. The problem was that interrogation skills and knowledge cannot be picked up from a few sessions; they come from studying the group and the subject, and lots of interrogation experience working alongside experts.
Some of the military interrogators began to dress like FBI and CITF personnel, thinking that our successes stemmed from our appearance. At one point, Mark Fallon, the deputy CITF commander, even received a request from the military for two hundred CITF-logo polo shirts.
It wasn’t only experienced interrogators who objected to what they saw, but also behavioral experts sent to the base to support the interrogations. Experienced experts like Tom Neer from the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit; the CTC’s [2 words redacted]; and Mike Gelles, NCIS’s chief psychologist, all traveled to the base and voiced their objections.
Shortly after we arrived at Gitmo we had a series of discussions organized by CITF on how to sort and process the detainees. Years later Bob McFadden reminded me of what I told the group: “From here, within Gitmo, we will either win or lose the war. After we interrogate people we need to sort them: who is guilty of crimes and who is innocent. If they’re innocent, or if we’re not going to be able to prosecute them, then we need to think of their detention here as a rehabilitation period. Otherwise we’re creating new enemies. In the process we need to show them what the ‘real America’ is, and leave them with good impressions. And if we fail to process detainees, we’ll lower the incentive for other detainees to cooperate, as they’ll see cooperation doesn’t change their situation. As for the guilty ones, we need to process them and put them on trial. Otherwise we’re creating living martyrs.”
This view was shared by the other experienced investigators, and after we’d finish our interrogations, we’d file any intelligence that could be used for operations and assess whether the people should be prosecuted or freed. We had an important advantage against many of the al-Qaeda members we interrogated at the start, as they were in deep shock to be in U.S. custody. For years they had been told by bin Laden that the United States was a cowardly country whose soldiers would flee when attacked. The al-Qaeda leader would cite the U.S. withdrawals from Lebanon and Somalia following attacks as examples of American “cowardice.” But after 9/11, when we invaded Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s rhetoric was exposed as hollow. The image of al-Qaeda’s leaders (rather than U.S. soldiers) scurrying into hiding places, and even fleeing Afghanistan, turned perceptions upside down. This made al-Qaeda members fear the United States for the first time, and made them more likely to cooperate than when they thought al-Qaeda had the upper hand.
The image of a confident and strong America was compromised when the Guantánamo guards were ordered to chain the detainees’ hands and feet so they could barely move. When a detainee needed to be moved from his cell to an interrogation room, two guards would almost carry him, sometimes even putting him on a wheeled stretcher. “This actually plays into al-Qaeda’s rhetoric and shows them that we are indeed terrified of them,” I told the CITF. “We need to do it securely and safely, but this is overkill. It’s a mistake.”
In each interrogation I conducted, I had the guards take off the detainee’s chains. I wanted to show that I wasn’t afraid of the person I was interrogating. Taking off the chains also furthered the process, as detainees reacted well when treated with dignity.
“Why are you being nice to them?” one guard asked me in a sneering tone.
“I’m playing mind games with them,” I told him, “playing on their notions of respect and dignity. When I treat them well, they feel they have to be polite and responsive, and in return I get the intelligence I need. For that, I’ll be nice.”
One day General Dunlavey called me, along with the CIA chief [2 words redacted], Matt, to his office. He told us that FBI director Robert Mueller would be arriving shortly and that he would like us to accompany him and the director on a tour. I had never met Mueller before; he was appointed just before 9/11, and I had been largely outside the United States on missions since his appointment.
When the director arrived, I had just come out of an interrogation and was wearing cargo pants and a polo shirt and had a beard, so I didn’t look like an FBI agent. As we took him around the base, Dunlavey periodically asked me to explain things to Mueller, and I noticed the director looking at me strangely, as if he was trying to work out who I was. At the end of the tour, Dunlavey turned to the director and said: “Now that you’ve seen the operation, let me introduce you to the people who are making it happen.” Rather than have a general introduce Mueller to one of his own agents, I quickly said: “Ali Soufan, FBI, nice to meet you sir,” before Dunlavey could finish.
“You’re Ali?” the director asked, and his eyebrows shot up. He looked me up and down again.
“I should tell you that I just came from a trip overseas, and in many countries, when we landed, the foreign services would ask me, ‘How is Ali doing?’ I’ve heard a lot of great things about you, so I’m very happy to meet you.”
“That’s a great honor, sir. Thank you.”
We continued on to the FBI house at Gitmo, where all our agents worked and lived, and gathered in the living room, where several rows of folding chairs had been set up. Matt, the CIA chief of base, was also invited to come, and he and I stood at the back of the room. No one sat in the front two rows, and as the director was about to begin his talk, he asked, “No one wants to sit in the front?” There was silence. “Where’s Ali?” he asked, looking around, and when he spotted me at the back he beckoned me to the front: “Come sit here.” I guessed that my name was one of the few he knew.
One evening in late June 2002, while I was working in FBI headquarters in DC—I was splitting my time between helping at Gitmo and other operations—Dan Coleman approached my desk. “Ali, do you know that there is a Salim Hamdan in Gitmo? Isn’t he Abu Jandal’s brother-in-law?”
“Yes, I’ve just been sorting through detainee files. Here’s his arrest photo,” Dan said, handing it to me.
“So this is the famous Saqr,” I said, studying the photo.
Abu Jandal had once told us that he only knew Saqr by his alias. “Come on,” I had told him, “are you really going to claim you don’t know your own brother-in-law’s real name?” Abu Jandal had blushed, caught in a lie. He had no idea how we knew of their relationship.
“It’s Salim Hamdan,” he’d said.
I went to see Pat D’Amuro and explained what I’d just learned, and we agreed that I would go interview Hamdan. At the time, there was no “fly team” (a specialized rapid response team) set up to interrogate new detainees, so Pat let me take whoever I wanted. I chose George Crouch, who had worked with me on the Cole investigation and was at the time temporarily assigned with me to headquarters. We sent word in advance to the FBI base at Gitmo that we were coming to interview Hamdan.
Bill Corbett, the Gitmo case agent at the time, met us when we landed. “I know it’s late,” I told him, “but we want to go straight to interview Hamdan.”
“There’s a problem,” he said. “The CIA have suddenly decided to interrogate him right now.”
“What suddenly pricked their interest?”
“I know,” Bill replied, “there’s something strange going on. Hamdan has been in custody for months, and the CIA has had plenty of time to interrogate him, but only now, when they heard that the FBI specifically asked to interview him and that HQ was sending you to the island, did they say they wanted to speak to him.”
“Let’s go to Hamdan anyway,” I said. “I want to see what’s going on.”
We went straight to the interrogation room and asked the CIA interrogators inside to come out. One was a good friend whom I had worked alongside in the past, and we exchanged pleasantries. “Listen,” I told him, “we’ve flown all the way from Washington to speak to Hamdan. We can do it together if you want, but this guy is important to us.”
He readily agreed, but his colleague, a retired CIA officer working for the agency as a contractor, objected. When he wouldn’t listen to reasoning, we took the matter to Matt, the CIA chief [2 words redacted]. We explained the situation and why we wanted to speak to Hamdan, and he sided with us and offered to help however he could. The CIA contractor argued back, but Matt had seniority.
“This is becoming a bad pattern with the CIA,” George said to me, as we walked from Matt’s office to the interrogation room. He had recently interviewed Abu Zubaydah’s partner Ibn al-Shaykh al-Liby. Liby had been captured by Pakistani officials toward the end of November 2001 while trying to flee Afghanistan. He was handed over to the U.S. military and taken to Bagram Airfield, in Afghanistan’s Parvan province. George and another of our team members, Russell Fincher, interrogated him in multiple sessions, and Liby cooperated, giving intelligence that included details of a threat against the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. [13 words redacted]
During one session, Fred, the CIA officer who had caused problems in Jordan during the millennium investigation and had sent the faulty cables that had to be withdrawn, stormed into the room and began shouting at Liby, working hard [13 words redacted] “I don’t care what you’ve said about plots in Yemen. I want to know about plots [2 words redacted].”
