No Comment — August 31, 2009, 3:10 pm

WaPo: Mystery man says waterboarding works

On Saturday the Washington Post published a remarkable article concerning 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. We are introduced to Professor KSM—a man so willing to talk that he conducted classes for American intelligence officers, lecturing on Greek philosophy and Al Qaeda dogma, upbraiding his students for failing to pay attention, and even using a chalkboard as a prop. So what turned this hardened terrorist into a tutor for the agency?

According to a “former senior intelligence officer” who “requested anonymity because the events are still classified,” KSM was brought around through the use of torture. Techniques applied to KSM included sleep deprivation and waterboarding.

Considering that the CIA’s own declassified report on intelligence gained from KSM fails to make such claims—even though the Bush Administration was plainly hoping it would do just that—the WaPo story raised some questions.

For starters, who is the “former senior intelligence officer”? I have a strong suspicion. His remarks are similar to remarks made on several occasions by former CIA Director George Tenet and contained in his book, At the Center of the Storm. Specifically, Tenet aggressively defends the use of waterboarding by claiming that it produced results. He mentions Abu Zubaydah in the process, though not KSM. (CBS News’s Scott Pelley challenged him on KSM during a Sixty Minutes interview in which Tenet came across as extremely evasive.) But if it is Tenet, why grant him anonymity with respect to statements that are virtually identical to claims he already made on the record? That would reflect a bizarre editorial judgment.

The justification advanced is that the “events are still classified.” Is that really accurate? In fact, the CIA just declassified and released the case study. There are some redactions, it is true, but almost all of the account has been made public and is therefore now fair game for comment. So the rationale advanced for keeping the identity secret doesn’t really withstand scrutiny. Perhaps there’s another reason that WaPo isn’t disclosing.

Anyone who was actually involved in waterboarding KSM participated in a crime according to the testimony that Attorney General Holder gave before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He may also wind up being a target of a criminal investigation arising out of the process that Holder initiated on Monday. In other words, this individual has a strong reason to want to shut down the prospect of a criminal investigation and might be willing to dissemble to that end. The major argument being made for avoiding the investigation is the one that Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz have been rehearsing across the airwaves: torture works! The Post has now become the first newspaper to add credibility to these claims. And by protecting the identity of the source, it has robbed the reader of the ability to test whether the remarks are dictated by self-interest.

If the waterboarding of KSM gave interrogators access to information that earlier interrogators could not obtain, why doesn’t the CIA’s report and analysis say that? It doesn’t, as even Frances Townsend was forced to concede in a CNN interview. Yet Dick Cheney was pressing hard for just such an account.

Are the claims that KSM wasn’t cooperating before he was tortured correct? Actually, a good amount of contrary evidence exists. It starts with Yosri Fouda’s Al Jazeera interview with KSM. Fouda found KSM remarkably proud of his involvement in Al Qaeda strikes and delighted to talk about them, with the camera rolling. And indeed, little of what KSM said in that interview turns out to be dissembling—unlike a large number of wholly implausible claims KSM made after being subjected to waterboarding. In her book The Dark Side, Jane Mayer musters an impressive list of sources making the same claim, essentially that KSM was a cooperative witness from the get-go.

In his report, the CIA’s inspector general called for a careful expert study of the efficacy of the new techniques introduced by the Bush Administration. George Tenet and his successor didn’t want to hear anything of it. I wonder why. Since the release of the CIA report, Senator Leahy and Congressman Conyers have renewed their call for a commission to get to the bottom of the torture issue. The Washington Post has not made a credible case that waterboarding works, but it is making the case for a commission to study the sordid history of torture as U.S. government policy. This study should include a cold factual analysis of the claims made by Dick Cheney and his mysterious Agency ally.

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