Unjustifiable means, p.1

Unjustifiable Means, page 1


Unjustifiable Means

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Unjustifiable Means


  It is the position of the United States government that the original manuscript for this book contained protected information not approved for public release. The Department of Defense completed its review and required that such information be redacted prior to publication. We feel that Unjustifiable Means is an important first-hand account of a pivotal moment in US and world history, when the US government disregarded our own laws and international covenants to become a nation that tortured, and that this subject requires critical attention. Therefore, we have printed the book with the blacked-out portions included in the pages. The approval of these pages, as amended, constitutes a comprehensive United States government response.






















  This book is dedicated to Candace Jade Fallon, our granddaughter, who was born into an uncertain world and has brought so much joy and love into our lives.

  Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner] . . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt as such a time and in such a cause . . . for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.

  —George Washington, September 1775, in orders issued to the northern expeditionary force of the Continental Army, under the command of Gen. Benedict Arnold


  On September 11, 2001, the purposes and methods of war radically changed. A group of unsophisticated thugs, in service to a charismatic leader living in a distant cave, used a few thousand dollars to mount a surprise attack. Armed with seats purchased on airplanes, some rudimentary knowledge of flying, and box cutters, they executed one of the most successful military strikes in the history of the world, obliterating two of the world’s largest buildings in the heart of the international financial industry and nearly scoring a direct hit on the Pentagon, America’s supreme military command.

  The world’s most powerful country was momentarily helpless. Despite spending, in 2001, almost 22 percent of the annual federal budget—approximately $400 billion—to pay for the most highly trained military and the most sophisticated weapons ever known, the United States was revealed briefly as weak and confused. As so often happens at these crisis points, America had been looking in the wrong direction, back at what war had so long been rather than forward to what war was already becoming.

  Whatever else it accomplished, 9/11 made crystal clear what the new rules of war would be: Soldiers wouldn’t wear uniforms, nor would they represent a nation. They wouldn’t attack a military target to control territory. They would slaughter civilians to control minds, and unlike most soldiers since the beginning of time, they didn’t fear death. This was a secret army that needed no central command, only a loose recruiting and training structure based on destroying anything Amero-European in style, humanistic democracies, and their contagion of “anti-Islamic” modernity. To Americans and to our allies, the attacks of 9/11 seemed “irrational,” “mindless,” a “blind lashing out against Western culture.” They were not. They reflected a calculated strategy that has yielded exactly the results the planners hoped for.

  But the story is more nuanced than that. Al Qaeda, which quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks, didn’t hate us for who we were so much as they hated us for where we were. The group had its roots in the ten-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that ended in 1989. Formed mostly of young Arab militants who flocked to Afghanistan to join the “holy war” against the Soviets, Al Qaeda’s interests initially aligned with the US, and indeed (along with other Islamist extremists fighting the Russians), Al Qaeda received America financing and weaponry, along with training. But once the Soviets were driven out, Osama bin Laden, the wealthy young Arab who had become Al Qaeda’s leader, turned his attention to the superpower that still retained a dominant position in the Muslim world: America.

  Al Qaeda’s aim was (and remains today, six years after bin Laden’s death) to drive us—our institutions, our propaganda, our profit-making machinery, our religious colonizers—from the Middle East, just as they had driven the Soviet Union and its influences out of Afghanistan and elsewhere: a slow death, by a thousand cuts. Al Qaeda sought a war of attrition in which they would provoke action that would attract more followers to their cause while slowly bleeding us of treasure, lives, and resolve.

  While we focused on tactics, the adversary focused on strategies. As our death count grew, so did their number of followers, fed by many who had earlier immigrated to the West; by religious converts; and by once-moderates who now feared for their lives, families, and culture. Simply put, America got outplayed.

  Even worse than that, America got changed. While brave men and women from all the military branches and across the entire range of intelligence services were putting their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan (and in other places we will never know about) a darker strain of America emerged at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and too many other stark prisons and dank interrogation rooms. Under the pressure of a new kind of warfare, we threw away our vaunted democratic principles and turned our backs on international conventions the United States had proudly led the way in crafting. In the pursuit of “intelligence” coups that were never there to be scored in the first place, we employed interrogation methods borrowed from the Nazis and North Korean POW camps of a half-century earlier. We treated detainees as somehow subhuman, and in the process we became something less than human ourselves. Worst of all, we did all this under Washington’s watchful eye and with its tacit and sometimes explicit encouragement.

