Shortly after Osama bin Laden met his demise at the hands of U.S. special forces, Michael Mukasey opined in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that harsh interrogation tactics had been key to identifying a courier, which, in turn, led to locating bin Laden’s compound. Such an assessment, from a highly respected former attorney general, was bound to be influential. Indeed, the CIA’s enhanced-interrogation program, used on a select few high-level al-Qaeda detainees following the 9/11 attacks, had figured prominently in Mukasey’s confirmation hearings. He had, at the behest of Congress, thoroughly reviewed the program upon taking the reins at DOJ. Americans would rightly assume that his opinion was not based on speculation; it was the informed judgment of a renowned former federal judge.
That made it too much for Sen. John McCain, a bitter opponent of the interrogation program. McCain has labeled the interrogation tactics “torture” and claims they do not work. At least, that’s what he often claims. Other times, he grudgingly concedes that they do work but says we shouldn’t use them, because they are unreliable and contrary to our values. Still other times, he says he’d expect officials to use them in a “ticking bomb” crisis even though they are unreliable and contrary to our values . . . and that therefore those officials shouldn’t be prosecuted for the “torture” — at least if the tactics worked — even though he wouldn’t want you to think non-prosecution means these tactics are permissible under any circumstances. Is that clear?
Safely returned to the Senate after the party establishment helped him turn back a conservative primary challenger, McCain is predictably back to his familiar role as the Obamedia’s favorite Republican — a distinction earned by ripping conservative Republicans. Thus did the senator take to the pages of the Washington Post to claim that Mukasey’s account was “false.”
Not “mistaken,” mind you, but “false.” It’s a stinging word, one that deprives Judge Mukasey of the assumption of good faith one might have expected an “exemplary statesman” to accord a jurist with a well-earned reputation for probity — though I confess that I am not surprised.
Nor, alas, is it surprising to find that it is McCain who is being disingenuous. As Marc Thiessen deduced in his own Washington Post column on Tuesday, McCain’s attacks are crafted to be technically correct (at least if we define “correct” with the same elasticity McCain uses to define “torture”), but they are “completely misleading.” Far from being false, Mukasey’s conclusion that the intelligence trail to bin Laden traced directly back to harsh interrogation, particularly (though by no means exclusively) the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is on the mark. McCain is the one twisting the facts — all the worse when one considers that the senator has been perfectly willing to rely on intelligence gleaned from “torture” when it suits his purposes.
Mukasey said that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in the “torrent of information” he’d surrendered after being broken by waterboarding, had given up the name of bin Laden’s courier. McCain countered (italics mine for reasons that will soon be apparent):
The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts, or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.
The shameful fact is that McCain is well aware that the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was known to the CIA long before the agency questioned this “detainee held in another country” — namely, Hassan Ghul, an al-Qaeda operative captured in Iraq in 2004. Yet McCain misleads readers into supposing that it was through Ghul that the CIA first learned of al-Kuwaiti’s existence. The senator does not make this claim outright, because he knows it would be false. Instead, he ambiguously conflates the first mention of the courier’s name with details like the description of the courier as “important,” as well as the courier’s whereabouts and his role in the terror network. By this sleight of hand, McCain gives himself deniability were anyone to call him on creating a misimpression (as Mukasey later did).
Thiessen, a former Bush adviser and author of Courting Disaster, the definitive account of Bush counterterrorism, is emphatic: He spoke with several former senior intelligence officials about McCain’s claims, and every one confirmed that the CIA learned about al-Kuwaiti and bin Laden’s courier system from the al-Qaeda detainees who were interrogated in the CIA program — not from Ghul or from an Iraqi government account of its own questioning of Ghul.