Pray and Tell

On May 13, 2004, as the world media were in full scrum over Abu Ghraib, an FBI agent who had spent time interviewing terrorism suspects at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, fired off a gloomy e-mail to a colleague. Venting about what had happened in Iraq and expressing his fears that, despite the scandal's coverage, nothing would change, much of the agent's angst had to do with post–September 11 notions that treating terrorism suspects as human beings was neither necessary nor useful.

“From what CNN reports, [General Janis] Karpinski at Abu Ghraib said that [General Geoffrey] Miller came to the prison several months ago and told her they wanted to ‘gitmoize' Abu Ghraib,” he wrote. “If this refers to [intelligence] gathering as I suspect, it suggests that he has continued to support interrogation strategies we not only advised against, but questioned in terms of effectiveness … we were surprised to read an article in Stars and Stripes, in which [General] Miller is quoted as saying that he believes in the rapport-building approach. This is not what he was saying at [Guantanamo Bay] when I was there.”

One among tens of thousands of official documents pried out of government hands under the Freedom of Information Act (thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union), this one, like so many others, never found its way into anyone's story. But from a review of thousands of documents -- e-mails, still-unreported communiqués, and other pieces of paper -- certain themes have become increasingly apparent. Among the most consistent: FBI agents issued repeated objections to the use of torture against foreign terrorism suspects. And from this theme emerges a conclusion that future presidential administrations, and all American citizens, would do well to remember: For the purpose of prying actionable information from suspects, torture is essentially useless.

As T.J. Harrington, a senior FBI counterterrorism official, simply states in one memo, the FBI has “been successful for many years obtaining confessions via non-confrontational interviewing techniques”; as an e-mail from an unnamed FBI agent concludes, the “specific guidance” FBI agents continue to give is to “follow FBI policy just as you would in your field office. Utilize our methods that are proven.”

Last year, I increasingly wanted the insight of someone who had successfully interrogated terrorism suspects without resorting to violent or demeaning practices. Several people told me about a veteran FBI agent, recently retired from the New York field office, who was so opposed to the United States' burgeoning renditions-and-torture regime that his pointed questions on the subject to FBI Director Robert Mueller in a 2002 meeting had drawn Mueller's lasting ire. This, I thought, was the man to see.

* * *

When I finally met Jack Cloonan on a violent and aberrantly wintry spring night at the City Hall Restaurant in lower Manhattan's Tribeca earlier this year, I asked him if he was surprised by the refusal of most FBI agents to endorse or embrace the new rules of interrogation. He said he wasn't. “FBI agents, as officers of the court, know what the rules are,” he said with quiet conviction as the storm raged outside. “We have procedures to follow. We firmly believe in this thing called due process, and do not see it as something passé or something that should be seen as an impediment.”

When I went to see him a couple of months later at his family's suburban New Jersey home, at a moment when the flow of daily stories revealing new instances of torture had run dry, he said that as appalling as the stories were, he was at least proud that documents were validating the FBI approach to interrogation, even if the administration wasn't interested.

A soft-spoken, mustached man in sweater and slacks with an air of tranquility and a taste for alt-country music, Cloonan -- who retired from the bureau's New York field office after 32 years in 2002, and is now a sometimes analyst for ABC News -- has had a career that's about 10 percent The Sopranos and 90 percent Fredrick Forsyth. While his 1980s deep-cover performance as a mobbed-up, public-official-bribing owner of a Newark, New Jersey, towing company is fondly remembered by some, most of Cloonan's FBI years were spent working counterintelligence and, later, counterterrorism, on the multiagency Joint Terrorism Task Force. In addition to running FBI operations directed at the Taliban's quasi-official New York mission in the late '90s, Cloonan was on the New York field office's Osama bin Laden squad from its beginnings in 1996.

(The unit successfully apprehended and brought to trial the al-Qaeda members responsible for the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Echoing the sentiments of other serious students of al-Qaeda, Peter Bergen, a Brookings Institution fellow and a CNN terrorism analyst, told me that the bulk of the U.S. government's best pre–9-11 al-Qaeda intelligence came out of that investigation -- an endeavor in which the interviews of suspects, Cloonan gently but pointedly told me, hewed strictly to FBI procedures that make no allowances for violence.)

