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Lift Every Voice: JANE MAYER


SS: Reading about his apprehension in Orlando was one of the few instances in the book where I had a sigh of relief that the system was working in some way.

JM: Actually, I found a lot of reassuring material about how the system works — more than I had known about, certainly, before going into the writing of the book. The FBI and the criminal court system managed to put on trial the bombers in the first World Trade Center attack. The trial transcripts, which were in the open court in New York, were where the US government learned most of what it knew about al-Qaeda. It became a gold mine of material. And they also turned an agent or two — they got one or two al-Qaeda members to join the Witness Relocation Program and become experts who are cooperating with the government to this day, and they’re still in hiding in the US under government custody. So the system actually worked pretty well, I think.

One of the points I was trying to make in the book was that, when there was failure, it wasn’t because the US justice system was involved. And it’s not because our laws aren’t tough enough, and it’s not because we weren’t torturing people. Those were not reasons why 9/11 happened. The reason 9/11 happened was because of ordinary, garden-variety human failure. There were bureaucrats inside the FBI and CIA who dropped the ball. They stopped speaking to each other and they lost track. They knew that two al-Qaeda members came to America, and the CIA never told the FBI about it, until it was way too late.

Rather than taking responsibility and holding the people accountable inside the CIA who screwed up, the Bush administration — which was itself at fault for dropping the ball — instead of blaming itself, they blamed the laws and the justice system, and they tried to change it and undercut it.

SS: One of the most important threads in the book is the competition between the FBI and the CIA. You use the word “jealousy” a couple times, especially in relation to CIA Director George Tenet. Can you put in context how the CIA began to overtake some cases in which the FBI was making progress, and how that jealousy undermined security objectives?

JM: There is a long history of bureaucratic rivalry between the CIA and FBI. One of the good things that’s come out of the learning process following 9/11 is that they’ve actually started working better together. But in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the CIA basically grabbed a couple of the detainees who were beginning to talk to the FBI in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in one case that I know of where the CIA came in, the CIA was much rougher. The FBI follows the rule of law in America. It’s a criminal procedure: They read people their rights, they tell people they have the right to a lawyer, they’ll interview them only in legal ways — they’re not going to torture them. The CIA, though, was impatient with the legal process and basically got authorization from the Bush White House to take people in their own custody, away from the FBI. A couple of them were renditioned to places like Egypt.

I think the best case illustrating the perils of all this was the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi [a Libyan paramilitary trainer for al-Qaeda captured and originally interrogated by the FBI before being taken by the CIA in 2002]. He is, to me, the perfect paradigm for why torture is a disaster. You couldn’t make this up, right?

SS: It almost has a Laurel & Hardy quality to it, where the door kicks open, the CIA comes in, and the whole case falls apart.

JM: They taped up his mouth with duct tape and started cursing him out, saying they were going to find his mother. They were really swaggering, acting foolishly and immaturely. You can’t believe these are government agents. Part of it is that they’re acting in secrecy. A lot of terrible things happen because the players think no one will ever find out about it. I think it shows you that transparency is a really great check on behavior. If people think they’re going to get caught, they act better — and these people never thought they were going to get caught. You’ve got CIA agents taking al-Libi away, they render him to Egypt, where he’s tortured by Egyptian agents who are working closely with the United States intelligence agencies. He can tell what they want to hear, judging from the questions the agents are asking — this is before the war in Iraq, they’re trying to get information that proves there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Saddam is a threat to the US, and they’re trying to prove links between al-Qaeda and Saddam — so he tells them exactly what they want to hear.

The reason we know this is because there was a later investigation into this by the Senate Intelligence Committee. If you go through the hundreds and hundreds of pages of documentation, you can find his story in there. He explained that he talked because they were beating him up and keeping him in a little dog cage. So he just made it all up. He didn’t even know what WMDs were. It took him a while to figure out what he could say that would get him off the hook. They immediately took this information and stovepiped it right into the vice president’s office and to the top of the CIA, where it made its way into Colin Powell’s speech at the United Nations in February 2003, right before the war in Iraq, and became Exhibit A for why we had to go to war. Al-Libi later recanted, but by then the invasion had already taken place — it was almost a year to the day that he recanted.

SS: The immaturity of the CIA is somewhat understandable because, as you point out in the book, the CIA didn’t traditionally imprison suspects before 9/11.

JM: You think of them as being these incredibly savvy James Bond characters, when in fact, as somebody said to me, they were 40 overweight 40-year-olds who were supposed to be an elite crack team of interrogators. They didn’t have any history or experience in doing this, so they turned to amateurish tactics.

SS: Whose responsibility would it normally have been to imprison these detainees?

JM: Traditionally it’s the military and the FBI who do interrogations. The military has its own rules of interrogation that are in the US Army Field Manual. The FBI has the same rules for interrogation that you would find in any police station. They use cunning, means of flattery and other psychological gambits, as well as plea bargains and inducements.

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