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Ahmed Ressam, mastermind of foiled LAX plot, gave up valuable details about al-Qaida without harsh interrogation

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Convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam

Bill Robles/AP

Osama bin Laden’s death has renewed the debate over harsh interrogation techniques, and defenders say rough treatment is the only way to get hard-core terrorists to talk. But in the months before 9/11, one high-profile terrorist was voluntarily divulging all he knew about his time with al-Qaida.

Ahmed Ressam was arguably the FBI’s most valuable informant when terrorists struck U.S. targets with deadly precision on Sept. 11, 2001. Trained at two al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, Ressam became the leader of a plot to massacre holiday travelers at the Los Angeles International Airport at the end of 1999. The plot was foiled when alert Customs officers at a ferry checkpoint in Port Angeles, Wash., popped open Ressam’s trunk and discovered explosives.

By the time of the 9/11 attacks,  Ressam had already spent months naming names and revealing details about al-Qaida’s recruiting, training and plotting. Intelligence from those sessions was included in the infamous presidential briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” The 9/11 Commission concluded that Ressam even had information that—recognized and acted on sooner —may have derailed the attacks.

The recent debate focuses on whether details gained from brutal interrogations guided authorities to bin Laden, leaving aside the issue of whether the techniques were necessary. John Rizzo, the CIA’s former acting general counsel, said at an American Enterprise Institute forum recently that the techniques were needed to force the most hard-core and sophisticated members of al-Qaida to talk, adding, “I personally find it hard to believe that any valuable information… these guys would have given up” with traditional interrogation techniques.

Rizzo’s argument echoes that of former CIA Director George Tenet, who told “60 Minutes” in 2007 that harsh techniques were needed “because these are people who will never, ever, ever tell you a thing.”

But Ressam’s cooperation shows that terrorists will talk without brutality, said former U.S. Attorney John McKay, who handled the case when he took office in October 2001.

 “If someone took a step back and looked at the very successful interrogation and cooperation of Ressam… [it] was a real achievement,” the former Seattle prosecutor told iWatch News.

 “And it wasn’t done by pouring water over a cloth on his face to make him think he was drowning. Or beating him up. Or making him sit naked in his cell. It was done by treating him with respect and building a relationship with him.”

Ressam’s is a textbook case in interrogation, that even shows how tougher techniques can backfire, McKay said. Shortly after the Twin Towers were razed by terrorists, Ressam’s handling changed dramatically. He was never tortured nor subjected to the CIA’s so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques. But his questioning was reassigned from an FBI interrogator in Seattle who had built strong rapport with Ressam and put in the hands of prosecuting attorneys in New York.

Over time, Ressam became frustrated with his new interrogators and stopped talking, even though his silence means he may now spend the rest of his life in prison. As a result, the Justice Department was forced to drop charges against two other alleged plotters in the LAX case. One, Samir Ait Mohamed, was a minor player but the other, Abu Doha, is believed to be an al-Qaida leader who had direct ties to bin Laden.

McKay, now a law professor and private attorney, said that changing the way Ressam was interrogated didn’t work.

 “There was a relationship built by a very good FBI agent. A trust built. When he was transferred to New York, for whatever reason, he stopped talking,” McKay said. “They just weren’t able to build that same relationship.”

Robin Baker, one of the New York prosecutors, disagreed and said Ressam was "always treated with the utmost respect and professionalism." She suggested in the end he decided the reduced sentence wasn't worth it.

Whether harsh interrogations of terrorists were effective remains difficult to judge because so many details remain cloaked in secrecy and those involved give conflicting accounts. President George W. Bush, for example, said in 2006 that coercive techniques forced Abu Zubaydah to divulge details that helped stop a dirty bomb attack. But three years later, Ali Soufan, an FBI agent involved in the initial interrogations, said that Zubaydah talked about the dirty bomb before he was stripped naked and waterboarded. Soufan contends that for months Zubaydah provided “actionable intelligence” without brutality.

What Ressam told interrogators

In his interrogations, Ressam named Zubaydah as a leader of the Khalden training camp and as one of the plotters in the attempt to blow up LAX. Ressam elevated the stature of Zubaydah, who became the first person the CIA waterboarded. Yet Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime, perhaps because of his handling.

While tapes of Zubaydah’s interrogations were destroyed, the sessions with Ressam are well documented. Ressam had his own attorneys in the room when he was questioned, and he later spent four days discussing his treatment with a psychiatrist, discussions that became part of the court record.

