Former U.S. Spy Officials Divided on Merit of 'Enhanced Interrogation Techniques'

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The lobby of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Jason Reed JIR/Reuters

If some key former U.S. intelligence officials can't agree on basic facts in the CIA's post-9/11 interrogation program, how are ordinary Americans supposed to figure out what the truth is?

The only thing we know for sure is that Americans remain sharply divided over whether the rough stuff—"torture," as critics call it, or "enhanced interrogation techniques," as the CIA calls it—is justified. In 2012, a national poll found that 41 percent of Americans approved of using "torture" on terrorist suspects, "a gain of 14 points," intelligence expert Amy Zegart reported in the New York Times. In the wake of a series of videos depicting the beheadings of journalists and aid workers at the hands of Islamic State, certainly that number has only grown.

No doubt that opinion has been bolstered by the repeated insistence of some former top CIA officials who oversaw the torture that it worked. On Sunday they rose as one to rebut the anticipated criticisms in the Senate Intelligence Committee's report, scheduled for release this week, appearing on talk shows, writing op-ed pieces and announcing the launch of a new website called "ciasavedlives.com."

"It's a one-stop shopping place for the other side," Bill Harlow, a spokesman for former CIA Director George Tenet, told John Hudson of Foreign Policy magazine. "With the website … we'll be able to put out newly declassified documents, documents that were previously released but not well read, and host a repository for op-eds and media appearances by various officials."

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden was more pointed. "To say that we relentlessly, over an expanded period of time, lied to everyone about a program that wasn't doing any good, that beggars the imagination," he said on CBS's Face The Nation.

José Rodriguez, who oversaw the program as head of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, highlighted one case where he said the rough stuff produced critically valuable information.

"After extraordinary CIA efforts, aided by information obtained through the enhanced-interrogation program, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed architect of the 9/11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan," Rodriguez claimed in a Washington Post op-ed on Sunday, echoing a theme he propounded in his 2013 memoir, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives.

Most experts think Rodriguez is referring to the CIA's interrogation of an al-Qaeda operative known as Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi captured in Pakistan in 2002 and waterboarded scores of times at a secret CIA site in Thailand.

If so, the problem for Rodriguez—and the public—is that other key officials, such as former top FBI counterterrorism agents who carried out some of the most important interrogations, say the former CIA man is lying.

"There are now thousands of pages of declassified memos and reports that thoroughly rebut what Mr. Rodriguez and others are now claiming," former top FBI counterterrorism agent Ali Soufan, who interrogated Abu Zubaydah without torture before the CIA got its hands on him, said two years ago.

Rodriguez and other defenders of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs, in short) claim "that after the program began in August 2002, Abu Zubaydah provided intelligence that prevented José Padilla from detonating a dirty bomb on U.S. soil, and identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks," Soufan told The New Yorker magazine. "Mr. Rodriguez has been repeating this claim.

"The reality," Soufan continued, "is that both of those pieces of intelligence were gained by my partner and me, with CIA colleagues, in early April 2002—months before the August 2002 start of the EIT program. But in the memos they were able to promote false facts, even altering dates, to make their claims work." Soufan also told Senate investigators that while an internal CIA memo claimed that Padilla was arrested in May 2003, "in reality, he was arrested in May 2002. But saying 2003 fits with the waterboarding narrative."

Former Los Angeles Times reporter Josh Meyer, co-author (with Terry McDermott) of The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, also doubts Rodriguez's claim that the al-Qaeda operative's capture was a result of enhanced interrogation techniques.

"We spent a lot of time in our book trying to figure that out," Meyer told Newsweek in a telephone interview. "As far as we could tell, it was due to a host of factors, including a walk-in who led them to KSM, but not EITs."

But the claim by Rodriguez—who famously destroyed the interrogation videotapes—that KSM's capture was "aided by information obtained through the enhanced-interrogation program," is too vague to make much sense, Meyer said.

"That could mean almost anything—the enhanced interrogation that led to somebody who led to somebody else who led to Zubaydah who then led to KSM. It's an artful dodge. It was not used in any significant way in the capture of KSM, unless he's referring something that nobody else knows about or has spoken about publicly," Meyer said. "Nothing has come out in any open or secret forum that I know about that says enhanced interrogation was useful in any material way" in KSM's capture.

The capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was "based on a confluence of factors, including just good reporting on the ground by the FBI in Karachi, and by Pakistani officials," Meyer said. "But I'm not aware of any enhanced interrogations that led to the capture of KSM." Rodriguez's assertion, he added, "skirts the more fundamental issue, which is that KSM was caught through good police and investigative work and cooperation by the Pakistanis and the Americans."

Meyer's co-author McDermott goes further, dismissing the idea—popularized in the movie Zero Dark Thirty—that the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed led directly to the capture of Osama Bin Laden. "KSM revealed nothing about the most valuable thing he knew—bin Laden's whereabouts," McDermott wrote in the Los Angeles Times after the 2012 debut of the movie, for which the filmmakers got the cooperation of the CIA and claimed, in the opening frames, that it was "Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events."

KSM "did not, for example, divulge the name of the Kuwaiti courier who served bin Laden," McDermott wrote. "This is, not coincidentally, the piece of information that sets Zero Dark Thirty in motion. Mohammed had trained the courier and knew of his connection to bin Laden. Instead, he sent agents on hundreds of futile chases, hindering the hunt for bin Laden rather than aiding it. The simple fact is you can't reliably separate the gold from the dross that torture yields." One of the FBI counterterrorism agents involved in the case told McDermott that KSM "had us chasing the goddamn geese in Central Park because he said some of them had explosives stuffed up their ass."

Meyer, McDermott and Soufan are not alone on the pitfalls of torture. On October 1, 2014, 17 other former top FBI, as well as CIA, DEA and military officials, signed a statement denouncing the interrogation techniques that Rodriguez and company so ardently defend.

"Torture is...illegal...ineffective…[and] counterproductive," said the statement, signed by such luminaries as former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Henry Soyster, Oliver "Buck" Revell, a former associate deputy director of the FBI, and Frank Anderson, a former chief of the CIA's Near East Division.

"We categorically affirm," it said, "that there is no conflict between adhering to one of our nation's essential and founding values—respect for inherent human dignity—and our ability to obtain the intelligence we need to protect the nation."

How many Americans will believe that? Probably about half, judging by past polls.

Former U.S. Spy Officials Divided on Merit of 'Enhanced Interrogation Techniques' | U.S.