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AN INTERROGATOR WRITES THE 'INSIDE STORY OF 9/11'
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. During his years as an FBI agent, my guest Ali Soufan interrogated several key al-Qaida operatives and sympathizers. During one interrogation, Soufan and his partner got bin Laden's former bodyguard, Abu Jandal, to identify several of the 9/11 hijackers.
When Soufan and his partner interrogated Abu Zubaydah, Zubaydah identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of 9/11. But after Soufan and the team he worked with got Zubaydah to talk, the CIA sent in a private contractor to take over and use enhanced interrogation techniques. Zubaydah was eventually waterboarded over 80 times.
Soufan objected to these physically punishing techniques even before the waterboarding, as did the director of the FBI, who withdrew his people from CIA interrogations using these techniques.
The interrogation approach Soufan uses relies on rapport-building, which he appears to be especially good at in part because he was born in Lebanon, speaks fluent Arabic and knows the Quran.
In his new book, "The Black Banners," Soufan writes about the interrogations he conducted and what he learned about al-Qaida and 9/11. The FBI approved the book for publication then sent it to the CIA, which redacted portions. In the first printing of the book, which was published yesterday, black lines replace the redacted parts.
Ali Soufan, welcome to FRESH AIR. We'll talk about the redactions a little bit later, but I'm just curious, do those redactions apply to what you can say during the interview?
ALI SOUFAN: If something is redacted from the book, you know, I won't definitely be talking about it with you. However, I don't think the redactions take away from the story of the book.
GROSS: The story is pretty amazing. I read the redacted version, so.
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GROSS: There's a lot there, yeah.
SOUFAN: So, as you can see, it doesn't take - actually, they speak volume by themselves.
GROSS: Okay, so let's start with your interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. You interrogated him and got him to identify that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is also known in America as KSM, was the mastermind of 9/11. He told you about Jose Padilla and the plot to set off a dirty bomb.
But the CIA took over the interrogation and waterboarded him about 83 times during the CIA interrogations. This is probably the most dramatic illustration of your differences with the CIA. So let's talk about your interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. What condition was he in when you first met him?
SOUFAN: Well, as you know from the book, the fact that I was there interviewing Abu Zubaydah, that fact has been redacted. However, the story continues about...
GROSS: Wait, wait. Let me explain that. The fact that you were interrogating him is redacted in the sense that the word I, we, me is redacted a lot and...
SOUFAN: Yes, the pronouns are redacted, but however, I did my statement.
GROSS: It's so obvious, though, that you can see how many letters are redacted, and you know what the words are. So...
SOUFAN: Yeah, and this is one of the silliness of this whole thing unfortunately. However, it is a fact that the FBI admitted that I was interviewing Abu Zubaydah, and I testified about my interview with Abu Zubaydah on - I think in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. So, you know, the fact that I was there has been acknowledged and has been declassified, if you want to call it, by the U.S. government.
And if you want to look at that interrogation, we generated a lot of success. Actionable intelligence was produced almost immediately. We were able to identify the identity of the mastermind of 9/11. We got more actionable intelligence than what's already in the public domain. Abu Zubaydah gave this kind of information way before enhanced interrogation techniques were applied, way before waterboarding was applied.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about how you got Abu Zubaydah to talk. He was very seriously wounded when he was captured, and you say you had to kind of work to keep him alive, as well as to get information out of him because he was in such poor shape. So what were some of your techniques to get Abu Zubaydah to talk?
SOUFAN: The problem with interrogation that you don't have a cookie-cutter approach, as they say. You don't have one size fits all. So you need to basically learn about your subject, and your knowledge of the subject, your knowledge of who the person is, what he did, why he joined, when he joined, who are his network within the terrorist organization and so forth, who are his friends.
And I think we started with Abu Zubaydah by a very simple question, by asking him his name. And he responded by giving a fake name. And after he gave that fake name, we said - I said to him: What if I call you Honey? Honey was a name that his mother nicknamed him as a child.
So at this point he knew that his game is up. He knew that we know a lot about him, and because of that, it's not helpful for his situation to lie.
