Ex-CIA Directors: Interrogations Saved Lives

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Ex-CIA Directors: Interrogations Saved Lives

The Senate Intelligence investigators never spoke to us—the leaders of the agency whose policies they are now assailing for partisan reasons.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has released its majority report on Central Intelligence Agency detention and interrogation in the wake of 9/11. The following response is from former CIA Directors George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss and Michael V. Hayden (a retired Air Force general), and former CIA Deputy Directors John E. McLaughlin, Albert M. Calland (a retired Navy vice admiral) and Stephen R. Kappes :

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Central Intelligence Agency detention and interrogation of terrorists, prepared only by the Democratic majority staff, is a missed opportunity to deliver a serious and balanced study of an important public policy question. The committee has given us instead a one-sided study marred by errors of fact and interpretation—essentially a poorly done and partisan attack on the agency that has done the most to protect America after the 9/11 attacks.

Examining how the CIA handled these matters is an important subject of continuing relevance to a nation still at war. In no way would we claim that we did everything perfectly, especially in the emergency and often-chaotic circumstances we confronted in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. As in all wars, there were undoubtedly things in our program that should not have happened. When we learned of them, we reported such instances to the CIA inspector general or the Justice Department and sought to take corrective action.

The country and the CIA would have benefited from a more balanced study of these programs and a corresponding set of recommendations. The committee’s report is not that study. It offers not a single recommendation.

Our view on this is shared by the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Republican minority, both of which are releasing rebuttals to the majority’s report. Both critiques are clear-eyed, fact-based assessments that challenge the majority’s contentions in a nonpartisan way.

What is wrong with the committee’s report?

First, its claim that the CIA’s interrogation program was ineffective in producing intelligence that helped us disrupt, capture, or kill terrorists is just not accurate. The program was invaluable in three critical ways:

• It led to the capture of senior al Qaeda operatives, thereby removing them from the battlefield.

• It led to the disruption of terrorist plots and prevented mass casualty attacks, saving American and Allied lives.

• It added enormously to what we knew about al Qaeda as an organization and therefore informed our approaches on how best to attack, thwart and degrade it.

A powerful example of the interrogation program’s importance is the information obtained from Abu Zubaydah, a senior al Qaeda operative, and from Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, known as KSM, the 9/11 mastermind. We are convinced that both would not have talked absent the interrogation program.

Information provided by Zubaydah through the interrogation program led to the capture in 2002 of KSM associate and post-9/11 plotter Ramzi Bin al-Shibh. Information from both Zubaydah and al-Shibh led us to KSM. KSM then led us to Riduan Isamuddin, aka Hambali, East Asia’s chief al Qaeda ally and the perpetrator of the 2002 Bali bombing in Indonesia—in which more than 200 people perished.

The removal of these senior al Qaeda operatives saved thousands of lives because it ended their plotting. KSM, alone, was working on multiple plots when he was captured.

Here’s an example of how the interrogation program actually worked to disrupt terrorist plotting. Without revealing to KSM that Hambali had been captured, we asked him who might take over in the event that Hambali was no longer around. KSM pointed to Hambali’s brother Rusman Gunawan. We then found Gunawan, and information from him resulted in the takedown of a 17-member Southeast Asian cell that Gunawan had recruited for a “second wave,” 9/11-style attack on the U.S. West Coast, in all likelihood using aircraft again to attack buildings. Had that attack occurred, the nightmare of 9/11 would have been repeated.

Once they had become compliant due to the interrogation program, both Abu Zubaydah and KSM turned out to be invaluable sources on the al Qaeda organization. We went back to them multiple times to gain insight into the group. More than one quarter of the nearly 1,700 footnotes in the highly regarded 9/11 Commission Report in 2004 and a significant share of the intelligence in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on al Qaeda came from detainees in the program, in particular Zubaydah and KSM.