George and Russell couldn’t believe it. Did Fred really think that thwarting attacks against the U.S. Embassy wasn’t important? Why was he disrupting the interrogation? Liby’s face also registered confusion. “What’s going on?” he asked, looking to George for guidance.
“If you don’t tell me about what you are planning [2 words redacted],” Fred told Liby, “I’m going to bring your mother here and fuck her in front of you.”
This was too much for Liby, and he turned away and refused to say another word to anyone. He was the internal emir of Khaldan and, in his mind, an important person; he wasn’t going to take such abuse. The interrogation stopped for the day.
The general in charge of Bagram was furious when he heard what had happened and banned Fred from the airfield. Fred, however, filed his own report, and shortly afterwards, the CIA secretly came and rendered Liby to a third country (the name is still classified). There, after being tortured, he described the “links” between al-Qaeda and Saddam, which was a complete fabrication.
According to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on prewar intelligence on Iraq: “Postwar findings support the . . . February 2002 assessment that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Liby was likely intentionally misleading his debriefers when he said that Iraq provided two al-Qa’ida associates with chemical and biological weapons . . . training in 2000. . . . Al-Liby told debriefers that he fabricated information while in U.S. custody to receive better treatment and in response to threats of being transferred to a foreign intelligence service which he believed would torture him. . . . He said that later, while he was being debriefed . . . he fabricated more information in response to physical abuse and threats of torture.”
Later, Liby was sent to Libya, where he died under suspicious circumstances. According to reports, he hanged himself. In some countries, it’s not uncommon for prisoners to “commit suicide” in suspicious circumstances. One prisoner I heard about allegedly did so by shooting himself in the back of the head . . . three times. We have already seen how the Bush administration, unsatisfied with an initial FBI report showing no links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, asked for a rewrite, a request that senior FBI official Andy Arena refused.
George wasn’t the only FBI agent who had bad experiences with Fred. I’d had my own with him in Jordan, of course, and saw him during the interrogations of al-Qaeda operatives Ramzi Binalshibh and [9 words redacted]. The 2004 CIA inspector general’s report by Helgerson also mentions mistakes Fred made.
“You cannot make that stuff up,” I told George. “Thank God we have someone like Matt here.”
Hamdan had a scowl on his face when we walked in; he glared at us as I began introducing myself. “This is my colleague George Crouch,” I continued. “We’re both from the FBI, and we’ve come to talk to you. You’ve been on our radar for a long time. I know your family. I know your position. I know the truth about who you are.”
“Good for you,” he sneered. “I have nothing to say to you. Everything I have said and will say is in my file. Go read it.”
“I have no interest in your file. I’m here for something different.”
“I don’t care. I don’t trust any of you. All of you are liars.”
“You haven’t dealt with me before, and I don’t know who said what to you, but tell me, what are the lies?”
“I was repeatedly promised that I could call my wife to check that she was okay, but the promise was never kept.”
“We’re different,” I told him, “but I won’t speak to you tonight because you’re clearly angry. So rest and we’ll speak tomorrow. In the meantime, pray and do istikhara”—a term referring to asking God for guidance—“because what I know about you, your family, and your role in al-Qaeda will really shock you.”
“How do you know things?” he asked, clearly curious.
“Let’s just say Abu Jandal and I became good friends.” He looked puzzled. “Maybe you don’t believe me?” He shook his head. “Well, maybe all of us are liars, but do you remember when Habib was born?” I went on to remind him of the story of Abu Jandal’s son’s birth, and of how proud he was that Habib had tasted dates from bin Laden’s mouth even before the infant tasted his own mother’s milk. Hamdan didn’t say anything but looked at me with his eyes wide open.
“Who else but a good friend would know this story?” I asked him. “We’ll meet tomorrow, my friend. Good night.”
“So, how did it go with Hamdan?” Matt asked as we walked into his office. We recounted the exchange.
“So he claims he’s been lied to, and that appears to be hindering his cooperation. Is that true?”
“Let me check,” Matt replied, and he pulled out the file. “Seems he’s telling the truth. He was promised a few times that he’d be given a phone call, but that didn’t happen.”
“How about we let him have the phone call?”
“What good will that do?”
“He’ll be less agitated and more likely to cooperate, for a start, and we can use that as leverage against him.”
“Sounds like a good idea, worth a try. Go do it. Here’s a satellite phone to use,” Matt said, handing us one of the agency’s phones.
Early the next morning George and I met Hamdan in an interrogation room. I instructed the guard to remove the shackles from Hamdan’s arms and legs.
“Before we start, I want to tell you something: I checked whether you were promised a phone call, and I found that it’s true. I am embarrassed that my colleagues didn’t keep their promise. George and I always keep our promises. Even though you may not believe me, and even though you know from our conversation last night that we know everything about you and what you’ve done for al-Qaeda, a promise is still a promise, so let’s go.”
“What?” Hamdan asked, looking unsure if he understood me.
“Don’t you want to make a phone call?” I asked. He nodded and started shaking.
We took him outside the cell to an area where phone service was available and gave him the phone to dial his wife. When she answered and he heard her voice, he started weeping. He told her briefly that he was okay, and asked how she and their children were doing. They spoke for a few minutes. We then ended the phone call and Hamdan fell on his knees and performed the sejud, kneeling in prayer, thanking God for the phone call. He was still crying.
We took him back to the interrogation room. For about fifteen minutes no one said anything. He just stared to the side, visibly shaking. I didn’t say anything, not wanting him to think that we were taking advantage of his emotions. I poured him some water, which he drank.
“Thank you for the call,” he finally said, with tears in his eyes.
“A promise is a promise.”
“How is Abu Jandal doing?” Hamdan asked.
“He’s good,” I told him, “and he definitely helped himself by cooperating, as I’m sure you’re now fully aware.”
“Okay, I’ll give you everything you need.”
True to his word, Hamdan began to cooperate fully. We started off by talking about his childhood in Al-Therba, Yemen, where his father kept a grocery store. When Hamdan was about nineteen, his father died. An unsuccessful effort to take over the store was followed by the death of his mother. Hamdan moved to Sanaa, where he met Muhannad bin Attash at a mosque. Muhannad convinced him to go to Afghanistan and join what later became known as the Northern Group. When the members of the Northern Group met bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader said to Hamdan, “You are from the Hadramout region of Yemen.” Suitably impressed, Hamdan accepted an offer from bin Laden to serve as a driver.
For about six months he drove a truck hauling building materials for al-Qaeda’s new compound. “This was a test for me,” Hamdan told us. “They wanted to see whether I was committed and trustworthy. I was a hard worker, and after six months they appointed me as a driver for bin Laden’s convoy.”
“Who was the main driver?” I asked.
“At this point Saif al-Adel would drive bin Laden, and if he wasn’t driving, it would be Muhannad bin Attash or someone else who had been with bin Laden for a long time. I drove one of the other cars in the convoy.” Bin Laden paid him between two hundred and three hundred dollars a month and also covered his rent.
“When did you first drive bin Laden?”
“I was on the front, fighting the Northern Alliance, but they had the upper hand and were overrunning our lines. Saif al-Adel ran up to me and said that he didn’t want bin Laden at the front anymore—it was too dangerous. Saif said that he had to stay and fight, so I should drive bin Laden to safety. Which I did.”
“What was that battle?”
“I’m not sure, but Muhannad bin Attash was killed, and Khallad lost one of his legs.”
Over the next days and weeks, Hamdan told us everything he knew. We’d bring him fish sandwiches from McDonald’s, which he loved, and car and truck magazines, and he’d give us information about al-Qaeda. It became clear to us that Hamdan would be a great witness in trials prosecuting other al-Qaeda members. He had been present at many key moments in al-Qaeda’s history, and while driving bin Laden he had overheard many details of plots. He had been with bin Laden, for example, when the al-Qaeda leader had released his 1998 fatwa, and he was present when bin Laden gave his press conference following the ABC interview. “And that’s when I first met Zawahiri,” Hamdan told us.