GROSS: So when you called Abu Zubaydah Honey, which was his mother's nickname for him, and he realized you knew a lot about him, what difference would that make to him? I mean, he could still lie. He could still evade you.
SOUFAN: Oh no, absolutely. I mean, this is just to start the conversation. You need to actually shake that individual and let him believe that, look, we know a lot about you, and don't try to lie to us. And believe me, he will try to lie, and he will keep lying, and then it is your knowledge of the subject matter, it's your knowledge of him, it's your intelligence background and it's what you read in the files about that specific terrorist.
You're going to play a poker mental game with him, and step by step you start kind of like building an interrogation plan to diminish his ability to lie and to guarantee that you're actually getting his cooperation, not getting just compliance.
GROSS: Okay. So at some point, he gives up the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind of 9/11, and you don't even act surprised. Tell us about that moment.
SOUFAN: As you mentioned before, he was injured, and we needed to basically balance our interrogation with him vis-a-vis his medical situation. And from the first hour, he provided actionable intelligence that made him very valuable back in Washington. And that's why we heard back that death is not an option. You guys need to figure out how to keep that guy alive.
So my partner and I, with the help of the CIA people on the ground, we were balancing the situation. And when he was in the hospital, he was telling us about another plot that is still classified. And basically he identified an operative from the bin Laden network who was involved in coordinating that specific plot.
And we were showing him a photo of that individual. However, we showed the wrong photo, and the wrong photo we showed was a photo of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The only reason we had that photo is because Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was on the poster of the 22 most wanted terrorists. So my partner downloaded that poster of the terrorist, and we double-clicked on the wrong photo.
And when we showed him the photo, he said, well, don't play games with me. You know that this is not the guy that I'm telling you about. And genuinely, I was really upset because look at us, you know, we kept this guy alive, we were taking care of him, we were helping him get better, and we thought that we had the rapport. We thought that he's cooperating with us.
I mean, by cooperating, it doesn't not mean that he's not still trying to deceive us, but at least we have a working relationship at least. And he said no, you know who this guy is. This is Mokhtar, this is the mastermind of the plane operation.
And looked at the photo, and it was a photo of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. So that's how we knew Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind of 9/11. So we...
GROSS: And you couldn't act surprised because he assumed that you knew.
SOUFAN: Well, this is part of the mental poker game that you have to play with these guys. So he assumed that I knew about it, and I said OK, since you brought this up, let's continue. Let's talk about the plane operations. And he gave us all the information that he knew about how 9/11 became the operation that it was carried out to be.
GROSS: Why do you think he told you that?
SOUFAN: People talk. People don't want to get caught in a lie. People assume that you know, you know things. I think in his situation, he was sick, he was appreciative of all the things that we were doing to him. But also in the same time, he knew that these two guys who are talking to me know everything about me.
I mean, both myself and my partner worked on the Millennium Operation in Jordan, and that operation, if you recall, was to attack American and Israeli targets during the millennium in December of 1999, January of 2000. And that operation was mainly an Abu Zubaydah operation.
And also, you know, the FBI were very aware of Abu Zubaydah, and the CIA were very aware of Abu Zubaydah because of his role with the Ressam plot to attack LAX airport during the millennium, too.
GROSS: Do you think he enjoyed talking about himself because he was sick, and you were maybe his only real knowledgeable company?
SOUFAN: I mean, there is, you know, part of that. These guys, when you catch them, they are social animals. Like any human being, they want to talk. But also in the same time, they know that their gig is up, and they know that they are now in custody, and they know that their only way out is to bluff their way out.
So they try to talk to you. They try to make you believe that they are cooperating. They try to deceive you. And I think they will have more respect for you when you're catching them in a lie and when you're showing them that you have so much knowledge that any lie they tell you eventually will get caught.
And we use that again and again, not only in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah but as you see in the book, we mentioned so many interrogations that now we can talk about without any sort of redactions, you know. But eventually, all of these guys talk, and eventually, we testified against them in court, and they were sentenced.
