On April 16, 2009, the U.S. Justice Department declassified a series of memos on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques program. This followed an announcement earlier in the month by Leon Panetta, the new CIA director, that the agency’s black sites had been shut down. “The CIA no longer operates detention facilities or black sites,” he had written to his staff. On October 29, 2009, David Iglesias, a navy prosecutor (and the actual person on whom Tom Cruise’s character in the film A Few Good Men is based), told me that in lectures to young Special Forces JAG officers, the military was teaching the “Ali Soufan Rule”—that intelligent interrogations are always more productive than coercive ones, and that interrogators need to remember the endgame.
The declassified Department of Justice memos dispassionately detailed the coercive interrogation methods approved by the Bush administration, including waterboarding, and also listed “successes” of the program as a justification for their continuation. Featured prominently in the memos was Abu Zubaydah, the first to go through the program.
Within hours of the memos’ release, I received calls from outraged friends in the intelligence and law enforcement communities. As one friend put it, “This is why the United States ripped up the Constitution in dealing with these terrorists? The memos are full of lies. I can’t believe they’ve got the cheek to claim these successes as theirs! Didn’t any of the lawyers even bother to check the dates?”
I felt the same disbelief and anger. It was apparent from the memos that the introduction of EITs was based on lies. The proof resides in my notes—locked, as noted earlier, in FBI vaults. It’s no surprise that those behind the EITs fought so hard to keep these memos classified. From the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah to the information leading to the capture of Ramzi Binalshibh to the arrest of Khallad, the memos are full of misrepresentations of facts.
I received nonstop inquiries from journalists and television shows asking me about the memos, as it was no secret that I had opposed the techniques—a previously declassified Department of Justice inspector general’s report had made that clear. From 2002 to 2009 I was limited to closed-door briefings in classified settings.
I didn’t, however, speak out immediately, as I didn’t want to reopen a period of my life that I had been happy to put behind me. I also thought it would be pretty clear that the claims in the memos were false. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, as the defenders of the EITs launched a media blitz campaign not only to defend the techniques but to argue for their reintroduction.
“As you always say, the oath you took to defend the American people against enemies foreign and domestic didn’t end when you left the FBI. Indeed, that’s why you agreed to be the government’s main witness in the trials at Guantánamo,” a former colleague reminded me, “and once again you have a duty to tell the truth. Otherwise there is a danger that the American people will become convinced the EITs were a success, and they’ll be reintroduced, and that will be disastrous.”
Some colleagues suggested specific journalists I might speak with, but my colleague and coauthor Daniel Freedman recommended that my first public comments be in my own words, on my terms, with no possibility of their being misconstrued. As I was weighing what to do, the New York Times contacted me and asked if I’d write an opinion piece, and I accepted.
The next day, Wednesday, April 22, 2009, the New York Times ran the piece, entitled “My Tortured Decision.” It attracted attacks from both the left and the right, with the right upset that I was attacking the techniques and the left upset that I had argued against the prosecution of CIA officials involved in the program. I told people who questioned why I opposed prosecutions that many of the CIA officers I had worked with had themselves objected to the techniques. Some had left the location, and even the agency, in protest. Those who had used the EITs had done so on the orders of higher-ups, and with the support of administration lawyers writing legal opinions authorizing the techniques. Any prosecutions, I said, needed to start at the very top, where the orders originated, and not with some sacrificial lambs at the bottom of the chain. It’s also important to remember that CIA officers complained about the program to their inspector general, which is why he launched his investigation in the first place.
Because of the op-ed, I was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, under oath, about what had happened. None of the people who had authorized the EITs would consent to appear before the committee against me. They probably didn’t want to commit perjury. One of the other witnesses was Philip Zelikow, who also opposed the techniques during his time in the State Department.
I [1 word redacted] for the committee [7 words redacted] explained how interrogations should work, and why EITs wouldn’t work. I concluded: “For the last seven years, it was not easy objecting to these methods when they had powerful backers. I stood up then for the same reason I’m willing to take on critics now, because I took an oath swearing to protect this great nation. I could not stand by quietly while our country’s safety was endangered and our moral standing damaged.”
The defenders of the program had propagated so many falsehoods about the alleged successes of the EITS that many people in Washington were deceived, including Senator Lindsey Graham, a respected committee member. This came out during one exchange:
SENATOR GRAHAM: Now, about the interrogation of this suspect, do you know a gentleman named John K-I-R-I-A-K-O-U?
MR. SOUFAN: Me?
SENATOR GRAHAM: Yes.
MR. SOUFAN: No, I do not know him.
SENATOR GRAHAM: Okay. He gave an interview—he is a retired CIA officer, and he said Abu Zubaydah—is that the guy’s name?
MR. SOUFAN: Yes.
SENATOR GRAHAM: Did I say it right? He said that they waterboarded the guy and he broke within 35 seconds.
MR. SOUFAN: Is this question for me, sir?
SENATOR GRAHAM: Yes.
MR. SOUFAN: Well, last week, he retracted that and he said he was misinformed, [10 words redacted].
SENATOR GRAHAM: Okay. So he just—
MR. SOUFAN: He retracted that, yes, sir. That is one of the things that was mentioned before.
President Barack Obama publicly denounced the EIT program and said that never again would those coercive techniques be used. He also set up a presidential commission to make recommendations on how to move forward and improve our interrogation program, and I was asked to brief the commission.
“You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” I began. I went on to explain that knowledge of the detainee and of the group, and of both the detainee’s and the group’s background, is crucial to any interrogation. I explained that torture doesn’t work. “It produces at best compliance, but not cooperation, which is what you need for a successful and reliable interrogation.”
“But,” one commission member asked, “if al-Qaeda learns your interrogation method, won’t they be able to train their operatives to prepare for it?”
“That’s impossible,” I replied with a smile, “because no two interrogations are ever the same.”
“Just as no two detainees are exactly the same. Whether it’s a different childhood, a different experience in al-Qaeda, or a different intellect, no two interrogations are ever exactly the same. The Informed Interrogation Approach isn’t about following a series of steps, it’s about playing what you know about the detainee against him and outwitting him.”
“So every time you got a detainee to cooperate, it was with a different approach?”
“Yes. With Abu Jandal, for example, we trapped him in his lies and his ego. With Ali al-Bahlul, bin Laden’s secretary and propagandist, we played on his commitment to al-Qaeda and his religious knowledge. With L’Houssaine Kherchtou the important point was al-Qaeda’s refusal to pay for a Cesarean section for his wife. And with [1 word redacted], it was his childhood feelings toward his brother that flipped him.
“To put it in different terms, think of dating. If you think there’s a magic formula and five words that will win you success, you’ve never been on a date. The same remark that somehow led one person to throw a drink in your face might have an entirely different effect on someone else. Everyone is different. And naturally you’ll have more success if you know all about your date’s likes and dislikes.
“Every detainee is different, and for each interview you need to have a unique strategy—based on knowledge.” That hit home.