Marcy Wheeler: 83 Waterboardings, 10 Pieces of Intel


When we last heard from Marcy Wheeler of the EmptyWheel blog, she was doing the legwork that the New York Times needed done for their story on how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah were, between the two of them, waterboarded 266 times.

And that sure is a big number and a lot of ticking time bomb clocks, right there! And with torture defenders -- including newly minted fan of full-disclosure Dick Cheney -- insisting on all the great good their sadism achieved, it sort of begs the question: What did all that waterboarding really get us? Well, Wheeler's on this nonstop, and has dug down into the available documentation that pertains to the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, who was subjected to 83 sessions during the month of August in 2002.

We already have a way to assess how much intelligence we got directly from torturing Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: the 9/11 Report. After all, the 9/11 Report integrates a huge amount of information from interrogation reports, and cites them all meticulously. As early as June 6, 2003, the 9/11 Commission asked for, ""all TDs and other reports of intelligence information obtained from interrogations" of forty named individuals, including Abu Zubaydah and (apparently) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and they used what they got in return to write their report. So if there was useful information in those reports, they presumably got it.

Here was a bipartisan group--including many staffers and members with extensive national security backgrounds--attempting to learn everything it could about al Qaeda, poring through interrogation reports produced as a result of torture, tracking inconsistencies in the intelligence, corroborating that intelligence where possible with documents and other testimony, and ultimately selecting what it felt was useful in telling the story of al Qaeda. While certainly not a perfect assessment of what was useful (I'll explain why below), it provides one of the best unbiased ways to measure how useful this intelligence was.

And in the case of Abu Zubaydah, such an assessment is horrifying.

In the entire 9/11 Report, just ten pieces of information are sourced to Abu Zubaydah's interrogation reports.

Wheeler's got a timeline from March 2002 to February 2004, where she unpacks both the significant decisions that governed Zubaydah's detainment and itemizes the intel gleaned from interrogation. Wheeler's diligence and detail is superlative. There's just no substitute for the full Monty, so do make sure you take in all of her work. But in the narrow interest of summarization, here's what 83 trips to the waterboard got us:

1. "Abu Zubaydah describes his role running the Khaldan and Derunta training camps."

2. "Abu Zubaydah describes Rahim al-Nashiri's success as a recruiter."

3. "AZ describes Bin Laden's popularity."

4. "AZ gives tempered description of KSM's popularity."

5. "AZ insisted there were no ties between al Qaeda and Iraq."

6. "AZ claims Bin Laden expanded the scope of KSM's original plan."

7. "AZ provides description of the origins of "the Encyclopedia," a terrorist training manual created during the anti-Soviet campaign."

8. "AZ provides a description of Bin Laden's actions after the Cole bombing."

9. "AZ provides information on Abu Turab, who reportedly conducted the final training for the 9/11 plotters."

10. "AZ provides a comment on whether Saudis were selected for the 9/11 plot specifically."

Again, Wheeler has better details on each of these pieces of intelligence, and also has appropriately provided caveats, explaining how this is not "a perfect measure of the value of AZ's intelligence." Still, she's pieced out some significant findings. The intelligence on the training camps that tops the list, for example, was obtained before the CIA's use of torture was authorized. "Thus," Wheeler notes, "it either came from persuasive, rather than coercive, techniques. Or it came from treatment that had not been legally approved."

Additionally, Wheeler notes that the information on al Qaeda recruiter Rahim al-Nashiri is the only piece of intel Zubaydah provided during the period of time he was being waterboarded. And, the possibility remains that the information gleaned from Zubaydah may have made the difference in al-Nashiri's capture. Still, that's the only part of this that even remotely looks like a ticking time bomb. Frankly, I'd note the irony of capturing a terrorist recruiter using intelligence gained from waterboarding, which makes such recruitment easier.

The remainder of this intelligence documented here is of the sort that interrogators like Matthew Alexander suggest can be obtained without torture.

Among her detailed conclusions, Wheeler includes this:

So the experience of the 9/11 Commission--in addition to what they tell us about the inefficacy of the torture--also suggests that the entire interrogation system, with compartmented interrogators working in secret locations, who didn't have the appropriate language skills or a solid understanding of al Qaeda, did not produce usable intelligence. Cheney wants to argue that torture produced intelligence--but the 9/11 Commission makes it clear that it wasn't usable intelligence.

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