Torture, the CIA and Hulu’s 'The Looming Tower': An Interview With Ali Soufan

It’s easy to understand why Hulu would turn Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Looming Tower, into a TV series. Published in 2006, his deep-dive account of the long history of Middle Eastern politics and Islamic militant rivalries that culminated in the birth of Al-Qaeda was eminently cinematic. The result is a gripping 10-episode adaptation, which began streaming on February 28. The series concentrates on the poisonous FBI-CIA rivalries and the feckless policies of two administrations—policies that effectively provided Osama bin Laden’s militant network with an opportunity.

As the 9/11 plot developed in America in the summer of 2001, one of the leading FBI agents assigned to stop it was Lebanese-born Ali Soufan (played by Tahar Rahim). As the series unfolds, he and his boss, John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), encounter CIA resistance to sharing information on Al-Qaeda militants who have slipped into the U.S. The CIA’s behavior is just one of the enduring mysteries explored in the docudrama.

“There was never true accountability for the failure to prevent 9/11,” says Soufan, now CEO of a private intelligence company. “Hopefully, this show can bring some understanding to what happened and put us closer to closure.”

Everybody knows what happened on 9/11. So what’s new here? What do you want viewers to take away from The Looming Tower?
The story of 9/11 has been documented by the 9/11 Commission and other inquiries, but now, thanks to Hulu, we are able to see it unfold on a television screen and process what happened in a way that we, as a nation, have not yet been able to do. As they say, if we fail to learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it, and unfortunately there was never true accountability for the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. So hopefully, after 17 years, the show can bring some understanding of what happened and, in a way, put us closer towards closure.

Tahar Rahim sounds uncannily like you. Did you spend a lot of time together?
He is a brilliant French actor, and we have become close friends since production of this show began. We spoke a lot on the phone and met in person when he was deciding whether or not to take the role. Tahar was skeptical of Hollywood and English-speaking roles in general because he was tired of the stereotyping that takes place in the industry, with actors of Arab descent always playing terrorists. We both come from Muslim immigrant backgrounds, myself from Lebanon and Tahar’s family from Algeria, and we definitely bonded over challenging these sorts of stereotypes.

The Looming Tower makes clear how few Arabic speakers worked at the FBI. Has the FBI changed much since then?
I was one of only eight Arabic speakers in the FBI at the time—my language skills and my ability to really understand the cultural and religious nuances were really important to my work. I am not sure about the numbers of Arabic speakers today, but I very much hope the intelligence services are making a priority of attracting men and women from diverse backgrounds and with diverse skills. A crucial lesson from that time period was that we had gaps in our ability to understand and assess threats because we didn’t have people with the skills, backgrounds and experience necessary to do so. I hope that lesson has been learned.

You were probably the leading FBI agent to stand up against CIA torture as inhumane, illegal and impractical. How do you feel about Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel, who was deeply involved in the torture, to run the CIA?
I know firsthand both how brutal and how counterproductive torture is—and testified to that effect under oath in front of Congress. It is not just about the moral issue, although that’s crucially important to discuss openly. The torture program has gotten in the way of justice. We still cannot prosecute terrorists, including the masterminds behind the U.S.S. Cole and 9/11 attacks, in large part because the evidence against them is unnecessarily tainted by torture.

The Haspel nomination exemplifies the fact that there has never been accountability for the torture committed and condoned in the years after 9/11. Haspel’s confirmation hearings must include an airing of these issues. We must ask her what she thinks about the techniques that were used under her supervision. The American public deserves to know if she condoned torture during her time running a CIA black site or was she just following a superior’s orders. The so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” are now illegal in the United States, so if she did condone those actions in the past, have her feelings changed over the years? These are fair questions that must be asked. While Gina Haspel deserves a confirmation hearing, America deserves the truth.

Do you think the CIA will return to torture?
I have a lot of faith in our country and in our intelligence community. It is very promising that these difficult matters are being discussed openly and honestly in the media; we need to air these issues out in public. If the upcoming confirmation hearings help to provide true accountability for the actions taken by Haspel and others in the past—including committing torture and the destruction of evidence of that torture—that could go a long way to ensuring that this country will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Torture is against American values and norms. It gravely damaged our national security, and it would be an unequivocal mistake to do it again.

What's your favorite scene in the show?
I would not say that I have a favorite, but I am haunted by one in particular. In the first episode, there is a moment when John O’Neill tells Martin Schmidt [the CIA counterterrorism unit chief played by Peter Sarsgaard] that if one American gets killed because of information the CIA is withholding from the FBI and others, he would hold Schmidt to account. He uses more colorful language than that, but that was what O’Neill meant. The haunting thing is that it was John himself who got killed because of the CIA not sharing that information. He was one of the Americans who died in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11.

Could Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State successfully mount another 9/11-style attack here?
It is highly unlikely, but nothing is impossible. We are much better today, but if we have learned anything over the years, it is to not underestimate the will and capability of our adversaries.

If you could have a one-on-one meeting with Donald Trump, what would you tell him?
Oh, that will never happen, but I would tell him that the most important job of a president is to lead, not mislead.

The Looming Tower, a Legendary Television production, is executive-produced by Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright.