Did Waterboarding Lead to Bin Laden’s Lair? Ex-FBI Specialist Says ‘No Way’

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A group of detainees kneels during an early-morning prayer in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Ali Soufan put the pieces together in 1997, long before most other American investigators had even heard the name of the wealthy Saudi radical: Osama bin Laden was an enormous terrorist threat. For the next eight years, and with accelerated urgency after 9/11, Soufan traveled the world, from the smoldering wreckage of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen to the interrogation rooms at Guantanamo Bay, teasing out crucial clues to the shadowy structure of Al Qaeda. When word came that bin Laden was finally dead, Soufan was at home in New York, assembling something nearly as puzzling: a swing set for his newborn twin sons.

Soufan quit the FBI in 2005, in large part because of his outrage over the introduction of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Last weekend, as congratulatory messages from friends and colleagues rolled in, Soufan was flooded with emotion: joy at bin Laden’s demise, sadness that it hadn’t happened sooner. Then advocates of enhanced interrogation began claiming that waterboarding had yielded pivotal information. In a moment of national celebration, it raised the queasy possibility that Dick Cheney was right, that an occasional visit to the dark side really is necessary. That argument makes Soufan furious.

“It is pathetic,” he says. “This case is the biggest proof that waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques did not work at all. And I saw it firsthand. It actually delayed the hunt for bin Laden. A name of his courier came up in 2002, before Khalid Sheik Muhammad was arrested. He knew everything about the guy, and he lied about it! If waterboarding worked, KSM would have said the guy’s real name back in March 2003.”

Soufan, 39, grew up in Lebanon, amid civil war; his family moved to Pennsylvania when he was 16 years old. After college he applied to the FBI on a whim and soon found himself one of only eight agents who spoke Arabic fluently. On 9/11 he was in Yemen, following the trail of Al Qaeda operatives who’d bombed the U.S.S Cole; his close friend and former FBI mentor John O’Neill had just started working as chief of security at the World Trade Center. Lawrence Wright’s brilliant book The Looming Tower details how tantalizingly close Soufan came to discovering plans for the attacks, only to be thwarted by bureaucratic conflicts between the FBI and the CIA, and how afterward Soufan was the first to confirm the identities and roles of its planners, including mastermind Khalid Sheik Muhammad. He obtained confessions from several of bin Laden’s key operatives — all without beatings, blasting music, or simulated drownings. Sometimes Soufan, who is Muslim, engaged suspects in days-long debates about the meaning of the Koran; other times he appealed to their vanity. Perhaps the most “enhanced” interrogation tool he ever used was a small piece of ice, which Soufan applied to the lips of a wounded and feverish Abu Zubaydah, generating grateful cooperation from the Al Qaeda lieutenant terrorism facilitator. Until, that is, a CIA contractor interrupted and insisted on tormenting Zubaydah.

Soufan is no wimp. Ask him if it matters whether the Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in a two-way firefight or acting as firing squad and he glares: “No.” But he cares nearly as much about the morality of American investigation tactics as their effectiveness. “I’ll support you if what you’re doing for national security works. It’s about being a professional,” Soufan says. “We got a lot of excellent information, not only based on human intelligence that a guy is providing, but also the pocket litter that he has, the computer he has, the phone he has, the names he has. How did we know the identity of this courier? Because we pieced it together from so many people. Not because three guys were waterboarded.”

Soufan still travels incessantly, battling terrorism as the founder of a private security company. He’s writing a book, due out this September, about his years stalking bin Laden and Al Qaeda. “Fortunately,” he says, “I haven’t written the conclusion yet.” He says global jihad was fading even before bin Laden’s death; he’s more concerned about the increasing threat from “localized, Salafi jihadi movements” to Arab countries. If there’s another successful attack on the U.S., though, Soufan worries that politicians will forget the lessons of 9/11 and rush to put torture right back on the approved list: “Unfortunately, if in our victory now over bin Laden we are trying to be partisan, imagine what’s going to happen if we get attacked again.”

A text message dings on Soufan’s iPhone, from another former intelligence colleague. “He’s very proud,” he says. Soufan should be, too. He helped get the bad guy the right way.