Book Reviews

A Declassified Case Against Torture

Retired FBI agent Ali Soufan argues that the agency's thirst for torture made it harder to protect Americans.


The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed the War on Terror After 9/11, by Ali Soufan, W.W. Norton & Co., 640 pages, $17.95

The terrorist has been captured, and the clock is ticking. FBI agents know they need to use humane interrogation methods to get the information that could stop a deadly attack. But clueless politicians in Washington want to use torture, wasting precious minutes and putting the mission at risk.

It sounds like a parody of a post-9/11 spy thriller. But it's a scenario that keeps recurring in Ali Soufan's autobiography, The Black Banners (Declassified). Soufan, a retired FBI agent who was pursuing Al Qaeda long before it was a household name, argues that secrecy and the thirst for torture made it harder to protect Americans. We would have been better served, he shows, if Washington had treated terrorism as a law enforcement problem, not an exception to the law.

Much of Soufan's story has already been told, both in the heavily censored 2011 edition of his book and in the official 9/11 Commission Report. In the months before September 11, 2001, the CIA failed to give the FBI crucial information that could have stopped the attackers and saved thousands of American lives. In the years that followed, the FBI-CIA rivalry continued to hinder counterterrorism efforts.

The new edition of The Black Banners—finally fully declassified after a lengthy legal battle—paints an even more disturbing picture. FBI agents had been waging an effective fight against Al Qaeda using ordinary interrogation tactics. But after 9/11, the Bush administration unleashed torture methods that were self-sabotaging as well as immoral.

Soufan had been tracking Al Qaeda since the 1990s, building an encyclopedic knowledge of Osama bin Laden's group. Sometimes he used this knowledge to catch suspects in a lie, flustering them and forcing them to tell the truth. Other times he got suspects to warm up to him with small talk and acts of kindness. Many terrorists knew they would have been viciously tortured by their home countries' security services; they had no idea what to make of the fearsome FBI sending a likeable Arab Muslim to chat with them over tea.

"Acting in a nonthreatening way isn't what the terrorist expects from a U.S. interrogator. This adds to the detainee's confusion and makes him more likely to cooperate," Soufan writes. "Because the interrogator is the one person speaking to and listening to the detainee, a relationship is built—and the detainee doesn't want to jeopardize it."

Soufan first caught an inkling of the 9/11 plot in 2000, while serving as lead investigator into the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. FBI agents on the ground discovered that Al Qaeda was transferring money to operatives abroad for something, and he wanted to find out what. But the CIA refused to share intelligence that, combined with the FBI's leads, could have led to the 9/11 hijackers.

Despite its failure to stop the attacks, the CIA grew more powerful after 9/11. The United States invaded Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda was based, and captured scores of militants. These captives were treated neither as criminal suspects nor as prisoners of war but as "enemy combatants," a legal term invented to imply that they had no rights. Some were held at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, while the CIA disappeared others to secret black sites.

The climax of Soufan's story occurred at one such black site and nearly led him to arrest CIA officers on the spot. Pakistani forces had captured Zayn al-Abidin "Abu Zubaydah" Muhammad Hussein, a senior official from a militant training camp in Afghanistan, and handed him to the Americans in March 2002. Soufan knew of Abu Zubaydah from a previous investigation, and he was rushed to a secret base to help interrogate the prisoner.

CIA censors selectively redacted much of what happened next from the 2011 edition of Soufan's memoir. What remained could give readers the impression that torture helped soften up Abu Zubaydah. Only the 2020 edition tells the full, damning story.

FBI agents spent 10 long days interrogating Abu Zubaydah as medical personnel fought to keep the badly wounded militant alive. He cooperated quickly, even naming Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The FBI also learned that Abu Zubaydah had trained and assisted many high-level members of Al Qaeda but was not a formal member of the group.

