It didn’t take long after Osama bin Laden’s death was announced for members of the former Bush administration and torture apologists to start claiming that the information that eventually lead to bin Laden’s location was obtained via the use of torture, alleging that Khalid Sheik Mohammad and Ibn al-Shakyh al-Libi had given up the nickname of a trusted bin Laden courier which allowed the US to track him, leading eventually to bin Laden’s location. Dick Cheney even went so far as to say that we should start torturing again.
Not everyone agrees, thank goodness, and John McCain has announced that he actually looked into the matter and found that torture did not play a role, after all:
I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. 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. In fact, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information.
This public discussion comes as I’m reading Garrett Graff’s new book Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror, about the development of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, with a primary focus on events from just prior to the 9/11 attacks until the present. I’ll be writing a review of it when I’m finished, but wanted to comment on a section that seems even more relevant now than they did even just a few weeks ago when the book was published.
I suppose I had known, to some extent, that the FBI had been involved in the interrogations of suspected terrorists our forces captured in Afghanistan (most of whom were eventually determined to be unfortunate individuals who had nothing to do with terrorism but had been turned in by miscreants in order to get the bounty the US government was offering,) but it wasn’t something that ever got much notice. Given the FBI’s primary function as a law enforcement agency – and one that has to ensure that investigations and arrests are handled in such a manner that any evidence or information gained will be admissible in court – it’s not surprising that even in Afghanistan, the agents were careful when interrogating the subjects brought to them. Most of the detainees had little or no information of use that they could give, but occasionally, a “high-value target” would come through the base. Once such target was Ibn al-Shakyh al-Libi – one of the men mentioned above who supposedly gave up information on bin Laden’s courier as a result of being tortured – and his case provides an instructive look at the question of torture and it’s effectiveness in obtaining useful information.
When al-Libi was first arrested, the FBI investigators didn’t have much luck getting him to talk. Eventually, one of the agents began to talk to al-Libi about his own Christian faith and listed as al-Libi told him about Islam. The rapport that they developed during these chats eventually led to al-Libi providing the FBI some very valuable information – valuable enough that it helped prevent 7 attacks, including two that were in the advanced stages of planning. He also told the FBI that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were not in any way associated – each having very little use for the others beliefs or tactics, and some of his own disagreements with what bin Laden was doing – despite being the third highest figure in the al Qaeda organization. This also helped the FBI gain additional information on bin Laden’s philosophy and thoughts, which could be useful in determining how best to fight against him.
Before long, however, the CIA shows up and says that al-Libi has information on an imminent threat and they’ve been ordered to get that information from him. According to Threat Matrix, the truth of CIA’s assertion is questionable. What isn’t questionable is that almost as soon as the CIA took custody of al-Libi he was treated very roughly and, after being moved to one of the CIA’s “black sites” in Egypt, tortured. According to Graff:
After being subjected to mock executions and other forms of torture by the Egyptians, al-Libi supposedly offered testimony of more interest to the CIA and the Bush administration. On October 7, 2002, President Bush, using material based on al-Libi’s “confession,” told a crowd in Cincinnati, ‘We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses.” A year after al-Libi was shipped out of Bagram, after denying to Fincher and Mahon [the FBI agents who's interrogated him] that there were any ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda, Colin Powell cited information from al-Libi about Saddam’s ties to bin Laden’s network in his February 2003 United Nations presentation. Sitting just behind Powell during the speech, which was widely cited as galvanizing the United States to go to war, was George Tenet. Some in government, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, doubted al-Libi’s information, but that didn’t stop the march to war. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the training camp leader later recanted his story. “He clearly lied, ” Tenet concluded. “We just don’t know when.”
Al-Libi was eventually moved to Libya, where Graff reports he committed suicide in 2006. Other reports have said he died of tuberculosis.
A May 2009 piece from Time magazine adds a bit more about why al-Libi – who had been compliant and cooperating with the FBI agents – was subjected to torture:
According to Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, al-Libi was subjected to the technique known as water boarding while in Egypt. In a piece written for the Washington Note, Wilkerson recalls that when the Bush administration authorized harsh interrogation methods for al-Qaeda detainees in early 2002, its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack—as former Vice President Cheney continues to insist—but “discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaeda.” When the interrogation team reported to Cheney’s office that al-Libi had been compliant, Wilkerson asserts, “the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods.” During the water boarding, he says, al-Libi “revealed” the al-Qaeda-Iraq relationship in order to get the torture to stop.
It goes on to note:
The case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi is at the center of one of the most controversial wars in American history, a war based on claims that Saddam possessed WMD and was working with al-Qaeda that turned out to be lies, a war that diverted resources from fighting the real perpetrators of 9/11. Whether it was the mangling of U.S. priorities in the Middle East, or the reckless baying for Saddam’s blood, or the fabrication and misuse of intelligence, or torture and denial of basic rights to prisoners—al-Libi’s case has it all.