By Scott Shane | Washington Post | Sept. 11, 2011
WASHINGTON — In a new memoir, a former F.B.I. agent who tracked Al Qaeda before and after the Sept. 11 attacks paints a devastating picture of rivalry and dysfunction inside the government’s counterterrorism agencies. The book describes missed opportunities to defuse the 2001 plot, and argues that other attacks overseas might have been prevented, and Osama bin Laden found earlier, if interrogations had not been mismanaged.
The account offered by the agent, Ali H. Soufan, is the most detailed to date by an insider concerning the American investigations of Al Qaeda and the major attacks that the group carried out, including bombings of American Embassies in East Africa and the American destroyer Cole, as well as the Sept. 11 attacks. The book is scheduled to be published Monday, with redactions to several chapters by the Central Intelligence Agency, the target of much of Mr. Soufan’s criticism.
In the 571-page book, “The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al Qaeda,” Mr. Soufan accuses C.I.A. officials of deliberately withholding crucial documents and photographs of Qaeda operatives from the F.B.I. before Sept. 11, 2001, despite three written requests, and then later lying about it to the 9/11 Commission.
He recounts a scene at the American Embassy in Yemen, where, a few hours after the attacks on New York and Washington, a C.I.A. official finally turned over the material the bureau requested months earlier, including photographs of two of the hijackers.
“For about a minute I stared at the pictures and the report, not quite believing what I had in my hands,” Mr. Soufan writes. Then he ran to a bathroom and vomited. “My whole body was shaking,” he writes. He believed the material, documenting a Qaeda meeting in Malaysia in January 2000, combined with information from the Cole investigation, might have helped unravel the airliner plot.
Mr. Soufan recounts how he began a promising interrogation of a knowledgeable Qaeda member, Abdullah Tabarak, at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, only to be told by the military authorities that he could no longer speak to the prisoner. He later learned the prisoner was sent to Morocco and subsequently released.
On another occasion, he questioned a Yemeni Qaeda operative known as al-Batar who had once carried money for Bin Laden as a dowry for the terrorist leader to marry a young Yemeni woman. The prisoner gave him some information, but said he would tell the rest of his story only if he was allowed to make a phone call to his family — a request the Pentagon denied. The interrogation was cut off, losing what Mr. Soufan regarded as a possible lead on the whereabouts of Bin Laden.
After a C.I.A. officer disobeyed her bosses’ instructions and gave Mr. Soufan 45 minutes to question Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the 9/11 conspirators, and another unidentified prisoner, Mr. Soufan and his colleagues learned of a plot to bomb an oil tanker off the Yemeni port of Al Mukalla. But their memo was ignored, and a few weeks later the French tanker Limburg was attacked, killing one crew member and wounding 12 others.
Mr. Soufan writes that the most consequential mistake of all was the C.I.A.’s embrace of brutal tactics for interrogation, which Mr. Soufan says were directed from the Bush White House and opposed by some C.I.A. officers. The book calls the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the first important prisoner questioned by the C.I.A., as a fateful wrong turn toward torture and away from what he considered more effective traditional interrogation methods.
A C.I.A. spokesman, Preston Golson, said the agency had ordered redactions to the book only to protect classified information, not to strike back at the author. Still, he said, “With all due respect to Mr. Soufan, the Central Intelligence Agency has a very different assessment, as you might expect, on these events.”
He called “baseless” the assertion that the agency “purposely refused to share critical lead information on the 9/11 plots.” And without addressing the agency’s harsh interrogations, which were banned by President Obama in 2009, he said the C.I.A. “has significantly degraded Al Qaeda” and has produced intelligence that allowed the United States and others “countless times to save lives and disrupt plots.”
Mr. Golson said the accusations contained in the book “diminish the hard work and dedication of countless C.I.A. officers who have worked tirelessly against Al Qaeda both before and after 9/11 — hard work that culminated in the operation that found Bin Laden.”
Mr. Soufan said in an interview that he had the highest respect for many of the C.I.A. officers he worked with in the field. “Unfortunately, there were people in Washington making decisions out of fear,” he said. While the C.I.A.’s interrogation program produced a great deal of valuable information, he said, it did so despite the use of brutality, not because of it.
“There are some politicians and bureaucrats who live in an alternate universe, who are invested in that small part of the program and defend it regardless of facts,” he said.
The use of coercion prompted the F.B.I. director to ban his agents from C.I.A. interrogations, Mr. Soufan noted, meaning that some of the government’s most knowledgeable experts were unable to speak with the most important terrorists.
“Professional interrogators, intelligence operatives and investigators were marginalized, and instead of tried and tested methods being used, faith was placed in E.I.T.’s,” or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the government’s euphemism for waterboarding and other harsh methods, he writes.
Mr. Soufan, who was born in Lebanon and is a native Arabic speaker, recounts interrogations that he conducted without physical abuse, building a rapport with terrorist suspects who gave extensive information about Al Qaeda. By his account, he disarmed prisoners by addressing them in their native language, using their family nicknames, surprising them with details they did not expect him to know and bringing them their favorite foods. He sparred with them over their interpretation of the Koran. He tricked them into talking by persuading them that their associates had already talked. He showed one prisoner a doctored photograph and persuaded another that a colleague was a “human polygraph” who could tell when the prisoner was lying.
The book also gives an account, gathered from Qaeda operatives whom Mr. Soufan questioned at Guantánamo Bay, of Bin Laden’s conduct at his camp in Afghanistan as the 9/11 plot was carried out. The Qaeda aides described Bin Laden as “especially excitable” that day, and only a few people in his entourage knew why.
As the hijacked airliners neared their targets, he asked an aide to get a Western news channel on the satellite television in his van. But the aide, Ali al-Bahlul, could not get a signal. So they turned to the radio, Mr. Soufan was told, switching between Voice of America and the BBC, and then cheering and firing their guns in the air at the first bulletin announcing that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.