Spin wars: How a bitter feud between the CIA and FBI stoked the torture debate

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
(AP Graphics/Yahoo News)

Early on the afternoon of Sept. 7, 2006, alarm bells went off at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Top officials had picked up fresh intelligence of an imminent new threat. It wasn’t coming from al-Qaida terrorists, but from another formidable domestic adversary: the FBI.

New York Times reporter David Johnston had called the CIA Office of Public Affairs that day about an upcoming story he was working on about the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, one of the agency’s prized “high-value” detainees. Johnston’s questions suggested he was going to give credit to FBI agents using traditional (and entirely legal) “rapport building” techniques for ferreting out key information from Zubaydah, rather than to the CIA’s own officers and contractors, who were using what was then being euphemistically described as “rough tactics.”

The CIA brass was livid.

“Bulls---,” Mark Mansfield, director of CIA public affairs, wrote in an email to senior officials alerting them to Johnston’s upcoming story, emphasizing that “we need to push back.” The subject line on Mansfield’s email made it clear that urgent action was required: “We Can’t Let This Go Unanswered.”  

Abu Zubaydah (U.S. Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons)

The Mansfield email, cited in a brief passage buried in last week’s Senate Intelligence Committee torture report, offers a revealing glimpse into an intense, years-long bureaucratic clash between the CIA and FBI that may be key to understanding the debate over the agency’s “enhanced interrogation” program.

From the outset, some FBI agents and senior officials were appalled by the CIA’s use of waterboarding, forced nudity, wall slamming and other brutal tactics revealed in stunning detail in the Senate report.  “I swear to God. I’m going to arrest these guys!” Ali Soufan, then one of the FBI’s lead agents on al-Qaida, shouted to his boss at FBI headquarters over a secure telephone, after he discovered the agency’s plans to shove Zubaydah into a coffin-like “confinement box” at a “black site” prison in Thailand.

Those protests were, to be sure, driven in part by bureaucratic pride and turf; the FBI was being mostly kept in the dark about what the CIA was up to, and its agents were even denied access to the biggest al-Qaida detainee 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed whom they had tracked for years. Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, upon learning about Soufan’s reports from Thailand, instructed his agents not to participate in CIA interrogations  fearing they could be irreparably tainted if any of the detainees were ever to end up in a U.S. courtroom.

But the bureau’s dissents eventually found their way to sympathetic reporters, raising the first questions about the ethics and effectiveness of the CIA’s methods.

And those stories in turn prompted the CIA to double down in the Washington spin wars, feeding sanitized accounts of the interrogation program to the news media that, as the Senate report suggests, were at best highly misleading.  

“We either get out and sell, or we get hammered, which has implications beyond the media,” Philip Mudd, then the deputy director of the CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center, wrote in an April 13, 2005, email about the need for the agency to make a more aggressive effort to shape news stories about the program and mold public opinion.

Agency lawyers had, by that point, questioned whether officials could legally disclose any information at all about the interrogations, since the whole program was classified. But Mudd made clear that damaging news stories would have severe consequences.

In this Aug. 3, 2004 file photo, Philip Mudd of the CIA's counterterrorist center appears before Senate Government Affairs Committee Chairman on Capitol Hill.  (Dennis Cook/AP Photo)

His email continued: “congress reads it, cuts out authorities, messes our budget. we need to make sure the impression of what we do is positive ... we must be more aggressive out there. we either put out our story or we get eaten. there is no middle ground.”

As the Senate report suggests, Mudd’s recommended course of action led the agency to indeed start putting its story out selectively, with sweeping claims of success that it was also making to the White House and the Justice Department claims that the report asserts no longer hold up. On June 25, 2005, for example, Dateline NBC aired a program about the war on terror that included interviews by anchor Tom Brokaw with Porter Goss, then director of the CIA, and Mudd.

The Dateline story contained no reference to waterboarding or other excruciating tactics such as “rectal re-hydration” disclosed in the Senate report. In an accompanying online article, however, the network quoted “senior intelligence analysts” as saying that the information gleaned from CIA interrogations “approaches or surpasses any other intelligence on the subject of Al Qaeda and the construction of the network.” (Mudd’s April 2005 email offers a handy insider cheat sheet for reading such passages. Most CIA personnel were not aware, he wrote, “that when the w post/ny times quotes ‘senior intel official,’ its us ... authorized and directed by opa,” referring to the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs.)

Later that year, the Senate report reports, the CIA started cooperating on a proposed New York Times story by reporter Douglas Jehl that, according to CIA emails contained in the Senate report, “would emphasize that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques worked, that they were approved through an inter-agency process, and that the CIA went to great lengths to ensure that the interrogation program was authorized by the White House and the Department of Justice.”

Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (Counterterrorismblog.org)

The chief of the CIA’s Alec Station, which targeted al-Qaida, got excited. Despite concerns that leaking positive stories to the Times might undercut agency complaints about negative leaks from others about the secret interrogation program, he suggested in an email “informing Jehl of other examples of CIA ‘detention exploitation success.’”  

In fact, Jehl and the Times didn’t bite, and his proposed story never ran. By then, he and other reporters were following up on mounting reports coming in part from disgruntled FBI officials about the CIA’s rough treatment of prisoners and how counterproductive they actually were.

Just a few days before the exchange, Jehl had picked up on a story first disclosed in Newsweek: that one of the agency’s most important detainees, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who had been rendered by the CIA to Egyptian intelligence, had recanted his claim that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had provided chemical and biological weapons training to al-Qaida.

The al-Libi story had been a huge embarrassment for the CIA. FBI officials had complained loudly when CIA officers whisked him away from their agents in Afghanistan, strapping him on a stretcher, sealing his mouth with duct tape and threatening him, before flying him off to Egypt. Al-Libi’s later claims of a Saddam-al-Qaida link, detailed in CIA reporting to the White House, later became the main basis for some of the most alarming assertions about such ties by President George W. Bush and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses a meeting of the United Nations Security Council concerning weapons inspections in Iraq, on Friday, Feb. 14, 2003, at the U.N. headquarters. (Kathy Willens/AP Photo)

But it was all a hoax, as Jehl reported on Dec. 9, 2005. In recanting his story after he was returned to CIA custody after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Al-Libi later said he had made up the whole thing in an effort to stop his torture by his Egyptian interrogators who, according to CIA cables, had beaten him and thrown him in a confinement box.

The Senate report hints that there are far more details about all this in a still-classified volume: It describes briefly in a heavily redacted footnote how al-Libi told his debriefers about hearing “sobbing and yelling” by a prisoner being beaten in a neighboring cell. The yet to be released al-Libi cables suggest there may be more evidence to come of what some FBI agents had been trying to say from the very beginning: that brutal tactics, more often than not, don’t yield useful intelligence and sometimes produce useless lies.