According to Ali Soufan, an FBI interrogator, waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation" procedures caused a key Al Qaeda operative to clam up, not provide actionable intelligence as former Vice President Dick Cheney and others have claimed.
Soufan provided gripping Senate testimony today. He related in detail how he was able to get Abu Zubaydah, a suspect who was believed to play a lead role in Al Qaeda, to talk.
In my first interrogation of the terrorist Abu Zubaydah, who had strong links to al Qaeda's leaders and who knew the details of the 9/11 plot before it happened, I asked him his name. He replied with his alias. I then asked him, "how about if I call you Hani?" That was the name his mother nicknamed him as a child. He looked at me in shock, said "ok," and we started talking.
Soufan was well suited to interrogate Abu Zubaydah. He had been involved in hundreds of other interrogations of Al Qaeda suspects. He told the committee about his experience successfully "breaking" an Al Qaeda operative known as Abu Jandal and others.
Soufan told the subcommittee that after Abu Zubaydah was cooperating, a CIA team led by a contractor began to use increasingly abusive interrogation techniques - over Soufan's objections - and Abu Zubaydah stopped talking.
Soufan is one of many interrogators whose experience proves that using physical force to "break" detainees is not an effective way to obtain information.
I recently spent three days with Eric Maddox, the interrogator responsible for developing the intelligence that led to Saddam Hussein and Matthew Alexander, the interrogator who led a team that developed the intelligence that led US forces to Al Zarqawi (the former head of Al Qaeda in Iraq).
Both Maddox and Alexander do not believe that waterboarding is an effective interrogation technique.
As Maddox explained, "I'm not all about human rights. I am about doing what needs to be done to get a guy to talk."
To capture Saddam, Maddox "broke" nine key detainees - some within a matter of minutes - by earning their trust and understanding what motivated them.
"You have to understand the psychology," Maddox, who has conducted more than 2000 interrogations, explained. "When you waterboard someone he fears for his life, but there are more powerful motivators."
Maddox said that in his experience manipulating a detainee's love of family and or pride will yield better results. He tells a story in Mission: Blacklist #1, his book that details his experience chasing Saddam, about convincing Saddam's key lieutenant to provide details about the hole where Saddam is hiding.
The story is gripping. What it boils down to is that Maddox understood that the lieutenant valued his family more than his relationship with Saddam. Maddox gave him an opportunity to protect his family by giving up Saddam.
"This was the most important moment in this guy's life," Maddox said. "He had to trust me to follow through. He is not going to do that if I have just waterboarded him."
Alexander agreed. His view is that capturing Khalid Sheik Muhammed was a golden opportunity to crack open Al Qaeda and target its senior leadership.
"In interrogation you always want to work up," said Alexander, who uses a pseudonym for security reasons. "You want to get the 'head of the snake.'"
"They were not able to do that because they employed a technique that is all about getting the bare minimum out of a detainee."
Like Maddox and Alexander, Soufan began to approach Zubaydah by talking to him, not beating him up. He told the Senate subcommittee that the technique he used was called "the Informed Interrogation Approach."
Using this approach, Soufan relied on his brain to get Zubaydah to talk. He treated Zubaydah with respect. As his testimony makes clear, Soufan acted this way because he was convinced that it was the most likely way to get the suspect to talk.
Acting in a non-threatening way isn't how the detainee is trained to expect a U.S. interrogator to act. This adds to the detainee's confusion and makes him more likely to cooperate.
Soufan said that Zubaydah provided key information about Al Qaeda's structure and planned operations until a team of CIA interrogators arrived and began to apply force.
During his capture Abu Zubaydah had been injured. After seeing the extent of his injuries, the CIA medical team supporting us decided they were not equipped to treat him and we had to take him to a hospital or he would die. At the hospital, we continued our questioning as much as possible, while taking into account his medical condition and the need to know all information he might have on existing threats.
We were once again very successful and elicited information regarding the role of KSM as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and lots of other information that remains classified. (It is important to remember that before this we had no idea of KSM's role in 9/11 or his importance in the al Qaeda leadership structure.)
A few days after we started questioning Abu Zubaydah, the CTC interrogation team finally arrived from DC with a contractor who was instructing them on how they should conduct the interrogations, and we were removed. Immediately, on the instructions of the contractor, harsh techniques were introduced, starting with nudity. (The harsher techniques mentioned in the memos were not introduced or even discussed at this point.)
The new techniques did not produce results as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking. At that time nudity and low-level sleep deprivation (between 24 and 48 hours) was being used. After a few days of getting no information, and after repeated inquiries from DC asking why all of sudden no information was being transmitted (when before there had been a steady stream), we again were given control of the interrogation.
We then returned to using the Informed Interrogation Approach. Within a few hours, Abu Zubaydah again started talking and gave us important actionable intelligence.
This included the details of Jose Padilla, the so-called "dirty bomber." To remind you of how important this information was viewed at the time, the then-Attorney General, John Ashcroft, held a press conference from Moscow to discuss the news. Other important actionable intelligence was also gained that remains classified.
After a few days, the contractor attempted to once again try his untested theory and he started to re-implementing the harsh techniques. He moved this time further along the force continuum, introducing loud noise and then temperature manipulation.
There is a historical precedent for the work that Soufan, Maddox and Alexander have done. Indeed, one of the greatest interrogators of all time is generally thought to be Hans Scharff, a Nazi (if you can believe it) interrogator who had tremendous success interrogating US airmen who were captured during WWII. Scharff was so friendly and so well-versed in American culture and military strategy that many airmen said afterwards that they did not even realize that they were being interrogated. They felt as if they were telling an old friend information that he already knew.
Orin Deforrest, a CIA agent, used a similar approach in Vietnam and developed what many regard as the best intelligence operation conducted during that war. And COL Stu Herrington used this sort of "rapport-building" approach in his interrogations in Panama that caused Noriega's henchmen to spill key secrets. Herrington says that if he were to run into one of the detainees he interrogated at the time - or at any time during his 30-year career - "they would probably buy me a drink."
The list goes on and on.
By contrast there is no scientific evidence that suggests that waterboarding is an effective method to interrogate people, according to COL Steve Kleinman, an Air Force intelligence officer who helped produce a comprehensive study of interrogation and torture for the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2006.
To the contrary Kleinman said, the limited scientific evidence suggests that waterboarding is counter-productive. "It makes people more resolute and more determined that the cause they are fighting for is correct," Kleinman told me recently. "It does not make them want to talk."
Soufan's testimony is another chapter in the seemingly forgotten history of interrogation. We have a good sense of what works and what does not in the interrogation booth. The question going forward is: are policymakers and the American public willing to learn from our mistakes and listen to the real pros who have done interrogation successfully or are we simply too scared by the threat of Al Qaeda to operate in a manner that is logical and consistent with our self-interest?
David Danzig is the Deputy Program Director at Human Rights First.
Eric Maddox's book, Operation: Blacklist #1, details his efforts in chasing Saddam Hussein
Matthew Alexander's book, How to Break a Terrorist, describes the interrogations that led to Al Zarqawi