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,
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
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."
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.
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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
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
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."
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