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Significance of Arrest of al Qaeda Operative

Aired November 23, 2002 - 08:04   ET


KRIS OSBORN, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush is hailing the capture of a man identified as a high-ranking al Qaeda leader. You've likely heard of this by now. Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was nabbed this month. Now, he is the suspected mastermind of the USS Cole bombing two years ago, killed 17 U.S. sailors.
So how do officials interrogate such a suspect and how much information provided is useful?

With some insight on this, here's CNN security analyst Kelly McCann.

Hello, Kelly.


OSBORN: Let's start with al-Nashiri. I guess the initial incidents are that he's talking. Is it helpful?

MCCANN: Oh, it absolutely is helpful. I mean the way that they're broken down into autonomous cells, Nashiri could have involvement as the maritime chief of operations in that region. He could have been instrumental in providing transportive support to people that left Saudi through Yemen and into Somalia. He undoubtedly knows names, places and faces. And I think that they're going to get some good information from him.

OSBORN: You know, one of the things you hear from many, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is that when you have detainees in custody, they'll give a zillion different answers to the very same question. You're an expert with this kind of thing. How do you sift through something like that?

MCCANN: It has to do with the totality of information from all the different efforts and all the different interviewees. So nothing is going to be stand alone and looked at, you know, as a single source, reliable source. They've got to have corroborative efforts. And then it's up to the experts running those kinds of investigations to sift through it and then surface not information, but intelligence, once it's gone through the system. And that, of course, takes time.

OSBORN: Now, I understand that al-Nashiri is being held in an undisclosed location, not in this country. But he is in U.S. custody. Does that change the equation in terms of what kinds of tactics or methods might be employed?

MCCANN: No. I mean typically what happens when someone's taken into custody, you know, there's an initial interview to determine what personality type they are. And then that initial interviewer briefs the interrogation team or person and they devise a plan based on his specific personality type.

Once they understand that, over time it would be very hard for someone over, say, 20, 30, 40 interviews to remember his inconsistencies, his disinformation, if you will. So it's really a formulaic approach that over time surfaces the inconsistencies and you can disregard them as not valid information and the truth starts to appear.

OSBORN: Now, this formulaic approach over time can bear down on even very known, very well trained al Qaeda suspects, Zubaydah, bin al-Shibh, now, Al-Nashiri in custody?

MCCANN: Absolutely. In fact, the techniques are specifically designed to handle people with that training. Remember, that all battlefield soldiers get training in resistive efforts. And the idea is to resist interrogations so that perishable information becomes outdated and then, you know, you could release it.

But, you know, the truth is, is that there would be no way to mentally track everything you have said over three to four weeks.

OSBORN: Now, of course, short of torture, what kinds of psychological incentives might interrogators bring to bear on a suspect? Information about their family, things of that sort?

MCCANN: Right. The knee jerk is usually, you know, well, torture. You know, torture, as John McCain would say, and, of course, Admiral Stockdale, who spent a lot of time in bad situations being tortured, number one is that, you know, everybody sooner or later will talk, but what they say may be just to make it stop. And then secondly, you could empower that person. If the guy does withstand torture, you've made him stronger. So it's really kind of an elemental approach.

The psychological aspects really goes to three things. One is the psychological, which goes to the personality type and pride attacks or family attacks or hate attacks or wherever he's coming from. And then environmental inputs, which would be cold, sleep deprivation, light. It would be those kinds of things. And then lastly would be the two of those balanced together for a physiological approach, if you would.

So it's really kind of a spherical approach to interrogation and formulaic, where there is no real injury done to the person.

OSBORN: It's interesting, I wanted to ask you, at times -- I spoke to some Army interrogators -- and one of the things they say is that they're trained, in some cases, to lie, because if you want to see what a suspect or a detainee knows, you'll sometimes test the waters with things that aren't true.

MCCANN: Absolutely. In fact, if you lie, if you are interrogating somebody and you have an input, you give him an input and you know it's not truthful and then he says yes, that's right, I knew that, etc., obviously then he's disclosed that he, too, is lying.

It is a very, very complex process, carefully documented. Many times they use voice stress analysis, either based on a graph approach or with technology, videotape review, etc. But it is very, very difficult to resist the efforts over time.

OSBORN: Now, how large an impact could having him in custody have for the efforts in the war against terrorism? I mean al- Nashiri's sphere of operation is from the Straits of Gibraltar all the way through the Middle East. This could have a very significant impact, no?

MCCANN: Absolutely, significant. And what I meant by that earlier was, if he was director of operations in that region, then he had knowledge about that. He is said to have been the financial supporter of them, which goes to money lines. He was uniquely placed to assist people traveling from Saudi through Yemen and into Somalia. So he knew how they did that and the methods and the personalities.

He could very well be another treasure trove of information.

OSBORN: J. Kelly McCann, yes, it could complicate their efforts to recruit, as well.

Thank you very much for your perspective on this.

MCCANN: You bet, Kris.

OSBORN: Well, there have been some victories, but is the war being lost? A provocative question. Tomorrow night, CNN Presents comes to you live, "War On Terrorism: Mission Impossible?" CNN's investigative team and our correspondents around the world look closely at the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the recent string of terror attacks. That's tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. Tune in for it.


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