FBI Wins Battle Over How To Interrogate Suspects

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The Obama administration is changing the way future interrogations are conducted. Instead of sending terror suspects to the CIA, they'll go to a team led by the FBI. Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, says that means the FBI won the battle over how do you interrogate terror suspects. Weiner talks with Steve Inskeep about how the FBI and CIA differ in their approach to interrogations.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week the Obama administration announced its intention to create a new interrogation team. Instead of sending important terror suspects to the Central Intelligence Agency, they will go to a team led by the FBI. To understand what that change means, we've brought in Tim Weiner. He wrote a history of the CIA called "Legacy of Ashes." He's in our New York bureau.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. TIM WEINER (Author, "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA"): Good morning.

INSKEEP: And thanks for coming in. What's the significance of moving this job from an intelligence agency to law enforcement?

Mr. WEINER: It means that a battle that began seven years ago between the FBI and the CIA is now over and has been won by the FBI. And that battle is how do you interrogate terrorist suspects.

INSKEEP: What's the difference between the two agencies and how they operate?

Mr. WEINER: The FBI has 90 years of experience in interrogating terrorist suspects going back to World War I. And though it has made terrible mistakes in the past, it has a handbook. It has a methodology. And when some 1,000 FBI employees went out to Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo after 9/11, they had a handbook which said, and I quote, "You can't use brutality, physical violence, duress or intimidation when you interrogate people."

INSKEEP: And I suppose that's why a lot of those agents walked away after seeing how the CIA was doing things.

Mr. WEINER: It happened from the very start. The first significant al-Qaida figure taken down six months after 9/11 was a man named Abu Zubaydah, and he was interrogated by FBI agents and was quite forthcoming. Later on, when CIA contractors imposed waterboarding, which they did 83 times on this guy, the FBI agents protested and their protests went all the way to the top, first to Pat D'Amuro, the FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, who said flatly to his boss, Bob Mueller, the head of the FBI, we don't do that, and this is not taking into account an end game; what are we going to do with these people? Even if you put them in front of a military tribunal, you have to have some kind of standards for admitting evidence.

INSKEEP: Well, now, that's an interesting point, because the FBI has this tradition of trying to gather information in such a way that it can be used in court. The CIA was not thinking about trials, correct? They were just thinking about getting information, although I'm sure some of the CIA would argue they were being more practical.

Mr. WEINER: Well, in fact they just didn't have a playbook. They had never done anything like this. They didn't have the people. They didn't have the translators, they didn't have interrogators. They were being asked to do something they'd never done before, and they improvised. And the result of that improvisation was a series of legally dubious memos saying essentially there is no law in this matter. This fight is a deep, deep fight, and it's bad for the United States because the FBI and the CIA have to get along. When they war with each other, intelligence falls through the cracks, and that was one of the proximate causes of the 9/11 attacks in the first place.

INSKEEP: In addition to the moral objections to what many would define as torture, is there now a consensus among people who do this work that it also wasn't practical to be abusing prisoners?

Mr. WEINER: The school of thought that Dick Cheney represents, which is to boil it down, that torture works and it gets crucial information that can save the United States, is not supported by the evidence that's been released this week. And the United States is going to return now not only to the principles in the FBI handbook, but the principles in the Army Field Manual. And they're best expressed by the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Lieutenant General John Kimmons, who says - and I quote - We can't afford to go there, into the world of torture. And intelligence obtained under duress - I'm quoting again - is of questionable credibility. You get false information which leads you down blind alleys and scares you to death.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, Tim Weiner, is there any chance that the CIA is glad to be rid of this responsibility of interrogating suspects, which it generally did not have before?

Mr. WEINER: There is every chance of that.

INSKEEP: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: They don't want this headache anymore.

Mr. WEINER: They do not.

INSKEEP: Did they ever?

Mr. WEINER: They will be part of this new team in a supportive analytical context, but the guys in charge are going to be the FBI guys who believe that when it comes to interrogation, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

INSKEEP: Mr. Weiner, thanks very much.

Mr. WEINER: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Tim Weiner is the author of "Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA," and he is now at work on a history of the FBI.

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