Guantanamo hearings reveal FBI-CIA disputes

Perkins described the considerable tensions between the CIA and the FBI that emerged early in the investigation into the 9/11 attacks.
Joint Task Force Guantanamo Commissions Building (Photo: US Defense Department)
Joint Task Force Guantanamo Commissions Building (Photo: US Defense Department)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – As hearings resume at the U.S.Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, and three others, astonishing new revelations of disputes between the CIA and the FBI are emerging.

After the 9/11 attacks, as President George W. Bush declared a war on terror, the CIA controlled the interrogation of suspects who were apprehended abroad. The Agency would not allow the FBI to participate in those interrogations, and it would not provide FBI agents any account of the methods it was using to extract information from the captured suspects.

That was what FBI Special Agent Abigail Perkins testified to in the military court at Guantanamo Bay in two days of testimony, on Wednesday and Thursday.

In those sessions, the CIA used what it called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but which would, more commonly, be called torture. 

FBI agents had some idea of what the Agency was doing, and they pushed the new FBI Director, Robert Mueller, to involve the Bureau. It had been only one week before the 9/11 attacks that Mueller assumed the position as FBI Director. He was very new to the job, and the agents pushing him to demand more FBI involvement in the interrogation of suspects had little success.

Achieving appropriate coordination between the FBI and CIA has been a long-standing problem. In key respects, however, this situation was the opposite of that before the 9/11 attacks. Then the FBI routinely withheld information from the CIA, compromising the U.S. handling of terrorist attacks in a different way.

CIA torture begins under George Tenet

The Director of the CIA, George Tenet, was, in fact, a Democrat. He had spent eight years as a staffer on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, rising to the position of Staff Director, before joining the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. In June 1997, Tenet became Clinton’s CIA Director. 

After George W. Bush became president in January 2001, he retained Tenet as head of the CIA, although it is unusual for the CIA Director to serve in the administrations of opposing parties. 

But Tenet succeeded in doing just that. It did not hurt, of course, that in 1999 he had renamed the CIA headquarters after Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush.

The formal, official name for the headquarters of the CIA, thus, became The George Bush Center For Intelligence, which, of course, was also the name of the new president.

Tenet enjoyed far more rapport with Bush than Mueller did—in fact far more than any other senior U.S. official. When Tenet left in 2004 after seven years on the job, he became the second-longest serving CIA Director.

The New York Times described the relationship between Bush and Tenet at that point as “unusually close.” When Tenet’s resignation was announced, Bush “seemed genuinely sad,” the Times reported.

Testimony of FBI Special Agent Abigail Perkins

FBI Special Agent Abigail Perkins was involved in the investigation of the simultaneous bombings of two US embassies in Africa in August 1998, as well as the 9/11 investigation. She has a reputation as a particularly honest witness.

Perkins gave testimony on Wednesday in open court. She also testified on Thursday, but in a session closed to the public, because it involved classified information. 

Her testimony on Thursday was scheduled to last just half a day, but it lasted for the entire day, precipitating speculation that she had revealed new information of some significance. 

In her testimony on Wednesday, Perkins described the considerable tensions between the CIA and the FBI that emerged early in the investigation into the 9/11 attacks. 

For the first years, suspects captured overseas were kept in the custody of the CIA, which interrogated them harshly.

Read More: As Gitmo hearings resume, lawyer for Ammar al-Baluchi charges proceedings tainted by torture

But that is not how the FBI conducts its interviews. Many things can go wrong in such an approach, including that suspects will tell their interrogators what they want to hear just to stop the pain.

The CIA would not tell the FBI how it was conducting its interrogations, nor did it allow FBI agents to sit in on them. But FBI agents had their suspicions, and they pressed Mueller to allow them to question suspects. 

As Perkins explained in the military court, the FBI approach is to build a kind of rapport with those whom they are interviewing. It produces better information, in the Bureau’s view, and the interviews can easily be introduced as evidence in a trial. 

