“I know how it is to look evil in the face.”

On Tuesday afternoon at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, former FBI Supervisory Special Agent Ali Soufan gave a talk about his experiences as an undercover agent and interrogator and the most effective interrogation techniques for intelligence gathering.

His 40-minute talk, “Tortured Reasoning and Misunderstanding the Threat,” was followed by a commentary with Vice President Walter F. Mondale in an event moderated by the Institute’s Larry Jacobs.

Soufan was a special agent from 1997-2005 and his resume includes investigating the USS Cole bombing, obtaining a confession from Osama bin Laden’s driver and bodyguard Salim Hamdan, and getting actionable intelligence through his interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a notable al-Qaeda detainee currently held at Guantanomo Bay.

Soufan let it be known quite clearly that his opposition to harsh interrogation techniques should not be confused with being ‘soft’ on terrorism: “I know how it is to look evil in the face,” he recalled.

Soufan explained that, to win the war against terrorism, the United States needs to do more than simply stop or kill the terrorist wearing the suicide vest. He emphasized how all tools should be utilized to decrease the radius of the ‘outer rim’ of terrorist networks – military force, diplomacy, covert operations, economic assistance, psychological operations, and law enforcement.

However, Soufan’s concern is that the wrong strategy can increase this radius, and he believes forced or ‘enhanced’ interrogation is such a strategy as it is both counterproductive and hurts America’s image around the world.

The bulk of Soufan’s speech however, was not about the moral component of harsh interrogation techniques and torture, but about its ability or inability to generate actionable intelligence.

Soufan says enhanced interrogation techniques are ineffective in that regard, and “All of the professional people that I know (FBI, CIA) agree with what I am saying.”

Soufan says that one reason he knows harsh interrogation techniques have not worked, is the United States has a ‘glass ceiling’ on what techniques can be used, beginning with comparatively milder measures such as sleep deprivation and rising to the harshest method of waterboarding.

Soufan says al Qaeda terrorists are “trained to face much worse” than what the U.S. has to offer – techniques the U.S. uses “are like saying ‘hello’ before the torture starts” in other countries.

Soufan explains because America is a democracy that values certain human rights, there is a ‘glass ceiling’ of permissible interrogation techniques above which we will not go: waterboarding. And once an interrogator reaches that stage, all that is left to do is waterboard again and again and again.

As a result, senior al-Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in 2003, was thus waterboarded 183 times.

Soufan drew clear distinctions between compliance, which he asserts is evoked through harsh interrogation techniques, and cooperation, in which professional agents outwit their detainees by tapping various points of influence as a ‘relationship’ of sorts is built.

The former FBI agent also stated he is a strong defender of trying terrorists in federal courts, adding that “Federal courts are more effective (than military tribunals) due to their sentencing guidelines.” Soufan noted all 200 terrorists convicted in federal courts since 9/11 are still in prison, whereas one of the two convicted in a military tribunal has already been released.

At the end of Soufan’s tenure with the FBI he became increasingly troubled by the ineffectiveness of how new harsh interrogation techniques became part of the intelligence gathering process – becoming “borderline torture.”

After protesting to his superiors and stating he would not participate in these techniques, Soufan was ‘bought out’ and left the organization. Soufan stated many experts like himself were forced out when the new techniques were introduced.

Addressing why he is now speaking out so loudly against harsh interrogation techniques since leaving the FBI, Soufan claims it is not a political issue, but rather, “I thought it was my duty…(My) oath does not stop with a paycheck.”

Soufan explains that he is also speaking out because he is worried about the number of people publicly advocating harsh interrogation techniques (notably, politicians). Soufan says the implementation of these harsh techniques at the expense of those interrogation measures that bring about cooperation from captured terrorists has led to the loss of innocent lives, the failure to unravel terrorist plots, and has left many members of the al-Qaeda leadership still at large.

Although Soufan made it clear throughout his talk that he loathes the introduction of politics into the issue of the war on terror and the best techniques to gather intelligence, he did suggest that the Obama administration is doing better than its predecessor.

Soufan stated the Obama administration was “doing a great job,” was “focused on the symmetrical nature of the war (on terror),” and that there have been “way more successes in disrupting terrorist plots than before.”

Soufan remains generally optimistic regarding the future of the war on terrorism, stating, “There is no enemy we cannot defeat…I can tell you, hand on my heart, that al-Qaeda is no match for the United States. Not even close.”

Follow Smart Politics on Twitter.


  1. joe mcd on April 16, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    I wish I had attended this presentation.

    The moral and logistical rationales against harsh interrogation techniques are connected.

    Understandably Soufan, needed to focus on the logistical as the moral argument (important as it is) is loaded with polarizing rhetoric on the part of politicians, media figures and the community at large. Those in favour argue that harsh tactics are merely about levelling the playing field against an enemy who’s approaches render legislation and discourse about human rights obsolete. To not take a harsh stand is somehow a sign of weakness that impinges security and emboldens terrorists. Those against harsh techniques argue that to take this position reduces our value base which in terms of outcomes is part of the terrorist agenda. They argue that it weakens our security as it brings us closer to what those behind terror want…a maelstrom of destruction in which the only structure within the anomie is the conscious sense of being in a ‘state of war.’

    Whilst I would certainly count myself as someone ‘against’ harsh interrogation techniques and torture, I would argue that to substantially change the position on torture is to take Soufan’s approach to the issue– In terms of rational strategy, harsh techniques do not achieve their intended aims and outcomes. Interestingly he identifies those involved in terrorism, such as Al Qaeda and others, as being physically and mentally well-seasoned to enduring harsh interrogation either through their training or other experiences. Juxtapostioned against what Soufan describes as a ‘glass ceiling’ as to how far interrogators can and will go, this means that interrogators very quickly exhaust a limited repetoire of engagement resulting in repetition, wasted time and lack of progress. Furthermore, many of those truly damaged by these experiences are innocent of wrong-doing. Their suffering however, may fuel enough outrage to inspire disaffected people to join groups committed to terrorist actions, fueling further attacks and the perpetuation of the destructive cycle.

    Perhaps it is here that the moral and logistical meet. Martin Luther King in a speech on non-violence and racial justice argued that “violence solves no social problems; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” Military historian and strategist Clausewitz identified that “the true enemy in war is the destructive state of war itself” and that if faced with no other alternatives but war, then the sum of all endeavours must be to do what is necessary to bring the swiftest possible end. Based on these, strategies that meet violence with violence without thought about longer term outcomes is both flawed and highly dangerous. In a time of genuine fear and uncertainty on political, social and economic lines which can lead to polarization, disaffection and in some instances violence, Soufan’s experiences and observations about responses to terrorism carry great weight.

Leave a Comment