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.
#ad#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.
#page#This should come as no surprise. Tom Joscelyn, the nonpareil terrorism researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, notes (here and here) that al-Kuwaiti’s name was given to the CIA during the questioning of Mohammed al-Qhatani, who was captured during the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001. Qhatani was the would-be 20th hijacker who was stopped from entering the United States during the latter stages of the 9/11 plot, and he became cooperative only after being subjected to harsh interrogation (though he was not waterboarded). Qhatani knew al-Kuwaiti because, at the direction of KSM, al-Kuwaiti had trained him in the use of e-mail and other communications aspects of the 9/11 plot. KSM, of course, was captured in 2003 largely because of information learned in the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, both of whom were waterboarded. As Mukasey correctly said, KSM himself broke after waterboarding and gave up, among many other things, al-Kuwaiti’s name.
#ad#So, putting Ghul to the side, the CIA independently knew al-Kuwaiti’s name and that he was an important member of al-Qaeda who had worked directly for KSM. This is not to say the information from Ghul was insignificant. We needn’t deprecate some sources in order to elevate others — that’s McCain’s game. Ghul’s interrogation was significant to the growing mosaic: revealing that the courier, al-Kuwaiti, was close to Faraj al-Libi, KSM’s successor as al-Qaeda’s operations chief.
Moreover, it is absurd for McCain to use Ghul as the linchpin of his morality tale, pitting the purportedly unreliable “tortured” sources versus Ghul, whom readers are led to believe was questioned using conventional procedures — as McCain puts it, referring to Ghul, “we believe he was not tortured.”
In point of fact, as Judge Mukasey reaffirmed in his rebuttal to McCain’s op-ed, no one was tortured under the CIA procedures — the most extreme agency tactic, waterboarding (as carefully designed and implemented), did not come close to the legal line of torture. McCain, however, has been demagoguing harsh tactics as “torture” for seven years, and he has not limited this libel to torture — he cited all of the harsh tactics as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading,” working feverishly in the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 to have them banned. It is thus quite something for the demagogue to reverse course — because it happens to fit the narrative he’s trying to sell today: that Ghul wasn’t “tortured” just because he wasn’t waterboarded. U.S. officials acknowledge that he was subjected to several of the harsh tactics — stress positions, sleep deprivation, slamming into a (hollow) wall. If you’ve been following McCain’s histrionics on “torture” since 2004, you’d have to find Ghul every bit as tainted a source as KSM.
McCain curiously makes much of the fact that KSM and al-Libi sought to protect al-Kuwaiti — the former by minimizing his role, the latter by withholding his true name. But as any good interrogator will tell you (and as any layman who has ever sat on a jury can attest), what a witness lies about can be just as edifying as what he comes clean on. In this instance, given what the CIA knew about al-Kuwaiti from all sources, the lies and obfuscations of KSM and al-Libi served to underscore his importance — they were a boon, not a distraction.
What’s more, the misinformation did not come during the waterboarding. Thiessen points out that, if an interrogator asked questions at all while the abusive tactics were being employed, they were questions to which he knew the answers. The purpose of waterboarding (and some other harsh tactics) was not to get information while the tactic was being employed; the purpose was to break the source’s will. The misinformation from KSM and al-Libi, just like the accurate information they provided, came later. Once they became ostensibly cooperative, they then did what every ostensibly cooperative informant does: impart some true information and some untrue information. Determining which is which is the discipline of corroboration. Investigators and intelligence agents don’t stop when the source says something they want to hear — they compare it with other information they know, do follow-up investigation, and figure out whether the source is being straight.
Most disturbingly, though, McCain seems to have gone out of his way to minimize what the CIA learned when al-Libi was captured and turned over to the agency for questioning in 2005. There was a lot more to it than al-Kuwaiti. Al-Libi gave salient information that pointed to Abbottabad as bin Laden’s headquarters. It turns out that al-Libi was known as the “communications gateway” to bin Laden. As Thiessen relates, drawing on a recent WikiLeaks disclosure, once al-Libi began talking, he
“reported on al-Qaeda’s methods for choosing and employing couriers, as well as preferred communications means.” Based on intelligence obtained from [al-Libi] and other CIA detainees, [the WikiLeaks document] states that “in July 2003, [al-Libi] received a letter from UBL’s designated courier” (to whom he referred by a false name, Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan) in which “UBL stated [that al-Libi] would be the official messenger between UBL and others in Pakistan.” The file also notes a vital piece of intelligence: To better carry out his new duties “in mid-2003, [al-Libi] moved his family to Abbottabad . . . and worked between Abbottabad and Peshawar.”
#page#Consequently, even without Ghul, the CIA would have known that bin Laden could be in the Abbottabad vicinity, because al-Libi had relocated there specifically to help him relay messages; that bin Laden communicated with his terror network through a group of trusted couriers; and that al-Kuwaiti was an important al-Qaeda member who had been a protégé in Pakistan of al-Libi’s predecessor, KSM. In considering the intelligence package that led to the bin Laden raid, the contribution of these details — the fruits of cooperation coerced through harsh interrogation — is obvious.
#ad#There has always been a good-faith argument against harsh interrogation tactics. One needn’t agree with it to grasp its force: The United States should never engage in abusive practices that suggest torture because it betrays core principles of decency and due process to which we are committed. But McCain and his adherents won’t make their principled stand there, because it would require them to say what they are unwilling to say: Put to the unsavory choice, they would prefer to see innocent people — perhaps thousands of Americans — die than tolerate the slightest physical abuse of any morally culpable terrorist who is withholding life-saving information. So instead they play the game of deny, deny, deny — no matter how clear it is that harsh interrogations were effective and led to concrete results: attacks thwarted and terrorists captured or killed. You are to take it as gospel that if a source was subjected to harsh tactics, you can’t believe a word he says.
Except, of course, when it suits other political objectives. Senator McCain very publicly championed the 9/11 Commission. As he contemplated another White House bid, he saw high-profile support of the commission’s investigation — no matter how much of a dog-and-pony show it became — as a way to showcase his leadership on the great national-security issue of our time. Being a creature of Washington, McCain was also drawn to the commission’s Washington approach: When our ungainly government fails to prevent a quite preventable atrocity because its endless layers of bureaucracy fail to communicate with each other, the answer is to add more layers, more bureaucracy, and, of course, more money.
In its final report, the commission sought an extensive overhaul of the intelligence community and of homeland security. In large part, the commission justified its proposals based on what its investigation had concluded about al-Qaeda: the terror network’s history, organization, goals, and practices. McCain was so impressed by the product that, in 2004, he proposed the 9/11 Commission Implementation Act, seeking adoption of the commission’s suggested framework.
Have you had a look at the commission’s 2004 final report lately? It’s worth a gander, particularly chapters five and seven, as well as the related footnotes. Virtually everything the commission reported about al-Qaeda comes from the interrogations of KSM, Zubaydah, and other high-ranking jihadists who were subjected to harsh tactics. The commissioners never got to examine the sources in person; they relied on the classified reports of the sources’ debriefings by interrogators. Yet the report recites its findings as conclusive fact, generally without qualification.
There were no cautions from Senator McCain about the folly of relying on “torture” evidence. He evidently thought the CIA interrogations laid a foundation plenty sturdy enough for reshaping the U.S. government, including its $40 billion–plus behemoth of an intelligence community. But now you’re to understand that the same interrogations had nothing to do with finding Osama bin Laden.
It takes a maverick.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: After the publication of this column, the author offered additional observations here.)
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.