The most successful interrogation of an Al-Qaeda operative by U.S. officials required no sleep deprivation, no slapping or “walling” and no waterboarding. All it took to soften up Abu Jandal, who had been closer to Osama bin Laden than any other terrorist ever captured, was a handful of sugar-free cookies.
Abu Jandal had been in a Yemeni prison for nearly a year when Ali Soufan of the FBI and Robert McFadden of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service arrived to interrogate him in the week after 9/11. Although there was already evidence that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks, American authorities needed conclusive proof, not least to satisfy skeptics like Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose support was essential for any action against the terrorist organization. U.S. intelligence agencies also needed a better understanding of al-Qaeda’s structure and leadership. Abu Jandal was the perfect source: the Yemeni who grew up in Saudi Arabia had been bin Laden’s chief bodyguard, trusted not only to protect him but also to put a bullet in his head rather than let him be captured. Abu Jandal’s guards were so intimidated by him, they wore masks to hide their identities and begged visitors not to refer to them by name in his presence. He had no intention of cooperating with the Americans; at their first meetings, he refused even to look at them and ranted about the evils of the West. Far from confirming al-Qaeda’s involvement in 9/11, he insisted the attacks had been orchestrated by Israel’s Mossad. While Abu Jandal was venting his spleen, Soufan noticed that he didn’t touch any of the cookies that had been served with tea: “He was a diabetic and couldn’t eat anything with sugar in it.” At their next meeting, the Americans brought him some sugar-free cookies, a gesture that took the edge off Abu Jandal’s angry demeanor. “We had showed him respect, and we had done this nice thing for him,” Soufan recalls. “So he started talking to us instead of giving us lectures.” It took more questioning, and some interrogators’ sleight of hand, before the Yemeni gave up a wealth of information about al-Qaeda including the identities of seven of the 9/11 bombers but the cookies were the turning point. “After that, he could no longer think of us as evil Americans,” Soufan says. “Now he was thinking of us as human beings.” Soufan, now an international-security consultant, has emerged as a powerful critic of the George W. Bush era interrogation techniques; he has testified against them in congressional hearings and is an expert witness in cases brought by detainees. He has described the techniques as “borderline torture” and “un-American.” His larger argument is that methods like waterboarding are wholly unnecessary traditional interrogation methods, a combination of guile and graft, are the best way to break down even the most stubborn subjects. He told a recent hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee that it was these methods, not the harsh techniques, that prompted al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah to give up the identities of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla. Bush Administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, had previously claimed that Abu Zubaydah supplied that information only after he was waterboarded. But Soufan says once the rough treatment began administered by CIA-hired private contractors with no interrogation experience Abu Zubaydah actually stopped cooperating. The debate over the CIA’s interrogation techniques and their effectiveness has intensified since President Barack Obama’s decision to release Bush Administration memos authorizing the use of waterboarding and other harsh methods. Defenders of the Bush program, most notably Cheney, say the use of waterboarding produced actionable intelligence that helped the U.S. disrupt terrorist plots. But the experiences of officials like Soufan suggest that the utility of torture is limited at best and counterproductive at worst. Put simply, there’s no definitive evidence that torture works. The crucial question going forward is, What does How does an interrogator break down a hardened terrorist without using violence TIME spoke with several interrogators who have worked for the U.S. military as well as others who have recently retired from the intelligence services . All agreed with Soufan: the best way to get intelligence from even the most recalcitrant subject is to apply the subtle arts of interrogation rather than the blunt instruments of torture. “There is nothing intelligent about torture,” says Eric Maddox, an Army staff sergeant whose book Mission: Black List #1 chronicles his interrogations in Iraq that ultimately led to the capture of Saddam Hussein. “If you have to inflict pain, then you’ve lost control of the situation, the subject and yourself.” Read about a top interrogator who is against torture.
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