Why "enhanced interrogation techniques" don't enhance U.S. interests.
Since he left office, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has been waging a lonesome jihad to defend the practices of the Bush administration during the “war on terror,” saying in an emblematic interview in February: “If it hadn’t been for what we did — with respect to the terrorist surveillance program, or enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees, the Patriot Act, and so forth — then we would have been attacked again. … Those policies we put in place, in my opinion, were absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the U.S.”
In a speech he gave three months later at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, Cheney said, “In top secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear. I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program.”
Cheney gave this speech at AEI the very same day that President Barack Obama, just a couple of miles away at the National Archives, was giving his own major speech on his administration’s revamped detention and interrogation policies. Giving such a dueling policy speech was something of a first for a just-stepped-down vice president, a job that is generally supposed to entail a comfortably obscure retirement fly-fishing and attending rubber-chicken fundraisers.
But Cheney did not go gently into that vice presidential night. At AEI Cheney amped up his own sky-is-falling rhetoric, claiming that the coercive interrogations of al Qaeda detainees had “prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.” Holy smokes!
Cheney’s AEI speech was essentially a remix of the arguments that he had made in the run-up to the Iraq war: that if only ordinary American citizens had seen the top secret information he had access to, they would be even more alarmed than he was. And the Bush administration had only prudently taken every measure necessary to keep Americans safe.
Hiding behind a wall of classification has been a quintessential Cheney trope. But that wall just crumbled.
On Monday Cheney released a statement — first reported through the reliably unchallenging conduit of The Weekly Standard‘s Stephen Hayes, who was also the amanuensis of Cheney’s authorized biography — in which the former vice president once again defended the Bush administration’s record on the coercive interrogations of al Qaeda members, stating that CIA documents declassified earlier this week “clearly demonstrate that the individuals subjected to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about al Qaeda. This intelligence saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks.”
Those documents include two CIA assessments from 2004 and 2005 of the information derived from what the U.S. government terms its “high-value detainees.” Cheney had pressed the agency to release those assessments because he said that they would substantiate his claims that coercive measures on al Qaeda prisoners had kept the United States safe.
So what do the newly released CIA documents show, in combination with the other records on the matter that are already in the public domain?
The first al Qaeda member to be subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” — an Orwellian locution we can simplify to coercive interrogation — was Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian al Qaeda logistician in his early 30s at the time. Abu Zubaydah was captured in March 2002 in a shootout in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in which he was shot three times and critically wounded. So grave was his condition that the CIA arranged for a leading surgeon from the Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore to fly to Pakistan to save his life.
Abu Zubaydah was the subject of intense interest from U.S. officials as they believed he was the first al Qaeda insider whom they could interrogate who might know what form the next terrorist attack could take. And so Abu Zubaydah was the first prisoner to be placed in a secret overseas CIA prison, this one located in Thailand.
There Abu Zubaydah was interrogated by Ali Soufan, one of the FBI’s few Arabic-speaking agents. Abu Zubaydah described Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al Qaeda’s operational commander, as the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and he confirmed that Mohammed’s alias was “Mukhtar,” an important clue in helping to track him down.
Abu Zubaydah’s confirmation of Mohammed’s role in the attacks on New York and Washington was arguably the single-most important piece of information uncovered about al Qaeda after 9/11, and it was discovered during the course of a standard interrogation without recourse to any form of coercion. Soufan told Newsweek, “We were able to get the information about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a couple of days.”
Abu Zubaydah also described an al Qaeda wannabe whose physical description jibed with that of Jose Padilla, an American small-time hood who would be arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in May 2002 and who was supposedly planning to detonate a radiological “dirty bomb” in the United States. Again, the information about Padilla was provided by Abu Zubaydah without coercive measures being applied.
Later, over Soufan’s vociferous objections, a CIA contractor stepped in to take over Abu Zubaydah’s interrogations. The FBI’s standard, noncoercive techniques were jettisoned, and Abu Zubaydah was stripped naked, deprived of sleep, subjected to loud noise and wide variations in temperature, and later waterboarded 83 times, a form of simulated drowning generally considered torture.
In the end, the multiple waterboardings of Abu Zubaydah provided no specific leads on any plots, according to the just-released CIA documents, though clearly his role as an al Qaeda logistician gave him insights into the organization and its personnel that were useful to the agency. There is no reason, however, to think that any of those insights could not have been garnered by standard interrogation techniques.
Following his March 2003 arrest in Pakistan, al Qaeda’s chief of operations, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), was also subjected to intensive coercive measures. KSM was taken to a secret CIA prison in northern Poland where he initially proved resistant to interrogation. In the words of the 2004 CIA inspector general’s report on detainees that was also released this week, “Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, an accomplished resistor, provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete.”
Following his defiance, KSM was subjected to a number of coercive interrogation techniques including being waterboarded 183 times and being told that his children — who were then being held in American and Pakistani custody — would be killed. KSM then provided a wealth of information about al Qaeda’s inner workings as well as details about past and future plots, much of which was detailed in the footnotes of the 9/11 Commission Report.
One such plot KSM offered up was a plan to attack London’s Heathrow Airport in 2003 using hijacked commercial jets. But, as Peter Clarke, Britain’s chief counterterrorism official at the time says, “It wasn’t at an advanced stage in the sense that there were people here in the U.K. doing it. If they had been, I’d have arrested them.” The “Heathrow plot” was, in other words, just talk.