So we did it right. We get the intelligence that we needed. We get significant amount of actionable intelligence, but also we did it the right way. We did it in a way that we can take it to court. We did it in a way that we can meet the endgames in eventually prosecuting these people and be sure that they will never see the light of the day again.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ali Soufan. He was an FBI agent from 1997 to 2005, and he did several of the key interrogations of al-Qaida suspects that led to a lot of actionable intelligence and intelligence that convicted several members of al-Qaida. His new book is called "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ali Soufan. He's the author of the book "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda." And Ali Soufan was with the FBI from 1997 to 2005. He interrogated several of the key members of al-Qaida, and his interrogations led to actionable intelligence and led to convictions.
We've been talking about your interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, and he gave up the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind of 9/11 and that Jose Padilla was planning to detonate a dirty bomb in the U.S. But after you got some actionable intelligence from him, the CIA came in, and they sent in a contractor, not a CIA agent but a private contractor, who had a plan of using what is now known as enhanced interrogation techniques to get more information from him.
Why did they think that you weren't getting enough when you were getting pretty good stuff?
SOUFAN: Well, it wasn't us alone who were with Abu Zubaydah. We had an FBI and CIA team working together on Abu Zubaydah. And when the CTC team finally arrived about 10 days later...
GROSS: And CTC stands for?
SOUFAN: The Counterterrorism Center from the agency. They had a contractor with them, and he had a different approach of interrogation, an approach that at least us on the ground to include members of the team, the CTC team, were a little bit, you know, nervous about because we had never done something like this in the U.S. government.
We're going on another path that can lead us to nothing good. You know, the idea was to stop this rapport thing, stop talking to him and try to find ways to diminish his ability to resist. And that was by, you know, nudity, sleep deprivation, you know, loud music and stuff that I testified on in the Senate about.
GROSS: You say that this contractor, that his basic premise was that Abu Zubaydah had to think that the interrogator was kind of like God, and God could give, and God could take away. And every time Abu Zubaydah lied, they would take something away from him: his clothing, food. And every time he cooperated, he'd get something back. That didn't sound like a good idea to you. Why not? It's a kind of reward-punishment plan.
SOUFAN: Well, you're not dealing with a dog. You're dealing with an Islamic extremist. You're dealing with an individual who's dedicated to his cause and who sent people to blow themselves up. And you're dealing with an individual who gets accustomed to expect torture if he was ever arrested.
And enhanced interrogation techniques and what later became enhanced interrogation techniques, as disgusting as it might be for people who read about it, who learned about it, who heard about it here in the United States and in the West in general, is nothing compared to what these people will endure in Middle Eastern jails.
So towards the end, he's going to continue to see how much can he endure, and if we reach the point, we reach a red line, we reach a glass ceiling that we will reach, and enhanced interrogation techniques have a red line and have glass ceiling. The last technique is waterboarding. That's it.
If we reach that in the escalation of force against him, what are we going to do next? The only thing we can do is just repeat the last one again and again and again. And guess what? Here the detainee is calling your bluff. In the case of Abu Zubaydah, we had to do this 83 times. In the case of KSM, we had to do this 183 times.
Now when do you realize that this individual is not cooperating, at 82nd time or 181st time? So, you know, this is not going anywhere, and we just felt that, you know, this path, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy because you're going to keep escalating and escalating and escalating, and towards the end, you're going to find yourself in a situation that, as the U.S., we don't want to be in.
GROSS: I think one of the more amazing things in your book is that this contractor, who was using the, you know, the, quote, "enhanced interrogation techniques," had never interrogated a terrorist before. He had never interrogated anyone before. All of his work was in kind of a controlled laboratory setting.
SOUFAN: Absolutely, and one of the things about this, I mean, a lot of people make an FBI versus CIA. It is not an FBI versus CIA, and Terry, I'm sure you read the book, and you saw how many times - actually the book in the acknowledgement section, it's dedicated to the FBI, the CIA and the military and all the people that I worked with in the field.
