45 Minutes to Interrogate the 9/11 Plotter
If interviewers want to stump former Vice President Dick Cheney on his book tour, they should ask him about the October 6, 2002, attack on the French oil tanker the Limburg, and what happened in the 45 minutes FBI interrogators had with Ramzi Binalshibh and another high-level al Qaeda terrorist a few weeks before that.
On September 11, 2002, Binalshibh – who served as the liaison between the 9/11 hijackers and the plot's mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – was captured in Pakistan along with another senior operative and several lower-level terrorists. The story of what happened next is detailed for the first time today in a book I've co-authored with former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan, entitled "The Black Banners." He wrote the chapter about this episode, and it's been subject to CIA redactions, but the below story still comes through in the book.
After their arrest in Pakistan the group was handed to local CIA officials. Those officials were instructed by CIA headquarters not to give FBI interrogators access to Binalshibh or the second senior operative. This is because authorities in Washington had already decided to render them to foreign countries, to be interrogated by foreign officials using coercive interrogation methods. The FBI agents were instead only given access to the lower-level terrorists.
Using classic rapport-building techniques, the agents quickly gained actionable intelligence from them, including details of safe houses al Qaeda was using and of specific plots in the works. Impressed with these successes – and believing that terrorists with American blood on their hands should be questioned by U.S. interrogators – a senior CIA official on the ground decided to ignore her orders from Washington and instead give the FBI interrogators 45 minutes with Binalshibh and the other top terrorist.
"If they cooperate, then maybe the whole idea of rendition will be scrapped and we can continue interrogating them here," she told them.
Her trust was validated as the FBI team gained cooperation and actionable intelligence in the 45 minutes sessions. FBI headquarters celebrated the breakthrough and disseminated the intelligence gained – and were confident that the planned rendition would now be halted.
That didn't happen. Instead the CIA deputy chief of station chastised the FBI agents for reporting their successes, yelling at them: "Don't you understand that nobody can stop these guys from being sent to … This is bigger than you. This is an order coming from the White House. There is nothing you or the FBI can do. You can't stop this rendition."