To be sure, waterboarding can be torture, depending on how it is carried out. “You can do waterboarding lots of different ways, “says former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, “you can get to the point that the person is actually drowning,” That would be torture- but that is not how the technique is carried out by the CIA.
-Pg 131, Courting Disaster
John McCain is intimately familiar with torture, having endured it at the hands of his Vietnamese captors during his years as a POW.
But he was never waterboarded. Not by the Spanish Inquisition. Not by the Japanese military. Not by the restrictive nature of the program as run by our CIA. And to be clear, he was tortured not to extract information that might save lives; he was tortured out of cruelty for torture’s sake; and he was tortured to elicit a false confession for propaganda purposes. EITs are not used to obtain either confessions or information.
Nor was McCain ever an interrogator. Not in the FBI. Not in the CIA. Not in the military.
Yet McCain, like “Matthew Alexander”, commands “authority” and respect on the topic matter because of their respective experiences.
The CIA interrogators involved in the program that used EITs on 30 out of 100 high value detainees that came into their hands (the other 2/3rds having received standard interrogation practices) are not at liberty to write books nor defend themselves from slander and distortions in the media; nor are they free to counter Alexander’s testimony that comes buttressed with credible experience as a successful military interrogator.
In Marc Thiessen’s book, Courting Disaster, the former Bush speech writer does a great job at trying to rectify the misperceptions and distortions regarding the nature of the CIA program that has been so relentlessly villified.
In one chapter (read pages 158-164), Thiessen also includes the opinions of 3 distinguished former Vietnam POWs to counteract the opinion of John McCain.
George Everett Day, Leo Thorsness, Jeremiah Denton are highly decorated war veterans and former POWs who experienced terrible torture at the hands of their captors. They scoff at the notion that what the CIA subjected their detainees to, up to and including waterboarding, even remotely amounts to their definition of torture.
Greg Sargent and Tom Ricks linked to John McCain’s opinion piece last week, which refutes Michael Mukasey’s claim that the intell information that led us to bin Laden can trace its lineage back to the CIA program that ran under the previous administration. McCain writes:
Former attorney general Michael Mukasey recently claimed that “the intelligence that led to bin Laden . . . began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information — including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.” That is false.
I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. 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.
In fact, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator — none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden — was obtained through standard, noncoercive means.
Thiessen was on O’Reilly and provides the counterpunch:
O’REILLY: Let’s zero in on the courier who was the key to finding bin Laden. I understand that the — that KSM and another guy who is subjected to enhanced interrogation mentioned…
THIESSEN: Abu Faraj al-Libi.
O’REILLY: OK, mentioned the courier, pick it up.
THIESSEN: Well, I mean, they — we had very little information about Al Qaeda’s courier networks. What happened was first — Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who were the first guys brought into the program, gave us some general information about couriers and some code names for those folks. When KSM was interrogated after he underwent waterboarding; not during it, afterwards. When he was going — when he was being questioned, he acknowledged that he — they had given us the name of this fellow al-Kuwaiti which was a nom de guerre and KSM admitted that he knew him. Then in 2004, we captured a fellow named Hassan Ghul who was a senior Al Qaeda operative. He was captured in Iraq, and he told us that this courier al-Kuwaiti was a key lieutenant of KSM’s successor Abu Faraj al-Libi…
O’REILLY: Now, did he do that under duress — let me just — did he do that under duress or did he just tell us?
THIESSEN: Well, this is the thing that people don’t understand. You’re hearing a lot of the left is trying — the deniers of this program are trying to say, well did they use — did they tell us this under waterboarding or under standard interrogation later and that misunderstands how interrogation works. Enhanced interrogation was never used to get intelligence; it was used to get cooperation. So you took a detainee like KSM, who is in the state of total resistance, and you used the enhanced interrogation techniques to bring him to a state of cooperation. And when he’s under enhanced interrogation techniques, they are asking him questions they already know the answers to in order to gauge whether he had stopped lying and made the decision to cooperate. And then, once he starts cooperating, the technique stops. In most cases with enhanced interrogation, the detainees went under them for a couple of days. And KSM — he was a really tough, tough guy. He was — he went for about a month. But once that month ended, the interrogation, the enhanced interrogations stopped and we had a — they had a conversation with him like you and I are speaking today.
O’REILLY: All right. So you are convinced then that the information provided by KSM and then the other guy Ghoul who was captured a couple of years later…
O’REILLY: …pinpointed for the CIA this courier and then they started to tail him and that led to bin Laden’s demise. Is that correct?
THIESSEN: Well, actually, yes, well, Abu Faraj, I’m sorry Hassan Ghul told us that he was a key operative of Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was KSM’s successor after he was captured. So they capture Abu Faraj in 2005 and he’s brought into the CIA interrogation program. He’s not waterboarded, but he undergoes enhanced interrogation and was resistant, brought into a state of cooperation. And then, he starts giving them information about the courier networks and he’s identifying individuals and giving them information about how the couriers operate, where the drops are and so on and so forth. And then they ask them about al-Kuwaiti, and he says I don’t know him. And you know, people say that’s proof that he, well, he lied. But we knew that he knew him because Abu — because Hassan Ghul had told us that he was his key deputy. So one — that was the red flag that told the CIA this is the guy he’s protecting. This is the guy we have to go after. So if it had not been for that process, starting with Abu Zubaydah in 2002, identifying the names; KSM confirming the name; Hassan Ghul telling us he was Faraj’s deputy and then Faraj denying that he even knew the guy, then they — the CIA would have never known this is the guy to zero in on and they went after him, found him and it took years to do it. Found him and eventually followed him to bin Laden’s lair.
So much of what we’ve learned about al Qaeda, so many of the operations that have since been carried out in killing and capturing operatives, subsequently leading to more info and more kills and captures, can all be traced back to what we began learning about the al Qaeda network from CIA interrogations of HVTs. Waterboarding Zubaydah and KSM had a cascading effect, unlocking intell information that did not require more wateboardings, but which can trace their intell lineage back to the CIA program. By 2006, over half of what we knew about al Qaeda had come out of the CIA program.
Finally, going back to McCain:
I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.
And McCain, from personal experience, broke and his torturers were able to obtain a written confession from him. A lie. But again, the purpose of waterboarding and other EITs was not to gain confessions or intell but to achieve a state of cooperation from the detainees.
There’s a world of difference between “us” and “them”. Americans need not feel shame over the CIA program that included coercive interrogation techniques; that included waterboarding (only 3!). We did not trade our American values for security.
I’m not a “torture apologist”. For the most part, I stand with those who claim “torture doesn’t work” (although, there is the issue of “moral casuistry”). Call me a “torture denier” instead.