History Commons Groups

April 23, 2009

The Usefulness of KSM’s Interrogations: Very Low

Emptywheel has a post analysing the effectiveness of detainee interrogations based on references in the 9/11 Commission report to interrogations of Abu Zubaida. She says she plans to extend this method to KSM’s interrogations cited in the commission’s report, and gives an example of one of his alleged statements as possible evidence of him giving up new information to interrogators. However, in the example she uses the US already knew most (at least) of what the commission attributes to him.

She writes:

I’m just part of the way through collecting all the KSM references from the report, and I’ve tracked over a hundred references attributed to KSM interrogation. One of the interrogation reports–claiming Hambali helped Moussaoui–comes from the month he was tortured. And a few more of the reports from April, shortly after the waterboarding apparently ended, pertain to Hambali as well.

The exact sentence (p. 151) describing this help in the 9/11 Commission report is:

Later that year, Hambali and his crew would provide accommodations and other assistance including information on flight schools and help in acquiring ammonium nitrate for Zacarias Moussaoui, an al-Qaeda operative sent to Malaysia by Atef and KSM.

This is sourced in the endnote:

On assistance to Moussaoui, see Intelligence report, interrogation of KSM, March 24, 2003; Intelligence report, interrogation of detainee, Apr. 9, 2002…

However, the US could not have learned this information from KSM, as it already knew it.

According to former CIA Director George Tenet’s book At the Center of the Storm (p. 204), the CIA first connected Moussaoui to al-Qaeda associate Yazid Sufaat on 18 September 2001. Moussaoui had visited Sufaat and others in Malaysia in the autumn of 2000 (timeline entry) and Sufaat gave him a signed letter saying Moussaoui was a representative of Sufaat’s company. The letter was in Moussaoui’s belongings, which should have been searched when he was arrested on 16 August 2001 (timeline entry with image of letter). However, they were not searched until after the attacks for reasons I still regard as unclear.

Once Moussaoui had been connected to Sufaat, it was a very short step from him to Hambali. After all, both of them were known to the CIA, which had monitored them at al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (timeline entry). The summit was held in Sufaat’s apartment and the CIA even got video of Hambali attending it (timeline entry).

The link between Moussaoui and Hambali was reported in several media in at the start of 2002, for example the Los Angles Times and the Washington Post. Both these stories mention ammonium nitrate, but it is not linked to Moussaoui at this point.

In November 2002, an associate of Hambali, Moussaoui and Sufaat, Faiz abu Baker Bafana, testified from Singapore by live video in the Moussaoui case. The testimony was played to the jury in 2006. Bafana, who had been in custody since December 2001, spoke about Moussaoui’s desire to procure ammonium nitrate and a flight school he visited in Sungai Besi. He also described his interactions with KSM, referred to as “Mukhtar,” and Atef, referred to as “Abu Hafs,” although he does not name them as the people who sent Moussaoui to Malaysia.

Presumably, Bafana had provided this information to the authorities several months earlier, if not immediately after his detention. In fact, Bafana may be the detainee mentioned in the endnote as having been interrogated on 9 April.

Therefore, the majority of the information the 9/11 Commission attributed to KSM in this case was already known. The only possibly new information it may have got from KSM is that Moussaoui was sent by KSM himself and Atef, although that certainly could have come earlier from Bafana, Sufaat (who was arrested on 9 December 2001), or the detainee interviewed on 9 April (assuming he isn’t Bafana or Sufaat).

More Problems

The second issue is that when the commission cites a detainee interrogation report as evidence of something, the assumption is being made that this is something the detainee said during the interrogation. However, it’s also possible that it’s something the report mentions as a question put by an interrogator, for example along the lines of this: “KSM was asked why Moussaoui inquired about ammonium nitrate in Malaysia, but replied he had not known of the query and had not tasked Moussaoui with making such purchase.”

Finally, there is the problem that what KSM said to his interrogators, as related by the commission, sounds like a constant stream of incredible drivel. One of his claims – that alleged Flight 77 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi obtained US visas before becoming part of the 9/11 operation – is extensively disputed here. My feeling about the rest of his narrative is pretty similar – I just don’t buy it. To the extent that I wonder whether the CIA was faithfully reporting to the commission what KSM was telling them.

Just take two omissions as examples.

The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry (p. 313) found that KSM was linked to al-Qaeda from at least 1995 and that the US knew of this from the next year, based on a visit KSM made to an unnamed foreign country (which is actually Brazil). More evidence of KSM’s connection to bin Laden was found after the 1998 African embassy bombings, when one of KSM’s aliases was discovered on a flight manifest to Nairobi before the attacks. Yet the commission goes on at some length (see, for example, page 149 of its final report) explaining that KSM was not closely linked to bin Laden until the planes operation was approved in early 1999.

The commission’s account is based on KSM’s interrogations, and it’s garbage. The trip to Brazil and flight to Nairobi prove a closer link between KSM and OBL (and there is other evidence of this). How the commission, which was pretty sceptical of the interrogation reports, managed to persuade itself to believe them on this point remains a mystery.

