- - Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Al Qaeda’s horrific simultaneous attacks on 9/11 against the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon caught the American intelligence community completely off guard. There was concern that a second wave of catastrophic attacks was imminent, including a possible attack involving weapons of mass destruction. In response, as Philip Mudd writes in this riveting and authoritative account, President George W. Bush ordered the intelligence community, led by the CIA, to “do whatever it takes to ensure this doesn’t happen again.” 

One measure, which is the subject of this account, became one of the most controversial programs in America’s intelligence history. Beginning in 2002, secret “black site” CIA detention facilities were established in several allied countries, where more than 100 al Qaeda prisoners were confined, and subjected to a variety of interrogation methods, including what are termed Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (for EITs), that were designed to compel al Qaeda prisoners to reveal timely information that was urgently required to protect the nation from forthcoming attacks.

Although considerable information about this program and its leading participants has been revealed in various publications, Mr. Mudd offers new details about how this program was managed and its contribution to weakening al Qaeda. The author is well placed to discuss these issues as a former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) during the period covered in the account, after which he became head of the FBI’s National Security Branch. Currently, he’s a regular CNN commentator on national security issues.

As Mr. Mudd explains, this new program represented a paradigm shift for the CIA, with an intensified intelligence-driven campaign to quickly fuse its own intelligence with information from other agencies, including foreign intelligence services, to dismantle al Qaeda’s global network. The urgency of this new campaign was governed by a catchphrase in the intelligence world that “It’s always what you don’t know that will kill you.” As the author adds, “On al-Qa’ida Agency officials thought they knew precious little. They were reading secret messages from al-Qa’ida, but they had little access to al-Qa’ida players by CIA human informants.” Thus, penetrating al Qaeda’s inner circle as quickly as possible was crucial to defeating it.

Having had little experience in capturing and interrogating adversary jihadi terrorists on a large scale until the requirements to respond to al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks made this a national security priority, the author writes that it was only in the spring of 2002 that senior al Qaeda operatives were captured as the CTC “moved from being an Agency outlier to the core of the CIA’s business.”



Capturing high level terrorist operatives also had a downside because after a detainee’s capture, their terror organization “knows it has lost one of its members. Plots are postponed but not abandoned; plotters and terror leaders reposition themselves, and terror coordinators and operatives alter communications methods or patterns.”

With the need for timely intelligence to uncover al Qaeda’s current and future plots and understanding its leadership structure a top priority, the CIA moved quickly to institutionalize this new program to hold and interrogate its captured terrorist operatives, particularly what to do with them prior to charging them formally to stand trial in the United States. This was a dilemma that required legal approval, the author explains, because unlike the FBI, which collects evidence as part of a chain of custody that is defensible in court, the CIA’s manner of collecting intelligence is not detailed evidence, but often fragmentary intelligence about potential plots and insight about a terror organization and its leaders that differs from the type of evidence collected for a courtroom.  

A second issue was how to transfer the captured detainees who were generally found in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, to another country for interrogation, since they couldn’t be held in the United States for interrogation prior to their trial. In a practice known as “rendition,” some of the terrorist detainees were transferred to their home country or a location that had a legal case against them. This posed various dilemmas, such as the types of methods used by a host country’s security services to interrogate them and the actionable usefulness of the information from these interrogations that would be passed on to the United States.

Another dilemma was how to establish CIA-controlled “black site” detention facilities in willing foreign partner countries without arousing publicity.

With the program ramping up quickly, a final challenge was recruiting professional interrogators, many of them contractors with previous experience in the U.S. military’s interrogation programs.

Also interesting is the author’s account — at least as much as he could reveal as a former intelligence official — about the interrogations of highly placed al Qaeda leaders such as Abu Zubaydah (a hands-on manager who “made things happen for the group, serving as an intermediary, arranging travel and helping to manage operations generally”) and Khalid Sheikh Muhammed (reportedly, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks). 

In September 2006, the program’s terrorist detainees were transferred to Guantanamo Bay, with the U.S. military assuming control over it.

The author concludes that this program was successful in playing a role in “blocking another catastrophic attack” with the interrogation techniques used against al Qaeda’s terrorists needing to be viewed as “restricted to extreme periods in history.”  

• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, DC-based consultant on counter-terrorism issues.

• • •

BLACK SITE: THE CIA IN THE POST-9/11 WORLD

By Philip Mudd

Liveright, $27.95, 272 pages

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