U.S. interrogators turned an al Qaeda terrorist into a human polygraph machine while investigating the bombing of the USS Cole – an attack whose eleventh anniversary is today. What has since happened to that operative helps explain why we're still fighting al Qaeda today.
After two suicide bombers blew a hole in the Cole, killing 17 U.S. sailors, injuring 39 others, and almost sinking the ship, FBI and NCIS investigators speedily tracked down the al Qaeda members responsible. One of them was Jamal al-Badawi, a Yemeni who had helped organize and recruit for the attack.
Al-Badawi was interrogated by NCIS Special Agent Ken Reuwer and my colleague, FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan. Agent Soufan, a native Arabic speaker, asked the questions; Agent Reuwer, who didn't speak the language, observed and passed notes when he had ideas for questions.
Badawi seemed unnerved by the silent passing of notes, so Agent Soufan asked if he wanted to see what was written. Badawi went red, apparently embarrassed that his emotions were showing, and declined. Agent Soufan told him anyway: "My friend here is like a human polygraph machine. He's an expert in human behavior. And every time you lie, he passes me a note telling me that you're lying."
From that moment on, whenever Badawi was about to lie he'd try to angle his face so that Agent Reuwer couldn't see him. Badawi essentially turned himself into a human polygraph machine, making the interrogators' job much easier. He confessed to his role in the Cole bombing, as well as to his history with al Qaeda.