GROSS: And you mention that there are CIA members of the team that were very opposed to this type of interrogation.
SOUFAN: Absolutely. And actually one of - one senior member of the team who came with the contractor even left before me. So actually I waited at least a week after him to leave. So, you know, it is not an FBI versus CIA, you know, and in the book I mention that. I mentioned that with Abu Zubaydah, with the top CIA official who protested and left before, as I mentioned.
I mention that in the Guantanamo chapter, where a top CIA officer on the ground was making sure that all of us work for Uncle Sam, and anything that can help the cause, he was, you know, willing to do, and he was ordering his people to do, and we worked as a team together.
And in the case of Abu Zubaydah, to go back to that question that you asked, well, you know, what? People in Washington and some analysts even believed that Abu Zubaydah is the number three guy in al-Qaida. And as long as he does not admit that he's the number three guy in al-Qaida, then he's not cooperating.
Well, guess what? Abu Zubaydah was not even an al-Qaeda member. And these techniques continued to escalate until he admitted that he is the number three guy in al-Qaida. And later when they went and asked him...
GROSS: You mean until he lied and said...
SOUFAN: Exactly, exactly.
GROSS: He gave up what he thought the interrogator wanted to hear.
SOUFAN: And this is the difference between compliance and cooperation. In cooperation, you get what we get, for example, I'm thinking about a case that I can talk about. Well, you know, Jandal or Hamdan or Bahalul. But in compliance, you get false information. You get Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, and you know the disastrous, you know, backlash of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi.
Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was a person that after brutal interrogation, he admitted that Saddam and al-Qaida are working together on WMDs, and at the time, that was cheered as a huge success in Washington, to the point that Secretary Powell, a man I really respect, went to the U.N., and in his speech, he mentioned the name of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. He mentioned the info that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi gave.
And after the war in Iraq, we realized that there was no cooperation between Saddam and al-Qaida on the WMD. And the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, they tell us in their declassified report that after investigators went and spoke with Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi - why did you give this false information - he said, well, you know, I wanted the torture to stop. I gave you what you wanted to hear.
GROSS: Ali Soufan will talk more about interrogating al-Qaida members and sympathizers in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Black Banners." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about interrogating al-Qaida members and sympathizers. My guest, Ali Soufan, conducted many such sessions during the years he was an FBI agent: 1997 to 2005. He investigated 9/11, as well as the Jordan millennium bombing plot, and the bombing of the USS Cole.
When we left off, we were talking about interrogating Abu Zubaydah. After Soufan and the team he was working with used rapport-building techniques and mental poker games to get Zubaydah to reveal that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind 9/11, the CIA took over the investigation - the interrogation - and brought in a contractor who used so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, including water boarding. Soufan objected to these harsh techniques and left the interrogation. His new book is called "The Black Banners."
Your team had discovered something called the Manchester Manual, which was a training guide for al-Qaida that included training tips for withstanding interrogation and not giving up information.
GROSS: Now, you say that the contractor who was doing the enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah had read a Manchester Manual and got completely the wrong message from it.
GROSS: So what's the difference between the interpretation you had of the manual and the interpretation he had of the manual?
SOUFAN: Well, the interpretation that he had in the manual that you, you know, basically treat these guys brutally and they will cooperate, because that's what they're expecting. The interpretation that I have, that there is nothing we can do legally in the United States or in any Western democracy that reach the expectations of these people when they get caught in jails in the Middle East. And that's why I think it will be bad going down that trail, because that trail has not taken us anywhere.
And unfortunately, doing that also proves that, you know, America is evil, prove that America is bad. In the eye of the detainee - I'm not talking about world opinion and everything. In the eye of the detainee, that's something that - he joined the group because he believes that America, he has a lot of rage in America. So when we start treating them like this, he's going to be saying, well, you know what? Everything bin Laden told me, everything I heard, everything I read, the reason I joined, all true.
However, if you shake his confidence about his belief by, you know, outsmarting them, you know, I think we found ourselves again and again getting a lot better information.