“Did you like him?”
“My first impression was very positive. He was very friendly. Later I saw the problems with the Egyptians running al-Qaeda.”
Hamdan told us that he was present at al-Farouq when it was announced that al-Qaeda and Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad would formally merge. He was present when various al-Qaeda plots were discussed, and he detailed what he knew about those involved—as, for example, when Abu Abdul Rahman al-Muhajir, al-Qaeda’s chief explosives expert, explained to him exactly how the 1998 East African truck bombs worked.
He was also present when Abu Hafs al-Masri, al-Qaeda’s military commander, and bin Laden discussed making a video about the USS Cole attack. Nashiri himself had told Hamdan during a private conversation that he was the mastermind of the attack. We talked about al-Qaeda’s structure and the process by which the leadership selected people for different missions. Abu Mohammed al-Masri, emir of al-Farouq, was “most likely to identify potential suicide bombers,” Hamdan concluded.
Hamdan talked about how bin Laden motivated his followers and convinced them to participate in al-Qaeda operations. “After the 1998 embassy attacks and the 2000 Cole attack, there was uncontrolled passion. We were all so proud of what we had done.”
“You didn’t think about the innocent people being killed?”
“You need to understand that while you are in al-Qaeda’s midst, it’s difficult to think clearly or objectively. Bin Laden was always encouraging us, so we felt there was no one who could stand up to us. It was difficult to isolate yourself from the surroundings. There was no media, no newspapers, only what bin Laden and al-Qaeda spread around. When one is part of that home, from the inside it is very difficult to think of what is happening on the outside. If you think Pelé is the best football player of all time, it is difficult for anyone to convince you there are any better players. Even though, for sure, there are players better than him, for you, he is the best. You see only his best plays. If he has a bad one, you ignore it. That was the way bin Laden was for me. All these things are going on around you, and you just go with it.”
I’ve seen this with many operatives from different terrorist organizations: it’s difficult to get through to them while they’re operational. They’re too busy planning attacks and hiding from the authorities. The time when terrorists can be turned is either during the recruitment stage or when they’ve been caught and are in jail.
“So what’s changed now? Why do you not feel the same toward bin Laden?” I asked.
“My time in detention has opened my eyes to many things. I saw the technology of the Americans and was shocked to even see the military vehicles they moved in. I did not even think such vehicles and cars existed. Now I look back at my life and have regrets. At the time, it was difficult to see clearly.”
I started working with David Kelley, from the Southern District of New York, with whom I had worked during the Cole investigation and in other cases, to come up with a plea agreement for Hamdan in exchange for pleading guilty and being a prosecution witness against other al-Qaeda members, especially all those involved with the Cole plot. One morning, I was watching CNN while getting dressed to go to the office and heard that Hamdan had been declared an “enemy combatant” by President Bush. I called Kelley immediately and asked if he’d seen the news.
“Yes,” he replied gloomily.
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know. We’ll soon find out. But I don’t think it’s good.”
What it meant was that we could no longer have access to Hamdan to ask questions about other detainees, and could no longer use him as a witness in other trials. Instead he was given lawyers who helped him mount a lengthy (and successful) legal challenge against the military legal system that the Bush administration had set up at Gitmo, eventually forcing the administration to set up a new system.
What was most surprising to people in the FBI and Southern District about the “enemy combatant” label was that the Bush administration applied it without even consulting the primary agencies that had been putting together the Hamdan case, or the prosecutors preparing to try him. It was a move that undermined our efforts against al-Qaeda, especially at Gitmo.
When I testified against Hamdan in the trial as a prosecution witness, it was the first time I had seen him since he had been declared an enemy combatant. When he had me in his line of vision across the courtroom, he placed his hand on his heart and nodded to me—a sign of respect. Hamdan was ultimately sentenced to five and a half years in prison, a term that was largely wiped out based on time he had already served in Gitmo. After a few months he was released, and on January 8, 2009, he was back in Yemen.
During the trial, the defense criticized the government for throwing out a plea agreement whereby Hamdan would have served as a cooperating witness (and would have been sentenced to a longer prison term, as it turned out). “We hope one day the American people find out about this squandered opportunity.” It was a rare instance where the prosecution’s witness agreed with what the defense said.
In July 2002 a routine FBI fingerprint check on a group of detainees in Gitmo found that detainee No. 63, who until then had insisted that he knew nothing about al-Qaeda and that he had been in Afghanistan pursuing his interest in falconry, had given a false name. In fact, he was Mohammed al-Qahtani, who had vowed, “I will be back” after being refused entry to the United States on August 4, 2001, in Orlando. He had landed in Florida with almost nonexistent English, a one-way ticket, and $2,800 in cash. Asked who he was meeting, he said that there was someone “upstairs”; asked for the name, Qahtani changed his story and said that no one was waiting for him.
Now he was back, although not in the manner he probably expected. His file showed that he had been captured near the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan by Pakistani forces around December 15, 2001, and transferred to Guantánamo Bay on February 13, 2002. He was picked up with the other twenty-nine members of the group that included Abu Assim and Qosi, promptly nicknamed “the dirty thirty” by investigators for their false stories and close links to al-Qaeda leadership.
Given this background information and the proximity to 9/11 of Qahtani’s entry attempt, we started looking for links between him and the hijackers. We found that on his landing card, he had listed a number belonging to Mustafa al-Hawsawi, KSM’s administrative assistant for the 9/11 attack. Some of the hijackers also had Hawsawi’s number on their landing forms. Next we discovered that on the day Qahtani had tried to enter the United States, between 4:30 and 8:30 PM a series of five calls were made from a pay phone in the airport to Hawsawi’s number. The calls were made using a calling card bought with lead hijacker Mohammed Atta’s credit card. Surveillance footage from the airport also revealed that at 4:18 PM a rental car used by Atta had entered the airport’s garage, leaving at 9:04.
It seemed too big a coincidence that Atta, or someone using his card, would have been independently at the same airport making a call a few hours before Qahtani had arrived. I told a colleague to check whether the Virgin Atlantic flight that Qahtani was on had been delayed, and it turned out that it had been; it had been scheduled to land at 4:40 PM but hadn’t gotten in till a few hours later. Atta (or one of his fellow plotters) had probably called to find out where Qahtani was and what had happened to the flight.
The evidence indicated that Qahtani was the missing fifth hijacker on United Airlines Flight 93. The other three planes each had five hijackers, while Flight 93 had four. He, and not Zacarias Moussaoui, as then attorney general John Ashcroft had been claiming, was the missing twentieth hijacker.
We took this information to General Dunlavey and explained Qahtani’s connection to 9/11. Our team, assisted by behavioral experts, recommended that we remove him from the general Gitmo population and put him in the brig, as we had done with Abu Assim. The purpose of doing so would be to send him the message that his cover was blown and to isolate him from his support base. We also worried that if other detainees found out that we knew he was the twentieth hijacker, they might try to kill him to prevent him from giving us information about the plot. He was transferred and I was given clearance to see him.
“Why have I been moved?” Qahtani asked, clearly nervous as to why he had been put in the brig.
“We know who you are,” I told him. “Your cover has been blown. We know how you tried to enter the United States in August. It’s time for you to start telling us the truth.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied angrily.
I studied him for a few moments while letting my words sink in. He was short and skinny, and his eyes were glassy, as if there was not much there. He also was shaking and seemed afraid. It was just the two of us in the interrogation room, although other agents were watching through a video camera in another room.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s go through your story, then. Why were you in Afghanistan?”
“I was there because I like falcons and Afghanistan is great for falconry.”
“How many times have you been to America?”
“We have the details of your attempted entry in August.”
“Oh,” Qahtani stuttered, “that was my only time.”
“And why were you trying to enter?”
“I wanted to buy cars.”
“I don’t know.”