Based on his experiences interviewing Islamist radicals everywhere from New York City to Khartoum, Cloonan believes that interrogations can gather intelligence that's both operationally actionable and court admissible (“nothing that shocks the conscience of the court,” as he puts it), and holds that torture -- by hands American or foreign -- is rarely ever useful or necessary. Cloonan and a New York Police Department detective secured actionable intelligence from a suspect in the foiled millennium-bombing plot in just six hours on December 30, 1999 -- by following FBI procedure, and by encouraging a suspect to pray during his Ramadan fast. The suspect even agreed to place calls to his confederates, which led to their speedy arrests.

As such, Cloonan is extremely unhappy with the post–9-11 article of faith that all manner of extraordinary mechanisms, from rendition to torture, are somehow both necessary and devoid of negative consequences. He took serious issue with the notion that violent coercion is the only means of getting Islamist terrorism suspects to talk. When I asked him to elaborate, he told the story of “Joe the Moroccan” -- or, more formally, L'Houssaine Kherchtou, a member of the al-Qaeda cell that bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and the U.S. government's star witness in the embassy-bombings case.

* * *

Kherchtou first popped up on Cloonan's radar when, in the course of his embassy-bombings investigations, Cloonan learned that Kherchtou had flown for al-Qaeda and had even been tapped to be bin Laden's personal pilot. Despite the fact that Kherchtou became the prosecution's star witness in the embassy-bombings trial, he received only passing mention in a smattering of news accounts, none of which ever actually explained how he came to take the stand for -- and, in the process, provide a massive amount of intelligence to -- the U.S. government. As two glasses of wine arrived, Cloonan began to lay out Kherchtou's untold story.

Contrary to views in some circles that every al-Qaeda member or radical Islamist is so beset by zealotry as to be beyond appeals to reason or humanity, Cloonan, in the course of his investigation, concluded that Kherchtou -- whose Kenyan apartment was used to develop the film the Nairobi cell shot in preparation for the embassy bombing there -- cared at least as much about his family as he did the cause of Wahabbist jihad. It was, in fact, on this basis that MI6, the British intelligence service, nearly succeeded in recruiting Kherchtou as an agent. Shuttling between Khartoum and Nairobi in the early to mid-'90s for bin Laden (who, it critically turned out later for all parties, was a miserly employer), Kherchtou returned to Khartoum in 1995 and came home to discover his pregnant wife in need of a cesarean section and begging in the streets to get money for the procedure. When his Muslim brothers in al-Qaeda refused Kherchtou's request for $500, he quickly became disillusioned, moving his family to Morocco. Though still flying between Khartoum and Nairobi, he began to drift away from al-Qaeda.

Kherchtou's actions did not go unnoticed by Morocco's intelligence service, which in turn approached the British about trying to jointly recruit the pilot and run him as an asset. Their first tentative meeting took place in mid-summer 1998. Kherchtou returned to Kenya early that August; though no longer active in the cell, he began to make contact with his erstwhile friends. He wasn't aware of the actual bombing plans, but when the Nairobi bomb went off, Kherchtou had a good idea who was behind it, and concluded that this would be a good time to leave Kenya -- along with the shady world of terrorism and espionage -- for good. Anticipating his moves, the British had Kenyan officials detain Kherchtou at the airport until they could arrive and spirit him to an MI6 Nairobi safe house. Afterward he was released and told to go back to Khartoum, where he was given a set of instructions as to how to contact his MI6 handler. Perhaps not surprisingly, he never called.

Cloonan remains skeptical of British claims that MI6 shared this information with the CIA (the information found its way to him, he said, through a back channel he preferred not to elaborate on). But when he did find out, he was, to put it mildly, unhappy. “Go back to 1998, when we've got hundreds of agents on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania trying to figure out what happened,” he says. “Let me just say it would have been real helpful if the British had told us they had one of the cell members in custody.” After a lengthy and often unpleasant series of interactions involving CIA officers, MI6 officers, British and American prosecutors, and FBI officials including Cloonan and his partner, Dan Coleman, the British eventually shared the transcripts of Kherchtou's safe-house interviews and agreed to consider him no longer under development as a potential asset -- thus leaving him to the mercies of prosecution-minded Americans.