GROSS: So I know you have no warm feelings toward Abu Zubaydah, but did you feel that the CIA, in using the extreme interrogation techniques, had kind of betrayed the trust that you had built with Abu Zubaydah, and had made it seem in some way that you'd gone back on your word?
SOUFAN: No. I wasn't thinking about it this way. At the time, it wasn't an issue about, you know, this thing is not about me versus, you know, them, or - we were working as one team on the ground. And we were trying to get actionable intelligence, and people in the CIA were so much invested in doing the right thing, and our goal was to save lives. So I think the frustration part was, okay, we have a guy cooperating. Why stop? And eventually, that escalated to, you know, a lot of other issues, and it ended up with us and the FBI leaving all sites where enhanced interrogation techniques are practiced and eventually, you know, we were not part of the program.
GROSS: Right. Yeah. You left the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, because after reporting what was going on to the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller...
GROSS: ...he said we don't do that, and he pulled the team...
GROSS: ...pulled the FBI out of enhanced interrogation techniques.
GROSS: Now, you had to remain silent about all this for a while, until certain documents were declassified.
GROSS: I want...
SOUFAN: Because I can't talk about it. I mean, this thing has been going on for a while, and I...
GROSS: Yeah. So...
SOUFAN: ...I've been reading a lot of things.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. But I just want to...
SOUFAN: I'm sorry.
GROSS: I want to quote something that President Bush said in September 2006 - September 6th, 2006, in a speech he was giving. And he said: "Within months of September 11th, we captured a man named Abu Zubaydah. He was defiant and evasive. During questioning, he at first disclosed what he thought was nominal information, and then stopped all cooperation. We knew that he 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.
That's a very different version of the story than the one that you've told.
GROSS: What was your reaction when you heard that speech and you couldn't go public yet?
SOUFAN: I was thinking that somebody must have told the president some false information. Absolutely. And I believe that the president, President Bush, you know, won't lie about an issue like this. That's my own personal belief. Maybe people disagree with me on this. But I believe that some people gave the president some false information about this issue. Yes, Abu Zubaydah stopped talking, but Abu Zubaydah stopped talking because of the techniques.
GROSS: Former Vice President Dick Cheney has his memoir out...
GROSS: ...and he says the techniques worked.
SOUFAN: Well, you know what? They said the technique worked. And if you look into what they claim the technique gave us, they said the technique gave us KSM as the mastermind of 9/11. They said the technique gave us Padilla as the alleged dirty bomber. Well, Padilla was arrested in May of 2002. The techniques did not start until August of 2002. Waterboarding did not start until August 2002. So how do we claim that waterboarding produced information that led us to the arrest of Padilla if waterboarding was not even happening yet?
The identification of KSM happened in April of 2002. So we have to look into this, you know, logically and look at the timeline.
GROSS: Before we move on to another subject, I'm just thinking you must have been really angry when you heard these claims coming from the Bush administration that the enhanced interrogation techniques had succeeded, yet - when you knew you had gotten the information that they were claiming had been gotten through, you know, waterboarding and taking away, you know, Abu Zubaydah's clothing and so on.
SOUFAN: I know. Exactly. It was a very frustrating situation. However, you know, I come from counterterrorism from the intelligence community. You know a lot of secrets, and you keep it to yourself.
SOUFAN: And until the time comes, and if you feel that there is a need for the goodness of the country to talk about it, you do it legally and you do it within the boundaries of the law.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ali Soufan, and his new memoir is called "The Black Banners." Actually it's not just a memoir. It's also a history of al-Qaida. It's called "The Black Banners." It's the inside story of 9/11 and the war against al-Qaida. We'll take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ali Soufan. He was with the FBI from 1997 to 2005. He interrogated several of the key members of al-Qaida, uncovered a lot of information about 9/11, and about the millennium plot to target America and Israel at the turn-of-the-century. And the new book is about his experiences as an interrogator, and there's also a lot of really interesting history about al-Qaida in it.
You interrogated Abu Jandal. His name means father of death. He was bin Laden's personal bodyguard, and this interrogation was considered the most successful interrogation in the war against al-Qaida. What are some of the things that he confessed to in your interrogation with him?
