CIA Knew Torture Was Extorting Bad Intelligence — Kept Doing It Anyway

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 9-11
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed superimposed over Manhattan burning on September 11, 2001. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Unknown / Wikimedia and 9/11 Photos / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

In February, we wrote about how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks, has yet to stand trial — 17 years after the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center’s twin towers and the Pentagon.

The reason for the delay, Mohammed’s attorney David Nevin asserts, is the government’s desire to hide the details of the torture and rendition program his client and many others were subjected to in the early years of the “war on terror.”

After years of uncertainty on what to do with the alleged 9/11 conspirators, the Obama administration ultimately decided in 2011 to try Mohammed and four others in a military tribunal at the US Naval Station Guantánamo Bay. But the process has been fraught with apparent prosecutorial shenanigans that have only added to the delay. As we wrote in February:

  • Hidden microphones were found in the rooms where the defense attorneys met with their clients.
  • Hundreds of thousands of the defense’s emails ended up in the possession of the prosecution, and “huge volumes” of defense files mysteriously disappeared from a Department of Defense (DOD) computer network when the DOD did a network upgrade. “Months of work” were lost, according to Navy Cmdr. Stephen C. Reyes, an attorney defending Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Nashiri, another Guantánamo detainee, is accused of involvement in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
  • Members of Mohammed’s defense team, including Nevin, allege they were the target of FBI spying.
  • Another member of Mohammed’s defense team, Maj. Jason Wright, resigned from the Army in protest after he had been taken off the case by a reassignment that he said would have violated his duty to vigorously defend his client.
  • The government seized four of the defendants’ laptops that they had used to prepare for trial and that contained much sensitive client-attorney material.
  • The defense team accused the judge of secretly colluding with the prosecution to destroy evidence that would have been helpful to their client.
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And the many pretrial arguments over the government’s refusal to provide the defense with details of the detainees’ treatment have also caused delays. Mohammed’s defense team was even threatened with prosecution when they tried to investigate some aspects of the torture on their own.

What’s Truth Got to Do With it?

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The CIA’s record of torture is front and center in the media again. This time because President Donald Trump’s new CIA Director, Gina Haspel, played a key role in the agency’s program of  “enhanced interrogation” (i.e., torture). Haspel was head of station in at least one of the CIA’s black sites in Thailand where torture took place, and also held multiple senior roles at the CIA Counterterrorism Center, which oversaw the torture program.

She was also involved in the destruction of the video recordings of the torture sessions and was less than forthcoming recently with members of Congress who asked about her role in that action.

Nevertheless, the Senate confirmed her. The fact that Haspel, who played a key role in the CIA torture program, made it through the confirmation process fairly easily, signals, at the very least, that the agency should have no problem continuing to shield itself from any outside scrutiny of its treatment of terror suspects in the years after 9/11.

Ominously, president Trump who has said he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” said Monday that “America is reasserting its strength” by putting Haspel in charge of the agency.

Gina Haspel, Donald Trump

President Donald Trump embracing newly sworn Director of the CIA Gina Haspel at ceremony. Photo credit: The White House / YouTube

But besides the obvious motivation for covering up the particulars of the government’s torture program, there’s a far more ominous reality behind the sort of “evidence” obtained through that torture. Why? Because Mohammed (like others who were tortured), “simply told his interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear,” i.e., to get the torture to stop.

The above quote comes not from a human rights organization or even from one of the accused’s defense attorneys, but from the CIA itself: namely, a 2003 internal agency cable describing the interrogation of Mohammed.

The cable was included in 300 pages of documents recently obtained by Buzzfeed News. The documents were originally released to the nonprofit Property of the People, which seeks to obtain and publicize government documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The material includes cables, PowerPoint presentations, talking points, legal analyses, and detailed narratives.

Much of the revived discussion about torture in the media has dealt with its efficacy: whether or not reliable intel can be gained through its use. But there is another possibility which is largely ignored that accuracy was always beside the point.

The ‘Truth’ Shall Make You Dead

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“Napoleon spoke against torture in 1798 because it was recognized that people will say anything to make the torture stop,” Mohammed’s attorney David Nevin told WhoWhatWhy in an email.

A similar statement in the CIA cable supports the accusation that the point of the torture program was, in fact, to get detainees to say “what [the interrogators] wanted to hear.”

And, ultimately, what members of the Bush/Cheney administration wanted to hear was that Saddam Hussein had connections to Al Qaeda operatives. (Dick Cheney is currently making the rounds trying to convince America to go back to the “enhanced interrogation” techniques, presumably so the same kind of intelligence can be obtained.)

Colin Powell, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Hugh Shelton

Left to right: Secretary of State Colin Powell, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and General Hugh Shelton, September 12, 2001. Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives / Flickr

After a portion of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture was released in 2014 by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) against fierce opposition from the CIA it became known that Ibn Shaykh al-Libi, captured in Afghanistan in 2001, testified to just such a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

He offered up this information while he was being tortured in Egypt after having been secreted there by the CIA.

CIA agents questioned the validity of his statements from the start, however. The documents obtained by Buzzfeed show that Mohammed’s interrogators were well aware of the shaky nature of the intelligence they were obtaining through torture.

