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What Made KSM Talk?

5:30 PM, Aug 26, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Newsweek's Mark Hosenball says the Inspector General's report and other recently-released documents pertaining to Bush-era interrogations of top al Qaeda operatives do not show that waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) "actually worked." Hosenball concedes that the detainees gave up a treasure trove of valuable intelligence, but the documents do not "convincingly demonstrate" that the EITs "produced this useful information."

This is likely to be the new conventional wisdom on the documents. It's wrong, so let's take it apart.

First, here are the four key paragraphs from the Inspector General's Report that deal specifically with waterboarding - the harshest of the enhanced interrogation techniques - and its effect on intelligence production. They are reproduced below, with redactions noted, because you have to read them together to understand as much of the story as possible. The paragraphs can all be found on pages 90 and 91 of the Inspector General's Report.

The waterboard has been used on three detainees: Abu Zubaydah, Al-Nashiri, and Khalid Shaykh Muhammad. [REDACTED]…with the belief that each of the three detainees possessed perishable information about imminent threats against the United States.

Prior to the use of EITs, Abu Zubaydah provided information for [REDACTED] intelligence reports. Interrogators applied the waterboard to Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times during August 2002. During the period between the end of the use of the waterboard and 30 April 2003, he provided information for approximately [REDACTED] additional reports. It is not possible to say definitively that the waterboard is the reason for Abu Zubaydah's increased production, or if another factor, such as the length of detention, was the catalyst. Since the use of the waterboard, however, Abu Zubaydah has appeared to be cooperative, [REDACTED]

With respect to Al-Nashiri, [REDACTED] reported two waterboard sessions in November 2002, after which the psychologist/interrogators determined that Al-Nashiri was compliant. However, after being moved [REDACTED] Al-Nashiri was thought to be withholding information. Al-Nashiri subsequently received additional EITs, [REDACTED] but not the waterboard. The Agency then determined Al-Nashiri to be "compliant." Because of the litany of techniques used by different interrogators over a relatively short period of time, it is difficult to identify exactly why Al-Nashiri became more willing to provide information. However, following the use of EITs, he provided information about his most current operational planning and [REDACTED] as opposed to the historical information he provided before the use of EITs.

On the other hand, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, an accomplished resistor, provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete. As a means of less active resistance, at the beginning of their interrogation, detainees routinely provide information that they know is already known. Khalid Shakyh Muhammad received 183 applications of the waterboard in March 2003 [REDACTED]

Admittedly, the redactions make it difficult to get the whole story. But here is what we can tell.

The IG says he couldn't tell whether it was the waterboard or some other factor that led to the increase in intelligence production coming out of Abu Zubaydah's interrogations. It seems highly unlikely on its face that Zubaydah's time in custody alone (the only other possible explanation specifically offered by the IG) could have led to this increase in output. The waterboarding began in August 2002, and the increase in Zubaydah's intelligence reporting that is cited ended in April of 2003. That's a period of just nine months, which is hardly a prolonged period of time for a master terrorist such as a Zubaydah.

Moreover, even the IG concedes that since Zubaydah was waterboarded he "has appeared to be cooperative."

Next came Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing. Nashiri was waterboarded twice before the Agency determined he had become compliant. Nashiri was then apparently moved and stopped giving up intelligence, so the Agency employed a variety of EITs, but not the waterboard, in a short period of time. After the EITs were employed, Nashiri became compliant once again. Nashiri now "provided information about his most current operational planning…as opposed to the historical information he provided before the use of EITs."

So, the use of EITs on Nashiri led him to give up actionable intelligence on his operations. Previously, he was giving up "historical information," which had presumably significantly less value.

Finally, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal planner of the September 11 attacks, was taken into custody and interrogated. Note that the final paragraph of the block quote reproduced above begins with "On the other hand…" The author appears to be drawing a comparison to the previous paragraph, which dealt with Nashiri's interrogations. One possible reading is that while EITs other than waterboarding worked on Nashiri, they didn't work on KSM, who was an "accomplished resistor."

The IG found that before KSM was waterboarded he gave up only a few intelligence reports and "much" of that scant intelligence was bogus. However, we know from other declassified reports released on Monday that KSM became a font of intelligence on al Qaeda, giving up his fellow terrorists and specific plots. That's why the CIA's June 3, 2005, report calls KSM the Agency's "preeminent source" on al Qaeda in the title.

What made KSM talk? Taken at face value, the IG's report suggests that it was the waterboard, and the waterboard alone, that led to this gusher of intelligence. The un-redacted portions of the IG's report do not mention any other possible reason for KSM's change of heart when it came to dealing with his debriefers. And he wasn't in custody very long before KSM started naming names - some of the terrorists he gave up were captured within a matter of weeks.

So, there you have it. Zubaydah gave up more intelligence after being waterboarded. The waterboard made Nashiri compliant. When Nashiri stopped cooperating, other EITs were used to make him talk. And talk he did, giving up the "operational" details of his plotting. And, finally, KSM gave up little of value prior to being waterboarded. Afterwards, he became the CIA's most important source on al Qaeda.Despite all of this, Hosenball concludes that the IG's report does not "convincingly demonstrate" that the implementation of the EITs produced "useful information." This is nonsense. How could Nashiri's information about "current operational planning," which he only gave up after the EITs were employed, not be useful? Nashiri was plotting multiple attacks prior to his capture.

And Hosenball pretends that KSM may have given up a significant amount of intelligence prior to waterboarding. The IG's report plainly contradicts this assessment, saying that KSM gave up little prior to being waterboarded. Some of the pre-waterboarding intelligence may very well have been valuable, but much of it, according to the IG's own report, was bunk. KSM would go on to become the CIA's "pre-eminent source" on al Qaeda.

When Hosenball isn't mischaracterizing the report, he is selectively citing it. The IG report notes that the detainees gave up vital information about al Qaeda's plotting. But Hosenball selectively quotes the inspector general as saying that his investigation failed to "uncover any evidence that these plots were imminent."

Here is the full quote from the IG's report:

This Review did not uncover any evidence that these plots were imminent. Agency senior managers believe that lives have been saved as a result of the capture and interrogation of terrorists who were planning attacks, in particular Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, Abu Zubaydah, Hambali, and Al-Nashiri.

Hosenball simply left out the part about saving lives.

It should be noted, too, that some of the intelligence given up by the detainees related to al Qaeda operatives who were already on American soil and plotting attacks. KSM, for example, gave up intelligence on Uzair Paracha and Iyman Faris, both of whom were plotting attacks on New York City. Faris had already cased the Brooklyn Bridge, and was exploring ways to attack landmarks in and around New York City. Uzair Paracha worked in an office in the Garment District of Manhattan. From that office, Uzair plotted attacks with his father, Saifullah. Among other nefarious plotting, the Parachas intended to help al Qaeda smuggle explosives into New York using their export/import company as a cover.

Both Uzair Paracha and Iyman Faris were arrested in March 2003, just weeks after KSM was detained. Both of them have subsequently been convicted and sentenced to prison. Saifullah Paracha is currently detained at Gitmo.

The IG may believe that their plotting did not pose an "imminent" threat, but there are plenty of good reasons to disagree with that assessment. There are other examples of what can be reasonably called "imminent" plots that were stopped as well.

Some, like Hosenball, may want to pretend that the implementation of controversial techniques did not lead to valuable intelligence and save American lives. A careful reading of the IG's report and other documents says otherwise.