SOUFAN: The first, he basically identified the seven or eight of the hijackers as al-Qaida members, and that's something we did not know. We knew al-Qaida hit, but we didn't have evidence that can support our analysis. He identified Khalid Mihdhar, Nawaf Hazmi. He identified Mohamed Atta and so forth. And he gave us detailed information about them, about their nationality, their al-Qaida aliases, when they came to al-Qaida and so forth. So that was pretty significant at the time. You're talking about days after 9/11, and here we are identifying al-Qaida operatives with their al-Qaida aliases and who they were in the group.
Also at the same time, he gave us a significant amount of information regarding al-Qaida as an organization, regarding the structure, the communications system, the weaponry, how al-Qaida functions. He gave us dozens of names of al-Qaida operatives with detailed description that helped us identify them in Guantanamo Bay and identify them in other places around the world when we caught up with them.
GROSS: You say you wanted to take him out of his comfort zone, because he had been in prison in Yemen and he was used to being feared and having deference from the Yemini guards.
GROSS: He refused to talk with you directly. He turned his back when you came into the room, and he wanted you to talk to the guards from Yemen and have the guards talk to him directly.
GROSS: So you wanted to change that, obviously. You wanted to have direct conversation with him, because otherwise there was no way you can establish a relationship and any rapport.
GROSS: So how did you manage to do that?
SOUFAN: Well, it was a process. And at the beginning, you know, he probably expected that I'm going to be mad - my partner Bob McFadden and I from, he's from the Navy, from NCIS, we're going to be mad and we're going to yell and scream. And he's going to yell and scream, and then we go down on the route that al-Qaida is very comfortable at. You know, when they feel that they are being mistreated, they are very comfortable in that environment. But, you know, we decided not to play that game. We decided, okay, you know, you want to turn the chair? Turn the chair. You don't want to talk to us? You want to talk to the Yemenis? Fine, talk to the Yemenis.
And at one point, he started realizing how silly this is, because here we are, asking the question in Arabic to a Yemini interrogator. The Yemeni interrogator would repeat the question in Arabic to him. He repeats the answer to the Yemeni interrogator in Arabic, and then he doesn't acknowledge that we heard it. He had, the Yemeni interrogator had to repeat the answer in Arabic to us. So I think - you know, I realized that after about half an hour or an hour, he's going to be bored with this arrangement and he's going to think it's silly. Especially when we start, you know, stepping on his tail a little bit, you know, making him excited about an issue that he feels that he needs to educate us about, you know, playing into his psyche. So that was one issue.
Another issue we noticed, you know, he's diabetic. So we'd start, you know, killing him with kindness. You know, my partner bought him some sugarless cookies, for example, so at least he can acknowledge - because we played into the cultural norm, where if you treat somebody nice or you give them something, they have to acknowledge it and to thank you for it. However, he was lying. He was lying about almost everything that he was telling us. He only told us things that he believed we knew, and it was a process, as I discuss it in details in the book, on how we finally, you know, for the lack of better term, broke him and he decided that full cooperation is in his interest, and he fully cooperated.
GROSS: Why would he think it was in his interest?
SOUFAN: Because you want to put him in a situation where he believed that he messed up, and I think that was by identifying - not knowing that there were seven of the hijackers identifying seven of the hijackers. So when we had this argument about who did 9/11, Abu Jandal was 100 percent convinced that it wasn't bin Laden. And he said that bin Laden is not that crazy to do an operation like this. I said well, I know it's bin Laden. And he said how do you know it's bin Laden who did it? I said you just told me.
And he was really upset. He was fuming, because he believed that I'm putting words in his mouth. And he said I never said that. You are putting words in my mouth. So I said, well, do you know who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? And he was looking at me, trying to figure out where is that going. And I showed him the photos of the seven that he just identified about an hour earlier. So he knew now he gave up bin Laden. He knew now that he gave up al-Qaida for 9/11. And he...