The second example is the commission’s treatment of the Malaysia meeting in January 2000. There are a stack of press reports saying KSM attended together with Khallad bin Attash, Almihdhar, Alhazmi and others. One of the commission’s own witnesses, counterterrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna who had access to transcripts of KSM’s interrogations, told the commission KSM did attend (timeline entry), but the commission details KSM’s movements until the meeting starts and then goes strangely silent on his whereabouts. This makes no sense. Did KSM attend the Malaysia meeting? If so, did the CIA report this to the commission? If so, why did the commission leave it out?

I can’t help but point out that if KSM was not in Malaysia (which is the official story), then the CIA’s failure to properly brief the FBI about the meeting is less serious (the same applies to Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri). Neither does it have to explain why it did not render him to the US for his part in Bojinka – the CIA had had a renditions branch since 1997 and it was allegedly actively looking for him at this time.

So, if KSM was in Malaysia and mentioned it in his interrogations, then the CIA had an interest in not passing this information on to the commission. Simple question: is this the only point we can’t trust the CIA on, or is there more?

Whichever way I look at it, I don’t think the number of claims the commission made based on alleged statements of KSM when he was being interrogated using the “enhanced techniques” could be interpreted as meaning anything. Remember Jane Mayer’s 2007 torture piece in the New Yorker:

When pressed, one former top agency official estimated that “ninety per cent of the information was unreliable.” Cables carrying Mohammed’s interrogation transcripts back to Washington reportedly were prefaced with the warning that “the detainee has been known to withhold information or deliberately mislead.” Mohammed, like virtually all the top Al Qaeda prisoners held by the C.I.A., has claimed that, while under coercion, he lied to please his captors.


  1. Here is what Soufan stated in his NYT’s op-ed: “One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks.”

    It’s somewhat odd that while many people are discussing Soufan’s article in relation to the use of torture, there is little discussion of the unexplained conduct that led up to 9/11. Not only was a qualified FBI interrogator replaced by an absurd CIA torture program but the very agent who was replaced was obstructed by the CIA when tracking leads involving associates of Cole plotters.

    It’s pretty difficult to understand what happened in the lead up to 9/11 when we don’t have a good explanation for the CIA’s withholding of information. Soufan evidently isn’t willing to discuss this key issue. And we know this bizarre conduct involved the FBI (UBLU) and NSA as well.

    Comment by Mike — April 23, 2009 @ 7:43 pm | Reply

  2. Mike, I see the very same problem. Soufan’s removal from Abu Zubaida was not just the only time this happened. Al-Libi was being interviewed by Russell Fincher, one of the agents (with Bongardt) from whom information was withheld at the 11 June meeting by Wilshire’s associates (Corsi, Shannon and Gillespie). Al-Libi was taken away from Fincher by Rich B, Wilshire’s boss, who had just been made station chief in Kabul.

    Similar situation with al-Khatani, who was taken away from Soufan. However, according to the DoJ IG report on detainee abuse al-Khatani was actually not talking.

    The key question for me is: which CIA official decided Abu Zubaida was withholding information and not co-operating? And he decided this based on what? In the case of al-Libi, Jack Cloonan came out and said it was Rich B. Was it also Rich B who first claimed Abu Zubaida was not co-operating, leading to him being tortured?

    The result of the al-Libi and Abu Zubaida cases was to re-erect the wall between the FBI and CIA, which Rich B, Wilshire and their associates had previously abused in the run-up to 9/11.

    Given they have a track record of withholding information from the FBI (especially the specific two agents who were interviewing al-Libi and Abu Zubaida) are we supposed to believe Rich B initiated a policy (rendition, torture) that led to information being withheld from these agents for a completely unrelated reason (an attempt to obtain information about allegedly presumed future attacks through torture)? The alternative would be that the policy was initiated precisely because Rich B knew what the outcome would be – reduction of access to information for Fincher and Soufan – and because he desired that outcome.

    Comment by kevinfenton — April 24, 2009 @ 1:29 am | Reply

  3. I would guess the CIA and White House were on the same page. CIA control of the interrogations meant:

    1) Secrecy maintained. No access for 9/11 inquiries.

    2) False confessions. Good for foreign policy agenda and public conditioning (i.e. fearmongering reduced public dissent).

    3) Good for political advantage. Harsh interrogation methods appealed to the authoritarian GOP base. Fit with the unitary executive theory.

    4) Enhanced the CIA’s prestige.

    Comment by Mike — April 25, 2009 @ 12:41 pm | Reply

  4. […] this one on ABC, which probably requires three posts to digest fully. I have previously expressed extreme scepticism at some of the statements reportedly made by alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) […]

    Pingback by Atta-Shukrijumah Link Another Blow to KSM’s Credibility « History Commons Groups — September 11, 2009 @ 2:35 pm | Reply

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