  This book is one man’s perspective on the terror war, but it’s a perspective rich with experience and often hard-won knowledge. I spent more than thirty years in counterintelligence and federal law enforcement—as a special agent for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and as assistant director for training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers within the Department of Homeland Security. As an NCIS special agent, I was involved in the prosecution of the Blind Sheik, Omar Abdel Rahman, the mastermind behind the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. In that same capacity I served as commander of the task force that investigated the lethal October 2000 attack on the USS Cole as it was being refueled in Yemen. I was also at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay—Gitmo, as it became known—in the early days after 9/11, when there was still hope we would fight this battle consistent with American principles. And I was a frequent visitor at Gitmo only a few years later, when all hope of doing the war on terror right was already lost.

  Bottom line: I’ve been on the front lines of the terror war every step of the way and for as long as almost anyone else can claim. I’ve seen what happens to conventional soldiers, case officers, and special agents alike, to their c
ommanders, and to their political leaders when they must fight an enemy they don’t understand, an enemy that instead of respecting their power and wealth sees both as evidence of their absolute corruption.

  America then and still today is fighting an enemy that doesn’t need a quick win because of budgets or election schedules. This is an enemy that is prepared to fight for centuries if necessary. Thanks to superior strategy in the new warfare, this enemy now controls a battlefield that is not a geographical location but a psychological terrain—a battlefield that promises to expose the truth about who we really are. It’s the Battlefield of Terror.

  What do terrorists want? To terrify, obviously. That’s definitional. But terror is a long-term strategy in pursuit of a specific objective: to coerce reactive behavior. The real purpose is to instill enough fear that the enemy reacts irrationally. The strategic advantage happens over time. As the enemy cedes faith in its power and institutions to combat terror, it loses unifying purpose and atomizes into selfish interests. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and countless third-world tyrants used terror from the top down to make those they ruled fear and blame one another. These terrified masses invested their belief in the only power that could protect them: an autocratic government that was constantly inventing enemies, within and without. The new jihadists use terror from the bottom up with the same destabilizing purpose: to convince people to throw away their democratic visions of equality and the rule of law, replacing these virtues with brutal tribalism.

  That’s the lesson we should have kept in mind in the months after 9/11, and it’s a lesson we forget at our own great peril today. Watching presidential candidates pledge allegiance to waterboarding and other discredited interrogation techniques during the 2016 primary campaign, I kept thinking ISIS, Al Qaeda, and our other enemies in the terror war don’t need to seize a single piece of real estate to declare victory. If their brutality makes us brutal in turn, they win.

  I wrote Unjustifiable Means because I felt compelled to. The torturers and their apologists have made a concerted effort to rewrite history and shape the perception of the American public with dubious claims of heroic actions, but there’s nothing heroic about abusing a defenseless human being. Those who committed such acts will have to live with the shame of what they did and the knowledge that their actions undoubtedly cost lives.

  I was on the inside, in the arena, engaged in an almost daily battle to fulfill my orders not only to bring terrorists to justice but also to treat detainees humanely. I had a duty and did my job, and in the end I couldn’t stop what I could see so clearly happening around me. That’s my failure. But I tried. I spoke truth to power to protect the human rights of every detainee I was charged with investigating and bringing to justice. Of that, at least, I’m proud.

  This book is my story, but it is also America’s story—a story that needs to be told so we don’t make the same mistakes again.


  * * *


  On the morning of October 12, 2000, a small motorboat approached the port side of the USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer anchored at a fueling island just offshore the harbor in Yemen’s perpetually sunny city of Aden. As it pulled up alongside, the pilot detonated more than 500 pounds of explosives, tearing a huge hole in the side of the ship. The explosive force pushed up the floor of the galley above, killing crew members lining up for lunch. In the end, seventeen Americans died, along with the two suicide bombers. Al Qaeda, the then-ascendant terrorist group, claimed responsibility.

  The US Navy responded by pulling all its ships out to sea. As the NCIS chief of counterintelligence operations for the Middle East, I became the tactical commander of the USS Cole task force. I was charged with leading the investigation into the bombing and collecting the intelligence to prevent a second or third or fourth attack elsewhere. Because NCIS serves as the navy and marine corps’s FBI and CIA, we had to both find and prosecute those involved in the plot as well as do the intel work of clearing ports around the world so ships could come back in to dock. The assignment brought me deep inside the world of Al Qaeda.