GROSS: Because you had showed him these photographs, knowing that they were probably the people who had flown the planes, and he ID'ed them as members of al-Qaida, not...
GROSS: ...yeah - not knowing that they were the ones who had flown the plane.
SOUFAN: Right. Right. And towards the end, he figured out that, my God, I just gave up bin Laden. They did 9/11. Mentally and psychologically, we were debating for a long period of time, about half an hour or 45 minutes with him how bad 9/11 was and he agreed 100 percent. And that's what he was saying that bin Laden would never do anything like this.
Now, remember, you have to put yourself in his situation at that time period. That was days after 9/11. We still believe that there is probably about 50,000 victims who perished that day. You know, we didn't have the numbers yet. Everything is still up in the air. You know, there was some information in Yemen. There was 200 Yemenis allegedly died in the World Trade Center. That wasn't true, but that's what some of their newspapers were saying. So you have to put yourself in this situation at the time. And there he is, who believes he's smarter than everyone else, just identified seven of the hijackers as al-Qaida members, giving us detailed information about them. That shook him to the core.
And he put his head, you know, in his knees and he put his hands on the top of his head. He was literally shaking. And then he - after that, he said hey, I think the sheikh went crazy, meaning bin Laden, and he decided to cooperate. And what happened after was very different than what was happening before in the interrogation of Abu Jandal.
GROSS: So do you think that your interrogation changed his mind about al-Qaida and bin Laden?
SOUFAN: No, I don't think so. I think for the time period, for the time when he was being interrogated by us, yes. He probably thought that the FBI or the U.S. government, when they come, they're going to beat him. They're going to torture him. They're going to ask the Yemenis to probably torture - you know, all these conspiracies that they have about us in their mind. And I think he was really shocked. And I think - I saw an interview with him on "60 Minutes" many years later, and he said, you know, after I was interviewed by the FBI, now I have a lot of respect for them and I have a lot of respect for what they do.
And, as you mentioned, his interrogation has been called one of the best in the war on terrorism. So you can do both at the same time. And I think doing both is something that al-Qaida is not expecting us to do, and doing both will definitely beat the narrative that al-Qaida is putting out, beat the narrative for recruitment and, in the same time, show how to do it the right way.
GROSS: Where is Abu Jandal now?
SOUFAN: He's in Yemen.
GROSS: In prison?
SOUFAN: I think the Yemenis released him. He's not in jail. No.
GROSS: And is that in part because he cooperated with the FBI?
SOUFAN: That's something between him and the Yemenis. I'm really not involved in this.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: All right. Now, your book is redacted by the CIA. Not the whole book, but, you know, a lot of passages, a lot of individual words. You're still challenging the CIA on that. Even though the book is published, you want a new addition with many of those redactions removed. How are you...
SOUFAN: Sure. And I'm hoping that we can find a solution between us and the agency. The book was cleared by the FBI, and it didn't have one single redaction from it from by the time it was cleared in the FBI. Unfortunately, you know, it is what it is, and we have to go through the system. I believe in the system, and I believe, you know, the system is fair. And towards the end, you know, the right thing happens.
GROSS: Well, Ali Soufan, I want to thank you for talking with us, and I also want to thank you for the risks that you've taken on behalf of our country to get information and to track down plots against America. So, thank you so much.
SOUFAN: Thank you, Terry. Thank you. And it was an honor to serve.
GROSS: Ali Soufan is a former FBI agent who now heads the Soufan Group. His new book is called "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al-Qaeda." You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews two productions of "Porgy and Bess." This is FRESH AIR.
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'PORGY AND BESS,' ADAPTED FOR MODERN TIMES
TERRY GROSS, host: Some people consider George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" the great American opera. Others question whether it's really an opera at all, or even if a white, Jewish composer from New York had any business writing a show about poor, Southern African-Americans. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz just attended two productions: one at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge - that production is headed to Broadway - and one by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. Before we hear Lloyd's review, here's a sample of how the BSO version sounded.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T NECESSARILY SO")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Listen up. (Singing) It ain't necessarily so.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) It ain't necessarily so.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) The t'ings dat yo' li'ble to read in de Bible, it ain't necessarily so.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: George Gershwin called "Porgy and Bess" an American folk opera. It was his most ambitious undertaking. And from the very beginning, it was a source of intense controversy. Could it be a true opera if it combined operatic arias, duets and sung dialogue with vaudeville numbers like "I Got Plenty o' Nuthin'" and "It Ain't Necessarily So"? Are its characters the mythic archetypes Gershwin intended, or just stereotypes? Some of its own performers had their doubts.
