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October 9, 2009

Information That Saved Lives

CIA memos indicate that harsh interrogation methods did foil terrorist attacks. By Marc A. Thiessen.


In releasing highly classified documents on the CIA interrogation program last spring, President Obama declared that the techniques used to question captured terrorists did “not make us safer.” This is patently false. The proof is in the memos Obama made public—in sections that have gone virtually unreported in the media.

Consider the Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005. It notes that “the CIA believes ‘the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why Al-Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.’ . . . In particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including Khalid Sheik Muhammad (KSM) and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques.” The memo continues: “Before the CIA used enhanced techniques . . . KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, ‘Soon you will find out.’ ” Once the techniques were applied, “interrogations have led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”

Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques “led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the ‘Second Wave,’ ‘to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into’ a building in Los Angeles.” Muhammad later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantánamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast. The memo explains that “information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba cell, a seventeen-member Jemaah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the ‘Second Wave.’ ” In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could have been a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.

The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.

The memo notes that “interrogations of [Abu] Zubaydah—again, once enhanced techniques were employed—furnished detailed information regarding Al-Qaeda’s ‘organizational structure, key operatives, and modus operandi’ and identified KSM as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.” This information helped the intelligence community plan the operation that captured Muhammad. It went on: “Zubaydah and KSM also supplied important information about [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi and his network” in Iraq, which helped our operations against Al-Qaeda in that country.

All this confirms information that I and others have described publicly. But just as the memo begins to describe previously undisclosed details of what enhanced interrogations achieved, the page is almost entirely blacked out. The Obama administration released pages of unredacted classified information on the techniques used to question captured terrorist leaders but pulled out its black marker when it came to the details of what those interrogations achieved.

Yet there is more information confirming the program’s effectiveness. An Office of Legal Counsel memo states that “we discuss only a small fraction of the important intelligence CIA interrogators have obtained from KSM” and notes that “intelligence derived from CIA detainees has resulted in more than six thousand intelligence reports and, in 2004, accounted for approximately half of the [Counterterrorism Center’s] reporting on Al-Qaeda.” The memos refer to other classified documents—including an “Effectiveness Memo” and an “IG Report”—that explain how “the use of enhanced techniques in the interrogations of KSM, Zubaydah, and others . . . has yielded critical information.”

Why didn’t Obama officials release this information as well? Because they knew that if the public could see the details of the techniques alongside evidence that the program saved American lives, the vast majority would support continuing the program.

Critics say that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that “as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, ‘brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship.’ ” In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can—and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that “Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable.” The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.

“Interrogations have led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”

This was the secret to the program’s success. And the Obama administration’s decision to share this secret with the terrorists threatens our national security. Al-Qaeda will use this information and other details in the memos to train its operatives to resist questioning and withhold information on planned attacks. Director Leon Panetta of the CIA said during his confirmation hearings in February that even the Obama administration might use some of the enhanced techniques in a “ticking time bomb” scenario. What will the administration do now that it has shared the limits of our interrogation techniques with the enemy? Obama’s decision to release these documents is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible acts ever by an American president during a time of war—and Americans may die as a result.



This essay appeared in the Washington Post on April 21, 2009.