Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book Review - The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda

I just finished The Black Banners by Ali Soufan. It was great. It's about al Qaeda, 9/11, and United State's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on suspected terrorists.

A few caveats I should throw out there first. The author was with the FBI. Of course he's biased, but as the book goes on you feel more and more how much he hates the CIA. I did research afterwards to try to see if his claims are backed up and it seems they are, but the anger shown in the telling of the story may sway the reader more than is fair? He is also very clearly rather proud of himself.

Secondly, although the book is great it also starts out very slow and so heavy on details. It might be possible to skip the first couple of chapters and still get in on the best parts. If you want a history of al Qaeda and what influenced and fueled their ideology, you have to read the beginning too.

Ali Soufan is a former FBI field agent who was on the ground overseas, investigating, interrogating jailed terrorists, and following al Qaeda before, during, and after 9/11. For the FBI at the time, at least, he was rare. Lebanese background, fluent in Arabic, and a Muslim himself. There's good reason he was able to gain the trust of people on the ground more than your average agent! From early in his FBI career he was convinced of the danger of Osama bin Laden. He was heavily involved in chasing down leads in the few years before 9/11 and his insights are fascinating.

The section on the history of al Qaeda is dense, but for me it was an important complement to reading Rashed's Taliban a few years back (my review). Next step - understanding how ISIS and the current situation in the Middle East has evolved and fits into all of this. Any of you have book recommendations? This book revealed and underscored a few things for me. While the Taliban and al Qaeda are not at all the same, the Taliban was indeed necessary for the growth and protection of al Qaeda pre-9/11. I can't speak to the US invasion tactics, but in terms of replying to the act of war that was 9/11, the US had little option but to overturn the Taliban as they acted against al Qaeda.

On the other hand, according to Soufan there was little to no link between al Qaeda and Iraq/Saddam, despite the US government repeatedly asking the FBI to find one in order to legitimize the US invasion of Iraq. And actually, years before the US invaded Iraq, al Qaeda in US custody expected the US invasion as a fulfillment of their interpretation of Quranic prophecy.

The book is also infuriating, because we see Soufan and his people in the FBI desperately chasing leads and finding fragments of interesting information pre-9/11. They then go to the CIA and ask them for any information that connects to the people and leads they have. The CIA says they will pass along whatever they have, but... as the book details, they don't do so. In fact, when specific information is requested (twice) they have information that would have given the FBI crucial info that (in hindsight) possibly could have stopped 9/11. The CIA not only stalls, they lie and say they don't have anything. The requested files and names were handed to the FBI the day after 9/11 as the CIA is forced to cooperate with the FBI given the extreme situation.

The failure seems to be some combination of the CIA being tragically stubborn/intentionally supporting only their own team, and also misinterpretation of government guidelines for intelligence sharing. The book is vivid in its description of Soufan, who has pushed for this information, receiving the paperwork, recognizing the information and names he'd been asking for for a year, and running to the bathroom to vomit. His former boss in the investigations had just died at the base of the World Trade Center, and here was the information the two of them had been seeking.

The second half of the book is post 9/11 and focuses on the manhunt for al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, especially the interrogations of captured suspects. This was fascinating, because Soufan step by step details the CIA beginning to experiment with what came to be known as "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs). Of course I knew some of this, but what I did not know is that the FBI adamantly opposed these techniques every step of the way, and when they were actually approved by CIA superiors, eventually all the way up to the White House, the FBI withdrew their people from CIA interrogations, saying that they were immoral and anti-constitutional and they would not be a part of them.

I had thought that perhaps these techniques were slipped in by a small group and unopposed by those who knew about them. This book tells a different story. It shows EITs becoming publicly instituted and supported in the CIA, and in the FBI people protesting, putting in complaints and pleas to stop, reporting the ineffectiveness of these new techniques in contrast to the FBI's traditional techniques (which respect the dignity of humanity). It shows the tragic CIA's adamant and ridiculous defense of horrible things, and the failure on the part of high leadership to recognize moral failure when they saw it. I was, again, infuriated. It was hard to read, I was so mad. I am, however, very glad that the CIA was not the only part of the story.

If Soufan's telling of the story is correct (and apparently the public Senate investigations into the allegations of torture in the CIA have backed up Soufan's story), almost NO actionable intelligence was gained from all of that EIT work. What was received had either already been received in FBI interrogations or was later shown to be lies thrown own simply to stop the torture. In contrast, respectful FBI interrogations are astoundingly effective and relatively simple. They rely on information already known to pull apart the lies told by the terrorists and to reason them out of the cloud they have been under. Sometimes information half gained or about to be gained is stopped or lost when the CIA demands to take over an FBI investigation or the government refuses some small benefit to the terrorist while simultaneously approving hundreds of water-boarding sessions instead. Yes. Infuriating.

All in all, I felt like this book pulled back the curtain a bit for me so that I could understand more of why 9/11 happened and the good and bad of US intelligence work afterwards.

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