The Obama administration Monday appointed a special prosecutor to pursue criminal charges against CIA employees who interrogated some of al Qaeda’s hardest core members, while releasing documents showing individuals subjected to the tactics provided life-saving intelligence that disrupted numerous terror plots ranging from an anthrax attack on Westerners to a massive bombing of U.S. troops in Africa.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. ordered the reopening of criminal investigations against CIA interrogators that the Justice Department had previously declined to prosecute under President Bush.
He made the decision over the opposition of CIA Director Leon E. Panetta and despite the often-stated wishes of President Obama to “look forward” and not become entangled in a debate over the past practices of the war on terror.
Mr. Holder ordered his special prosecutor to focus on cases in which interrogators used “inhumane” tactics outside those authorized by their superiors, and, to bolster its case, the administration released a previously classified CIA inspector general’s report that detailed instances in which interrogators threatened one detainee with killing his children and suggested to another that they could force him to watch his mother be sexually assaulted.
At the same time, the CIA declassified documents that former Vice President Dick Cheney had pleaded to be released publicly that detailed the extraordinary information the United States gained from its interrogations of high-value detainees about al Qaeda’s leadership, its list of potential Westerners who could carry out attacks and about its operational plans that were subsequently thwarted.
Among the chilling details in the documents, titled “Khalid Sheikh Mohammad: Preeminent Source On Al-Qaeda” and “Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against Al Qaeda”:
• The identities of key participants in an al Qaeda program to develop the ability to mount anthrax attacks.
• The identities of about 70 people whom al Qaeda had “deemed suitable for Western attacks.”
• The identities of the bomb makers responsible for an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, in June 2002.
• A plot to attack Camp Lemonier, a U.S. military facility in the East African nation of Djibouti.
“It will take years to determine definitively all the plots in which KSM was involved and of which he was aware,” the report said, “but our extensive debriefings of various KSM lieutenants since early 2003 suggest that he has divulged at least the broad outlines of the his network’s most significant plots against the United States and elsewhere and his role as Al-Qaeda chief of operations outside Afghanistan.”
In another case, information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed led to the arrest of Iyman Faris, a truck driver and al Qaeda conspirator who was arrested in 2003 in Ohio and is now serving a 20-year prison sentence.
“Detainee reporting has helped thwart a number of Al-Qaeda plots to attack targets in the West and elsewhere,” one of the reports said.
That included plots to fly planes into buildings on the West Coast, setting off bombs in U.S. cities and planning to employ a network of Pakistanis to target gas stations, railroad tracks and the Brooklyn Bridge.
“These documents suggest that enhanced interrogation techniques prevented terrorist attacks and protected our country,” said Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, which filed the request under the Freedom of Information Act. “Now, the American people can have a more complete understanding of whether these enhanced interrogation programs are effective. We are very pleased to be able to bring these documents to light for the first time.”
But the redacted documents do not specify any enhanced-interrogation tactics as having led to detainees revealing specific information, though they do say the most important information came from so-called high-value detainees, some of whom faced those tactics.
The report does indicate that an effective way to obtain information from detainees was to confront them with information that had already been obtained from other detainees. For example, the Mohammed report said he discussed details of a plot to attack London’s Heathrow Airport and other targets in the United Kingdom because he thought a co-conspirator in custody had previously done so.
The CIA inspector general’s report, which was produced in 2004, also grapples with question of the effectiveness of the tactics, but reaches no conclusion on their effectiveness. For example, it notes that Abu Zabuydah was waterboarded 83 times from August 2002 to April 2003.
“It is not possible to say definitively that the waterboard was the reason for Abu Zabuydah’s increased production, or if another factor, such as the length of detention was the catalyst,” the IG report said. “Since the use of the waterboard, however, Abu Zabuydah has appeared to be cooperative.”
The investigation, the results of which were released in response to an ACLU lawsuit, denounces the program as having led to “unauthorized, improvised and inhumane and undocumented detention and interrogation techniques.”
The IG report reviewed incidents from September 2001 to mid-October 2003. The most aggressive techniques, such as waterboarding, which stimulates drowning, are no longer used.
But one CIA officer, according to the report, said at the time that “ten years from now we’re going to be sorry we’re doing this … [but] it has to be done.”
The report said that some cases of abuse were so extreme that they were referred to the Justice Department for potential prosecution. Those cases were never prosecuted during the Bush administration, a decision Mr. Holder reversed Monday.
According to the investigation, the enhanced-interrogation program, which was used only against so-called high-value detainees, began after the 2002 capture of Abu Zabuydah, a high-level al Qaeda operative.
Tactics of the program included waterboarding, forced nudity and sleep deprivation. Critics say those tactics were illegal, ineffective and amounted to torture.
“Senior agency officials believed Abu Zubaydah was withholding information that could not be obtained through then-authorized techniques,” the report said. “Agency officials believed that a more robust approach was necessary to elicit threat information from Abu Zubaydah and possibly other senior Al-Qaeda high value detainees.”
The report said interrogators waterboarded Abu Zabuydah more aggressively than what their training and Justice Department legal opinion allowed.
The training and legal opinions said “the subject’s airflow is disrupted by the firm application of a damp cloth in a controlled manner,” the report said. “By contrast, the agency interrogator … continuously applied large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainees moth and nose.”
Mohammed, another so-called high-value detainee who was waterboarded, was told by interrogators that if another attack takes place in the United States, “we’re going to kill your children.”
The report said the “most significant” unauthorized technique was used against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a high-ranking al Qaeda member accused of conceiving the 1998 attack on the USS Cole.
According to the report, a person who was not trained or authorized to use enhanced-interrogation tactics walked in to a cell where al-Nashiri was shackled and racked an unloaded handgun near his head. Later, on what was likely the same day, that person revved a power drill while al-Nashiri stood hooded and naked in his cell. He did not touch al-Nashiri.
The report also said that between September and October 2002, the CIA staged mock executions that included an interrogator yelling outside an interrogation room with a detainee inside before firing a gun. Then, when the detainee was moved to another room, a hooded detainee lay motionless on the floor, appearing to be shot dead.
The point of the mock execution, according to the report, was to make a detainee think he would be executed if he did not cooperate.
The effectiveness of the mock executions was unclear.
A senior operations official told investigators he “understood it went badly; it was transparently a ruse and no benefit was derived from it.” Though some who were involved told investigators that one detainee who subjected to the mock execution “sang like a bird.”
In another case, an interrogator told a detainee that “we can get your mother in here,” speaking in a country where it was widely thought that authorities would sexually assault family members in front of prisoners.
Mr. Obama has said he constantly said that he wants to focus on reworking interrogation rules and repairing the U.S. image abroad, rather than engaging in recrimination with the previous administration. But in one interview, he indicated that prosecuting the actual CIA agents would be less preferable to going after administration attorneys who told them what they could do.
For example, in April he said he did not think it “appropriate” to prosecute those CIA officers who “carried out some of these operations within the four corners of the legal opinions or guidance that had been provided by the White House.”
But the president has insisted that the decisions on whether to investigate or to prosecute are Mr. Holder’s. Obama spokesman Bill Burton reiterated that stance Monday, saying that the president thinks the attorney general should be fully independent of the White House and Mr. Holder “ultimately is going to make the decisions” on whether to prosecute in the CIA case.