It was soon clear that Qahtani didn’t have a well-thought-out cover story. All he’d say was that he was in Afghanistan for falconry and had gone to the United States to buy “cars.” To any additional questions about the U.S. episode, he answered, “I don’t know.” When we discussed nonterrorism-related matters, I saw that he wasn’t very intelligent. I concluded that at best his intended role in 9/11 must have been as a muscle hijacker.
“We’ll stop for now,” I told him, “but you should realize we know who you are. You can play all the games you want to, but eventually you’ll realize it’s in your interest to talk to me.”
Before my interview with him the next day, I put pictures on the wall of al-Qaeda members I knew he’d recognize, including KSM, Mohammed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi. They were all central planners of 9/11. We doctored the pictures, except the one of Atta, so that all the men appeared to be wearing orange jumpsuits, indicating that they were in our custody.
“Do you know these people?” I asked, gesturing to the pictures as he walked in. “We’ve got all your friends in custody. That’s how we know all about you.” He froze for a moment, and his face went red, but then he shook his head and said, “I don’t know anything.”
“I need to step out,” I told him, “but I’ll be back soon.”
I left and went into the room where others were watching the interrogation through a video link. As we watched, Qahtani got out of his bed and slowly approached the wall where we had taped the photographs. He stared at them for a few minutes and then touched them gently, as if trying to communicate with the subjects.
I returned to the room and found Qahtani shaking. “Are you okay?” I asked him.
“I’m going on a hunger strike,” he replied. When he was among the general population, some detainees had gone on hunger strikes to protest prison conditions. He thought that it might absolve him from cooperating.
“You are being silly,” I told him. “You can play this game if you want to, and we’ll wait for you to stop, but I’d prefer it if you just started being honest and stopped wasting both our time.” He folded his hands and wouldn’t say anything else, and he was taken to his cell.
I went and got hummus, tabouli, and kebab and brought it to him with some pita. “Here’s food for you,” I told him. “If you want, you can eat.” I placed it in front of him and left the cell. From the room where the video cameras were, I watched him jump up and start eating the food. That was the end of his hunger strike.
Showing a detainee that I knew all about him and that further denial was a waste of time often worked if he had initially denied his role or refused to cooperate. It took time to wear down al-Qaeda members’ resistance, because when silence didn’t deter us, they would make small talk and deny wrongdoing, hoping to prove their “innocence” that way. That’s when we would start questioning them on small details: Why did they go to Afghanistan? How had they traveled there? Who had arranged their trip? Who had convinced them to go? How was the trip funded? How did they get the money? Who vouched for them? Who picked them up at the airport? How did they enter Afghanistan? Where did they stay in Afghanistan? Whom did they meet?
In their minds, these were questions that weren’t directly relevant to terrorism and could fit with their cover story, but their answers would eventually trap them in a lie, and they would have to revise their story, usually so that it was closer to the truth. Even so, we wouldn’t just ask a question like “Did you meet bin Laden?” Instead, we’d tease out details. We’d ask: Who did you first meet in Afghanistan? Where did you first stay? How did you get there? Who was the driver? What route did you take? Who was in that guesthouse? Whom did you submit your passport to? Who was the emir of the guesthouse? What did you talk about? Where did you go next? When asked about specific details, it’s very hard for anyone to maintain a false cover story.
Once the detainee named the emir, or the person who’d trained him, we’d begin to hear names we knew from past interrogations and investigations, which gave us an indication of how the detainee fit into the al-Qaeda chart. If, for example, the detainee said that his emir was Abu Musab al-Yemeni, one of the many regular instructors in al-Qaeda’s camps, it was likely that he had done only basic training. If Saif al-Adel was involved, however, he might have been used for a special operation.
The process could take one hour or a week; each detainee was different. Eventually they’d start telling us what really happened. But to get to that point, the interrogator needs to be an expert in the subject, and you have to show you are familiar with what the detainees are talking about. You can’t stop to ask them to start spelling names of people or places, as that would make it clear that lies aren’t being picked up.
I got to the small talk stage with Qahtani and started developing a relationship with him. We even prayed together. I then had to leave Gitmo on another mission that was viewed as a higher priority, so I handed his case back to the agents who had originally handled him.
In my experience, people like Qahtani would only be able to tell us their specific role in a plot: how they were recruited and trained, the people they interacted with. All of which would be useful information to convict Qahtani and give us information on the plot itself, but it was unlikely to give us much information about other plots.
When KSM was later arrested, he told interrogators that Qahtani was “an unsophisticated Bedouin,” and derided him for being unable to learn English phrases or even use e-mail. Al-Qaeda had also tried to put Qahtani through a special training course in the al-Banshiri camp, named after the al-Qaeda military leader and shura council member who had drowned in the ferry accident in Lake Victoria, but he had failed the course.
After I had left, other FBI agents worked on Qahtani and continued to make progress. But military interrogators, backed by political appointees in Washington, wanted to get “juicy” intelligence from Qahtani. They didn’t understand that someone like Qahtani didn’t have it. They argued that the FBI had been unsuccessful and that harsher interrogation techniques were needed. If you don’t know what a detainee should know—and political appointees in Washington certainly didn’t—there is no way to know what is success and what is failure.
While CITF and FBI members were having problems with the military command over interrogations, there was also friction within the two strands of the military—JTF 170, under General Dunlavey, and JTF 160, under General Baccus. The separation of responsibility into interrogations and base organization frustrated nonmilitary personnel at Gitmo, too, with the lack of a coherent command structure making it difficult to produce decisions. General Dunlavey felt that General Baccus was too soft on the detainees, and at one point he even asked the NCIS to investigate him for “consorting with the enemy.” General Baccus was in fact just treating the detainees as required by military rules and regulations. While I was frustrated with both the lack of organization at the base and the way detainees were being handled, I never had any problems with General Dunlavey and always found him to be receptive to suggestions.
The complaints about the difficulty of the two command structures reached senior U.S. military leaders, and on October 9, 2002, General Baccus was relieved of his command, and JTF 160 and 170 merged. The military felt that someone else was needed to run both commands, and on November 8, 2002, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller was placed in charge of the base. A few days later, General Dunlavey left.
General Miller was a strange choice for command of an operation whose focus was interrogating and sorting detainees. His background was in artillery, and he had no interrogation or intelligence experience. He had never even sat in on an interrogation, as he openly admitted. This inexperience showed when he ordered that interrogations be run like military operations: there had to be a fixed start time and end time, and he wanted a fixed number of interrogations to be conducted each day.
CITF tried explaining to him that interrogations don’t work like that. Each detainee is different, knows different things, and has different triggers that will get him to cooperate. Giving fixed end times to interrogations is better for the detainee, as he knows he only needs to hold out for a certain period of time, after which the interrogation will be over.
I learned years later that the move to employ aggressive interrogation techniques at Gitmo started long before Qahtani was alleged to be not cooperating. The November 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody, declassified in April 2009, reported that back in December 2001, seven months before we even identified Qahtani and removed him from the general Gitmo population, the Department of Defense’s general counsel’s office, headed by William James Haynes II, requested help with detainee “exploitation” from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency’s military Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) trainers. Haynes was a close friend of Vice President Dick Cheney’s counsel, David Addington, and had been the best man at his wedding.
SERE was established to teach U.S. military personnel how to withstand interrogation techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions. The strategies are partly based on tactics used by Chinese Communists during the Korean War to gain false confessions. The Senate report cites the deputy commander of the Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA)’s higher headquarters, saying that “the expertise of JPRA lies in training personnel how to respond and resist interrogations—not in how to conduct interrogations.”
The wisdom of the Senate report was not available on September 16, 2002, when, following up on the earlier assistance, a group of military interrogators and behavioral scientists from Gitmo went to JPRA, in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, for SERE training. On September 25, 2002, a delegation of senior Bush administration lawyers, including Jim Haynes and David Addington, along with John Rizzo and Michael Chertoff, then with the criminal division of the Justice Department (later director of Homeland Security), traveled to Gitmo for discussions on how interrogations should be run.
