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FBI Agent’s Account of Interrogations Conflicts With Report

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As former FBI agent Ali Soufan prepares to testify publicly for the first time about the FBI’s role in the torture policies of the Bush administration, some aspects of his testimony are already clear. Torture doesn’t work, Soufan wrote in a high-profile New York Times op-ed in late April, and he knows because he, as part of the team interrogating al-Qaeda detainee Abu Zubaydah “from March to June 2002,” got reliable information out of him “before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August.” Alongside accounts of FBI agents resisting torture at Guantanamo Bay and with another al-Qaeda detainee named Ibn Shaikh al-Libi, Soufan’s account has gone a long way toward portraying the FBI as a lonely institutional outpost of opposition to harsh interrogations.

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Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The truth, according to a 400-page Justice Department inspector general’s report, released in May 2008, is more complicated. According to the report, the FBI did frequently refuse to lend support to abusive interrogations. But FBI officials did take part in interrogations where abuse occurred, even after senior FBI officials issued orders against agents participating in detainee interrogation sessions that went beyond the FBI’s traditional non-physical style of eliciting information. And the report reveals some discrepancies from the account Soufan gave — and which he may be asked about in his testimony before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday morning.

Soufan’s account does not entirely match up with the inspector general’s, both in terms of the timeline he gave, and his participation in a subsequent interrogation that went beyond traditional FBI interrogation techniques. He wrote in his op-ed that “the harsh techniques” used on Abu Zubaydah — such as waterboarding, to which Abu Zubaydah was subjected 83 times, according to a recently-declassified 2005 Justice Department memorandum — only occurred in August 2002, after “I objected to the enhanced techniques” and was subsequently withdrawn from the interrogation by senior FBI management.

The inspector general’s report tells a somewhat different story. Using the pseduonyms “Thomas” and “Gibson,” it gives the account of two agents who participated in Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation during its early phase, which occurred at a CIA facility, most likely in Thailand. (“Thomas” is most likely Soufan.) FBI headquarters evidently knew that the interrogations would not result in a criminal prosecution of Abu Zubaydah, which is the typical outcome of FBI interrogations, as their supervisor informed the two agents not to Mirandize him, and to “leave the [CIA-run] facility and call Headquarters” if the CIA — which had custody of the detainee — “began using techniques that gave the agents discomfort.” The report corroborates Soufan’s account that “relationship-building techniques” with the detainee, — going so far as personally administering medical care when Abu Zubaydah still required it for injuries sustained in his capture — resulted in Abu Zubaydah positively identifying Khalid Shaikh Muhammed as the architect of the 9/11 attacks.

Yet harsh techniques were used while Soufan was at the facility — though “Thomas” resisted their use. According to the report, “Thomas raised objections to these techniques,” calling them “borderline torture.” The report indicates that the techniques were used while “Thomas” was part of the interrogation team, since he said Abu Zubaydah “became uncooperative after being subjected to the CIA’s techniques.” When “Thomas” called back to FBI headquarters to object, he told the inspector general he was “immediately” ordered to leave, and complied around early to mid-May 2002, a few weeks off of Soufan’s New York Times timeline. All this occurred before the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, on August 1, 2002, issued its ruling that inflicting pain on Abu Zubaydah short of that equivalent to “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” was legally permissible.

It is likely “Thomas” is Soufan. “Gibson,” the other FBI agent in the Abu Zubaydah interrogation, said he “did not have a ‘moral objection’” to Abu Zubaydah’s harsh treatment and “remained at the CIA facility until some time in early June 2002, several weeks after Thomas left.” Gibson did not object, he told the inspector general, because “he himself had undergone comparable harsh interrogation techniques as part of U.S. Army Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training.” Soufan, according to an extensive profile by the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright, does not have a history of military service. “Gibson’s” role in the harsh interrogation, moreover, suggests that there was no early FBI consensus against torture.

According to the report, the FBI’s role in Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation caused significant internal alarm as to whether the bureau was acting outside its legal authority. The incident “led to the decision” from Director Robert Mueller that “FBI agents should not participate in interrogations using non-FBI techniques.” But it took the FBI two years after that decision to issue a “formal policy addressing participation in joint interrogations with other agencies in overseas locations,” in May 2004. The inspector general was unable to establish when exactly Mueller made that decision, as numerous Justice Department and FBI officials said they could not recall when exactly it occurred, estimating that Mueller gave his guidance “in approximately August 2002.” Afterward, however, FBI agents participated in numerous interrogations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay that went far beyond the traditional “relationship-building techniques” employed by the bureau.

One such interrogation involved “Thomas.” At Guantanamo Bay, beginning in late July or early August 2002 — very soon after being withdrawn from the Abu Zubaydah interrogation — “Thomas” interrogated Mohammed al-Qatani, who was suspected of being a part of the 9/11 conspiracy and who was detained in Afghanistan after he was unable to enter the U.S. through Orlando in the summer of 2001. “Thomas,” the report reads, “had already obtained confessions from several detainees” at Guantanamo; the commander of the detention facility called him “a national treasure.”