(Though the British and Moroccan secret services were not referred to by name during the embassy-bombings trial, then–Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald did ask Kherchtou in open court about his interaction -- including his attempted recruitment and safe-house time -- with unnamed foreign “intelligence services.” While The New York Times dutifully reported this part of Kherchtou's testimony in two sentences toward the end of a short story on page B3 of the paper's February 23, 2001, edition, neither the Times nor any other media organization covering the trial made any attempt to discern which intelligence services Kherchtou had interacted with, or why they had not shared Kherchtou's identity with the United States. He is now in witness protection.)

But Cloonan needed to get Kherchtou back to Morocco. Rather than have an intelligence service kidnap him, Cloonan asked the Moroccans to inform Kherchtou that his children's immigration status was in question. Kherchtou left Khartoum for Rabat, Morocco's capital, almost immediately. Upon his return to Morocco -- a country whose security services routinely engage in torture, according to the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International, and others -- Kherchtou was, at the U.S. government's request, taken into custody and immediately brought to a Rabat safe house, where an array of FBI agents including Cloonan, and assistant U.S. attorneys led by Patrick Fitzgerald, were waiting. The coming days, Cloonan said, were probably the most comfortable either he or Kherchtou has ever spent, utterly antithetical to tales from Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and elsewhere involving shackles, beatings, weatherboardings, genital electric shocks, and menstrual smearing that have become ubiquitous in the past year.

“The setting was beautiful,” Cloonan recalled. “It was this grand house with stables out back, gazelles bouncing in the background, palm trees, three-course meals -- I was probably more in danger of getting gout from all the rich food than anything else while I was there.

“We advised [Kherchtou] of his rights. We told him he could have a lawyer anytime, and that he could pray at any time he wanted. We were letting the Moroccans sit in on this, and they were dumbfounded.”

The agents and prosecutors did not anticipate ease in the task before them. Simply getting information out of a person can be a formidable challenge; persuading him or her to not only give up information but to go through a lengthy process in which he or she will repeat it again and again -- including in an open American court, with no assurance of plea bargain -- is even more daunting. But 10 days later, Kherchtou had not only revealed much but was New York bound, destined to become the prosecution's star witness in securing the convictions of four al-Qaeda terrorists.

“We spent a lot of time talking about his family, and how disillusioned he was based on the brothers' treatment of them, and from there he really began to open up,” Cloonan recalled. “The critical moment was when Pat Fitzgerald told Joe, ‘Here's the deal: You will come to the U.S. voluntarily; you will plead guilty to conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals abroad; your exposure is anywhere from zero to life, no promises.' I instinctively reached for my briefcase, figuring it was over, but then I added something. I looked at him and I said, ‘Before you answer, I think you should go pray. After 10 days with us, I think you have a sense of who we are and what we're about -- you know you would not be treated this way by other folks. You may go to prison, but you have the chance to start your life over again, to get rid of this anxiety, to stop running. And I think you should do this for your wife and children.'

“So he went off to pray. Meanwhile, the colonel from the Moroccan internal service just looked at us like we were from Mars. But Joe came back and said, ‘OK.'” Such, Cloonan later told me, was the beginning of a happy ending: Kherchtou was brought to New York; anything in further interviews or proffer sessions deemed of immediate importance was shared with the CIA; four terrorists were convicted; a detailed public record providing detailed insight into al-Qaeda -- including the group's interest in using suicide-piloted planes as bombers -- was produced.

* * *

By contrast, Cloonan says, there was the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a case he thinks adequately illustrates how uninformed and counterproductive notions have come to dominate the post–9-11 environment. The story had only a happy beginning: At first, Cloonan says, Army debriefers at Bagram were enthusiastically deferential to FBI personnel. Though FBI agents were technically subordinate to the Army chain of command, many of the military-intelligence interrogators were keenly aware of how little they know about counterterrorism in general and all things Islamic in particular. “The general in charge of the base loved our guys -- he actually asked them to start training the [military-intelligence] guys on how to do proper debriefings, and it went really well,” Cloonan recalled with a touch of pride. “He even called the director personally to say thank you for these guys and what they did.”

Among the military's captives in December 2001 was al-Libi, who disclosed early on that he had been the emir of the training camp that had produced both Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui. Fully appreciative of al-Libi's import as both a window into understanding al-Qaeda's 9-11 operations and as a potential witness in the Moussaoui case, the FBI agent and NYPD detective assigned to al-Libi called their mentor, Cloonan, in New York as they waited to interview him.