Ressam’s case shows that the assumption that terrorists won’t talk is wrong, said Steven Kleinman, a military interrogator and intelligencer office with 30 years of experience including Iraq.

It’s easy to get swept up in media images of terrorists as monsters without the same vulnerabilities as other humans, Kleinman said, “but that’s fantasyland.”

Kleinman saw brutal techniques being used in Iraq, men who were hooded, stripped naked, chained and beaten. He said those techniques didn’t work.

“It makes them hate. It makes them want to resist,” Kleinman said. “You’re going to get caught up in lies.”

The most effective way to get a terrorist or an insurgent to talk, Kleinman said, is the same technique used on Ressam. By building rapport with captured insurgents in Iraq, military interrogators were able to track down the top local al-Qaida leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as well as Saddam Hussein, who himself spent hours talking to an FBI interrogator using traditional techniques.

Ressam’s decision to cooperate and later to go silent were rooted in the same core psychological need that led him to become a terrorist in the first place, said Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who spent hours evaluating Ressam at the request of his attorneys.

That core need was for self-respect.

Ressam had drifted through life with no strong beliefs and no work. He grew up in a small seaside village of Algeria and left for France as a young man to find a job. There he encountered hostility for being an Arab. By the time he got to Montreal, Canada, Ressam was surviving by stealing suitcases and wallets from tourists and sharing a small apartment with a large group of Algerians.

A leader at the local mosque, Abderraouf  Hannachi, had been to the al-Qaida camps and was on the prowl in Montreal for new recruits. Ressam was vulnerable to Hannachi’s appeal. Ressam told Grassian, the psychiatrist,  that he decided to become a jihadist because “you have to live life with dignity and self-respect. I felt that it was the right path, a duty that I liked, a purpose.”

Ressam expressed remorse

But after Ressam was arrested on Dec. 14, 1999, he said he was plagued by doubts about what he had done. While he was on trial in April 2001, Ressam wrote a letter to his judge, expressing remorse.

 “In December of 1999, when I attempted this operation, I wanted to make a political statement and did not consider the effects of my actions on innocent people,” Ressam explained in another letter to the court.

 “I am now firmly against operations such as the one I had planned in America and I am also firmly against such operations anywhere in the world. Such operations are bad for Muslims all around the world under the current circumstances. I believe that my participation in this operation has contributed to the negative perception of Muslims. I deeply regret this.”

According to Grassian, Ressam realized there was another way for him to regain self-respect. In his report to the court, the psychiatrist said of Ressam, “He was desperate to find some moral compass, some means of re-establishing a sense of personal worth and value. The government seemed to offer him all that. The information which he could provide was valuable; it might save innocent lives.”

In a prison library near Seattle on May 10, 2001, Ressam sat down with Fred Humphries, a fit, young FBI agent who had investigated the case. Although they both spoke fluent French, they communicated through an Arab-English interpreter. Still, Humphries looked Ressam in the eye, talking directly to him. They connected. Not only did Ressam divulge valuable details to Humphries, Grassian said, “He seemed to be doing so with a vibrant spirit, even seemingly enthusiastically.”

Humphries told iWatch News that to be effective, he tried not to judge Ressam during their sessions but rather to put himself in Ressam’s place.

 “As an agent, it’s not my position to judge,” said Humphries, who remains active in the FBI. “I’m just there to find facts.”

The visceral urge to beat information out of suspects is nothing new, Humphries said, adding that it’s the feeling you’d get with a child abductor, especially if the victim is still missing. Humphries said coercion is immoral and besides, “the information is more suspect.”

Ressam’s lawyer Tom Hillier sat through hours of the interrogations, which totaled more than 265 hours. He said Ressam shared every nugget of information about al-Qaida that he had.

 “I was very proud with my involvement in the case,” Hillier said. “It’s just a showpiece of how it could be and should be.”

What Ressam divulged

Hillier claims that Ressam’s information saved lives, thwarting planned terrorist attacks in Europe. Ressam fingered Zacarias Moussaoui —the so-called “20th hijacker”—as someone who was trained at al-Qaida’s Khalden camp, information that could have been pivotal had Ressam been asked about it before 9/11. In sentencing papers, prosecutors acknowledge that information from Ressam helped defuse the shoe bomb of Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a jet airplane—the FBI agent on the scene when Reid was arrested had actually interviewed Ressam and knew how to defuse the shoe.

Ressam also identified the leader of the Khalden camp, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, from a photograph. Al-Libi became notorious for giving the CIA false information after he was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques linking al-Qaida to Iraq. President George W. Bush cited that information to justify going to war.

