In a speech on the Senate floor last week, Sen. John McCain dismissed the role of CIA interrogations in the operation that got Osama bin Laden, declaring that "The first mention of the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti [bin laden's courier], as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country. The United States did not conduct this detainee's interrogation, nor did we render him to that country for the purpose of interrogation."
His statement was carefully worded, technically correct and completely misleading.
I interviewed several former senior intelligence officials after McCain's speech. Every one of them told me that they first learned about al-Kuwaiti from CIA detainees, not from a detainee in another country. I was told that McCain was referring to an old foreign liaison report that included a passing reference to al-Kuwaiti, but that CIA officials did not become aware of this report until many years later, after CIA detainees had alerted them to al-Kuwaiti's importance. They only found it because they had ordered a "deep dive" on him — scouring all their databases for everything they could find about the bin Laden courier — based on intelligence from detainees.
Many officials did not remember the report at all — a sign of how little importance it held. Those that did said the agency would never have come across the old report had they not already been looking for al-Kuwaiti, and it told them nothing useful that they did not already know. So while the report may technically have been the "first mention" of al-Kuwaiti, the CIA did not "learn" about bin Laden's courier from this report — it learned about him from the questioning of high-value terrorists, many of whom underwent enhanced interrogation.
As one former CIA official with direct knowledge told me, "Detainees provided the information regarding the courier network and Ahmed in particular that started this whole thing. None of it came from another detainee from another location."
McCain's speech, and his Post op-ed piece, were replete with technically correct but misleading assertions such as this. For another example, McCain declared in his speech: "None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed's real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda." Of course, since only three of the roughly 100 CIA detainees underwent waterboarding, McCain's statement conveniently glossed over about 97 percent of those questioned by the CIA.
Note that McCain did not claim that none of the detainees who underwent enhanced interrogation techniques gave us "key leads" on the courier — because he knows this would be false. Moreover, after being waterboarded, Khalid Sheik Mohammed did confirm al-Kuwaiti's kunya (or nom de guerre), which is the name the courier actually used. And the fact that both KSM and his successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi, attempted to protect al-Kuwaiti was the red flag that alerted CIA officials to his importance.
McCain said in his speech that the "best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti's real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to Osama bin Laden — was obtained through standard, noncoercive means, not through any ‘enhanced interrogation technique.' " Note again, the careful wording: McCain did not say that this detainee did not undergo enhanced interrogation (he did) – only that he did not provide the information "through" enhanced interrogation. This is deceptive. McCain was briefed in detail more than once on enhanced interrogation, so he knows full well that enhanced techniques were not used to gain intelligence from detainees — they were used to compel their cooperation.
While applying enhanced techniques, interrogators would ask detainees questions to which the interrogators already knew the answers, so they could judge when the detainees had made the decision to begin cooperating. Once they did so, the techniques stopped and the detainees moved into noncoercive debriefing.
McCain knows that Hassan Ghul — the detainee who provided "the best intelligence" on al-Kuwaiti — resisted during his initial questioning, was put through enhanced techniques and subsequently became cooperative. When Ghul began cooperating, the enhanced techniques stopped and he moved into debriefing, where he provided vital information about al-Kuwaiti. The fact that Ghul provided this information "through standard, noncoercive means" simply shows that he provided it after the enhanced process was complete.
In fact, two-thirds of detainees underwent no enhanced techniques at all. This is because during their initial "neutral assessment," the alternative was made clear to them. The story of one senior al-Qaeda terrorist, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, illustrates the point. When Abd al-Hadi was brought to a CIA black site, agency officials told him, "We're the CIA." He replied, "I've heard of you guys. I'll tell you anything you need to know." And he did. Detainees like Abd al-Hadi cooperated without enhanced techniques because they feared enhanced techniques.
Here's the big question McCain needs to answer: If his claims are true, and enhanced interrogation really did not play an important role in producing "the major leads that ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find Osama bin Laden," why isn't CIA Director Leon Panetta making these same claims? After all, who has a bigger interest in discounting the role of enhanced interrogation than the Obama administration? If administration officials could make this argument, they would be shouting it from the rooftops. They are not doing so, because they know the truth: Enhanced interrogation worked.
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI