By Aram Roston
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In the 2012 Hollywood hit “Zero Dark Thirty,” a red-haired Central Intelligence Agency analyst played by Jessica Chastain travels to a secret CIA prison and watches a colleague waterboard a screaming Al Qaeda suspect, then lock him in a box a little bigger than a mini-fridge, to make him talk.
In 2002, red-haired CIA analyst Alfreda Scheuer, then known by her maiden name Bikowsky, traveled to a secret CIA prison to watch the torture of Al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded and locked in a “dog box,” Senate investigators reported.
The Central Intelligence Agency had granted the filmmakers unprecedented access to agency officials, and outlets from NBC News to The New Yorker reported that Chastain’s character was patterned partially on Scheuer, citing her position but omitting her name because the agency said her work was classified.
For two decades Scheuer was a central figure in some of the major controversies of America’s war on Islamist extremist groups, including secret detention centers and brutal interrogations. CIA operatives normally operate in a dark, shadowy world, but Scheuer’s experiences found the spotlight.
Scheuer retired from her most recent role as deputy chief of Homeland and Strategic Threats late in 2021 and agreed to talk to Reuters this year. It’s the first interview she’s ever done, she said, and she decided to speak to make clear she was not forced out of the agency but left on her own terms. By policy, the CIA doesn’t discuss individual employees or confirm whether they worked at the agency.
Over several calls that lasted two and half hours, Scheuer said she couldn’t discuss individual cases because they were classified. But in a broad sense, she said waterboarding cited in government reports was not torture, insisted such techniques can work and said any criticism of her was largely the result of her taking risks to combat terrorism.
“I got bloodied,” she said, alluding to criticism of her agency in government and media reports, “and kept coming back to try again and again to do something. I’m proud that I wasn’t on the sidelines. I didn’t bury my head in the sand.”
The New Yorker once dubbed Scheuer, again citing her position but omitting her name, as the “Queen of Torture,” writing that “she gleefully participated in torture sessions.”
Scheuer called the description, which found its way into multiple media reports, false and a caricature. She believes a male operative would not have been described the same way.
“I got that title because I was in the arena,” she said. “In fact, I raised my hand loud and proud and you know, I don’t regret it at all.”
A Senate investigation does not allege Scheuer personally tortured any suspects. She said her role was as a “subject matter expert,” not an interrogator.
“There is a very clear line between an interrogator and a debriefer,” she said. “A debriefer is a subject matter expert who asks questions.”
The CIA’s press secretary, Susan Miller, declined to comment about Scheuer, but said simply: “CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques ended in 2007.”
Now out of the CIA, Scheuer’s career has taken a turn: She is a “life coach,” running a business called YBeU Beauty, focusing on helping women “look good, feel good, and do good.” It is a world removed from her prior life, with the website featuring photos of her, thoughtful and confident.
“I know what it’s like to leave your comfort zone to try something new,” she writes on the site. “I had finished a three decades + career as a senior government executive leading teams, mostly females, tasked with no-fail missions, taking smart risks, and even making life-and-death decisions. I loved every minute of it.”
‘BUMP IN THE NIGHT’
Scheuer says she was recruited to the CIA while a graduate student at Tuft University’s Fletcher School in 1988 by the now-deceased CIA officer Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, who founded the agency’s Counterterrorism Center. Clarridge would go on to face a perjury indictment for his testimony about the Iran-Contra affair. He was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush before trial.
In a job interview conducted by phone, she said, “He asked me what the hell was I thinking and why did I want to come work in the center,” the insider nickname for the CIA.
“I believed in things that go bump in the night and I wanted to do something about it,” she said she replied. “He just kind of laughed and he seemed satisfied with that.”
By “things that go bump in the night,” she said, she meant evil, “and it can prevail if good people don’t do something about it.”
She started as a summer graduate intern at the CIA, she said, and then, in 1990, became a staffer. Early on, she said, her focus was on state-sponsored groups such as Hezbollah.
But that shifted. In 1996, the CIA started a unit specifically to target Osama Bin Laden, who was emerging as a new phenomenon in extremism. The “Zero Dark Thirty” main character is thought to be based on an amalgam of CIA operatives, including Scheuer, though she was not central in the quest to hunt down Bin Laden.
The new unit was called “Alec Station,” headed by a CIA analyst named Michael Scheuer. She told Reuters she joined Alec Station in 1999, after Michael Scheuer had left as chief. They married in 2014 and she took his name.
Michael Scheuer has in recent years espoused conspiracy theories, and called on then President Donald Trump to impose martial law after he lost the election. He has said QAnon, the bogus conspiracy theory that Trump was battling pedophiles among Democrats, Hollywood and the “deep state,” has often been correct. Michael Scheuer declined an interview request, telling Reuters: “This is her show. I’m not going to participate.”
Scheuer will not say if she agreed with her husband’s ideas but said she debates him on some issues. “He doesn’t always get a fair deal,” she said.
