How to Get Terrorists to Talk

A former CIA intelligence officer on the "do's" and "don'ts" of interrogation.

I ran the CIA's operations to counter al-Qaeda's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from 2001-2004.

By the time Khaled Shaykh Muhammed (KSM) was arrested in March 2003, the CIA had confirmed the existence of al-Qaeda secret programs to acquire nuclear and biological weapons. We knew that Osama Bin Laden personally approved a systematic, long term effort that began several years before the September 11 attacks. We knew that al-Qaeda's deputy chief, Ayman Zawahiri, personally managed the programs. We had collected numerous names, locations, and were aggressively pursuing leads to WMD in dozens of countries. Much of the information that we collected after the 9/11 attacks was corroborated by our international intelligence partners.

But there were key questions for which we did not have answers. Had al-Qaeda managed to acquire WMD?

We did not know.

Our concerns in this regard were heightened when Pakistani biologist Rauf Ahmed confessed in 2002 that he personally discussed causing a mass casualty attack in the United States using bacillus anthracis with Ayman Zawahiri. Among the pieces of evidence was a letter that Ahmed had written to the al-Qaeda Deputy Chief relating the progress of his efforts. We were able to confirm Ahmed’s biological weapon-related relationship with Zawahiri through a number of sources.

When the interrogation of KSM began, my group made a conscious decision to pursue WMD-related debriefing sessions without employing enhanced measures of interrogation. The reason was simple: we wanted to avoid a situation where KSM felt pressured to fabricate information.

In addition, we didn't know if KSM had detailed knowledge of al-Qaeda's WMD efforts. Our information suggested KSM was on the periphery of the biological weapon and nuclear programs. By all accounts, he was not directly involved in them. That made sense to us, because al-Qaeda took great care to compartmentalize its plots against the United States. Only a dozen or so senior members of the group were aware of specifics of the 9/11 attacks. If al-Qaeda aspired to use a WMD against the United States, the leadership would take great precautions to limit the "need to know" of what was being planned for future attacks.

With this in mind, I dispatched an officer with an encyclopedic knowledge of the terrorist organization and their WMD programs. Her instructions were to duel wits with KSM, to question him methodically, flash hints of what we know, and patiently point out inconsistencies in his responses. We had another advantage to introduce into the debriefings. KSM was captured in an al-Qaeda safe house. KSM was arrested during a raid the home of a Pakistani biologist, Abdul Quddos Khan.

Pakistani intelligence also seized several computers with incriminating information concerning WMD during the KSM capture operation, including a document attributed to senior al- Qaeda operative Adnan Shukrijumah. The document with the heading "The Martyr Jaffar al-Tayyar” featured a map with an arrow from Afghanistan pointing to the continental United States. This was concerning, because the FBI had reports suggesting that Shukrijumah may have had contact with al- Qaeda operative Mohammed Atta in the US, prior to 9/11.

If nothing else, KSM would have to account for the WMD- related documents seized in his possession.

During the debriefing, KSM sought to manipulate and deceive the WMD debriefer. This was no surprise. KSM was wily and committed to his cause. The CIA had recovered training documents concerning al-Qaeda's resistance tactics. The group assumed the CIA would use the kind of methods they themselves would use on American hostages, including unspeakable methods of torture. The al-Qaeda torture manual outlined ways to counter presumed US interrogation and torture tactics. Nothing CIA had in mind remotely matched the terrorists' expectations of what would happen to them, if they were to come into US custody.

For her part, the CIA debriefer methodically pointed out the discrepancies in his story. She showed him printed copies of the "take" from the computers seized at the safe house. KSM blinked when she correctly pointed out that we had found the nuclear and biological weapons programs, and only needed KSM's cooperation to confirm what we already knew.

The turning point came when she provided details of al-Qaeda's WMD programs that KSM was unaware of. His face betrayed the moment he realized the WMD programs had been concealed, even from him. It wasn't possible to read his mind, of course, but KSM's self-importance, his arrogance, presented the vulnerability we were looking for. He was wounded by the notion that the mastermind of 9/11 was not brought into the loop on possible future attacks.

KSM began talking.

That night, KSM completed a "homework assignment" to flesh out details on al-Qaeda's WMD programs. He rendered a written report containing crucial details of the nuclear and biological weapons programs and provided new leads for us to pursue. He noted that the group's explosives expert, Abdul Aziz al-Masri, was experimenting with implosion techniques in the Afghan desert, in order to maximize the explosives yield of a nuclear device.