Cheney Refuted

Those CIA memos he got released don’t show what he said they’d show.

Dick Cheney 

In April, after the Obama White House released memos documenting the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of what the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation techniques” and what everybody else called “torture,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said:

One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is they put out the legal memos, the memos that the CIA got from the Office of Legal Counsel, but they didn’t put out the memos that showed the success of the effort. … I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw, that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country.

Cheney went on to say that he’d requested that copies of these reports be made public. In May, the CIA denied Cheney’s request, but on Aug. 24, it released the documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Judicial Watch, a conservative nonprofit. You can read the reports. Portions have been redacted, so perhaps the evidence Cheney claims that enhanced interrogation saved American lives has been blacked out. But judging from what’s visible to the naked eye, the documents do not provide anything like the vindication that Cheney claims.

The first report, dated July 13, 2004, is titled “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Preeminent Source on al-Qaida.” The second report, dated June 3, 2005, is titled “Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against al-Qaida.” As the titles suggest, these reports are not about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of water-boarding and other techniques employed to elicit information from enemy combatants; they speak only to the value of the information gleaned from Sheikh Mohammed and other detainees. We know that Sheikh Mohammed and other detainees were water-boarded, but the reports shed no light on what they said before they were water-boarded versus what they said afterward.

To the extent that the two reports explore detainees’ reasons for revealing valued information, it is to demonstrate not how difficult it was to elicit but how easy. Sheikh Mohammed, we learn, “appears to have calculated, incorrectly, that we had this information [about al-Qaida’s attempts to acquire biological and chemical weapons] already.” What a chump! Also, “almost immediately following his capture in March 2003,” Sheikh Mohammed “elaborated on his plan to crash commercial airplanes into Heathrow Airport.” This was probably because he knew a key plotter was already in custody. But he “withheld details about the evolution of the operation until confronted with”—a cat-o’-nine-tails?—no (yawn), just “reporting from two other operatives knowledgeable concerning the plot.” Sheikh Mohammed dropped a dime on Iyman Faris, a truck driver from Ohio with whom Sheikh Mohammed had plotted to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its cables with acetylene torches. Sheikh Mohammed, we learn, gave Faris up “[s]oon after his arrest.” Far from a tough nut, the Sheikh Mohammed who emerges from these reports sounds like a regular Chatty Cathy.

Abu Zubaydah (whose importance within al-Qaida later became a matter of some dispute) identified Sheikh Mohammed as 9/11’s mastermind “early in his detention,” which, a March 29 Washington Post story reported, citing unnamed CIA officials, was before Zubaydah was water-boarded. After Zubaydah was water-boarded, the Post said, “Zubaida’s revelations triggered a series of alerts and sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms.” Every lead “ultimately dissolved into smoke and shadow, according to high-ranking former U.S. officials with access to classified reports.”

It’s certainly possible that Sheikh Mohammed, Zubaydah, and others gave up key information after being roughed up. In Sheikh Mohammed’s case, we know he was subjected to intensive water-boarding almost immediately; according to one Justice Department memo, he was water-boarded 183 times in March 2003, the same month he was captured. But the two CIA reports do not specify which information came before the water-boarding and which came after. Even if they did, one would need to keep in mind the fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc—just because one thing happens after another thing, that doesn’t mean it happened because of that other thing. If, in fact, it was easy to elicit from Sheikh Mohammed the information cited above after he was water-boarded, we might still legitimately wonder exactly how difficult it would have been had the water-boarding never occurred.

Iyman Faris, for the record, had already given up on destroying the Brooklyn Bridge well before Sheikh Mohammed’s arrest. (Apparently it’s more difficult than it looks. Faris is currently serving 20 years for providing material support to al-Qaida.) Extensive details about al-Qaida’s anthrax program had been revealed a year and a half before Sheikh Mohammed’s arrest, thanks to the Wall Street Journal’s discovery of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s disk drive, which it promptly turned over to authorities.