On October 2, 2002, the chief counsel to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center met with Gitmo staff. The Senate Armed Services Committee report notes: “Minutes of that meeting indicate that it was dominated by a discussion of aggressive interrogation techniques including sleep deprivation, death threats, and waterboarding, which was discussed in relation to its use in SERE training.”
By the time the CTC chief counsel was giving this briefing, CIA contractors interrogating Abu Zubaydah had already been employing the aggressive techniques that I had [6 words redacted] objected to, and which FBI director Robert Mueller had ordered his agents not to use. But when Mark Fallon and other members of CITF, and the FBI, tried to gain access to the September 25 and October 2 meetings, to argue against the use of aggressive interrogation techniques, they were turned away. It appeared to CITF members that a decision had been made to employ harsh techniques, and the Bush delegation didn’t want to hear any contrary opinions. It was a strange situation, with lawyers giving orders on how interrogations should be run, and experienced practitioners not allowed to offer their views.
Following these meetings, on October 11, General Dunlavey sent a memo to his military superior, Gen. James Hill, requesting authorization for aggressive interrogation techniques. There were three progressively harsh categories. Category I included yelling at the detainee and allowing the interrogator to claim he was the citizen of a foreign country known for the harsh treatment of detainees. Among Category II techniques were the use of stress positions, isolation, twenty-hour interrogations, the removal of clothing, and the use of phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress in the detainee. Category III techniques included scenarios designed to make the detainee believe that imminent harm was about to befall either him or his family, and the use of water to induce the “misperception” of suffocation. The techniques were defended in a legal memo by then Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, the senior-most lawyer at Guantánamo.The request passed through General Hill’s office up through the chain of command and landed on Jim Haynes’s desk for his recommendation to Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense.
The way the legal system in the military worked was that lawyers from all services could offer opinions, but ultimate legal authority rested with the defense secretary’s general counsel. The Senate report details various objections that different services had to the techniques. The Marine Corps, for example, stated that several techniques “arguably violate federal law, and would expose our service members to possible prosecution,” and called for “a more thorough legal and policy review.”
Ignoring the warnings, Haynes sent a one-page memo to Secretary Rumsfeld on November 27, as the Senate report notes, “recommending that he approve all but three of the eighteen techniques in the GTMO request. . . . Mr. Haynes’s memo indicated that he had discussed the issue with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith, and General Myers and that he believed they concurred in his recommendation.”
On December 2, 2002, Secretary Rumsfeld signed the recommendation, adding a handwritten note at the bottom of the page regarding limits on the use of stress positions: “I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”
While Secretary Rumsfeld only officially approved the techniques on December 2, some were already being introduced in early October, after the Bush administration lawyers and the CIA’s CTC general counsel left the base. Dogs were used to intimidate Qahtani and he was put into stress positions. Later a host of much more aggressive techniques were used on him over a period of three months. These included, according to the Senate Committee, being stripped naked and “made to wear a leash and perform dog tricks.”
When Mark Fallon was shown the proposed interrogation plan for Qahtani by members of the military command at Gitmo, he said that it was “illegal” and that he would recommend that CITF members be barred from taking part in the interrogations.
“It can’t be illegal, the secretary of defense authorized it,” was the reply.
“The secretary of defense doesn’t have the ability to change the law. He can’t determine what is legal and illegal.”
Fallon’s boss, Brittain Mallow, initially disagreed with him: while he was completely opposed to the techniques, he thought that CITF agents could go in as observers and temper what the military interrogators did. Fallon’s response was unequivocal: “It will put agents in a bad position. Either they’ll watch the law being broken, or, as sworn law enforcement officers, seeing laws being broken, they may try to arrest the military interrogators. Nothing good can come of this.”
Mark Fallon, a New Jersey native from a family of law enforcement officials, found himself in a position he had warned his staff members about during their orientation. “Even if I give you an illegal order,” he told them, “you can’t follow it. You are bound by the Constitution. Remember that at Nuremberg we prosecuted Nazis who claimed just to be following orders. And remember in the United States there are no secrets, only delayed disclosures. One day, whether one year away or ten years away, people will be looking at what we did, so make sure you act with the utmost integrity.” He told Mallow that he would resign from CITF and from the government, if necessary, if Mallow authorized CITF agents to sit in on harsh interrogations. Mallow saw the wisdom in Fallon’s logic and ordered CITF personnel not to take part in any interrogation in which harsh techniques were being used. This angered General Miller, who lambasted the CITF commanders: “You either are with us or you are against us, and your guys are out.”
Like Fallon, NCIS chief psychologist Mike Gelles objected to what the military interrogators were doing, and together they went to see NCIS director David Brant. He agreed with them and they spoke to Alberto J. Mora, the navy’s general counsel. Mora told them: “I don’t understand how they can be doing these things. You guys are the ones with the interrogation experience. I suggest you go back to Gitmo and try talking to General Miller.”
Fallon and Gelles flew to Gitmo to see General Miller and again explained their objections. Based on their experience dealing with terrorists, they told him, these techniques didn’t get results. Furthermore, they were illegal under U.S. law. Miller dismissed them: “You have got to put on the same jersey if you want to be on the team.”
“Listen, General,” Fallon replied, “we don’t work for you. We’ve got a separate chain of command. We’re not going to participate and will continue to oppose these techniques.”
When Mora learned of the conversation, he contacted Jim Haynes a few times to object to the use of the techniques. At one point, the Senate report states, he told Haynes that he thought the techniques authorized by Rumsfeld “could rise to the level of torture.” Haynes ignored Mora’s warnings.
Having failed to get Haynes or his superiors in the Pentagon to listen, on January 15, 2003, Mora drafted a memo saying that the techniques were clearly illegal and sent it to Haynes, warning him that he’d sign the memo by the end of the day unless the use of the techniques ended. A senior administration lawyer calling what the administration was doing “illegal” would cause serious problems; Rumsfeld, later that day, signed an order rescinding his approval of the techniques.
Mora’s victory was short-lived, however. In March 2003, Rumsfeld secretly reauthorized twenty-four techniques, at which point Mora had left the navy for private practice.
The Pentagon, at the time of this back-and-forth, declared that Qahtani’s questioning was “worthwhile,” and a spokesman from the Defense Department said that he was “a valuable source of information.” Unnamed Bush administration officials told reporters that his interrogation provided information about planned attacks and the financial networks used by terrorists.
Later, when the techniques were no longer being used, I was asked to go back to interrogate Qahtani because basic information was still missing. Despite claims of success, not only did those employing the harsh techniques not get any valuable information, they hadn’t even managed to get the basic stuff.
I spoke to Qahtani and he gave me details we wanted about his training and his interactions with KSM and other plotters, among other information. He told me about his difficulties in learning English phrases and using e-mail, and KSM’s frustrations, and told me that when Mustafa al-Hawsawi was training him, he would go to the beach at sunset to pray.
“What did you pray about?” I asked.
“I asked God to give me a sign showing whether he agreed with my mission. I told him if he agreed with my mission then he should facilitate my trip. If he didn’t, then he should stop it.”
Contrary to Bush administration claims about Qahtani’s importance, nothing gained from Qahtani while he was subjected to the coercive techniques could have saved a single life. The 9/11 Commission concluded that he was a “muscle hijacker,” as we had predicted from the start. To date, Qahtani has not been charged for his role in 9/11. All previous charges against him have been dropped. That he was subjected to the use of harsh techniques makes any trial legally difficult. As we warned when the techniques were being introduced, not only are they unreliable, ineffective, and un-American, they also ignore our long-term goals and make prosecution unlikely.
When the Department of Justice’s inspector general investigated detainee abuse and asked Qahtani about me, he complained that I had put him in the brig and let no one else see him, but he said I had “some sense of humanity.” The IG noted that the logs showed that I wasn’t the only person who saw Qahtani; other agents saw him, including members of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.
