Fox News runs with dubious claim that KSM's interrogation thwarted L.A. plot

››› ››› ANDREW WALZER & HANNAH DREIER

Fox News hosts and contributors have advanced the assertion that the use of harsh interrogation techniques on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed "stopped an attack on the Library Tower in Los Angeles." But the Bush administration said that the attack was thwarted in February 2002 -- more than a year before Mohammed was captured.

In recent days, several Fox News hosts and contributors have advanced the claim by former Bush speechwriter Marc A. Thiessen that the use of harsh interrogation techniques -- including waterboarding -- on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed "stopped an attack on the Library Tower in Los Angeles." But the claim conflicts with the chronology of events put forth on multiple occasions by the Bush administration, as Slate.com's Timothy Noah has noted. Indeed, the Bush administration said that the Library Tower attack was thwarted in February 2002 -- more than a year before Mohammed was captured in March 2003.

During an interview with Thiessen on the April 17 edition of Fox News' The Live Desk, co-host Rick Folbaum stated, "We haven't had a terror attack since 9-11 here in the United States. Might these techniques have been the reason that we haven't been attacked since then?" Thiessen responded, "It absolutely is. This attack -- this program stopped an attack on the Library Towers in Los Angeles." Neither Folbaum nor co-host Martha MacCallum challenged Thiessen's claim. Later, former federal prosecutor John Flannery said, "[T]he truth is people will say anything when they're tortured, including that the program worked." Thiessen replied, "That's absolutely false. ... The interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed -- the interrogation of Salid [sic] Shaikh Mohammed led to the capture of a cell of Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists who were planning to hijack a plane and fly it into the Library Tower in Los Angeles. And if it had not been for this program, there would be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York City."

Thiessen repeated these claims in an April 21 Washington Post op-ed. Later that day on Fox News' Special Report, Fox News contributor and Roll Call editor Mort Kondracke said, "You know, we were scared to death that there was going to be more attacks. And there would have been more attacks. As Marc Thiessen points out in today's Washington Post, the interrogation, the waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed resulted in information, which foiled an attack on a tower in Los Angeles, the second so-called 'second-wave attack.' "

Similarly, on the April 22 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade claimed that harsh interrogation techniques worked because when suspected terrorists "reached that limit, they did things like give up the second-wave attacks that would have taken down things like ... the Library Tower in Los Angeles." Co-host Steve Doocy later said:

DOOCY: So, what happened was, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, he was being interviewed by the CIA guys, the operatives, he said, "I'm not going -- I've told you all I'm going to tell you." And they took him right up to waterboarding. And he had said something ominous. And they said, "Do you know of any other attacks?" And he said, "You will know about it soon." And so they waterboarded him a bunch of times. Next thing you know, he's spilling the beans.

And he said that there was going to be an attack and it was going to kill hundreds if not thousands of Americans and it was going to be on this place. Then, the next thing you know, the CIA guys go in -- some other national, international operatives -- and they caved this thing that would have crashed these jetliners under the control -- that had just been hijacked by some Asian hijackers -- into the Library Tower out in Los Angeles. So, it worked.

But as Noah noted in response to Thiessen's Post op-ed, the "chronology" of events presented by the Bush administration contradicts the claim that the harsh interrogation of Mohammed was responsible for thwarting the Library Tower plot. Noah explained:

What clinches the falsity of Thiessen's claim, however (and that of the memo he cites, and that of an unnamed Central Intelligence Agency spokesman who today seconded Thessen's argument), is chronology. In a White House press briefing, Bush's counterterrorism chief, Frances Fragos Townsend, told reporters that the cell leader was arrested in February 2002, and "at that point, the other members of the cell" (later arrested) "believed that the West Coast plot has been canceled, was not going forward" [italics mine]. A subsequent fact sheet released by the Bush White House states, "In 2002, we broke up [italics mine] a plot by KSM to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast." These two statements make clear that however far the plot to attack the Library Tower ever got -- an unnamed senior FBI official would later tell the Los Angeles Times that Bush's characterization of it as a "disrupted plot" was "ludicrous" -- that plot was foiled in 2002. But Sheikh Mohammed wasn't captured until March 2003.

How could Sheikh Mohammed's water-boarded confession have prevented the Library Tower attack if the Bush administration "broke up" that attack during the previous year? It couldn't, of course. Conceivably the Bush administration, or at least parts of the Bush administration, didn't realize until Sheikh Mohammed confessed under torture that it had already broken up a plot to blow up the Library Tower about which it knew nothing. Stranger things have happened. But the plot was already a dead letter. If foiling the Library Tower plot was the reason to water-board Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, then that water-boarding was more than cruel and unjust. It was a waste of water.

Indeed, in the White House press briefing Noah cited, Townsend specifically noted that Mohammed was not captured until well after the individuals planning the Library Tower attacks concluded they had been "canceled":

TOWNSEND: Khalid Shaykh Muhammad was the individual who led this effort. He initiated the planning for the West Coast plot after September 11th, in October of 2001. KSM, working with Hambali in Asia, recruited the members of the cell. There was a total of four members of the cell. When they -- KSM, himself, trained the leader of the cell in late 2001 or early 2002 in the shoe bomb technique. You all will recall that there was the arrest of the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, in December of 2001, and he was instructing the cell leader on the use of the same technique.

After the cell -- the additional members of the cell, in addition to the leader, were recruited, they all went -- the cell leader and the three other operatives went to Afghanistan where they met with bin Laden and swore biat -- that is an oath of loyalty to him -- before returning to Asia, where they continued to work under Hambali.

The cell leader was arrested in February of 2002, and as we begin -- at that point, the other members of the cell believed that the West Coast plot has been canceled, was not going forward. You'll recall that KSM was then arrested in April of 2003 -- or was it March -- I'm sorry, March of 2003.

In addition to the senior FBI official that Noah mentioned, several other American counterterrorism officials also reportedly expressed doubts that the Library Tower plot ever advanced beyond the initial planning stages and ever posed a serious threat, as Media Matters for America documented in February 2006.

From the April 17 edition of Fox News' The Live Desk with Martha and Trace:

MacCALLUM: You know, reading through this, I found it interesting, because it describes --

FLANNERY: Interesting --

MacCALLUM: -- the efforts that are made to make sure that no one is injured in this process because, you know --

THIESSEN: That's exactly --

FLANNERY: That's a shame and a disgrace.

MacCALLUM: No, they --

THIESSEN: That's exactly right.

MacCALLUM: I mean, I --

THIESSEN: It was a very --

FLANNERY: This is ridiculous --

THIESSEN: Can we get a word --

MacCALLUM: It's like, you know, during --

THIESSEN: Let me get a word in edgewise.

MacCALLUM: -- [unintelligible], make sure that no one's fingers --

FLANNERY: -- absolutely ridiculous.

MacCALLUM: -- are in the way, so that the eyes don't get poked. You know, it --

FLANNERY: Oh, come on.

MacCALLUM: -- explains a number of ways --

THIESSEN: Can I get a word in?

MacCALLUM: Please go ahead, Marc.

FLANNERY: These people are suffocating.

THIESSEN: Well, first of all -- hold on.

FLANNERY: They are kept standing for 40 hours.

THIESSEN: Hold on. Can I get a word in, or are you -- or is this your show?

MacCALLUM: These people have beheaded terrorists.

THIESSEN: Can I get a word in here?

FOLBAUM: Go ahead, Marc.

MacCALLUM: Go ahead, Marc.

THIESSEN: I'll tell you something. What these -- what was not in those -- I agree with you 100 percent. It was very carefully defined in order to protect the people. But I'll tell you what's not in those memos is: The dirty little secret of this program is it worked. It stopped the next terrorist attack. It stopped --

FLANNERY: Oh, it didn't work. Where's Osama bin Laden?

THIESSEN: Hold on. Let me get in --

FLANNERY: Where's Osama bin Laden?

THIESSEN: Please stop talking for a second and let me speak. Let me speak, OK?

You know, this whole thing is dozens and dozens of pages of unredacted information about the techniques. Then all of a sudden, you get when you're reading this report --

FLANNERY: But the techniques are a shame.

THIESSEN: -- you get to the point -- you get to the point where they start talking about the results of the techniques, and guess what? They bring out their black little pen, and this is what's there. What is behind here is, Mr. President, is what I want to know. What's behind here is proof that this terrorist program -- that this terrorist surveillance program -- interrogation program stopped the next 9-11.

FOLBAUM: John, what about that there? John --

THIESSEN: And they don't want to release that information.

FLANNERY: The next 9-11 --

FOLBAUM: Let me ask John --

FLANNERY: Yeah, well where was it going to happen?

FOLBAUM: How do you comment on that? We haven't had a terror attack since 9-11 here in the United States. Might these techniques have been the reason that we haven't been attacked since then?

THIESSEN: It absolutely is.

FLANNERY: First of all --

THIESSEN: This attack --

FLANNERY: No. No. No. I'll tell you what I think.

THIESSEN: -- this program stopped an attack on the Library Tower --

FOLBAUM: Marc, let John speak.

THIESSEN: -- in Los Angeles.

FLANNERY: Excuse me, Marc. I thought I was asked the question, Marc. I'm sorry, but I thought I was asked the question. And I think the answer is --

THIESSEN: Well, sorry, you're interrupting me. I've got to fight to get a word in.

FLANNERY: The answer is -- well, you did OK. The answer is that I -- we didn't get any information from these that meant anything.

THIESSEN: That's --

FLANNERY: We did an awful lot at our borders and our airports.

THIESSEN: That is patently false.

FLANNERY: We did a lot of surveillance that was legal. We did some that was illegal. Also, the evidence of these interrogations of the top lieutenants of Osama bin Laden, if it worked, you would think by now we would have him. And the truth is --

THIESSEN: It's patently false.

FLANNERY: -- people will say anything when they're tortured, including that the program worked.

THIESSEN: That is just absolute --

FOLBAUM: Marc, go ahead.

THIESSEN: That's absolutely false. This terror --

FLANNERY: Yeah, well, where's Osama bin Laden?

THIESSEN: The interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed -- the interrogation of Salid [sic] Shaikh Mohammed led to the capture of a cell of Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists who were planning to hijack a plane and fly it into the Library Tower in Los Angeles. And if it had not been for this program, there would be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York City.

It stopped an attack on Heathrow airport. It stopped an attack on downtown London. It stopped an attack on our consulate in Karachi. It stopped an attack on our Marine camp in Djibouti. It rooted up an Al Qaeda anthrax cell --

FLANNERY: All this -- all this came from torture.

THIESSEN: -- that was used --

FLANNERY: All this came from torture.

THIESSEN: -- that was used -- that was developing -- yes, all of this came, not from torture, from this enhanced interrogation of --

FLANNERY: All this came from waterboarding.

THIESSEN: -- Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the senior terrorists who were responsible for the 9-11 attacks. And you don't know what the --

FOLBAUM: John, go ahead.

THIESSEN: -- the question -- you don't know the facts --

FLANNERY: It's ridiculous.

THIESSEN: -- because they closed it up.

FLANNERY: That's because you keep it secret.

THIESSEN: They won't release the information.

FLANNERY: Right. And you --

MacCALLUM: One last thought, John.

FLANNERY: And you're allowed to release the information to prove to us what is not otherwise released to show that torture worked. That's ridiculous.

MacCALLUM: All right.

THIESSEN: It's in the documents that they released, except they took their black pens and crossed it out.

MacCALLUM: You know what? This is -- John --

FLANNERY: Well, then how can you talk to us about it? Why isn't it exposed? If it -- why --

THIESSEN: I just told you about it.

FLANNERY: -- isn't this public then? You told us about it?

THIESSEN: President Bush -- President Bush gave a speech in September 2006 where he laid it all out, and there's more information that he couldn't because of ongoing operations --

MacCALLUM: All right, gentlemen. We gotta go.

THIESSEN: -- that's blacked out in this report.

FOLBAUM: John Flannery. Marc Thiessen.

From the April 21 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:

BILL KRISTOL (Weekly Standard editor and Fox News contributor): And President Obama at the CIA yesterday -- if I could make one more point -- in a speech to the CIA operatives, trying to reassure them, said, "Don't be discouraged by what's happened in the last few weeks. We may have potentially made some mistakes. That's how we learn."

I mean, really, we have a president engaging in baby talk at a time when there's an ongoing terror threat to this nation.

