Illustration by Tomi Um
Illustration by Tomi Um

The defense of Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri -- the mastermind in the bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in 2000 -- has received a boost from a surprising source: Jose Rodriguez, a former high-ranking CIA official.

Thankfully, the prosecution has voluminous evidence -- confessions from al-Qaeda members and even interviews with Nashiri himself -- that contradict Rodriguez’s version of history.

In a new book, Rodriguez takes responsibility for initiating the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists including Nashiri, and says that waterboarding “saved lives.” He also downplays Nashiri’s importance, writing that “ ‘mastermind’ was not an apt description of Nashiri” and endorsing a colleague’s characterization of Nashiri as “the dumbest terrorist I have ever met.”

Such talk is, of course, music to Nashiri’s ears: How can he be prosecuted as the planner of a complicated plot causing the death of 17 U.S. sailors if he’s a fool?

Although the term “mastermind” is often overused when it comes to al-Qaeda, it is very suitable for Nashiri. I spent years as part of a team of FBI and Navy investigators looking into the Cole bombing. We gained confessions from two members of Nashiri’s cell -- Jamal al-Badawi and Fahd al-Quso (who was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen this week) -- detailing their boss’s meticulous planning and ruthlessness. Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard, Abu Jandal, described Nashiri to my partner and me as efficient and evil, a man who would “commit a terrorist act in Mecca, inside the Kaaba itself, if necessary.” Salim Ahmed Hamdan, bin Laden’s personal driver, also gave us details of Nashiri’s lead role in the Cole attack.

The Ships Operation

By the time our investigation was complete, we had the full story of Nashiri’s actions from the point bin Laden asked him to take control over what they called the “ships operation.” We know how he experimented with his plan, refined and changed it, and handpicked his entire team. In putting together the personnel, Nashiri even maneuvered to ensure that his choices, rather than those favored by bin Laden, carried out the suicide mission. Despite such insubordination, bin Laden recognized Nashiri’s talent, and kept promoting him, ultimately to head of operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

I don’t find it surprising that Rodriguez would want to play down Nashiri’s importance. His reputation is at stake. Rodriguez is best known for having ordered the unauthorized destruction of videotapes of the interrogations of Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah, who ran an independent terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. (Despite a Justice Department investigation, no criminal charges were filed against Rodriguez, although the Central Intelligence Agency gave him a reprimand.)

Nonetheless, the government has my investigative notes, as well as daily reports, and the inspector general also found instances where Rodriguez’s team went far beyond what they had approval for and the legal guidelines set forth by the George W. Bush administration, including holding a drill to Nashiri’s head.

More broadly, Rodriguez’s claims that the enhanced-interrogation program was effective have been convincingly discredited by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Department of Justice and the CIA’s own inspector general. (Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee chairman, has even issued a news release detailing the flaws in claims by proponents of enhanced interrogation.)

Inexperienced Interrogators

The CIA inspector general’s report found that those put in charge of the program, including Rodriguez, had little if any experience with al-Qaeda or interrogation techniques before the Sept. 11 attacks. As a consequence they didn’t know what detainees should know, or how to get accurate information.

Rodriguez inadvertently admits to the failures of his techniques: He notes that in late 2002 when Nashiri was asked for details about a coming al-Qaeda attack, the suspect “insisted that he didn’t have any additional information.” Six months later, Nashiri’s former lieutenants in the Arabian Peninsula group struck: They stormed a compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing at least 31 people, among them nine Americans.

It has been a long wait -- far too long -- for the families of the 17 sailors killed aboard the Cole to see Nashiri face justice. It’s unfortunate that Rodriguez may have unintentionally aided in the defense of a cold-blooded killer. Luckily, thanks to the hard work of professionals, there is more than enough evidence to lock Nashiri up for several times over.

(Ali H. Soufan, the chief executive officer of the Soufan Group, a strategic consultancy, was an FBI special agent from 1997 to 2005. He was the case agent for the USS Cole investigation and interrogated al-Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere. He is the author of “The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Ali H. Soufan at media@soufangroup.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.