When Interrogations Began: A View From Inside the CIA

In a March 2001 file photo, then President George W. Bush and then-CIA director George Tenet pose at the CIA seal in the main entrance of agency headquarters in Langley, Va.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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In a March 2001 file photo, then President George W. Bush and then-CIA director George Tenet pose at the CIA seal in the main entrance of agency headquarters in Langley, Va.

I remember what it was like at Langley on 9/11. This is what it felt like. By Joseph R. DeTrani

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I welcomed a few visiting senior U.S. military officers to a conference room at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, for a 9 a.m. meeting to discuss security threats to the homeland emanating from state and non-state actors in East Asia. As chief of East Asia, I was responsible for ensuring that the agency was aware of any threats to the Homeland from East Asia and insure  that any and all intelligence dealing with such threats were shared promptly with all relevant U.S. agencies.

Early in the meeting, a colleague entered and said an airplane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. We turned on the television and saw a second airplane smash into the South Tower of the Center. We realized that what we first thought was a tragic accident was a terrorist attack. 

Employees were instructed to secure their systems and vacate the building and premises, with reports that two other airplanes appeared destined for targets in Washington, possibly targeted at CIA Headquarters, the Pentagon, the White House and Congress. We soon discovered that American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93, destined for Washington, crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, due to the courageous efforts of the passengers who diverted the flight from Washington.

The impact of these deadly and horrific terrorist attacks on all Americans, and certainly those officers at CIA responsible for working the terrorist target, was devastating. At the agency, we asked: How could this have happened? What did we miss? Over 3,000 people were killed at the World Trade Center and significant casualties at the Pentagon and Shanksville. A few hours after the media reported these events, a close relative living in California got me on my cell phone and asked: “Why couldn’t the CIA prevent such a tragedy – isn’t that your job?” I didn’t have a good answer. To this day, I remember that brief but poignant conversation.

The sense of many of my colleagues was that the agency failed the American people; that this must never happen again. But for many of us, 9/11 was a wake-up call that international terrorism will continue to require our diligence and undivided attention. It brought our memories back to the U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut in 1983, with 63 dead and 120 injured; the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, with 19 U.S. servicemen killed and 500 wounded; the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, with six killed and 1000 injured; the USS Cole bombing in 2000, with 17 crew members killed and 39 wounded; and the numerous reports detailing threats to the U.S. and allies from al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden; from Hezbollah; from East Asian terrorist groups like Jemaah Islameyah, Abu Sayyaf and others, dating back to 1991 and earlier.

Reliable reporting prior to and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks indicated that al-Qaeda, at war with the U.S., was interested in acquiring nuclear weapons and nuclear materials to attack the U.S. and interested in acquiring and using biological weapons against the U.S., in line with Osama Bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa to kill American civilians. The agency and its officers were and are determined to ensure that this never happens; that the agency would have the intelligence necessary to prevent any attack against the homeland and its allies; that there would never be another 9/11 attack and that WMD would never be acquired by these terrorist groups and thus never used against the U.S. and its allies.

This was the impetus for the establishment of terrorist detention facilities – to take terrorists off the streets and with a coercive interrogation program obtain the intelligence necessary to prevent another terrorist attack against the homeland. Indeed, these detention facilities and interrogation programs were approved by the White House and the Justice Department and routinely briefed to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.

The terrorist threat is still with us and these terrorists are still determined to attack the homeland. They continue to seek nuclear and biological weapons so as to cause the U.S. and its allies great harm. This must never happen. Indeed, our nation’s first line of defense is having the best intelligence possible to prevent another attack against the homeland; to prevent these terrorist groups from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.  That’s what the country expects from its leaders and from the CIA and the other intelligence agencies in the Intelligence Community, or IC. The CIA, its officers and their colleagues in the IC deserve the nation’s support and appreciation for the work they do to protect our great country. 

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