Yet "Porgy and Bess" was also a powerful tool for civil rights. When the first road company came to Washington, D.C. in 1936, the cast - led by Todd Duncan, who played the crippled beggar Porgy - refused to perform unless the theater admitted black patrons and allowed them to sit anywhere. That's how Washington's National Theatre was integrated.
This summer at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented a powerful concert-opera version of "Porgy and Bess" based on the original 1935 New York production, for which Gershwin cut an hour of music during its Boston tryout. British composer and jazz pianist Bramwell Tovey was the incisive conductor.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with more than 100 voices, underlined the way "Porgy and Bess" is in a tradition of operas that show us entire communities, like "Boris Godunov" or "Carmen." I wish only that the Boston Symphony had used the more complete score. The outstanding cast included Alfred Walker as a warm and deeply touching Porgy, Jermaine Smith as the seductive drug dealer Sportin' Life - complete with mid-air splits - and soprano Marquita Lister as the widowed Serena. Her "My Man's Gone Now" makes a strong argument for an operatic Porgy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY MAN'S GONE NOW")
MARQUITA LISTER: (as Serena) (Singing) My man's gone now. Ain't no use a listenin' for his tired footsteps, climbin' up the stairs. Old man sorrow's...
SCHWARTZ: At the other end of Massachusetts, in Cambridge, the American Repertory Theater, ART, has just staged a new "Porgy and Bess," also in a shorter version, but one emphasizing musical theater over opera. It's actually scheduled for a Broadway run. When ART's production team - director Diane Paulus, Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and musical adaptor Deirdre L. Murray - announced that they were going to flesh out the original by changing dialogue, adding back stories, and having a new, more upbeat ending, and that the original orchestration was being rearranged for small, contemporary ensemble, Stephen Sondheim got so angry, he wrote to the New York Times attacking what he called their willful ignorance and arrogance. Doesn't Gershwin's music, he argued, already flesh out these characters?
But after a series of previews, much of what outraged Sondheim has been abandoned. Had they actually listened to him? I was relieved, but also disappointed that most of what was left was so conventional. And given ART's intention to play down the work's perceived racial problems, I was surprised how much of the acting and choreography seemed to play up minstrel-show stereotyping. The star, though, is charismatic Audra McDonald. Her soaring voice, closer to opera than to Broadway, endows Bess with both power and a heartbreaking vulnerability, no back story necessary. Her poignant, second-act reprise of the lullaby "Summertime" is one of the high points.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")
AUDRA MCDONALD: (as Bess) (Singing) Summertime and the living's easy. Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high. Your daddy's rich and your mamma's good lookin'. So hush little baby, don't you cry.
SCHWARTZ: As Porgy, Norm Lewis, singing in a solid, Broadway style, is strong and unusually embittered, putting excessive emphasis on Porgy's painful handicap. "In Living Color's" David Alan Grier is a stylish Sportin' Life. The conducting and scenes with extended spoken dialogue can afford more of Grier's expert timing and show-biz pizazz. My biggest disappointment is the under-sung, yet overacted "My Man's Gone Now." "Porgy and Bess" is fundamentally a hybrid, an opera with Broadway numbers. I think it can work either way, as long as Gershwin's great score remains its heart and soul. Tanglewood got it mostly right. The Cambridge production, for all its virtues, at least on opening night, still seemed like a Broadway tryout.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed performances of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" at Tanglewood and the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge Massachusetts, where it runs through October 2nd. The ART production is scheduled to open on Broadway, with previews beginning in December.
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