“Thomas” does not appear to have objected to the interrogation of al-Qatani, whatever his objections to the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah a few months prior. According to the report, “Thomas” recommended the use of non-FBI interrogation techniques on al-Qatani, including moving him “to a more remote location at GTMO so that he would not get social support from the other detainees.” The FBI case agent at Guantanamo, known by the pseudonym “Demeter,” noted to the inspector general that “isolation is not normally employed by law enforcement agencies” but could be “a very effective technique,” and so “Demeter” and “Thomas” received approval from unnamed “senior officials… up their chain of command” for use of the technique.”

In an interview with the inspector general in 2007, al-Qatani said that the place where “Thomas” interrogated him was “the worst place I was taken to.” His sense of time was displaced “because the window was covered up” and so he did not know when to pray in accordance with Muslim traditions. “The lights in his cell were left on continuously for the entire time he was there, which he said was half a year,” the report read. “Al Qatani also described the Brig as very, very cold.” (A 2005 Pentagon study, known as the Schmidt-Furlow report, found that the cold was so severe that it eventually gave al-Qatani an irregular heartbeat, for which he was hospitalized; it is not clear exactly when this took place.) “Thomas,” however, “spoke Arabic” (as Soufan does) and had “some sense of humanity,” al-Qatani told the inspector general. While he “never used aggression or physical violence” on the detainee, al-Qatani quoted “Thomas” as saying “You will find yourself in a difficult situation if you don’t talk to me” and “this is your place until you change your story.”

It is not clear when “Thomas” left Guantanamo Bay and the al-Qatani interrogation, and an interrogation log spanning 50 days between November 2002 and January 2003 published by Time magazine in mid-2005 suggests the harshest period of al-Qatani’s treatment later that year. But even before that — and before October 11, 2002, when Guantanamo officials sought approval of severe interrogation techniques based on CIA and SERE techniques, from their chain of command — al-Qatani was subjected to a snarling dog by military interrogators who had told two new FBI agents to “step aside” by early September 2002. The agents described al-Qatani being subject to “sleep deprivation, loud music, bright lights, and ‘body placement discomfort.’” They emailed superiors that these techniques had “‘negative’ results” and al-Qatani was “as fervent as ever not to cooperate.”

Yet through January 2003, the FBI remained at Guantanamo, despite Mueller’s apparent “decision” against FBI participation in the abusive interrogations, although its agents tried unsuccessfully to modify the harsh interrogation plan. Some other FBI officials, according to the inspector general’s report, joined with other agencies, including the CIA and the Defense Department, in proposing an interrogation regimen “used with subjects including [Abu Zubaydah]” in either late 2002 or early 2003. Few people would speak conclusively about this “alternative” regimen and few documents were made available to the inspector general about it. Fewer still admitted knowledge of specific techniques the plan proposed. But the report suggests that it played a role in weakening bureaucratic resistance to al-Qatani’s torture, and gives the bottom-line assessment that it “clearly would never have been permitted for FBI agents in the United States under any FBI policy.”

In other incidents through 2003, primarily at Guantanamo Bay, senior FBI officials become concerned that the practical advice delivered to agents in the field was that they should simply excuse themselves from harsh interrogations and take no further action. According to the inspector general’s report, it took until the revelation in spring 2004 of the abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison for the FBI to issue a formalized policy on treatment of detainees, which FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni issued on May 19, 2004. “FBI personnel shall not participate in any treatment or use any interrogation technique” that violated FBI prohibitions on “the use of force, threats, physical abuse, threats of such abuse or severe physical conditions,” the guidance read. For the first time, it required FBI personnel to report detainee abuses caused by “non-FBI personnel.” Previously, according to the inspector general, “the duty of an FBI employee to report on the activities of non-FBI personnel was limited to criminal behavior.”

It is unclear whether any such reports for criminal referral occurred. Literally hundreds of FBI agents reported to an inspector general-solicited survey that they either observed or heard about detainee abuses in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. The report — as Marcy Wheeler blogged on Monday — however, notes “a total of five referrals” by the CIA’s inspector general to the Justice Department concerning detainee abuse “between February 6, 2003 and March 30, 2004.” It is less clear over whether FBI observations of institutionalized abuse resulted in any concrete action. “On a broader level,” the inspector general writes, “we were unable to determine definitely whether the concerns of the FBI and DOJ about DOD interrogation techniques were ever addressed by any of the structures created for resolving inter-agency disputes about antiterrorism issues.” Similarly, the report states, “We found it difficult to assess the response of FBI Headquarters and senior DOJ officials to reports from FBI agents about detainee issues,” largely due to “vague recollections” and the “paucity of written communications.”

It does not appear as if FBI agents who observed abuses stopped such abuses from occurring. The report chides FBI senior leadership for putting agents who witnessed detainee abuse “in a difficult position, because FBI agents were trying to establish a cooperative working relationship with the DOD… FBI agents had many reasons to avoid making reports regarding potential mistreatment of detainees.” Most trials for detainee abuse have occurred under the military, not civilian, justice system, with an exception being a CIA contractor named David Passaro, who was convicted of assault in reference to a 2003 detainee death in Afghanistan.

Much remains unclear from the inspector general’s report. When the now-retired Soufan testifies before Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-RI) Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday, it will be the first time the public has heard a first-hand account from an FBI agent about torture — and what the bureau did and did not do about it.

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