“We can get good information using rapport-based techniques,” she said. Asked by a defense lawyer, if the FBI would ever use torture, she replied, “absolutely not.”

Tenet was reluctant to accommodate the FBI’s demands, but in 2003, he and Mueller did reach an agreement that allowed a handful of FBI agents detailed to the CIA access to the “black sites,” where the Agency conducted its interrogations. 

However, most agents, including Perkins, were not allowed access to the interrogations. It was only three years later, when that began to change. In the fall of 2006, those suspects held by the CIA were transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where the FBI finally had access to them, or most of them, as the CIA still ran one camp at Guantanamo. 

In October, as it prepared to take over from the CIA, the FBI held a big meeting in the Washington area, with some 30 to 40 people in attendance. It was a major event. 

Yet the question of the earlier torture still hangs over the proceeding. When FBI agents later spoke to the detainees, how much of what they told them was based on their earlier, very harsh treatment by the CIA? Can their self-incriminating statements be used against them? 

Previous FBI-CIA tensions: “The Wall”

The problems between the CIA and FBI after the 9/11 attacks followed on long-standing tensions between the two agencies over the handling of terrorism.

The FBI had a policy of refusing to share the results of its investigation into a terrorist attack with other agencies of the U.S. government until any legal proceedings related to the attack had finished.

Ostensibly, this FBI policy was to protect the rights of the accused to a fair trial. But knowledge is power, and, in reality, this was simply an FBI power grab. And it created an enormous vulnerability.

If a terrorist state wanted to attack the U.S., it could hide its hand by leaving behind a few low-ranking figures to be arrested and stand trial. Then, the FBI would not release the results of its investigation to other government agencies, and the intelligence investigation—i.e. the investigation into the big picture, including what party might be behind the attack—might not be done properly.

Indeed, this is pretty much what happened with the precursor to the 9/11 attacks: the Feb. 26, 1993, bombing of New York’s World Trade Center, which also aimed to bring the towers down.

Just six days after the Trade Center bombing, New York FBI, the lead investigative agency, arrested a 26-year-old Palestinian, who did something incredibly stupid: he returned to the rental agency after the bombing for his deposit on the van he had rented to carry the bomb.  

That Palestinian, Mohammed Salameh, was arrested, along with a few others who had also participated in the attack. But to the head of New York FBI, Jim Fox, the arrests were too easy. It looked to him like a plot, masterminded by others, with those individuals left behind to be arrested and take the blame.

But, once again, the CIA position’s position was seriously flawed.. Jim Woolsey was Clinton’s first CIA Director, and he led the Agency then. He failed to make any serious effort to conduct an intelligence investigation into the Trade Center bombing. 

Because of the early arrests following the Trade Center bombing, the CIA did not receive the results of the FBI investigation into that attack. There was no intelligence investigation!

Shootings outside CIA–Any link?

The statement above–that the CIA did not have access to the results of the FBI investigation into the World Trade Center bombing–is stunning in itself. It is made more so, because it potentially involved an attack on the CIA itself.

Just a month before the Trade Center bombing, a shooting had occurred outside the CIA headquarters. It took place at a stop light where vehicles turn into the compound and resulted in the deaths of two agency personnel  and the wounding of three others.

It turned out that the shooter, a Pakistani by the name of Mir Aimal Kansi, fled to the same city in Pakistan—Quetta—to which Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the Trade Center bombing, would flee a month later.

Of course, that raises the question as to whether there was any relationship between the two attacks. But that question is scarcely asked, let alone answered, because that point remains largely unrecognized.

The problem of securing appropriate and effective coordination between the FBI and CIA in the handling of terrorism did not arise with the 9/11 attacks. However,  it did become a significant issue, and the CIA’s refusal to allow the FBI access to interrogations, while it tortured those who had been apprehended, has been newly revealed a major manifestation of that problem.