hen we speak today of “breaking” a terrorist suspect, many people picture something grimperhaps a subject curled up in a fetal position and begging for mercy. But it’s not what I picture. I worked as a special agent for the FBI’s Osama bin Laden unit from 1996 to 2002. During that time, my colleagues and I had the chance to question numerous operatives from al-Qaeda. We broke many terrorists. But we did it the right way: by being intelligent and humane.
One man we captured was Ali Abdul Saoud Mohamed, an al-Qaeda operative behind the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Ali Mohamed had fully expected to be tortured once we took him in. Instead, we assured him that we wouldn’t harm him, and we offered to protect his family. Within weeks, we had opened a gold mine of information about al-Qaeda’s operations.
Ali Mohamed wasn’t unique. We gave our word to every detainee that no harm would come to him or his family. This invariably stunned them, and they would feel more obligated to cooperate. Also, because all information led to more information, detainees were astonished to find out how much we already knew about themtheir networks, their families, their histories. Some seemed relieved to reveal their secrets. When they broke, the transformations were remarkable. Their bodies would go limp. Many would weep. Most would ask to pray. These were men undergoing profound emotional and spiritual turmoilthe result of going from a belief that their destiny was to fight and kill people like us to a decision that they should cooperate with the enemy.
We discovered a lot. Well before 9/11, we already knew how al-Qaeda was running its surveillance on embassies in London and around the world, how trainees were taught to purchase planes as small weapons, when Osama bin Laden would get up in the morning, what he would eat, and who his advisers were. We intercepted operations that were underway, we learned about important names and pseudonyms in al-Qaeda, and we assembled an extensive archive of drawings and photographs of key members of the terrorist network.
Members of foreign intelligence services were often invited to sit in on our interrogation sessions. Often, they started out skeptical of our approach, offering to take over from us if we encountered any recalcitrance on the part of the suspect. In the end, though, they became believers in our methods. (Given the legal restraints under which we operated, we did not allow the CIA into our sessions, but I sent daily updates on what we had learned. No one wanted to be accused of not sharing information.)
Intelligence failures had much to do with the atrocity of September 11, but those had nothing to do with a lack of torture. Let me be clear on one crucial point: it is the terrorists whom we won over with humane methods in the 1990s who continue to provide the most reliable intelligence we have in the fight against al-Qaeda. And it is the testimony of terrorists we tortured after 9/11 who have provided the most unreliable information, such as stories about a close connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. I never regret that the FBI didn’t abuse its detainees. Had we done so, we would have had much less reliable intelligence, and we would have been morally debased. By instituting a pol-icy of torture in the years following 9/11, we have recruited thousands to al-Qaeda’s side. It has been a tragic waste.
I’ve mentioned that we assured our detainees that we wouldn’t harm them or their families. One of our techniques for breaking them was repeating that powerful promise again and again and again. But who would believe us now?