The majority on the Senate Intelligence Committee further claims that the takedown of bin Laden was not facilitated by information from the interrogation program. They are wrong. There is no doubt that information provided by the totality of detainees in CIA custody, those who were subjected to interrogation and those who were not, was essential to bringing bin Laden to justice. The CIA never would have focused on the individual who turned out to be bin Laden’s personal courier without the detention and interrogation program.

Specifically, information developed in the interrogation program piqued the CIA’s interest in the courier, placing him at the top of the list of leads to bin Laden. A detainee subjected to interrogation provided the most specific information on the courier. Additionally, KSM and Abu Faraj al-Libi—both subjected to interrogation—lied about the courier at a time when both were providing honest answers to a large number of other critical questions. Since other detainees had already linked the courier to KSM and Abu Faraj, their dissembling about him had great significance.

Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, shown in an undated photo from the FBI.ENLARGE
Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, shown in an undated photo from the FBI. ASSOCIATED PRESS

So the bottom line is this: The interrogation program formed an essential part of the foundation from which the CIA and the U.S. military mounted the bin Laden operation.

The second significant problem with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report is its claim that the CIA routinely went beyond the interrogation techniques as authorized by the Justice Department. That claim is wrong.

President Obama ’s attorney general, Eric Holder , directed an experienced prosecutor, John Durham, to investigate the interrogation program in 2009. Mr. Durham examined whether any unauthorized techniques were used by CIA interrogators, and if so, whether such techniques could constitute violations of U.S. criminal statutes. In a press release, the attorney general said that Mr. Durham “examined any possible CIA involvement with the interrogation and detention of 101 detainees who were alleged to have been in U.S. custody” after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The investigation was concluded in August 2012. It was professional and exhaustive and it determined that no prosecutable offenses were committed.

Third, the report’s argument that the CIA misled the Justice Department, the White House, Congress, and the American people is also flat-out wrong. Much of the report’s reasoning for this claim rests on its argument that the interrogation program should not have been called effective, an argument that does not stand up to the facts.

Fourth, the majority left out something critical to understanding the program: context.

The detention and interrogation program was formulated in the aftermath of the murders of close to 3,000 people on 9/11. This was a time when:

• We had evidence that al Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks on the U.S.

• We had certain knowledge that bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and wanted nuclear weapons.

• We had reports that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York City.

• We had hard evidence that al Qaeda was trying to manufacture anthrax.

It felt like the classic “ticking time bomb” scenario—every single day.

In this atmosphere, time was of the essence and the CIA felt a deep responsibility to ensure that an attack like 9/11 would never happen again. We designed the detention and interrogation programs at a time when “relationship building” was not working with brutal killers who did not hesitate to behead innocents. These detainees had received highly effective counter-interrogation training while in al Qaeda training camps. And yet it was clear they possessed information that could disrupt plots and save American lives.

1998 al Qaeda Press Conference

The Senate committee’s report says that the CIA at that point had little experience or expertise in capture, detention or interrogation of terrorists. We agree. But we were charged by the president with doing these things in emergency circumstances—at a time when there was no respite from threat and no luxury of time to act. Our hope is that no one ever has to face such circumstances again.

The Senate committee’s report ignores this context.

The committee also failed to make clear that the CIA was not acting alone in carrying out the interrogation program. Throughout the process, there was extensive consultation with the national security adviser, deputy national security adviser, White House counsel, and the Justice Department.

The president approved the program. The attorney general deemed it legal.

The CIA went to the attorney general for legal rulings four times—and the agency stopped the program twice to ensure that the Justice Department still saw it as consistent with U.S. policy, law and our treaty obligations. The CIA sought guidance and reaffirmation of the program from senior administration policy makers at least four times.

We relied on their policy and legal judgments. We deceived no one.

The CIA reported any allegations of abuse to the Senate-confirmed inspector general and the Justice Department. CIA senior leadership forwarded nearly 20 cases to the Justice Department, and career Justice officials decided that only one of these cases—unrelated to the formal interrogation program—merited prosecution. That person received a prison term.