Ressam’s cooperation was tied to his efforts to get a lighter sentence. He faced a minimum of 65 years in prison, but by agreeing to cooperate, the government promised to recommend as little as 27 years. In June 2001, Ressam testified against Mokhtar Haouari, who helped Ressam in his plot. But by 2003, as New York prosecutors continued to question Ressam month after month, things started to go awry.

 “The Seattle people respected what Ahmed was doing and were grateful for what he was doing,” said Hillier, adding that the New York attorneys never developed any rapport with Ressam.

 “It’s not like [they said] ‘Hey scumbag, you’re now in New York.’ Hillier said. “It was an attitude… You’re our property and we need you to do our bidding now.”

Ressam himself described feeling frustrations during interrogations that would last up to seven hours a day. Ressam said he was asked the same questions over and over and confronted with anger whenever there was any inconsistency.

Baker, one of the New York prosecutors who interviewed Ressam, defended the questioning in court documents, saying that “he had been questioned in a slow and methodical manner over a series of interviews, in which later questions built upon earlier answers in a manner that effectively served to verify the earlier answers.”

In an interview Thursday, Baker insisted the New York prosecutors did develop a rapport with Ressam, who may have decided the slightly reduced sentence wasn't worth it. She said that "obviously it is possible to get truthful and valuable information from someone like him without enhanced interrogation techniques."

But Kleinman said memory is fragile and making someone tell a story over and over again will naturally lead to inconsistencies. What’s more, the longer the interrogations went on, the more confusing it became for Ressam and the weaker his memory became, Grassian said. Ressam began losing the ability to distinguish what really happened from what he had said happened and even from what he imagined the attorneys wanted him to say happened.

Ressam is quoted in a report to the court saying, “I was open and sharing information and he kept saying, ‘what else, what else.’ Or they would take what I say and push it to something they want me to say… I would start to speak and they would bombard me and confuse me.  And I would feel exhausted. They kept firing questions; they had no appreciation of how exhausted I am, and I’d get more upset.”

 “I was unable to bear that pressure. At the beginning, I was treated with respect… [but] it went on for years with many people and I got very exhausted. Over time, I couldn’t answer the questions. My mind would get too filled and saturated, and I cannot think… And when I became confused or uncertain, they would get angry at me and aggressive. Over time, it seemed like they were getting angrier. I lost my ability to think, my concentration, my memory.”

Baker doesn’t buy Ressam’s excuses. She recalls in a court document that in April 2003 Ressam started feigning memory problems about Samir Ait Mohammed, whom prosecutors had indicted for helping Ressam get a pistol and referring him to Haouari. Ressam wouldn’t even acknowledge details he had previously provided.

 “Instead, he falsely stated, in substance, that he had been asked so many questions and in such a manner that he could not say whether the statements being attributed to him were true,” Baker wrote in a court document.

Grassian said that Ressam was exhausted from spending years in solitary confinement in a tiny cell. In the spring of 2004, after a meeting in New York between Grassian, Hillier, the New York attorneys and FBI behavioral science experts, Ressam was taken out of solitary confinement and sent to a secret location where his daily conditions were much better.

Ressam began cooperating again, Grassian said, even testifying before a grand jury. But the psychiatrist said the New York attorneys continued questioning Ressam in the same manner that they had before.

At the end of 2004, Ressam’s attorneys called the questioning off, arguing that it was now hopeless.

Kleinman said a skilled interrogator might still be able to convince Ressam to cooperate. But Humphries said that because Ressam has recanted claims he’s made before, his value as a witness may now be irreparably damaged.

Once Ressam stopped cooperating, prosecutors said he had broken his agreement. The current U.S. attorney in Seattle is now seeking a 45-year sentence. McKay, the former prosecutor, had earlier sought a 35-year sentence.

Ressam told his psychiatrist that he’d rather spend more time in prison than endure any more of the prosecutors’ interrogations.

 “Every time I moved away from them, I felt stronger,” he said. “No hope, all my life in solitary, but at least I could stop this heartache…”

 “The only way to have peace is to give up hope. When I finally made the decision, there was no longer the pressure. I was free with my soul. The freedom of a human dignity is the most important thing.”

iWatch News reporter David Heath reported extensively on Ressam while at the Seattle Times.

CORRECTION: On June 7, this story was updated to correct information about Steven Kleinman, who is active duty and not retired, and who saw harsh interrogation techniques in Iraq, but not specifically Abu Graib.