Yet, the uncertainty in the CIA interrogation report had evaporated by the time the intelligence made its way to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell then included the Saddam–Al Qaeda connection in his now infamous “vial of anthrax” speech. That speech has been cited by many in the media and Congress as having convinced them to support the invasion of Iraq. In Powell’s defense, he was only relaying bad intelligence that had been manipulated by Dick Cheney’s White House Iraq Group, according to his then–Chief of Staff Col. Lawrence Wilkerson.

Even more damning, Wilkerson told Democracy Now he’s convinced that one of the primary motivating forces behind the torture program was to produce evidence to support the case for war against Iraq even if that information was false.

Presumably, there was a lot of “evidence” gathered through these interrogations about the conspiracy to attack the United States on 9/11 none of which has been subjected to any kind of adversarial legal scrutiny.

The legacy of a narrative obtained through torture and then strung together by the Bush administration has been 17 years of continuous warfare in the Middle East and an erosion of civil liberties in the US — and the loss of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

The few individuals blamed for the 9/11 attacks have yet to be “brought to justice” in a court of law, while disturbing questions about what role our “ally,” the Saudi government, might have played in the attacks have been ignored.

It’s only through luck that the bogus nature of the Saddam–Al Qaeda connection came to light. One wonders what other spurious evidence from the CIA’s torture program is steering America’s post-9/11 anti-terror policy.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from CIA ceremony (The White House / YouTube) waterboarding (Mike Licht / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).

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6 responses to “CIA Knew Torture Was Extorting Bad Intelligence — Kept Doing It Anyway”

  1. bob says:

    The reason they had to torture the “alleged” terrorists to get them to confess was because they did NOT do it – there is more evidence of involvement by Cheney, Bush, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Zakheim, Libby, Perl and the rest of the PNAC crowd than the people the CIA provided visas to for them to travel to America – ie the 12 Saudi Arabians. Let’s start with the fact that Cheney had organized & run a hijacked aircraft “Drill” on 9/11 that kept NORAD on the ground with 4 “allegedly” hijacked aircraft in the air; and Cheney giving direct orders to an underling keeping other air force planes on the ground till the records room at the Pentagon was hit – by a drone as there was NO 767 plane parts anywhere there and planes don’t “vaporize” as that was the Government explanation. Then there was the controlled demolition of the Twin Towers as explosions were occurring BEFORE the first plane strike and the FDNY firemen talking about how they had to leave the buildings because explosions were going off all over the buildings. And then you had the WTC Building 7 issue where the owner Leonard Silverstein talked about the FDNY firemen deciding to “pull” the building – when did the FDNY get in the demolition business – AND which firemen actually wired the building and when did they do it ?? Also, building 7 had offices of multiple “security” agencies of the Federal Government and also stored there was the back-up records for the Pentagon purchasing system that the day before had 2.3 TRILLION in items there were “missing and un-accounted for (after another 6 TRILLION in “adjustments” to try and get things to balance. Also in Bldg 7 was all the evidence of the WorldCom & Enron stock fraud’s being investigated by NCIS. And then the Government ordered the SEC to destroy all the records of options trading on 9/11 even though there was massive PUT’s on US Air & American airlines and other companies who were involved. I could go on as this is just some of the “coincidences” of strange things that occurred on 9/11 that most people are unaware of…

  2. Samual says:

    There is currently a National “debate” going on, actually it is a propaganda offensive by the Ruling Powers to “justify” their actions.
    Torture is being justified under the argument that it is okay because it is being used against ….. listen carefully ….
    NON-uniformed, “fanatics”, who refuse to submit to “THE POWER”. You are supposed to whole-heartedly support and affirm the use of torture ……
    or you are somehow “NOT SUPPORTING THE TROOPS” and you are “LESS than a Patriotic American”.
    You better be fighting AGAINST torture TOOTH and NAIL, and VIGOROUSLY DEMANDING the prosecution of any and all who engaged in it.
    Why ????? Because YOU are next on the waterboard. Or do you intend to passively surrender your ARMS when told to.
    What is going on now is forming the framework of the coming conflict over YOUR RIGHTS vs the Governmental “authoriTAY”.
    YOU are going to classified as an “ILLEGAL COMBATANT” because YOU will not be in a uniform or serving in a “regular” military,
    IF you resist ARMS confiscation…..

  3. Rob says:

    In my opinion..they knew the torture subjects were innocent because the CIA was part of the real 911 conspiracy. KSM was waterboarded over a hundred times in one month. He would have admitted to killing Abraham Lincoln after that level of torture. Haspel is a bad apple.

  4. mijj says:

    Torture (along with assassinations, propaganda, and war) – a Great American Tradition.

  5. Geoff Botting says:

    Phillip, I assume you are referring to the last picture with Bush and Cheney in it? They are definitely ‘pure evil’ alright.

  6. Phillip Michaels says:

    “I think he’s got it! By George, he’s got it!”

    Pardon the My Fair Lady reference. I couldn’t resist trying to add something human when looking evil full in the face…