The most incredible and false claim in the Senate intelligence committee’s report on the CIA interrogation program is that the program was neither necessary nor effective in the agency’s post-9/11 pursuit of al-Qaeda. The report, written by the committee’s Democratic majority and disputed by the Republican minority and the CIA, uses information selectively and distorts facts to “prove” its point.
I won’t try to convince you that the program was the right thing to do — reasonable people will differ. Nor will I discuss the management of the program, other than to say that the record clearly shows the agency went to extraordinary lengths to assure it was both legal and approved — and the CIA halted the program when uncertain. What I want to address instead is the committee’s assertion that the intelligence produced by the interrogation program was not required to stop al-Qaeda terrorists.
The Democratic staffers who drafted the report assert the program contributed nothing important, apparently to bolster a bogus claim that the CIA lied. But let’s look at a few cases:
● Finding Osama bin Laden. The committee says the most critical information was acquired outside the interrogation program.
Not true. The man who led the United States to bin Laden, a courier known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, was mentioned by earlier sources but only as one of many associates bin Laden had years before. Detainees in the CIA interrogation program pushed Kuwaiti to the top of the list and caused the agency to focus tightly on him. The most specific information about the courier came from a detainee, Hassan Ghul, who, after interrogation, strengthened the case by telling of a specific message the courier had delivered for bin Laden to operations chief Abu Faraj al-Libi. Finally, interrogated senior operatives such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who by that time was enormously cooperative, lied when confronted with what we had learned about the courier. That was a dramatic tip-off that he was trying to protect bin Laden.
The staffers who prepared the Senate draft do not appear to understand the role in analysis of accumulating detail, corroboration and levels of confidence in making momentous decisions like the May 2011 Abbottabad operation that killed bin Laden.
Familiarity with this truth is presumably why former CIA director Leon Panetta, even though he does not support the program, said, “At bottom, we know we got important, even critical, intelligence from individuals” in it.
● Capturing 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. This led to disrupting numerous plots. But the committee says interrogation of detainees did not play a role in getting him because a CIA asset (not a terrorist detainee) helped us. This is astounding to those of us involved in capture operations. In fact, interrogated detainees were essential to connecting the source to Mohammed. The CIA will not permit me to reveal the operational details — a classic problem for intelligence officers seeking to defend against outlandish charges.
● Capturing Southeast Asian terrorist leader Riduan Isamuddin (“Hambali”). The committee says interrogation played no role in bringing down this architect of the 2002 Bali bombings. This is nonsense. After interrogation, Khalid Sheik Mohammed told us he transferred money to Hambali via a certain individual to finance attacks in Asia. This triggered a string of captures across two continents that led us to Hambali in Southeast Asia.
● Disrupting a “second wave” plot on the U.S. West Coast. The committee says a source run by another country mentioned a plot to use airplanes to strike West Coast targets. But that’s all we knew — none of the details needed to stop it.
That information came from detainees, starting with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who told us after interrogation that Hambali would replace him in this plot. This drove our effort to find Hambali. After that capture, Mohammed said Hambali’s brother would take over. We located him and found he had recruited 17 Southeast Asians and was apparently trying to arrange flight training for them to attack the West Coast.
● Disrupting plots to bomb Karachi hotels. The committee says interrogation played no role in heading off attacks on the Pakistani hotels, where U.S. and other Western visitors stayed. But it leaves out the fact that detainee Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, provided information on how to locate al-Qaeda “safe houses” in Karachi. One of these provided us a letter that tipped us to the plots. That is how those famous “dots” really get connected.
To drive home their points, the committee frequently cherry-picks documents. It describes officers expressing concern via e-mail that they will be “ostracized” for saying that certain detainees “did not tell us everything.” But the staff leaves out the critical context: The CIA officers were actually discussing their dismay over the agency’s decision to cease the interrogation program, causing the loss of important intelligence information.
Many administration and congressional officials ritualistically say we will never know whether we could have gotten important information another way. This is a dodge wrapped in political correctness. We could say that about all intelligence successes. We’ll never know, for example, what intelligence is missed when capture is declared too difficult and terrorists are killed from the air.
The point is we did succeed in getting vital information — during a national emergency when time was limited by the great urgency of a clock ticking on the next plot.
Terrorists had just killed thousands of Americans, and we felt a deep responsibility for ensuring they could not do it again.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Post.