The Blog

Acknowledging the Obvious

11:14 AM, Aug 29, 2009 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Is the mainstream media coming around?

The Washington Post has an important front-page story this morning, with matter-of-fact reporting on the importance of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad as an intelligence source and the enhanced interrogation techniques that made him talk. The piece is headlined: "How a Detainee Became an Asset: September 11 Plotter Cooperated After Waterboarding."

One key source is former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson, who acknowledged that two of the CIA's "most powerful" enhanced interrogation techniques "elicited a lot of information."

"Certain of the techniques seemed to have little effect, whereas waterboarding and sleep deprivation were the two most powerful techniques and elicited a lot of information," he said in an interview with the Post.

Helgerson authored the 2004 IG report that the Department of Justice released on Monday. The evidence presented in the IG report made clear that EITs had been effective, but Helgerson, well-known inside the CIA as an opponent of the program, stopped short of making that claim in a declarative fashion.

In his interview with the Post there seems to be a subtle shift in his argument. In the IG report Helgerson had written that "measuring the overall effectiveness of EITs" is challenging and a "subjective process."

In his interview with the Post, Helgerson narrowed the reasons he gave for his reluctance to draw conclusions. Count the qualifiers. Helgerson said he was not in "a position to reach definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of particular interrogation methods" and that "we didn't have the time or resources to do a careful, systematic analysis of the use of particular techniques with particular individuals and independently confirm the quality of the information that came out."

But that kind of analysis misses the point. The fact Helgerson didn't perform such a study hardly prevents us from concluding that EITs were effective. It is not the effectiveness of "particular interrogation methods" that matters. It's whether the EITs were effective used together, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes sequentially. And they were.

"The huge reason the program was successful was because the detainees did not know what to expect," says one intelligence official with detailed knowledge of the program. "Sleep deprivation, forced nudity, dietary manipulation, the waterboard - all of these together created a feeling of utter helplessness and cluelessness."

Helgerson says something else important. He acknowledges that EITs, particularly sleep deprivation and waterboarding, "elicited a lot of information" but he laments his inability to assess the quality of that intelligence. And the quality does matter. If EITs simply elicited lots of bad information nobody would consider them effective. They didn't.

He provided information that helped lead to the arrests of terrorists including Sayfullah Paracha and his son Uzair Paracha, businessmen who Khalid Shaykh Muhammad planned to use to smuggle explosives into the United States; Saleh Almari, a sleeper operative in New York; and Majid Khan, an operative who could enter the United States easily and was tasked to research attacks [redacted]. Khalid Shaykh Muhammad's information also led to the investigation and prosecution of Iyman Faris, the truck driver arrested in early 2003 in Ohio.

The Post article describes "the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its "preeminent source" on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques."

In a must-read in the new issue of TWS, Tom Joscelyn offers more details about KSM and his interrogation:

On March 1, 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the principal planner of the September 11 attacks, was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. U.S. interrogators quickly went about the business of getting him to talk, and for good reasons. KSM's operatives were already here, inside America, planning attacks.