  One year later, minus a month and a day, Al Qaeda struck again. I was in London to brief senior European command and NATO authorities on “lessons learned” from the investigation of the USS Cole attack. In a nutshell, my conclusion was that it was preventable. More important by far, though, was the methodology we had developed for conducting investigations while pursuing members of Al Qaeda around the world. In the movies, bad guys don’t crack until their interrogators have them begging for mercy, but in the real world, I had seen time and again that building rapport with detainees yielded far better actionable intelligence than the strong-arm approach, and prevented more attacks in the future. But by the time I was meant to share this information with some of the most brilliant and powerful military officers on the planet, the Cole investigation seemed like ancient news.

  I was halfway through unpacking my clothes in my hotel room when I thought to turn on the TV and was suddenly confronted with the horrifying footage that is so well-known today: two commercial airliners slicing into the World Trade Center towers.

  All of us have our own individual memories of 9/11. Mine is maybe unique—and definitely critical to this story. I thought of the Blind Sheik, the Egyptian cleric who orchestrated the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Back in 1992, we had the Blind Sheik and his followers ready to walk into a trap, but the FBI had it called off, frightened of possible blowback. A year later, the FBI nabbed Ramzi Yousef after the World Trade Center bombing, but only after he had carried out the plot the Blind Sheik had sanctioned. While Yousef was being transported by helicopter past the World Trade Center, one of his FBI captors lifted his blindfold and pointed to the towers, taunting: “Look down there. They’re still standing.”

  Yousef glanced over at the towers, then spat out, “They wouldn’t be if I had enough money and explosives.”

  Turned out you didn’t need that much money. Or even traditional explosives. Nineteen terrorists had gotten four commercial airliners to do the job for them.

  Back in Washington, it was all hands on deck for the counterintelligence community, but President Bush had grounded air travel to the States, and that included me. Helplessly stuck in England that Sunday afternoon, I turned on the television in the London NCIS office, just in time to catch Dick Cheney describing his own 9/11 moments to Tim Russert on a special edition of Meet the Press broadcast from Camp David.

  “A little before 9:00, my speechwriter came in,” Cheney recalled. “We were going to go over some speeches coming up. And my secretary called in just as we were starting to meet just before 9:00 and said an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. That was the first one that went in. So we turned on the television and watched for a few minutes and then actually saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center. And as soon as that second plane showed up, that’s what triggered the thought: terrorism.”

  Within minutes, the vice president had gathered national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby, and others, and patched through a call to George W. Bush in Florida. The group had just turned back to the TV when Cheney’s Secret Service agents came bursting into the room.

  “Under these circumstances, they just move,” he told Russert. “They don’t . . . ask politely. They came in and said, ‘Sir, we have to leave immediately,’ and grabbed me. . . . They’re bigger than I am, and they hoisted me up and moved me very rapidly down the hallway, down some stairs, through some doors, and down some more stairs into an underground facility under the White House. And it’s a, matter of fact, a corridor, locked at both ends. And they did that because they had received a report that an airplane was headed for the White House. . . . And when it entered the danger zone, it looked like it was headed for the White House; [that] was when they grabbed me and evacuated me to the basement.”

  Russert asked mostly the right questions. Cheney, in h
is unique, clench-jawed way, gave mostly the right answers. The vice president projected strength in the face of tragedy, control in the face of what was still a chaotic situation. I particularly liked the tail end of his response to a question about whether America and, by extension, the Bush administration had been adequately prepared for this attack or should have been more vigilant: “We’re an open society,” Cheney said. “We love it that way. It’s very important to preserve that and not to let the terrorists win by turning ourselves into some kind of police state.”

  One part of the Cheney-Russert exchange, though, wouldn’t leave me alone in the weeks that followed, in the same way the Blind Sheik kept breaking into my dreams at night. Tim Russert’s question could not possibly have taken the vice president by surprise. It was a Journalism 101 query: “There have been restrictions placed on the United States’ intelligence gathering, a reluctance to use unsavory characters, those who violate human rights, to assist in intelligence gathering. Will we lift some of those restrictions?”

  Cheney’s answer, whether it was rehearsed or not, appeared intent on sending a message at multiple levels: to our enemies, our allies, our nation and, more intimately, to people like me. “Well, I think so,” he told Russert, starting calmly. “I think one of the by-products, if you will, of this tragic set of circumstances is that we’ll see a very thorough sort of reassessment of how we operate and the kinds of people we deal with. If you want to deal only with sort of officially approved, certified good guys, you’re not going to find out what the bad guys are doing. You need to be able to penetrate these organizations. You need to have on the payroll some very unsavory characters if, in fact, you’re going to be able to learn all that needs to be learned in order to forestall these kinds of activities.

  “It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena. I’m convinced we can do it. We can do it successfully. But we need to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our intelligence communities in terms of accomplishing their mission.”

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