The CIA briefed Congress approximately 30 times. Initially, at presidential direction the briefings were restricted to the so-called Gang of Eight of top congressional leaders—a limitation permitted under covert-action laws. The briefings were detailed and graphic and drew reactions that ranged from approval to no objection. The briefings held nothing back.

Congress’s view in those days was very different from today. In a briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee after the capture of KSM in 2003, committee members made clear that they wanted the CIA to be extremely aggressive in learning what KSM knew about additional plots. One senator leaned forward and forcefully asked: “Do you have all the authorities you need to do what you need to do?”

In September 2006, at the strong urging of the CIA, the administration decided to brief full committee and staff directors on the interrogation program. As part of this, the CIA sought to enter into a serious dialogue with the oversight committees, hoping to build a consensus on a way forward acceptable to the committee majority and minority and to the congressional and executive branches. The committees missed a chance to help shape the program—they couldn’t reach a consensus. The executive branch was left to proceed alone, merely keeping the committees informed.

How did the committee report get these things so wrong? Astonishingly, the staff avoided interviewing any of us who had been involved in establishing or running the program, the first time a supposedly comprehensive Senate Select Committee on Intelligence study has been carried out in this way.

The excuse given by majority senators is that CIA officers were under investigation by the Justice Department and therefore could not be made available. This is nonsense. The investigations referred to were completed in 2011 and 2012 and applied only to certain officers. They never applied to six former CIA directors and deputy directors, all of whom could have added firsthand truth to the study. Yet a press account indicates that the committee staff did see fit to interview at least one attorney for a terrorist at Guantanamo Bay.

We can only conclude that the committee members or staff did not want to risk having to deal with data that did not fit their construct. Which is another reason why the study is so flawed. What went on in preparing the report is clear: The staff picked up the signal at the outset that this study was to have a certain outcome, especially with respect to the question of whether the interrogation program produced intelligence that helped stop terrorists. The staff members then “cherry picked” their way through six million pages of documents, ignoring some data and highlighting others, to construct their argument against the program’s effectiveness.

In the intelligence profession, that is called politicization.

As lamentable as the inaccuracies of the majority document are—and the impact they will have on the public’s understanding of the program—some consequences are alarming:

• Many CIA officers will be concerned that being involved in legally approved sensitive actions can open them to politically driven scrutiny and censure from a future administration.

• Foreign intelligence partners will have even less confidence that Washington, already hemorrhaging with leaks, will be able to protect their cooperation from public scrutiny. They will cooperate less with the United States.

• Terrorists, having acquired now the largest haven (in the Middle East and North Africa) and string of successes they have had in a decade, will have yet another valuable recruitment tool.

All of this means more danger for the American people and for our allies.

Anyone who has led a U.S. intelligence agency supports strong congressional oversight. It is essential as a check on leadership judgment in a profession that deals constantly with uncertainty, crises and the potential for surprise. We have all experienced and benefited from that in our careers, including at times when the judgment of overseers was critical.

When oversight works well, it is balanced, constructively critical and discreet—and offers sound recommendations. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report is disrespectful of that standard.

It’s fair to ask whether the interrogation program was the right policy, but the committee never takes on this toughest of questions.

On that important issue it is important to know that the dilemma CIA officers struggled with in the aftermath of 9/11 was one that would cause discomfort for those enamored of today’s easy simplicities: Faced with post-9/11 circumstances, CIA officers knew that many would later question their decisions—as we now see—but they also believed that they would be morally culpable for the deaths of fellow citizens if they failed to gain information that could stop the next attacks.

Between 1998 and 2001, the al Qaeda leadership in South Asia attacked two U.S. embassies in East Africa, a U.S. warship in the port of Aden, Yemen, and the American homeland—the most deadly single foreign attack on the U.S. in the country’s history. The al Qaeda leadership has not managed another attack on the homeland in the 13 years since, despite a strong desire to do so. The CIA’s aggressive counterterrorism policies and programs are responsible for that success.

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