Monday, March 14, 2016
The Black Banners by Ali H. Soufan
Ali Soufan was an FBI Special Agent in charge of Al Qaeda-related research and attacks when the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11. He knew and had worked closely with NYC FBI Special Agent John O’Neill before he resigned to work in the towers as security chief there. Born in Lebanon, Soufan is an Arabic-speaker that gave him more immediate access to informants and materials collected as a result of raids on plot suspects. This is his story of how the investigation into the U.S.S. Cole bombing and the World Trade Center attacks unfolded.
Soufan comes across as insightful, meticulous, and fiercely devoted to his task. Through his telling we see the culture of suited and pressed (buttoned-up) FBI contrast sharply with the looser, intuitive (unbuttoned) CIA, with whom it had to work closely. The FBI was meant to focus internally in the U.S. while the CIA was tasked outside the country, but in the case of terrorism, they often were meant to cooperate. Soufan’s testimony illustrates how important it is to have personnel who can function with a maximum of critical thinking and a minimum of ego expression, and how often that simple requirement is the fulcrum upon which patient legwork rests. This is one of the ultimate crime stories, not without its moments of ludicrous missteps and the sudden discovery of important clues.
While the level of detail in this book may be interesting only to other investigators (or the investigators of investigators, like the 9/11 Commission), casual readers/listeners can glean some important insights into the nature of terrorism, Islamic society, Al Qaeda, the FBI, the CIA, effective methods of interrogation, the tenor and tone of U.S. State Department and administration policies, and Yemen involvement and/or acquiescence in allowing the plots to unfold. For those insights, it is an indispensable document.
What specifically struck me was the nature of the folk we have come to call our enemy. Soufan managed to show that many of the “extensive network of terrorists” are simple people in technologically backward nations who don’t think linearly, often name themselves from the town in which they originate, have a very shallow vision of the world outside their immediate purview, are fiercely adherent to blood and tribal connections, and are as impressed and overwhelmed by great wealth and power as any human with limited horizons. The nature of the enemy has evolved since then, but reading this was a little like discovering the stuff missing from the back of our car wasn’t stolen: we’d left the hatchback open and the stuff had fallen out. Shock, dismay, and what could we have done differently?
The other thing I learned was how interrogations can be conducted. In many cases, interrogations are like the blind man and the elephant. The interrogator is not sure what exactly it is that he/she expects to find. The information might be false, but there are ways of circling back to clarify inconsistencies. What Soufan shows us is that a painstaking and agonizingly slow process by knowledgeable and respectful interrogators can yield results that more aggressive methods (like Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) do not. Soufan points out that CIA documents later asserted that EIT were meant to “gradually” elicit information, not get the information quickly. Long after the interrogations were finished, detainees admitted lying during EIT sessions in order to end the torture. One thing should have been glaringly obvious to those involved in these interrogations: Going to the dark side negates everything we are and fear is our greatest enemy.
The CIA only gained authority for interrogations on September 17, 2001 when President Bush wrote a “Memorandum of Notification” that allowed CIA to capture, detain, and interrogate terrorism suspects.” Previously the CIA collected information, and the FBI and military intelligence conducted interrogations. The CIA had no institutional experience or expertise in this area and were making it up as they went along. They hired a psychologist, Boris, with no experience and used EIT of his devising on high value detainees.
The curious and revelatory thing about this book is that it was published September 12, 2011 and yet it is written as though it were a diary: at the beginning we do not see the end, even though we already know the history. We only gradually perceive Soufan’s growing confidence and awareness of the outlines of the endeavor in which he is engaged. Because of his language skills and his experience growing up in Lebanon and the U.S., he was not as intimidated as others by confusion in the environment into which he was thrust: he recognized the detainees for what they were. Some were high level operatives and many were mere conduits. He could get information from all of them without inflating their respective roles. Respect and patience and behind the scenes research did more for information recovery than any EIT devised. The transformation of a new FBI recruit to one of the most respected names in terrorist interrogation is one Soufan allows us to trace. Yes, he is telling the story, but it has some credence because of his growing anger at and diligent recording of CIA activities conducted on behalf of the White House and authorities there, which have been authenticated by the 9/11 committee.
If we did not have enough evidence of incompetence, hubris, and the pernicious nature of covert activities run amok, the evidence presented here should suffice to close the CIA down. Instead we learn that some of the most egregious acts were made by folks now seeded throughout congress oversight committees. I understand mistakes, but I cannot understand why the mistakes are not taken to heart. Some mistakes are too big to forgive.
By now we all know the failures of intelligence that led to 9/11. A 2006 article profiling Soufan by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker covers much of the material in this book in a much shorter format, but it did not yield the insights that I gleaned from this lengthier account.
What I’d really like to know now, after reading Guantánamo Diary by detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi, is what Ali Soufan made of his case. We know Soufan visited Guantanamo and probably interviewed Slahi because at one point Slahi was thought to be the highest value detainee in the facility. He does not mention him in his chapter on Guantanamo. If he did not consider him a high-value detainee then, he might have a moral obligation to speak out now about that case because Slahi is still being held.
I listened to the Blackstone Audio production of this book, read by Neil Shah. Shah did a superb job with pronunciation and pacing. The book was heavily redacted towards the end, so this provided some discontinuity, but it was comprehensible enough.
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