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Interrogation Dissident Testifies On Methods

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Ineffective, slow, unreliable - that's a characterization of harsh interrogations by someone who took part in them. Today, a Senate committee heard from an FBI agent who interrogated the first high-value detainee caught after 9/11. And as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the agent said the push for abusive techniques came from private contractors, not from government employees.

ARI SHAPIRO: The way the hearing room was set up, it was clear this would not be a normal proceeding. One corner was curtained off. The hearing had five witnesses, but only four sat at the front table. When it came time for the fifth to testify, Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse said…

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): I will take a moment now to recess very briefly so that the necessary security measures for Mr. Soufan can be put into place.

SHAPIRO: Ali Soufan was a terrorism expert and top interrogator at the FBI. He infiltrated al-Qaida and testified against terrorists in court. There are people who would like to kill him, so the curtains hid his face from news cameras.

Mr. ALI SOUFAN (FBI Agent): I strongly believe that it is a mistake to use what has become known as enhanced interrogation techniques - a position shared by professional operatives including CIA officers who were present at the initial phases of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation.

SHAPIRO: Abu Zubaydah was the first high-value detainee taken into U.S. custody after 9/11. Ali Soufan helped question him. Now, many people have described the debate over harsh interrogations as a split between the FBI and the CIA. Today, Soufan said that was not true, in his experience. He said the push for abusive techniques came from private contractors.

Mr. SOUFAN: The interrogation team was a combination between FBI and CIA. And all of us had the same opinion that contradicted with the contractor.

SHAPIRO: In fact, said Soufan…

Mr. SOUFAN: Actually, the chief psychologist of the CIA, forensic psychologist, objected to these techniques. And he even left the location before I did.

SHAPIRO: Soufan eventually left the prison, calling the contractors' methods borderline torture. In written testimony, Soufan described the contractors as having no experience in intelligence operations, investigations, terrorism or al-Qaida. And, he said, the contractors had no experience in the art of interview and interrogation.

A report from the Senate Armed Services Committee suggests the contractors were people who trained American service members to resist talking under torture. Soufan said Zubaydah gave important intelligence under traditional interrogation methods. Senator Whitehouse walks Soufan through the timeline.

Sen. WHITEHOUSE: You say, on the instructions of a contractor, harsh techniques were introduced, which did not produce results as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking. Correct?

Mr. SOUFAN: Correct, sir.

SHAPIRO: That contradicts a speech President Bush made in 2006.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures.

SHAPIRO: Senator Whitehouse asked Soufan…

Sen. WHITEHOUSE: Does that statement by the president accurately reflect the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah?

SHAPIRO: Soufan replied…

Mr. SOUFAN: The president - my own personal opinion here, based on my recollection, he was told, probably, half-truth.

Sen. WHITEHOUSE: And repeated a half-truth, obviously. His statement as presented does not conform with what you know to be the case from your experience on-hand.

Mr. SOUFAN: Yes, sir.

SHAPIRO: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pointed out that since Soufan wasn't around for the harshest interrogations, he can't say whether they produced valuable information.

Mr. SOUFAN: The vice president suggesting that there was good information obtained. And I would like the committee to get that information. Let's have both sides of the story here. I mean, one of reasons these techniques have survived for about 500 years is apparently, they work.

SHAPIRO: Soufan replied, these techniques have survived because it's easier to hit somebody than outsmart them.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.