Over two decades ago, as the threat from Al Qaeda grew and its members plotted to hijack U.S. airliners and fly them into the World Trade Center, she was in the thick of the intelligence fight.
The CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were supposed to work together to combat Al Qaeda, but the cooperation was fraught with miscommunication and missteps, government reports say. Better coordination, federal inquiries concluded, could have helped the U.S. identify or question potential terrorists before 9/11.
After joining Alec Station, Scheuer rose to deputy chief and then, she says, its chief.
A 2005 CIA Inspector General report said the CIA “failed to pass the travel information” about Al Qaeda attackers to the FBI before 9/11. “Cultural walls – real and perceived – continued to hamper coordination” between the FBI and CIA, said then-FBI director Robert Mueller.
Scheuer disputes that the CIA was at fault but instead questioned the FBI’s priorities. “FBI was very, very, very focused on building a legal case and not trying to, you know, prevent an attack,” she said.
Mark Rossini, a former FBI agent who worked with the CIA at the time, criticized the assertion. “She’s flat out wrong,” he said. “What a bunch of insulting horseshit. Holy Christmas!”
On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda hijackers crashed four planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Soon after, the CIA pushed an “enhanced interrogation” program that rapidly altered the way the U.S. gathered intelligence and permitted torture and a web of secret prisons in Thailand, Poland and Lithuania.
Some details of the CIA’s actions have been exposed in a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation in 2014, and in court cases. The Senate report cites Scheuer over 20 times regarding the effectiveness of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques, though her name is redacted and she is referred to as the “Deputy Chief of Alec Station.”
The first subject of officially sanctioned torture was Abu Zubaydah, captured in Afghanistan in 2002 and suspected erroneously at the time of being a major figure in Al Qaeda. Scheuer flew to the CIA’s black site in Thailand, referred to in the Senate report as “DETENTION SITE GREEN,” to watch Abu Zubaydah.
Interrogators on the scene had said they believed he had no more intelligence to share. But since headquarters wanted the questioning to continue, Scheuer and a legal officer arrived “to observe the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.”
“I won’t get into the details of what I saw,” Scheuer said, but added: “We took it as a solemn duty to get to the truth to save other lives. Everyone I saw conducted themselves with the utmost professionalism. It doesn’t mean I took any joy in it.”
For 20 days, Abu Zubaydah was subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques on a near 24-hour-per-day basis,” the Senate report found. He was waterboarded two to four times a day, kept nearly naked and locked in a larger coffin-like box or a smaller “dog-box.”
Abu Zubaydah, who has never been charged, remains detained 20 years later at Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. Joseph Margulies, one of his lawyers, said classification rules preclude him from discussing whether his client remembered Scheuer. “This is how torture became embedded,” he told Reuters. “This is, ‘We had to do it.’ Man, that’s how torture became part of American life.”
Senate investigators also said Scheuer flew to Poland, to another black site, to debrief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, as he was being tortured. He underwent “standing sleep deprivation” and was waterboarded 183 times.
Senate investigators say Scheuer questioned Mohammed during an intense torture session, after emailing he was “gonna be hatin’ life on this one.” Reuters couldn’t determine who she emailed. The investigators said she misread intelligence from another detainee about Black American Muslims in Afghanistan and asked Mohammed about an allegation no one had made: that he planned to recruit Black Americans in the United States for an attack. Under torture, the report said, Mohammed appeared to fabricate such a plot.
Scheuer said she did not make inaccurate claims. “The intelligence that we got was exceptionally good,” she said. “And was, I mean, could not be better than from the horse’s mouth.”
She added: “Everything was done with a clear purpose to obtain intelligence that we needed to thwart the next attack and to find the rest of the network. Period.”
Scheuer emerged in the public eye in 2005, after the “extraordinary rendition” of Khalid El Masri, an innocent man. Extraordinary rendition was the term used for the capture and imprisonment of suspects, and transfers to other countries, without warrants, arrests, extradition or courts.
El Masri was a German citizen whose name resembled the nom-de-guerre of a suspected 9/11 associate. The CIA flew him from the Balkans to Kabul and threw him incommunicado into a small cell with a bucket for a toilet for four months, in a prison called the “Salt Pit.” All along, government investigators found, it should have been clear he was the wrong man.
CIA officials and reports said Scheuer pushed to imprison El Masri. A Senate report said she was not disciplined even though she advocated strongly for his detention. A CIA IG report concluded that Alec Station “exaggerated the nature of the data” linking him to terrorism. Scheuer said she did not want to “relitigate” the matter, but added, “I do just want to communicate that I don’t have any regrets.”
After that case, the press began writing about her, including a 2005 Washington Post story citing her “spiked hair that matched her in-your-face personality.” She said it was telling that news accounts referred to her “spiked hair” style, or, in another case, mentioned “red lipstick.”
Scheuer said she has never worn red lipstick. “There was definitely a contingent of old school – you know – old boy network types who resented me,” she added.
(Reporting in Washington by Aram Roston. Editing by Ronnie Greene)