CIA’s Claims That Torture Stopped ‘Karachi Plots’ Are Baseless, Senate Report Says

The nation’s leading spy agency has long claimed credit for preventing a devastating attack in Pakistan. The Senate report says that’s a lie.

Pakistani police search a car at a roadb
Pakistani police search a car at a roadblock on a street linked to the US consulate in Karachi on May 3, 2011. The United States closed two of its consulates in Pakistan to the public until further notice, a day after Osama bin Laden was killed near the capital Islamabad. US officials are puzzled by the comfortable surroundings of the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden lived, and the fact that his presence in a fortified, upscale building did not attract Pakistani authorities' suspicions. AFP PHOTO/Asif HASSAN (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The CIA has long claimed that it stopped a plan to destroy the U.S. Consulate in the Pakistani city of Karachi thanks to intelligence gleaned from the spy agency’s brutal interrogations of a pair of senior al Qaeda operatives.

But in their long-awaited report on the agency’s torture practices, Senate investigators bluntly concluded that the agency misled U.S. officials for years by claiming credit for stopping the so-called Karachi Plots. Instead, the report says, the terror attacks were disrupted after Pakistani authorities arrested Khallad bin Attash and Ammar al-Baluchi — two al Qaeda operatives who are still in U.S. custody — and confiscated large quantities of explosives in a raid on April 29, 2003, weeks before they were handed over to the CIA.

“Over a period of years, the CIA provided the thwarting of the Karachi Plot(s) as evidence for the effectiveness of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques,” according to the Senate report. “These CIA representations were inaccurate.”

The CIA has disputed broad swaths of the Senate report, but conceded in its own written response that it misstated the value of the Karachi intelligence. The agency “acknowledges that on several occasions … we mischaracterized the impact of the reporting we acquired from detainees on the Karachi plots,” the CIA said in a document posted on its website.

That is a notable concession for the agency, which has for years argued that its brutal interrogations of terror suspects — which included waterboarding militants and threatening to kill their children, spouses, and parents — produced actionable intelligence that saved American lives in places like Karachi.

The agency made those arguments both publicly and privately. In briefings prepared for President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other top officials between 2003 and 2009, the CIA asserted that torture helped prevent the Pakistan attacks, according to the Senate report.

“I can say that questioning the detainees in this program has given us information that has saved innocent lives by helping us stop new attacks, here in the United States and across the world,” Bush said a Sept. 6, 2006, speech. He went on to say that such techniques have “helped stop a planned attack on U.S. — on the U.S. Consulate in Karachi using car bombs and motorcycle bombs.”

In 17 out of 20 briefings and memoranda that the CIA provided to officials from the Bush administration and the Justice Department over a six-year period, the agency wrongly claimed that torture led to the intelligence needed to prevent the attacks.

“A review of CIA operational cables and other documents found that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques — to include waterboard — played no role in the disruption of the Karachi Plot(s),” the report found.

The report says credit for unraveling the plot should instead go to Pakistani authorities, who got Baluchi to confess to planning attacks on the U.S. Consulate without resorting to torture. Baluchi and bin Attash were transferred to CIA custody on May 17, 2003. The next day the CIA sent two intelligence reports claiming that the men admitted to plotting to blow up the facility after being subjected to so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. The Senate report doesn’t specify what was done to them.

Those claims, which ultimately made it into Bush’s speech, were immediately disputed by CIA personnel in Karachi, the Senate investigation found. CIA officers “had become aware of most of this reporting either through previous information or through interviews of al-Baluchi and [Khallad bin] Attash prior to their transfer out of Karachi” into the agency’s hands, according to a cable the Senate investigation cited.

The CIA, while broadly agreeing with the Senate committee’s findings on the Karachi Plots, quibbled about some particulars and said it gleaned valuable intelligence from its brutal interrogations of the two terror suspects.

“We said the information ‘helped stop a planned attack on the US Consulate in Karachi,’ when we should have said it ‘revealed ongoing attack plotting against the US official presence in Karachi that prompted the Consulate to take further steps to protect its officers,'” the agency said in a statement.

In its rebuttal, the CIA said the planned attack against the consulate in Karachi wasn’t the only terror plot disrupted thanks to intelligence obtained through its interrogations. “That was only one of several ‘Karachi plots,’” the agency said. “Ammar and Khallad provided new information on other attack plans in Karachi after entering CIA custody and undergoing enhanced interrogation techniques.”

The differences between the Senate investigation and the CIA’s own version appear to emerge from a series of arrests of terror suspects made by Pakistani officials and CIA-led raids in 2002 and 2003 and information obtained from those arrests by Pakistani authorities before the detainees were transferred to CIA custody.

The first clue about terror plots being planned in Karachi came after Pakistan raided an al Qaeda safe house there on Sept. 11, 2002, according to the Senate investigation. The raid netted a letter dated May 2002 from 9/11 attack mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to an al Qaeda operative named Hamza al-Zubayr, who was killed in the operation. The men were apparently preparing for an attack on at least one hotel in the city.

“Dear Brother, we have the green light for the hotels,” Mohammed wrote in the letter, which came to be known as the “perfume letter” for its use of the code word “perfume.” The letter went on to suggest “making it three instead of one.”

A month after the raid on the safe house, the CIA located the militants named in the letter, which helped the Pakistanis conduct raids, according to the Senate investigation. Mohammed, also known as KSM, was arrested in a CIA-led raid on March 1, 2003.

The April 29, 2003, raid that led to the arrests of bin Attash and Baluchi completed the capture of all those identified in the letter and associated with plots to attack the U.S. Consulate, according to the report.

Offering a different account of how information on the planned consulate attack was obtained, the CIA disputed the Senate report’s contention that Pakistani authorities were able to get details of the plot before the terror suspects were transferred to CIA custody.

After his arrest, Baluchi told his captors he planned to attack the U.S. Consulate using an explosives-filled helicopter. But he reversed himself on May 11 and said there were no plans to attack the facility, according to the CIA document.

After he was taken into CIA custody on May 17 and tortured, Baluchi “revealed that the plan was to use a motorcycle bomb and a car bomb in a single, coordinated attack at the end of May or early June, and he pointed to the location on the Consulate’s perimeter wall where the attack would occur,” the CIA said.

The other detainee — bin Attash — had told the Pakistanis that he had no knowledge of pending attacks, according to the CIA. But after being taken into CIA custody and brutalized, he confirmed Baluchi’s account and claimed that Mohammed had approved plans in February 2003 to attack the U.S. Consulate, according to the CIA rebuttal.

The explosives meant to attack three Karachi hotels and mentioned in the “perfume letter” by Mohammed were later redirected to be used in attacking the American Consulate, according to the CIA, which attributed the information as being obtained from bin Attash. Under torture but before he was waterboarded, Mohammed clarified that perfume was a code word for conventional explosives, according to the CIA.

Still, the spy agency admitted, “we have no information specifically indicating whether the additional Karachi plotting was disrupted” by the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation measures, “by Pakistan’s detention of Ammar, Khallad, and other extremists, or by other unknown factors” — largely undercutting its years-long claim that torture yielded specific actionable intelligence that led to stopping attacks.

Photo: Asif Hassan, AFP / Getty Images

 Twitter: @g_ratnam

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola