In his National Journal column, Stuart Taylor wrote that, according to the CIA, the harsh interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed "averted a planned attack" on the Library Tower. But according to the Bush administration, the plot was thwarted at least a month before Zubaydah's capture and more than a year before Mohammed's.
In his April 25 National Journal column, Stuart Taylor Jr. advanced the repeatedly debunked claim that "the brutalizing of detainees averted a planned attack" on the Library Tower in Los Angeles. Taylor wrote that, according to the CIA, the plot was "unraveled" by a "chain of events" that began with the harsh interrogation of Abu Zubaydah in 2002 and included the harsh interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Taylor did note that "[t]here is also evidence cutting against the CIA's claims," citing CIA and FBI statements that harsh interrogations are ineffective and reports that some intelligence officials questioned the "seriousness" of the Library Tower plot. But the claim that the information gained from the harsh interrogations of Zubaydah and Mohammed "averted" the Library Tower plot conflicts with the chronology of events put forth on multiple occasions by the Bush administration. Indeed, as Slate.com's Timothy Noah has noted, the Bush administration said that the Library Tower attack was thwarted in February 2002 -- at least a month before Zubaydah was captured on March 28, 2002, and more than a year before Mohammed was captured in March 2003.
Taylor also wrote that "the CIA insists" the harsh interrogations unraveled the Library Tower plot. But, according to a May 30, 2005, memo from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, written by then-acting assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury, CIA Inspector General John Helgerson concluded in a 2004 report, that, in Bradbury's words, "it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks."
In response to former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen's April 21 Washington Post op-ed -- which also advanced CIA claims that the harsh techniques prevented the Library Tower plot -- Noah explained that "[w]hat clinches the falsity of Thiessen's claim ... is chronology":
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.
Taylor's inclusion of Zubaydah's interrogation faces a similar issue of "chronology": according to an April 2, 2002, statement from then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, Zubaydah was captured on March 28, 2002.
From Taylor's April 25 National Journal column:
The CIA's post-9/11 records are probably the most instructive body of empirical evidence in existence as to the relative effectiveness of gentle and harsh interrogation methods. The Senate Intelligence Committee is looking into this data. But its review could be skewed by the committee's own prior role and its current incentives to reach politically palatable conclusions. We need the person responsible for protecting us to direct an unblinking, unbiased review of whether lives were saved.
The review should start by taking seriously the views of the people with the most-detailed knowledge. They say that the coercive interrogation program was highly effective.
One of the most specific CIA claims that the brutalizing of detainees averted a planned attack, as described in speeches by then-President Bush and in one of the recently released Justice Department documents, goes like this:
After being subjected to waterboarding and other brutal methods in 2002, Abu Zubaydah explained that he and his "brothers" were permitted by Allah to yield when interrogators pushed them to the limit of their endurance. At that point, he provided information that helped the CIA capture Ramzi Binalshibh. The two captives then gave up details that led to the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM, in official shorthand), whom Zubaydah had identified as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. KSM, in turn, was initially defiant but -- after being tormented and waterboarded more than 100 times -- gave up information leading to the capture of a terrorist named Zubair, and then to the capture of Hambali, leader of Al Qaeda's Southeast Asian affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah, and then to his brother "Gun Gun" in Pakistan, whose information led to a cell of 17 Southeast Asian terrorists.
This chain of events, the CIA insists, unraveled the dangerous "Second Wave" plot, planned by KSM and Hambali, that called for the Southeast Asian terrorists to crash a hijacked airliner into the tallest building in Los Angeles, the Library Tower.
There is also evidence cutting against the CIA's claims. A.B. Krongard, who was the agency's executive director when the coercive interrogations began, told author Ron Suskind that KSM and other Qaeda captives "went through hell and gave up very, very little." Former FBI agents have claimed that their conventional, non-coercive interrogation got better information out of Zubaydah than the CIA did with its tough stuff.
Many experienced military and FBI interrogators say they've never used coercion, contending that it doesn't work because prisoners will say anything to stop the pain. (But how would they know it doesn't work, not having tried it? And if you were a terrorist desperate to stop the pain, would you fabricate a story that your interrogators would likely consider suspect -- or tell them where to find other terrorists?)
There are also reports of disagreement within the intelligence community as to the seriousness of the Second Wave plot. Maybe it would have fizzled even without coercive interrogations.
But maybe not. As former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen has written, if the 9/11 plot had been thwarted, Bush's critics "would be telling us how it was never really close to execution and [that] men armed with nothing more than box cutters [could never] hijack four airplanes simultaneously and fly them into buildings."