The 2004 CIA report, titled “Khalid Shaykh Muhammad: Preeminent Source On Al-Qa’ida,” stated that “reporting from KSM has greatly advanced our understanding of al-Qa’ida’s anthrax program,” in particular about the role of a Malaysian scientist named Yazid Sufaat who was recruited by al Qaeda to research biological weapons. Sufaat, a biochemistry graduate of California State University, Sacramento, set up Green Laboratory Medicine Company for al Qaeda in southern Afghanistan in 2001 as a front company through which it was hoped that the terrorist group would acquire anthrax and other biological agents that could be used as weapons.
But what the CIA did not say in its 2004 report is that Sufaat was never able to buy or produce the right strain of anthrax suitable for a weapon. And so though KSM might have helped the CIA understand something of al Qaeda’s anthrax program, either he had little understanding of the science of biological weapons, and/or agency officials who wrote the report were also similarly handicapped. In fact, al Qaeda’s anthrax program was a big dud that never produced anything remotely threatening, a point that the CIA report is silent on.
An important piece of information that KSM did divulge, according to the 2004 CIA assessment, was “the crucial first link in the chain that led us to the capture” of a man named Hambali, whose real name is Riduan Isamuddin and who was the interface between al Qaeda and its Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah. Hambali was the mastermind of the October 2002 bombings of two nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia, that killed about 200, many of them Western tourists. According to the CIA, Hambali’s capture also led to the arrest of “more than a dozen Southeast Asian operatives slated for attacks against the US homeland.”
A 2005 top secret memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that was released by the Obama administration in April points out that KSM only gave up his plans for a “Second Wave” of attacks on the United States after he had been subjected to “enhanced techniques,” i.e. waterboarding and the like.
But did KSM’s coerced interrogations really lead to any substantive plots against the American homeland being averted? The short answer is no
A document that the U.S. government released back in 2006 around the same time that KSM was transferred out of his secret CIA prison to the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, offered details on the plots he had hatched against the United States:
KSM launched several plots targeting the US Homeland, including a plot in late 2001 to have
… suicide operatives hijack a plane over the Pacific and crash it into a skyscraper on the US West Coast; a plan in early 2002 to send al-Qa’ida operatives to conduct attacks in the U.S.; and a plot in early 2003 to employ a network of Pakistanis
… to smuggle explosives into New York and to target gas stations, railroad tracks, and a bridge in New York.
The newly released CIA documents merely rehash the range of anti-American plots cooked up by KSM that the government had already made public three years ago. And though this second wave of attacks all sounded very frightening, there is no indication that these plots, like the plan to attack Heathrow, were ever more than just talk.
The chances of success, for instance, of al Qaeda’s plan to attack the skyscraper on the West Coast — since identified as Los Angeles’ 73-story Library Tower, now known as the U.S. Bank Tower — were described by KSM in one court document to be “dismal.” KSM also explained in the same document that the second wave of al Qaeda attacks on the United States was put on the “back burner” after 9/11.
The CIA inspector general’s report on al Qaeda detainees also concluded that based on a review of KSM’s plots aimed at the United States, it “did not uncover any evidence that these plots were imminent,” but it did find that KSM “provided information that helped lead to the arrests of terrorists including Sayfullah Paracha and his son Uzair Paracha, businessmen who Khalid Shaykh Muhammad planned to use to smuggle explosives into the United States; Saleh Almari, a sleeper operative in New York; and Majid Khan, an operative who could enter the United States easily and was tasked to research attacks [redacted]. Khalid Shaykh Muhammad’s information also led to the investigation and prosecution of Iyman Faris, the truck driver arrested in early 2003 in Ohio.”
The man identified by the CIA inspector general as “Saleh Almari, a sleeper operative in New York” who KSM supposedly gave up to his interrogator appears, in fact, to be Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who was arrested on Dec. 12, 2001, in Peoria, Ill., a year and a half before KSM was captured.
The Parachas are a father-and-son team; the former, arrested in Thailand in the summer of 2003, is being held at Guantánamo and has yet to face trial, while his son was convicted in 2005 of providing “material support” to al Qaeda.
Majid Khan was arrested in Pakistan only four days after KSM was captured, suggesting that this lead came not from interrogations but from KSM’s computers and cell phones that were picked up when he was captured.
Of the terrorists, alleged and otherwise, cited by the CIA inspector general as being fingered by KSM during his coercive interrogations, only Ohio truck driver Iyman Faris was an actual al Qaeda foot soldier living in the United States who had serious intention to wreak havoc. However, he was not much of a competent terrorist: In 2002 he researched the feasibility of bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge by using a blowtorch, an enterprise akin to demolishing the Empire State Building with a firecracker.
If that was the most threatening plot the United States could discover by waterboarding the most senior al Qaeda member in U.S. custody, it was thin stuff indeed. And when English journalist David Rose asked FBI Director Robert Mueller last year whether he was aware of any attacks on the United States that had been disrupted thanks to intelligence obtained through “enhanced techniques,” Mueller replied: “I don’t believe that has been the case.”
The CIA inspector general also arrived at a similar conclusion when he judged that “it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks,” which was the supposed standard necessary for the imposition of coercive measures on the al Qaeda prisoners in the first place.
Historians will likely judge that the putative intelligence gains made by abusive interrogation techniques were easily outweighed by the damage they caused to the United States’ moral standing. That is certainly the view of Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, who said in an April 2009 statement, “These techniques have hurt our image around the world. … The damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.” Quite.