The Bush administration, which believed (and told the public) that it had captured Al Qaeda's third-in-command, insisted that Abu Zubaydah had simply bamboozled the FBI. So the CIA turned to former Air Force trainer and psychological consultant James Elmer Mitchell. (Although he is named only by a pseudonym in Soufan's book, Mitchell has written his own account of these events.)

Mitchell's solution, as Soufan puts it, was to "make Abu Zubaydah see his interrogator as a god who controls his suffering." In other words, torture.

Mitchell had never interrogated a terrorist. In fact, he had never interrogated anyone at all. His methods were not just cruel but bizarre. Abu Zubaydah was left naked and sleep-deprived as CIA officers blasted loud music into his cell. An interrogator playing the role of God would say "Tell me what you know?" only to leave the room every time Abu Zubaydah responded, "What do you want to know?" At one point, the CIA left a crayon in Abu Zubaydah cell, hoping he would spontaneously write down valuable information. Even other CIA officers on the ground were uncomfortable with these techniques. The pressure to torture came from the highest levels of the Bush administration.

Higher-ups eventually noticed that the information had stopped coming and gave Soufan permission to try his own methods. The torture stopped, and Abu Zubaydah began providing useful information again, leading to the arrest of wannabe bomber Jose Padilla.

Even this intelligence was distorted for political ends. Padilla had wanted to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb," and the Bush administration publicly took credit for stopping an "unfolding terrorist plot" to irradiate an American city. Soufan emphasizes that Padilla was indeed a "committed terrorist" with malicious intent, but he notes that he was "a brain transplant away" from actually building a radiation weapon. The Bush administration's statements "unnecessarily instilled fear in the American people," Soufan writes, and "made us look foolish in the eyes of al-Qaeda."

The CIA had another turn at Abu Zubaydah, and then the FBI got to interrogate him again. The cycle repeated a third time. Finally, the CIA brought in a coffin to terrify Abu Zubaydah with a mock burial. That was the last straw. When Soufan threatened to start making arrests, then–FBI Director Robert Mueller ordered his agents out of the black site.

Abu Zubaydah was extensively tortured after that. His mental state deteriorated, and he lost an eye. The information he provided under torture did not stop a single terrorist plot, but the Bush administration used some of it to justify the invasion of Iraq. In 2005, CIA officers destroyed videotapes of Abu Zubaydah's interrogation in order to cover their tracks. The following year, Abu Zubaydah was transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where he told a U.S. military tribunal that he had made false statements just to make the pain stop.

Mitchell was paid millions for his services. Gina Haspel, one of the officers who destroyed evidence of Abu Zubaydah's torture, served as CIA director from 2018 to early 2021. Abu Zubaydah, who has not been charged with a single crime, is still imprisoned in Cuba.

Soufan managed to build a rapport with several detainees at Guantanamo Bay without torture. One prisoner—who knew bin Laden's wife, it turns out—even promised to provide more information if the FBI allowed him to call his family. Soufan agreed, but the U.S. military officers at Guantanamo Bay refused. Those officials "wouldn't let a detainee use a phone for a minute, which would have led to bin Laden," Soufan writes, "but they didn't mind disregarding the U.S. Constitution" with their harsh treatment of prisoners.

In September 2002, Pakistani forces handed militants Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Hassan bin Attash to the CIA. (Bin Attash is named only by a pseudonym in the book.) Soufan was given 45 minutes to interrogate them, against the wishes of CIA headquarters. Bin Attash knew that Soufan had previously treated suspects with kindness. Deciding to cooperate, he spilled the beans on Al Qaeda's plot to blow up an oil tanker in Yemen.

The CIA refused to believe that bin Attash was telling the truth and transferred him to an unnamed country to be tortured. Al Qaeda blew up the MV Limburg off the coast of Yemen the next month, just as bin Attash had warned. The attack killed one, wounded 12, and caused an oil spill.

Soufan left the FBI in 2005. He testified against torture to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2009 and remains an outspoken critic of the excesses of the war on terror. And he has something to say to his detractors: "If my account was not true, they would not have tried to censor it."