Agents reading the report told me that it seemed as if the IG were almost trying to get Qahtani to say something negative about me. And Qahtani had reason to hate me: I was the face that he associated with his having been identified and taken from the general population—but I had “some sense of humanity.” What was strange, however, was that the IG only asked Qahtani, the would-be twentieth hijacker, about me, and never asked for my version of what had happened. Perhaps because Qahtani didn’t say anything negative, the IG didn’t feel he needed to.
While Secretary Rumsfeld and members of his team such as Haynes, Wolfowitz, and Feith were busy approving the use of these techniques, they were also getting in the way of successful interrogations. FBI and CITF investigators identified detainee No. 37 as a Yemeni al-Qaeda operative called al-Batar, based on information and a description I had gotten from Abu Jandal. Batar was the person to whom Abu Jandal had delivered money—the sum turned out to be five thousand dollars—to procure a Yemeni wife for bin Laden. As Abu Jandal had told me, he went into the errand thinking that the money was for a mission. At the airport in Sanaa, he was met by Nibras, one of the Cole suicide bombers, and Batar, and together the three men went to the al-Jazeera Hotel. There Abu Jandal gave the five thousand dollars to Batar, who thanked him and told him that the money was for a dowry. Disillusioned and chagrined, Abu Jandal returned to Afghanistan shortly after.
Given his connection to bin Laden’s Yemeni wife, I thought that Batar would be especially valuable in tracking down the al-Qaeda leader. After I had introduced myself to Batar, he said to me, “So you’re the FBI agent Ali?”
“Saqr told me about you,” he said, referring to Hamdan by his alias.
“What did he say?”
“He told me that originally he wouldn’t cooperate, but he met you, and said you are trustworthy and said he cooperated with you.”
“Saqr told me he releases me from my oath so that I can speak to you.”
“What was the oath?”
“When we were captured, we both swore to each other that whatever happened in interrogations, we would never admit to knowing each other.” (Hamdan had kept that oath, as he had never mentioned Batar’s name to me.)
“Hamdan told me that you treated him well, and were honest, and let him check on his family to see that they were okay.”
“Hamdan told me he thought it was in our interest to cooperate. And so we canceled the oath.”
“Great,” I said. “Let’s start with your background.”
“I’ll tell you everything, but I would also like to check that my family is okay.”
“We can arrange that.”
“What I’ll do is that I’ll tell you half my story. From what Hamdan told me, you know al-Qaeda well and will know whether I’m telling the truth. And then I will tell you the other half after I make a phone call.”
I spoke to the FBI and the CITF commanders. They agreed that it made sense to let Batar make a call and said they’d get permission from General Miller. (Miller had instructed that any calls had to have prior approval from him.) I returned to Batar and told him he had a deal.
He admitted, for the first time, his true identity, and detailed his background, his path to al-Qaeda, and his connection to bin Laden. The investigators had recovered a document that appeared to be a handwritten martyrdom letter, signed by “Al-Battar,” which he admitted was his. As promised, he was cooperating.
In the meantime, the CITF and FBI commanders had put through a request for permission from General Miller to make the call. He responded: “No prisoner can make a phone call without approval from Paul Wolfowitz,” Rumsfeld’s deputy secretary of defense. The commanders argued that there was a precedent in Hamdan; in that case, approval had come from General Dunlavey.
The approval never came, and we never heard the second half of Batar’s confession. We could have learned important information about bin Laden’s Yemeni wife, which would have helped us track bin Laden and others. When bin Laden was finally tracked down and killed, in May 2011, his Yemeni wife was among those with him. Who knows how much more quickly we could have gotten to bin Laden and what lives could have been saved?
While General Miller wouldn’t approve a phone call, he had no qualms about employing harsh interrogation techniques on Qahtani without proper formal approval from the secretary of defense. The same is true of his bosses: they wouldn’t let a detainee use a phone for a minute, which would have led to bin Laden, but they didn’t mind disregarding the U.S. Constitution.
“Ali, you’re heading to Gitmo, right?” asked a member of the 9/11 Team. It was August 2002, and I was leaving headquarters, preparing to head back to interrogate Hamdan further.
“Yes, I’m leaving shortly.”
“While you’re there, will you take a look at prisoner No. 39?”
“Sure, who is that?”
“His name is Ali Hamza Ahmed Suleiman al-Bahlul.”
“What has he done?”
“We don’t know. In fact, we don’t know anything about him. He’s been in Gitmo for several months, and, according to the military, he’s fully cooperative. They do not believe he is a member of Al-Qaeda.”
“But we recovered, in Afghanistan, a phone book with the names and numbers of al-Qaeda operatives. Its contents range from the contact details of the terrorists involved in the USS Cole bombing, such as Quso and Nibras, to the address and phone number in Malaysia where the 9/11 planning summit was held. It’s probable that whoever had access to the phone book knew about 9/11 and was a central figure in al-Qaeda. After it was tested for fingerprints, one got a positive hit: Bahlul.
“There’s one more thing about Bahlul,” the agent continued, “that makes us suspicious about him. He was picked up with the dirty thirty.”
“Can I see the phone book?” I asked.
“Sure,” the agent said, and handed me a copy. It was filled with the numbers of high-level operatives, including Khallad, identified by his alias Silver.
“Where did this book come from?”
“It was found in the car Hamdan was driving when he was arrested.”
“And Bahlul’s fingerprints?”
“They appear on pages eight and nine, so he had access to it. My gut feeling is that this person is important in al-Qaeda.”
“I think you’re right. I’ll speak to him at Gitmo and see what I make of him.”
Also found in Hamdan’s car were two SAM-7 missile launchers, along with cards detailing numerical codes used internally to refer to al-Qaeda members, entities, locations, and specific tactical words: bin Laden was 4; Zawahiri, 22; Saif al-Adel, 11; and KSM, 10. The military command was 33; the al-Banshiri camp, 31; bin Laden’s bodyguards, 47. Number 77 referred to families; 115, to chemicals; 129, to an ambush; 100, to a tank; 67, to food. Different locations at which fighters were based also had numbers: 108, for example, meant “in town.”
When I arrived back at Guantánamo I requested access to Bahlul from the military, but the interrogators who had been handling him refused. He had been put in a restricted-access location, as he was deemed to be cooperating. The military interrogators explained that he had told them everything he knew, and that any questioning “by you guys from the FBI” was “unnecessary.”
I talked to General Dunlavey about the phone book and the fingerprints. “I believe he’s been lying to the interrogators.” He agreed to grant me access, and I was given Bahlul’s file. I saw that he had been in Gitmo for almost eight months and had been telling the same story consistently: he had been in Afghanistan teaching the Quran and knew nothing about al-Qaeda. It was the cover story that the rest of the dirty thirty had given. Otherwise, the file revealed little about Bahlul.
I was sure that during the previous eight months Bahlul had learned how standard military interrogations worked. I wanted to deliver the message that this interrogation was different, and I wanted him to arrive at different conclusions concerning who I was, why I was there, and what I knew.
The first thing I did was change the interrogation setting. Bahlul had been questioned in a standard room and kept cuffed. We took him to a room designed to look like a small living room, which we furnished with couches, a carpet, a coffee table, and pictures. Matt, the CIA chief, helped us obtain the location and set it up.
When Bahlul was brought into the room, I was sitting on a chair next to the coffee table, waiting for him. He was wearing an inmate’s orange jumpsuit, and both his arms and legs were shackled, but he had a confident, bored look, as if to say, Here’s yet another interrogator who I’m going to have to run through the same issues with. Once he was unshackled, he sat down on the couch, across the coffee table.
I asked him how he was being treated. “Acceptable.” He went on to say that, while there were some instances where the Quran was desecrated “at the beginning,” he felt that they had been dealt with. “Overall, the treatment has been good, and as Muslims, we have to acknowledge justice.”
We started talking to Bahlul about his family and the place he was from in Yemen. I had spent a good deal of time in Yemen investigating the USS Cole bombing, and I surprised Bahlul with my knowledge of the land, people, and culture. “You know more about Yemen than the others did,” he told me.