To be fair, Sayf al-Rahman Paracha, whom Sheikh Mohammed gave up in March 2003—they’d plotted to bring explosives into the United States for an attack on New York City—may still have been trying to blow something up in New York when he was captured five months later. (He’s currently in Guantanamo.) We don’t know, and the two CIA reports don’t say. But it doesn’t inspire confidence that both reports dwell not on whatever it was that Paracha was up to but, rather, on the Library Tower plot, details of which were revealed by Sheikh Mohammed under interrogation. As I have previously demonstrated at great length, the Library Tower, a building in Los Angeles now known as the U.S. Bank Tower, was in no danger at the time of Sheikh Mohammed’s arrest. That’s because the plot’s ringleader had been captured 13 months before, and the second of four conspirators had been captured three months before. That left two plotters, one of whom has stated that he believed the operation to have been called off. He was in a good position to know, because he was working at the time for Riduan Isamuddin (“Hambali”)—leader of a Southeast Asian al-Qaida affiliate called Jemaah Islamiyah and the man Sheikh Mohammed had placed in charge of the Library Tower attack. And, anyway, the plot called for a plane to be flown into the Library Tower, 9/11-style. That particular terror technique failed to remain viable even through 9/11, as the heroism of United Flight 93’s passengers demonstrated. And there was another problem: Neither of the two plotters who remained at large knew how to fly a plane.

But don’t take my word for it. The Bush White House repeatedly claimed that it had shut down the Library Tower plot for good in February 2002.

Update, Aug. 26, 2009: The newly released, less-redacted version of the 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report on enhanced interrogation sheds more light on all these questions than the two reports whose release Cheney demanded. Most significantly, it states that Sheikh Mohammed “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.” So why didn’t Cheney talk up the IG report instead? Perhaps because its findings on whether enhanced interrogation actually worked are inconclusive. Perhaps because it says that “[u]nauthorized, improvised, inhumane, and undocumented techniques were used,” including mock executions and threats to harm or kill members of detainees’ families, and that these techniques were “inconsistent with the public policy positions that the United States has taken regarding human rights.” Perhaps because it says that none of the plots revealed by detainees “were imminent.” (So much for ticking time bombs.) Perhaps because it says that enhanced interrogation has put the CIA at risk of “potentially serious long-term political and legal challenges.” Perhaps because, even though the conclusions are still blacked out, one gets the strong sense that the CIA IG thinks torturing enemy combatants was a truly terrible idea.

Update, Aug. 27, 2009: Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard calls the two CIA reports “the so-called Cheney documents” because the second of the two, “Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against al-Qaida,” is dated June 3, 2005 whereas the document Cheney actually requested is dated June 1, 2005. Cheney’s request stated that the June 1 report was 13 pages long, but the June 3 report released by the CIA is only 12 pages long. (The other report, “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Preeminent Source on al-Qaida,” is the document Cheney requested, Hayes writes; the dates and page numbers match.)

My instinct would be to believe that Cheney just got the date and number of pages slightly wrong. If the CIA released the wrong document, wouldn’t Cheney be making a noisy stink about it? On the other hand, maybe Hayes’ blog item is Cheney making a stink about it; Hayes wrote a  sympathetic 2007 biography of Cheney, and got lots of access.

Hayes writes that an “intelligence source with knowledge of the memos” tells him there really are two separate reports, one dated June 1 and one dated June 3, and that the unreleased June 1 report is more detailed (even though it’s only one page longer). If that’s true, then either the Obama administration goofed by releasing the wrong memo or it pulled a deliberate switch. The latter possibility strikes me as remote, given the near-certainty that someone would notice the discrepancy. I’ve put a call in to Judicial Watch to find out what they know.

Update, Aug. 27, 2009, 5:40 p.m.: “It is not the right document,” says Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. Although Fitton told me he has no independent knowledge of a June 1 report, “we plan to raise this issue with lawyers for the CIA.” Fitton directed me to what he called “cagey” language in the cover letter  accompanying the release. Eric Soskin, a trial attorney with the Justice Department’s Civil Division, which represented the CIA in the FOIA lawsuit, writes that the CIA has examined “certain records in this matter, and has determined that it may release some of these records in whole or part.” Nowhere does Soskin say he is releasing the specific records that Cheney and Judicial Watch actually requested.

I phoned Soskin to ask him about this. Would he comment? He would not and referred me to a Justice Department press officer, whom I was unable to reach. I have now sent an e-mail query to someone else in the Justice Department press office.

Although I disagree with Hayes about what the documents released thus far show and don’t show about the alleged efficacy of torture, I now think he is probably right that the CIA substituted a June 3 report for a June 1 report.

Update, Aug. 28, 4:40 p.m.: There was no reply from the Justice department’s press office, so I e-mailed my query again this afternoon. In response to this second request, I received an e-mail from Matthew A. Miller in the Justice department’s press office. It said: “Going to refer you to the CIA for the question, as the documents in question are theirs.” I phoned the CIA. The relevant press officer couldn’t come to the phone, so I sent my question by e-mail. He replied: “Will be in touch shortly.”

Update, Aug. 29: Yup, there was a switcheroo. How very annoying.