BRET BAIER (host): Mort, there is a push from the left, MoveOn.org specifically, to get a special prosecutor.

KONDRACKE: And its handmaiden, MSNBC, is shrieking for it, too.

I mean, look, there is hysteria on the left about this, and it's not hysteria only over the alleged torture. What they want is they want the heads of Bush administration officials. They didn't get what they really wanted, which was impeachment of George Bush and Dick Cheney and all that, so now they want their blood this way.

And it really is hysteria. I mean, they and everybody in their corner, including The New York Times editorial page, The Washington Post editorial page, for heaven's sakes, has completely forgotten what things were like on 9-12. You know, we were scared to death that there was going to be more attacks.

And there would have been more attacks. As Marc Thiessen points out in today's Washington Post, the interrogation, the waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed resulted in information, which foiled an attack on a tower in Los Angeles, the second so-called "second-wave attack."

What we really need here is a full disclosure of what -- or to the extent possible, of what was actually prevented by this, by these interrogations, so that the public understands. If the public knew all the stuff that was prevented by this happening, and how it was prevented, I think they would support a continuation of the policy.

BAIER: Which is what Vice President Cheney called for on Hannity.

KONDRACKE: Yeah.

From the April 22 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:

KILMEADE: Unbelievable. [White House chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel says Sunday, "We're not going to be looking back, we're not looking to prosecute." You had [White House press secretary] Robert Gibbs saying the same thing the day prior. And all of a sudden, they're pretending as if this wasn't a major shift in approaches?

Keep in mind something else embarrassing came out. The national intelligence director, the current one, Dennis Blair -- he writes a memo, supposedly internal memo, saying, "By the way, on this stuff? It worked. The enhanced interrogations worked. They provided information that we would not normally have gotten." Why? Because of what was revealed in the 170 pages. Abu Zubaydah himself said this: "Brothers" -- and by the way, he's one of the key terrorists under lock and key -- "Brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardships."

When they reached that limit, they did things like give up the second-wave attacks that would have taken down things like the library building in --

DOOCY: The Library Tower.

KILMEADE: -- the Library Tower in Los Angeles. I apologize -- and I think the Bush administration should apologize to all those who survived the would-be attack.

GRETCHEN CARLSON (co-host): Well, that's funny, Brian, because I find it highly amazing that Dennis Blair, who is this national intelligence director, would write that they got high-value information, but then his public statement was completely different. His public statement said, "Well, I'm not going to really discuss whether or not they got good information from those interrogation techniques."

This thing is going to turn into a huge mess.

DOOCY: So, what happened was, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, he was being interviewed by the CIA guys, the operatives, he said, "I'm not going -- I've told you all I'm going to tell you." And they took him right up to waterboarding. And he had said something ominous. And they said, "Do you know of any other attacks?" And he said, "You will know about it soon." And so they waterboarded him a bunch of times. Next thing you know, he's spilling the beans.

And he said that there was going to be an attack and it was going to kill hundreds if not thousands of Americans and it was going to be on this place. Then, the next thing you know, the CIA guys go in -- some other national, international operatives -- and they caved this thing that would have crashed these jetliners under the control -- that had just been hijacked by some Asian hijackers -- into the Library Tower out in Los Angeles.

KILMEADE: It has --

DOOCY: So, it worked.

KILMEADE: It has already severely affected the CIA. David Ignatius of The Washington Post, hardly a conservative columnist, said this -- said, "I'm told in the case of an Al Qaeda suspect captured weeks ago in Iraq, the CIA was told about this and didn't even interrogate him." They said, "Bring him right to the U.S. military."

So, our best interrogators said, "Just send them to the military. We are not going to try to get intelligence." You know those 24 hours when they look at your pockets and they find your cell phone and they follow up? The most valuable? The CIA says, "It's not worth it for me."

DOOCY: Sure. So, just keep in mind, that's kind of what's going on. It did apparently work and get a bunch of information, and there was this huge flip-flop. And according to those in Washington, it's all because after Obama said, "We're looking forward, not backwards," a whole bunch of people on the left who helped get him elected --

KILMEADE: Like MoveOn.org?

DOOCY: MoveOn.org, in a hissy fit, suddenly phoning everybody, and they caved.

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