Next I asked him what had made him go to Afghanistan. He gave what appeared to be his stock answer, that he had gone to help people learn the Quran. He said that he had no interest in al-Qaeda or jihad, and that he had gone solely for religious reasons. He also insisted that he hadn’t met any Arabs fighters there, and that he had spent all his time with poor Afghanis who needed religious instruction. We discussed his impressions of the country.
“What do you think of Osama bin Laden’s fatwa to expel the infidel Americans from Muslim lands?” I asked.
“I don’t believe in that fatwa, and there are religious scholars in Saudi Arabia who ruled that America’s presence was not an occupation but legitimate assistance, as it had been requested by the king of Saudi Arabia.”
I played devil’s advocate and gave al-Qaeda’s justifications for jihad in response. He countered them and we had a debate. That Bahlul was so familiar with arguments that countered al-Qaeda’s arguments was a sign that he was familiar with al-Qaeda’s arguments as well. When I kept responding with more of al-Qaeda’s arguments, he continued to respond with religious ideas that contradicted them, but slowly his arguments got weaker and he seemed less sure of himself. It was clear to me that he was repeating things that he had been practicing to say if captured, not saying things he passionately believed in.
“Where is your family now?” I asked, switching topics. “Have you heard from them recently?”
“I don’t know, but I hope that they made it home safely.” I asked this to see whether he had taken his family with him to Afghanistan, following bin Laden’s declaration that it was a religious duty for devout Muslims. The indication that they had been in Afghanistan was a sign that he was likely a member of al-Qaeda. Why else would people take their families to a war zone?
After a while I stopped taking notes, even though I was still asking questions and he continued to answer them. I also began to look disinterested, and at one point I even closed my notebook, put my hand on my head, and yawned. Bahlul looked puzzled—he was used to military interrogators writing down everything he said.
“Tell me again, why did you go to Afghanistan?” I asked.
“I came to teach the Quran, as I told you,” he said. I gave him a big smile. “Why are you smiling?”
“The problem with you guys is that you didn’t come up with better stories. If you and the friends you were captured with were smart, you would have divided yourselves up, saying numbers one to fifteen were studying the Quran, while numbers sixteen to thirty were teaching it. Saying you all are teaching the Quran is just stupid.” Bahlul said nothing, but a smirk crossed his face.
I returned to talking about Islam, but I still wasn’t taking any notes. At a certain point Bahlul could no longer contain himself and asked me sharply: “What?”
“What?” I asked back.
“Why aren’t you taking notes anymore?”
“Did I do anything but respect you here?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “You did respect me.”
“I did. I came here and dealt with you respectfully as one human being to another. But when you are not honest with me, I take that as sign of disrespect.”
“But I’m telling you the truth,” he protested.
“Please, please don’t go down that route. You don’t know what I know. I know who you are. I came here especially to speak to you.”
“I’m telling you the truth.”
“Look, you may consider yourself an important soldier in the war against the infidels, but as you sit here and give arguments that contradict what you swore you’d give your life for, you make me wonder how much you really believe in your cause. My question to you is: Do you really believe in these things?” Bahlul was silent. “If you do truly believe these things,” I continued, “then your jihad is not over yet. It is your duty to continue advocating what you were fighting for.
“I have a deal for you,” I continued. “It is time for noon prayers. We should stop and you should go and pray. And when you pray I need you to do an istikhara—I need you to ask God for guidance. Ask God if you should continue to hide behind your shadow, or whether you should be a real mujahid and admit to what you believe in.” Bahlul gave a slight, somewhat uncomfortable-sounding laugh, as if trying to show he was still confident, and then left for prayers.
When he returned, he sat back down in his place on the couch, but this time I sat down next to him. He clasped his hands together between his knees and stared down at the table. “Taqabal Allah,” I said—May God receive your prayers: a common saying among Muslims after prayer.
“Minna wa minkum,” he replied: May God accept them from us and you. Then neither of us said anything for a minute.
“Would you like a cookie?” I said, breaking the silence. On the coffee table in front of us I had put some tea and a plate of cookies.
“Thank you,” he said, removing a cookie from the plate. He took a bite and then said slowly, “I am Anas al-Mekki. I am mas’oul”—someone with responsibilities. “I am one of the officers of al-Qaeda. I am bin Laden’s personal assistant. What do you want to know?”
I had heard the name Anas al-Mekki many times, in different investigations, and knew he was indeed important. “Would you like some tea?” I replied.
Bahlul coughed up some of the cookie that was still in his mouth. “I told you my position in al-Qaeda and you ask whether I’d like some tea?” He looked at me in disbelief.
“Well, I already knew that,” I told him. “It didn’t surprise me. As I told you, you don’t know what I know. But now I know you’re at least being honest and respecting me, which is why I’m offering you some tea.”
I spent the next day and a half interviewing Bahlul. His story is very similar to many other Yemeni al-Qaeda members. Their families had lived and worked in Saudi Arabia until they were expelled in the aftermath of the first Gulf War due to Yemen’s support of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. We covered everything from his path to al-Qaeda—he, too, was inspired first by Abdullah Azzam—to specific roles he’d had. At one stage Bahlul had roomed with Mohammed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, two of the 9/11 hijackers. We spent time discussing the video he had produced celebrating the USS Cole bombing, which had led to his appointment as bin Laden’s personal propagandist. We went through the tape, looking at the different scenes, and he outlined where he had taken them from: bin Laden’s speeches, military training exercises at al-Farouq, scenes from Saudi Arabia, and the press conference at which bin Laden and others had expressed solidarity with the Blind Sheikh.
Bahlul’s roles were wide-ranging. He had researched and written speeches for bin Laden, set up the satellite that had allowed bin Laden to listen to the details being reported about the 9/11 attacks, and kept minutes of meetings held by al-Qaeda’s leaders.
When al-Qaeda members confessed their roles and gave us information, often it was because they were repentant, or wanted to pretend they were, in order to lessen their punishment. Bahlul was different in that he was not embarrassed about anything he had done for al-Qaeda, and he confessed with pride. He appeared convinced of my argument that if he truly believed in al-Qaeda’s aims, he shouldn’t lie and deny his involvement.
In a stomach-turning and appallingly cold manner, Bahlul detailed why al-Qaeda considered the World Trade Center a legitimate target. “The World Trade Center was the center of those who control the world economy and the World Bank, those who destroy other countries’ economies and even deny small farmers their lands, and those who prevent Islamic banks and financial institutions from flourishing because they want to control all capital.
“The World Trade Center was the center of globalism, and exemplified the American domination of the world and its people.” Bahlul went on to claim that anyone “who worked in it participated in crimes against politically and economically oppressed people all over the world.”
“But the world economy and market prices are not controlled by the innocent people who worked at the World Trade Center,” I countered.
He wouldn’t even acknowledge the death of innocent people on 9/11: “They were legitimate targets because they paid taxes and so are funding America’s wars against Muslims. We should kill Americans exactly as they kill us, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We should keep killing them until every liter of blood they wasted from us is equaled by the liters of blood we waste from them.” It was his hope, he said, that America would kill him, as his death would anger bin Laden. And if he was killed by Christians and Jews, his reward would be even greater than that of a regular martyr.
Bin Laden was very interested in the effects of the 9/11 attacks. He had instructed Bahlul to conduct research pertaining to what experts were predicting would be the economic results of the attack.
At one point, Bahlul asked me to send the message to President Bush that America should invade Iraq and “finish his father’s unfinished job.” To convince me, he told me that Saddam Hussein was a bloodthirsty individual who killed his own people, and that the Arab world would support an American attack. Like other al-Qaeda members, Bahlul was a firm believer in the hadith that said that the eventual victory of Islam would come after the final battle of Armageddon. According to his belief, the invasion of Iraq would be an important stepping-stone to fulfillment of the prophecy.
We showed Bahlul many photographs of al-Qaeda members, and he identified them. When he saw a picture of Abu Zubaydah, he said that he remembered seeing him in Afghanistan and had heard a lot about him as early as 1990. When he had asked Abu Hafs if Abu Zubaydah was a member of al-Qaeda, Abu Hafs had said no.
