Just before dawn on March 1, 2003, two dozen heavily armed Pakistani tactical assault forces move in and surround a safe house in Rawalpindi. A few hours earlier they had received a text message from an informant inside the house. It read: “I am with KSM.”
Bursting in, they find the disheveled mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in his bedroom. He is taken into custody. In the safe house, they find a treasure trove of computers, documents, cell phones and other valuable “pocket litter.”
Once in custody, KSM is defiant. He refuses to answer questions, informing his captors that he will tell them everything when he gets to America and sees his lawyer. But KSM is not taken to America to see a lawyer. Instead he is taken to a secret CIA “black site” in an undisclosed location.
Upon arrival, KSM finds himself in the complete control of Americans. He does not know where he is, how long he will be there, or what his fate will be. Despite his circumstances, KSM still refuses to talk. He spews contempt at his interrogators, telling them Americans are weak, lack resilience and are unable to do what is necessary to prevent the terrorists from succeeding in their goals. He has trained to resist interrogation. When he is asked for information about future attacks, he tells his questioners scornfully: “Soon, you will know.”
It becomes clear he will not reveal the information using traditional interrogation techniques. So he undergoes a series of “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved for use only on the most high-value detainees. The techniques include waterboarding. He begins telling his CIA de-briefers about active al Qaeda plots to launch attacks against the United States and other Western targets. He holds classes for CIA officials, using a chalkboard to draw a picture of al Qaeda’s operating structure, financing, communications, and logistics. He identifies al Qaeda travel routes and safe havens and helps intelligence officers make sense of documents and computer records seized in terrorist raids. He identifies voices in intercepted telephone calls, and helps officials understand the meaning of coded terrorist communications. He provides information that helps our intelligence community capture other high-ranking terrorists.
KSM’s questioning, and that of other captured terrorists, produces more than 6,000 intelligence reports, which are shared across the intelligence community, as well as with our allies across the world. In one of these reports, KSM describes in detail the revisions he made to his failed
1994-1995 plan known as the “Bojinka plot” to blow up a dozen airplanes carrying some 4,000 passengers over the Pacific Ocean. Years later, an observant CIA officer notices the activities of a cell being followed by British authorities appear to match KSM’s description of his plans for a
Bojinka-style attack. In an operation that involves unprecedented intelligence cooperation between our countries, British officials proceed to unravel the plot.
On the night of Aug. 9, 2006, they launch a series of raids in a northeast London suburb that lead to the arrest of two dozen al Qaeda terrorist suspects. They find a USB thumb-drive in the pocket of one of the men with security details for Heathrow airport, and information on seven
Trans-Atlantic flights that were scheduled to take off within hours of each other:
* United Airlines Flight 931 to San Francisco departing at 2:15 PM
* Air Canada Flight 849 to Toronto departing at 3:00 PM
* Air Canada Flight 865 to Montreal departing at 3:15 PM
* United Airlines Flight 959 to Chicago departing at 3:40 PM
* United Airlines Flight 925 to Washington departing at 4:20 PM
* American Airlines Flight 131 to New York departing at 4:35 PM
* American Airlines Flight 91 to Chicago departing at 4:50 PM
They seize bomb-making equipment and hydrogen peroxide to make liquid explosives. And they find the chilling martyrdom videos the suicide bombers had prepared.
Today, if you asked an average person on the street what they know about the 2006 airlines plot, most would not be able to tell you much. Few Americans are aware of the fact al Qaeda had planned to mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11 with an attack of similar scope and magnitude. And still fewer realize the terrorists’ true intentions in this plot were uncovered thanks to critical information obtained through the interrogation of the man who conceived it: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
This is only one of the many attacks stopped with the help of the CIA interrogation program established by the Bush Administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In addition to helping break up these specific terrorist cells and plots, CIA questioning provided our intelligence community with an unparalleled body of information about al Qaeda.
Until the program was temporarily suspended in 2006, intelligence officials say, well over half of the information our government had about al Qaeda-how it operates, how it moves money, how it communicates, how it recruits operatives, how it picks targets, how it plans and carries out attacks-came from the interrogation of terrorists in CIA custody.
Former CIA Director George Tenet has declared: “I know this program has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots. I know this program alone is worth more than what the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us.”
Former CIA Director Mike Hayden has said: “The facts of the case are that the use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer. It really did work.” Even Barack Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, has acknowledged: “High-value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.” Leon Panetta, Obama’s CIA Director, has said: “Important information was gathered from these detainees. It provided information that was acted upon.”
John Brennan, Obama’s Homeland Security Advisor, when asked in an interview if enhanced-interrogation techniques were necessary to keep America safe, replied: “Would the U. S. be handicapped if the CIA was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities, I would say yes.”
On Jan. 22, 2009, President Obama issued Executive Order 13491, closing the CIA program and directing that, henceforth, all interrogations by U. S. personnel must follow the techniques contained in the Army Field Manual.
The morning of the announcement, Mike Hayden was still in his post as CIA Director. He called White House Counsel Greg Craig and told him bluntly: “You didn’t ask, but this is the CIA officially non-concurring.” The president went ahead anyway, overruling the objections of the agency.
A few months later, on April 16, 2009, President Obama ordered the release of four Justice Department memos that described in detail the techniques used to interrogate KSM and other high-value terrorists. This time, not just Hayden (who was now retired) but five CIA directors, including Obama’s own director, Leon Panetta objected. George Tenet called to urge against the memos’ release. So did Porter Goss. So did John Deutch. ,Hayden says: “You had CIA directors in a continuous unbroken stream to 1995 calling saying, ‘Don’t do this.'” In addition to objections from the men who led the agency for a collective 14 years, the President also heard objections from the agency’s covert field operatives. A few weeks earlier, Panetta had arranged for the eight top officials of the Clandestine Service to meet with the President. It was highly unusual for these clandestine officers to visit the Oval Office, and they used the opportunity to warn the President that releasing the memos would put agency operatives at risk. The President reportedly listened respectfully, and then ignored their advice. With these actions, Barack Obama arguably did more damage to America ‘s national security in his first 100 days of office than any President in American history.
As President George W. Bush’s top speech writer, Marc Thiessen ( The Kelly File on FOX ) was provided unique access to the CIA program used in interrogating top Al Qaeda terrorists, including the mastermind of the 9/11 attack, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM).
Now, his riveting new book, Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe (Regnery), has been published. This is an excerpt from Courting Disaster.