Says Cloonan: “I told them, ‘When you get access, don't say anything at first. Sit; say hello after awhile; offer him tea, dates, figs. Point out where Mecca is; ask him if he wants to pray. And sit. And when he starts to look a little inquisitive, tell him who you are, and that he has rights and privileges, and that you're going to give him his rights. Just like any other interview.' So they do all this. And they start building rapport. And he starts talking about Reid and Moussaoui. They're getting good stuff, and everyone's getting the raw 302s [interview summaries] -- the agency, the military, the director. But for some reason, the CIA chief of station in Kabul is taking issue with our approach.”

In Cloonan's view, what happened next was a result of the politics of post–9-11, both generally and within the national-security community. While 9-11 had not been a proud day for the CIA, at least the same, if not more so, was true for the FBI. Unlike the CIA director, the FBI director lacks cabinet rank. And, unlike the CIA director, whose comments about getting boots on the ground and taking the gloves off both appealed to the president's sensibilities and could be quickly actualized by virtue of the CIA's black budget, the FBI director had no such budget nor any real desire to enable practices of dubious efficacy. A series of conference calls ensued among military, CIA, and FBI officials; in the end, over both the military and Mueller's objections, the CIA's prerogative carried the day -- which meant al-Libi would be rendered to Cairo for interrogation by Egypt's intelligence service (this was discussed by Jane Mayer in her article on renditions in The New Yorker this past February).

What Cloonan's agents told him happened next blew his mind. “My guys told me that a Toyota Tundra with a box in the back pulls up to the building,” he recalls. “CIA officers come in, start shackling al-Libi up. Right before they duct tape his mouth, he tells our guys, ‘I know this isn't your fault.' And as he's standing there, chained and gagged, this CIA guy gets up in his face and tells al-Libi he's going to fuck his mother. And then off he apparently goes to Cairo, in a box.”

Cloonan says CIA officials he later spoke with furiously denied al-Libi was actually put in the box. But he seems to consider this at best a matter of hairsplitting, as there was no question as to what kind of situation al-Libi was being delivered to in Egypt.

Which brings us to renditions. The first time Cloonan had heard of renditions was 1998, when Albanian and CIA officials broke up an al-Qaeda cell in Tirana. Cloonan's CIA counterparts said they would be happy to see that anything of utility found its way to the bureau, but neither Cloonan nor his colleagues were particularly comfortable with the CIA's description of how that process was going to work. “When we were told that the way this was going to go was, a plane flies in from Egypt and these guys get put on a plane with a one-way ticket to the Egyptian GIS, we weren't thrilled on a number of levels,” he recalled. “The agency people were, to their credit, very adamant that they didn't want people tortured. But I never quite understood how any agency officer, however diligent they might be, could be with someone 24 hours a day to make sure that they weren't tortured.”

* * *

Not long after the al-Libi rendering, Mueller paid a visit to the Counterterrorism Division in the New York field office. In a question-and-answer session in the auditorium adjacent to the counterterrorism offices, Cloonan raised his hand. “Have you had the opportunity to give some thought as to what you would advise agents to do if they find themselves in the following position?” Cloonan says he asked. “You have a subject being interviewed who has been advised of his rights, is not a U.S. citizen, and is outside the U.S., but that person has agreed to cooperate, but that person is being forcibly removed from your custody and rendered to a third country where his due process is being denied?

“I wasn't that far from him -- I could see on his face how this pained him, because this was only a short while after the al-Libi rendering. But the director basically blew me off. He had no advice. His response was, ‘Well, I'm not sure it's an issue, as it's a non–U.S. citizen outside the U.S.'”

At that point, Cloonan began to see a truly bleak long-term future. “At the end of the day,” he says, “you have to ask: Was it worth it? It's no more complicated than that. Pictures have been broadcast all over the world; eventually the stuff all leaks out. Have we gotten enough information out of [Guantanamo Bay] or anywhere else to justify the negative? I think the answer from the authorities will be, ‘We've gotten great information.' I'm less and less inclined to believe that. There's a certain naïveté in thinking that any schmuck taken off the battlefield on any given day -- or taken of a street somewhere and flown halfway around the world and being held incommunicado with no rights and no charges -- will know where bin Laden is or what's going to be planned in Iraq or Afghanistan. And when those people start to get repatriated and go back, what are they going to tell people about America? That it was a great three or four years in a stockade or in some other security services' cell? Maybe one or two people will say we're a great country. But we've probably created 450 new terrorists.”

Jason Vest is a Prospect senior correspondent.