Bahlul also provided times and dates for information we had recovered in Afghanistan. When I showed him a video that our analysts believed was filmed after 9/11, he corrected them: “That’s from before the attacks on New York.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because Abu Hafs is in the film. After the attacks on New York and Washington, everyone else left Kandahar, but Abu Hafs stayed because he had a herniated disc and couldn’t move.”
I worked with the prosecution to prepare for the Bahlul trial, as I was to be the main witness. The only difficulty came from certain people within the CIA, who objected to the prosecution’s use of the phone book that had Bahlul’s fingerprints on it and contained the reference to the 9/11 summit meeting in Malaysia.
“You can’t use that in the trial. The fact that there was a Malaysian meeting is classified,” a CIA representative told one of the prosecutors.
“What do you mean?” the prosecutor asked. “The Malaysian meeting isn’t a secret. It’s in The 9/11 Commission Report.”
“Just because the commission revealed the information doesn’t mean it isn’t still classified.”
“But your former director, George Tenet, also references it in his book.”
“He’s not the director anymore.”
“But it had to be declassified for him to write about it.”
“You can’t use it.”
The prosecutors were shocked by how far the CIA would go to limit any public mention of the Malaysia meeting. There was no mention of it in the trial.
When I testified in Bahlul’s trial, he would nod as I spoke, as if confirming what I had said. At one point, when I told the court that Bahlul had told me that he had produced the video celebrating the Cole bombing, he nodded, as if saying: Yes, I said that to him.
Bahlul was sentenced to life imprisonment in November 2008.
In 2004, I was in a military jail in North Carolina, helping with the interrogation of an uncooperative detainee, when I received an urgent phone call from the director of the FBI: a team of specialized military interrogators in Gitmo reported a confession, from an al-Qaeda member named Tarek Mahmoud el-Sawah, exposing al-Qaeda as the group behind the series of anthrax attacks that had occurred over several weeks shortly after 9/11.
The Pentagon had already briefed Congress on el-Sawah’s confession. Congress asked the director to brief them on the anthrax investigation. A task force of very capable FBI agents, with high-level expertise in science, terrorism, and specialized investigations, was already working diligently on the case. No al-Qaeda links had been found. But due to the briefing to Congress, the director wanted to make sure that the intelligence was reliable, and he asked me to question el-Sawah. Not only had the military interrogators reported that he was the mastermind of al-Qaeda’s anthrax program, they also said he had designed al-Qaeda’s shoe bomb program.
I questioned el-Sawah, who was overweight and happiest when we’d bring him ice cream, and he was open about his al-Qaeda connections. He had fought in the original Afghan jihad and in Bosnia, where he had served as an explosives expert, and he knew senior al-Qaeda leaders from the period. He had decided to visit Afghanistan to see if, under the Taliban, it was a true Islamic state, as he had heard, because if it was, he would bring his family there to live. While there, he had visited old friends, among them Abu Hafs and Saif al-Adel. Abu Hafs had asked him to help train al-Qaeda operatives in explosives. “But you’ve got trainers,” el-Sawah had said.
“At Banshiri,” Abu Hafs replied, “we’re graduating more people to heaven than out of the class.” He explained that they had Yemeni trainers who really didn’t know what they were doing. One blew up an entire class of Chinese Uighurs who had joined al-Qaeda. El-Sawah agreed to help, and he received specialized explosives training, including instruction in building improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and remote detonation devices, from Abu Abdul Rahman al-Muhajir. He went on to receive advanced explosives/electronics training from Abu Tariq al-Tunisi, learning how to make timers for IEDs using Casio watches as remote detonators.
Then, from June 2001, he gave instruction in explosives and wrote a four-hundred-page bomb-making manual. After the United States invaded Afghanistan, el-Sawah fought with al-Qaeda against the United States in the Tora Bora region before being wounded and caught.
When I asked him about al-Qaeda’s anthrax program, he didn’t even understand the question. We were speaking in Arabic, and he didn’t know what the word anthrax was in Arabic. When I questioned him further, trying to work out where the military interrogators had got their information from, I learned that he had told them that once, when he was having lunch in Kandahar with Abu Hafs and Saif al-Adel, the two had asked him if he remembered a mutual friend who had a degree in chemistry and whom they had known in Egypt. El-Sawah said that he remembered the expert, and Saif al-Adel asked if he was still in contact with him; el-Sawah said he wasn’t.
On that basis the interrogators wrote a report about “the anthrax program.” As for el-Sawah’s being the mastermind of any shoe bombing operation, I found out that the military interrogators had said to him: “You’re an explosives expert. If you were to build a shoe bomb, how would you do it?” He had drawn them a diagram. That diagram constituted their “proof.” It turned out that it was a bad drawing, unrepresentative of the shoe bomb Richard Reid used.
I went with FBI colleagues to the interrogators who had extracted the “confession” and told them that, based upon my interrogation, their claims didn’t add up. They were novice interrogators and didn’t understand that you can’t just jump to those kinds of conclusions. They admitted that they had messed up.
Around the time I was interrogating el-Sawah, Matrafi—the head of al-Wafa, whom I had interrogated in the early days at Gitmo with Ed and Andre—was taken by the same specialized military team to a black site (a secret location) and interrogated. Apparently they didn’t get much intelligence from him, so they asked me to come and talk to him again. A member of the team told me, “We know he knows about a threat, but he’s not cooperating. Can you get through to him and tell him to talk to us?” I didn’t have much faith in that specialized military interrogation team after the el-Sawah incident, but I felt that if there really was a threat that Matrafi knew about, I should help.
When I went in he was very angry, and before I could say anything, he said: “I told you everything I knew right at the start. I confessed everything. Why am I here? Why should I talk to you again?”
“I can’t explain Guantánamo. I don’t understand how it’s being run,” I told him. By this time the detainees knew exactly where they were. “But I can tell you that cooperation is always the best tactic, so I recommend you tell them everything.”
“But I already told you everything. Why should I repeat it again? Didn’t you write everything down?”
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“The other interrogators just told me to repeat to them everything I told you when you interrogated me, so they can put it in their file.”
“I’m sorry that I wasted your time,” I told him, and walked out. It wasn’t the only time that these inexperienced interrogators tried to “reinterrogate” detainees, telling them simply to repeat what they had told the seasoned interrogators. The point was that they could then claim that their techniques were successful and that they had gotten “intelligence.”
On August 31, 2003, General Miller flew to Iraq to advise those running a prison in Baghdad called Abu Ghraib. Mark Fallon sent a CITF agent along with him, with instructions to warn the officials meeting Miller that use of the techniques he would advocate were not the only way to run interrogations. The general wouldn’t allow the agent into any of his meetings. In April 2004, General Miller became head of all prisons in Iraq that were under U.S. control.
In 2004, pictures of U.S. army personnel abusing detainees in Abu Ghraib were shown around the world. One of the photographs that went around the world was an image of one soldier, Lynndie England, holding a leash attached to the neck of a naked prisoner. Qahtani had endured the same treatment at Gitmo, also under General Miller’s command.
Instructors from the JPRA SERE school also went to Iraq and participated in interrogations using SERE techniques. Col. Steven Kleinman, an air force reservist who is a highly decorated veteran of three major military campaigns (Operations Just Cause, Desert Storm, and Iraqi Freedom) and who is recognized as having been one of the most prolific interrogators during the first Gulf War, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2008 that in Iraq he had witnessed abusive interrogations and had intervened to stop them. In one instance the JPRA team “took a hooded detainee to a bunker at the Task Force facility, forcibly stripped him naked and left him, shackled by the wrist and ankles, to stand for 12 hours.”
In November 2005 Secretary Rumsfeld and the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, gave a press conference during which a UPI reporter asked them about allegations of torture by Iraqi authorities in prisons under Iraqi control. General Pace told the reporter: “It is the absolute responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it.”
Secretary Rumsfeld interrupted him and said: “I don’t think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it’s to report it.”
“If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it,” General Pace responded.