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Talking Point Or Proof Of Value: CIA Tactics And The 'Second Wave' Plot


We're going to sort out some of the facts behind a polarizing debate. It's the debate over U.S. interrogations after 9/11. A Senate report says brutal techniques utterly failed to produce useful intelligence, while former Vice President Dick Cheney last night on Fox called the report, quote, "full of crap." Let's look behind those sweeping statements to an actual case history. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein says Senate investigators examined 20 specific cases of interrogations.


SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: In each case, the CIA claimed that critical and unique information came from one or more detainees in its custody after they were subjected to the CIA's coercive techniques. And that information led to specific counterterrorism success. Our staff reviewed every one of the 20 cases, and not a single case holds up.

INSKEEP: Not a single case; that's one view. Another view comes from former CIA lawyer John Rizzo. Talking with NPR this week, Rizzo cited one of those same 20 cases as a success story. The U.S., he says, foiled a plan for a second 9/11-type attack on the West Coast.


JOHN RIZZO: The plot for 17 people in Pakistan to launch a second wave of attacks in the United States, and that plan was disrupted as a result directly of the techniques used in this program.

INSKEEP: Disrupted directly by those techniques. OK, what do the facts say? We're going to work through them with New York Times correspondent Matt Apuzzo who's been covering this story in depth. Welcome to the program.

MATT APUZZO: Good to be back.

INSKEEP: He's in our studios. What did the 17 people supposedly want to do? What was the plot?

APUZZO: The plot - the Second Wave plot was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the mastermind of 9/11, in 2001, told a group of Malaysians that they should use shoe bombs to take over an airplane, hijack it and fly it into the tallest building in California. Basically a second wave of 9/11-style attacks. And the CIA has been saying that they told Bush and they've told Congress and they told the public that they learned about this from KSM after subjecting him to the harshest interrogation tactics.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's right, he was captured, and there were scores of instances in which this man was waterboarded. So the suggestion in there is, well, waterboarding works, we disrupted this plot.

APUZZO: Exactly.

INSKEEP: But what is it that Democratic investigators found in this Senate investigation?

APUZZO: Well, so the leader of this plot was a Malaysian named Masran bin Arshad and the Bush administration at the time said...

INSKEEP: At the time they disrupted the plot.

APUZZO: Right. Fran Townsend, the Homeland Security adviser to the White House under President Bush said that the Second Wave plot was disrupted in July 2002 when bin Arshad was arrested overseas and that that's what disrupted the plot. Now, the Senate report says, OK, fine, but you couldn't have possibly relied on the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to thwart a plot if you hadn't even captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at the time you said you thwarted the plot.

INSKEEP: Whoa, let's do a timeline here. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured in 2003.

APUZZO: Correct.

INSKEEP: But the plot was disrupted thanks to information gathered in 2002.

APUZZO: According to the White House at the time.

INSKEEP: It's not even Senate Democrats. It's just Senate Democrats quoting White House statements that were made in real time.

APUZZO: Right.

INSKEEP: OK, so it would appear that the allegation that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's waterboarding had nothing to do with disrupting this plot.

APUZZO: Well, so the statement from the CIA is, OK, we probably used some imprecise language there. We shouldn't have been - we should've said we learned about the plot but, you know, there are other people involved. And, well, bin Arshad's capture was very important, and we got information from him. We got other information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who led us to another terrorist named Hambali and other of these 17 guys. And that even if the plot was technically off when they arrested bin Arshad, it could've been turned back on. And you never really know when a plot is off. You have to run these things down and then, of course, the committee goes - says no, no, no, Hambali doesn't have anything to do with KSM either, and now we're off onto another debate.

INSKEEP: So what we need to stress here, I guess, is that there are multiple suspects. There are multiple lines of investigation. You're trying to trace them back and see if anybody who was waterboarded or had other techniques used on them provided anything useful. It's beginning to sound awfully murky here.

APUZZO: It is, and you know what's so fascinating? The record makes clear that the CIA was just absolutely preoccupied from the very beginning, even before the program started, with proving that these tactics saved lives. And what's so interesting about this report that, you know, the Democrats and the other side, who obviously are strongly opposed to torture and strongly opposed to these EITs, they've at least proven the fact that in order - in the United States to win this debate, you have to show that it got nothing. It's not enough for the Democrats to come out and say, this was awful, these were really awful atrocities.

INSKEEP: Can't just be a moral debate here.

APUZZO: Right, and they've completely said it's not enough to say it's awful, you have to also show, and we got nothing from it, and literally nothing. It can't just be it didn't work big; the argument is that we got zero.

INSKEEP: But I want to make it clear here because the Republican side, they are trying to insist that still there might be ways that torture was helpful to the United States. But this is a situation where the CIA itself offered up an example. It's their example of where it worked. And even in their example where worked, it is really, really hard for it to be, to use George Tenet's famous phrase, a slam-dunk. They can't prove that this actually was that useful.

APUZZO: They acknowledge, in their response to Congress, that they erred in being imprecise when they said they learned about the plot from KSM from the enhanced interrogation. That was a mistake. We shouldn't have been precise. But they say, look, this how intelligence works - you get a little bit here, you get a little bit there. And so, yes, we got some stuff from bin Arshad but then we got other stuff on other people, and that led us to - so it provided a fuller view and allowed us to guarantee that we knew that we had thwarted the plot, and that's - that is more reflective of the way counterterrorism works than, say, it's a one or zero. The plot is on or it's off.

INSKEEP: Meeting that the CIA has backed off from saying that this is a clear example of success and saying, well, who knows?

APUZZO: They're saying it's a clear example of success but that they should never have said this is how we learned about the plot.

INSKEEP: OK. Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times, thank you very much.

APUZZO: Great being here.

INSKEEP: He has been covering the story of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report released this week looking at the use of interrogation techniques by the CIA in the last decade or so. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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