Torture and the Known Unknowns

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, one insistent strain of commentary focused on the way in which Western societies had created, by their technological innovations and their open, democratic procedures, the ideal conditions for highly motivated individuals intent on destroying them. It was an old Marxist idea—that any political-economic system will necessarily sow the seeds of its demise. The terrorists used the fantastic technologies developed in the West, the satellite and cell phones, the internet, and finally the airplanes, and turned them against their inventors. “It was the system itself,” wrote Baudrillard, “which created the objective conditions for this brutal retaliation.” More ominously—because no one was about to start rolling back cell phone and internet and airplane use in the West—it was said that they took advantage of our open borders, our freedom of movement, of how nice we were. “They relied upon everything from the vastness of the internet to the openness of our society,” FBI director Robert Mueller told Congress. They plotted for years and we knew nothing about it.

It was a compelling irony, and partly true. But what also began to emerge, as the newspapers and commissioners launched their analyses of the failure of the CIA and FBI and NSA to share information properly—and what has emerged more recently in book upon book upon book—was just how stupendously well the surveillance and information-gathering technologies of our system had in fact worked. We knew a huge amount; it seemed all we did was know. Over the years, the NSA had intercepted thousands of relevant emails and phone conversations; in Yemen, the FBI had fruitfully interrogated several key figures in the bombing of the USS Cole; in Kuala Lumpur, in January 2000, the CIA had asked local intelligence agents to monitor a major al Qaeda “summit”—and within days received photos, reports, and even digital traces from the computers the summiteers used at internet cafés in the city. In the first days after the attacks, there seemed to be some question, in the media, as to who was responsible. In fact, as soon as the CIA saw the flight manifests, at around 11 am on September 11, they recognized two al Qaeda operatives, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi: they had even known that these two were in the country. That this incredible amount of precise information was not properly shared, that it was not acted on in a timely fashion, that it was misinterpreted along the way: all this is true. But the amount of it, much of it collected with the technology that was supposedly our undoing, was—as Richard Clarke said upon seeing the first images sent back from Afghanistan by an unmanned Predator drone back in September 2000—truly astonishing.

There was a gap, but it was not technological. The problem was “humint,” in intelligence-community parlance—human intelligence. The CIA had no “assets” in the al Qaeda camps (no humint on the ground); when a Western intelligence agency did manage to infiltrate al Qaeda, they did not know what to do with the information (no humint at home base). And finally, this most of all, we couldn’t quite understand, on a human level, why someone would want to blow us up (no emotional humint, so to speak). The failures compounded one another. It’s been speculated, for example, that the reason the CIA failed to alert the FBI to the fact that two known al Qaeda operatives had entered the country was that they were hoping to “turn” them; so the initial failure to infiltrate al Qaeda led to the catastrophic failure to keep an eye on al-Midhar and al-Hazmi. The intelligence community would not begin grasping the truth about al Qaeda—it would not make the leap, as FBI agent Dan Coleman put it, “from information to knowledge”—until it had camps of its own, not for training but for torture, and until it began interrogating people, and one person in particular, in brightly illuminated rooms.

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