But supporters of the George W. Bush administration’s global war on terrorism say the nearly 800 Guantanamo files show that “enhanced” interrogations of hundreds of captured operatives at secret overseas prisons and at the Cuban prison amounted to one of the most successful intelligence operations in history.
Before the interrogations, the U.S. knew little about al Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Years later, the CIA and military had accumulated a large database of ongoing plots and the identities of terrorists, the WikiLeaks files show.
“The WikiLeaks documents provide still additional evidence that intelligence gained from CIA detainees not only helped lead us to Osama bin Laden, it helped us disrupt a number of follow-on attacks that had been set in motion after 9/11,” said Marc Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter.
“Without this program, we would not have gone nearly 10 years without another catastrophic attack on the homeland. This is quite possibly the most important, and most successful, intelligence program in modern times. But instead of medals, the people behind this program have been given subpoenas.”
He was referring to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s launch of a criminal investigation of CIA officers who conducted the “enhanced” interrogations, some of which the Obama administration has dubbed “torture.”
The killing of Osama bin Laden underscores the value of the vast intelligence database. The treasure trove of information includes the identities of terrorists operating abroad, plots to kill civilians and details on how al Qaeda used a network of couriers for clandestine communication.
Public disclosure of the interrogation windfall began in April by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, which obtained hundreds of classified U.S. reports on detainees written by Joint Task Force Guantanamo, the military unit in charge of the prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
As of Thursday, WikiLeaks had released 765 of 779 Gitmo files.
The files show that prisoner Abu Farajal al-Libi, al Qaeda’s No. 3 and a close aide to bin Laden, first disclosed the terrorist master’s special courier to the CIA. It was the agency’s ability to find and track the messenger that ultimately led a team of Navy SEALs to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed early on May 2.
Supporters of sending terrorist suspects to Guantanamo Bay — which the Obama administration has vowed to shutter, though its initial deadline has come and gone — for trials at military commissions say the prison provided a single collection point to assess and cross-check intelligence on an enemy the United States knew little about.
“We learned a tremendous amount about the operation, not only in Afghanistan but the organizational structure and how they were operating outside the immediate combat area, for example in Europe,” said retired Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Hemingway, the Pentagon’s top legal adviser to the commissions’ office during Guantanamo’s early days.
Gen. Hemingway recalled a case when the military command in Afghanistan was looking for a senior Taliban commander. Interrogators found a detainee who knew the suspect. The detainee drew a diagram of his compound. Aerial surveillance located the home and led to the commander’s capture.
“There was a lot of actionable intelligence that was developed down there for a long time,” Gen. Hemingway said.
Hunt for bin Laden
In the hunt for bin Laden, the files show al-Libi provided critical information. The CIA used so-called enhanced-interrogation techniques on al-Libi but did not subject him to waterboarding — the most controversial of techniques, which also included stress positions, slapping, shaking and dousing captives with cold water.
“In July 2003, [al Libi] received a letter from [bin Laden‘s] designated courier, Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan, requesting detainee take on the responsibility of collecting donations, organizing travel and distributing funds to families in Pakistan,” the document stated.
“[Bin Laden] stated detainee would be the official messenger between [bin Laden] and others in Pakistan. In mid-2003, detainee moved his family to Abbottabad, PK, and worked between Abbottabad and Peshawar.”
U.S. officials said the name provided to interrogators was false. But the intelligence added to the other bits of data that helped the U.S. learn how bin Laden planned to direct al Qaeda from Pakistan, the real name of his special courier and the connection of the group to Abbottabad, where the courier moved around 2006.
The courier, who eventually led the U.S. to the compound unwittingly, was killed in the raid. The Obama administration has not identified that person’s name.
An earlier declassified CIA report on Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed reveals that he disclosed the identities of several operatives and the status of a number of planned attacks.
One plan called for commandeering commercial airliners at London’s Heathrow Airport. Authorities broke up the plot.
• Ramzi Bin al-Shibh revealed how operatives gained visas to enter the West, often by gaining acceptance to an educational institute. If they were denied visas at U.S. embassies in the Middle East, they would try to gain entrance to Europe and apply from there.
• A terrorist identified as Hambali, the leader of the al Qaeda-funded Islamiyah network in South Asia, provided extensive information on his terrorist contacts in Indonesia. Responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200, Hambali disclosed the existence of the “Infraq Fisabillah” fund used to finance travel by terrorists to and from Pakistan for training.
• Abu Zubaydah, another high-ranking bin Laden aide, provided a wealth of information on al Qaeda’s ability to forge documents used to gain access to the West. Zubaydah, for example, forged medical files to show that a terrorist had been tortured. The supposed victims then used the phony medical history to gain political asylum in Europe or the United States.
“Detainee has intimate knowledge of al Qaeda’s use of a document committee for forging documents such as identification cards, visas, and passports,” the Zubaydah file states, adding, “Detainee has provided a wealth of information on terrorist organizations. He has provided intelligence on their operations and leadership. Detainee continues to be a valuable source of intelligence for operations still occurring today.”
• Mohammed Abdah al-Nashiri, another close bin Laden aide, operated a separate al Qaeda operation in Yemen that received aid from Yemeni security forces. The revelation showed that, as in Pakistan, a U.S. ally supposedly working with the West actually was helping the enemy.
It is not just Bush administration supporters who say interrogations of terrorist suspects at Gitmo and other venues worked.
Asked on NBC News whether enhanced interrogations, including waterboarding, produced information that helped find bin Laden, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said: “In the intelligence business, you work from a lot of sources of information, and that was true here.”
Mr. Panetta said: “We had a multiple series of sources that provided information with regards to the situation. Clearly, some of it came from detainees and the interrogation of detainees, but we also had information from other sources as well.”
“No, I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of these detainees,” he said.
“But I’m also saying that, you know, the debate about whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always going be an open question.”
The debate over the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques has raged on Capitol Hill since Mr. Bush initiated the tactics, the most famous of which was waterboarding, and said Geneva Convention rules apply only to signing parties and thus not to stateless terrorists in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Even though leaders from both parties were briefed on the practices as early as 2002, leading Democrats derided their use as reports of secret prisons emerged around 2006.
In 2007, Mr. Bush signed an executive order prohibiting cruel and inhumane treatment, humiliation or denigration of prisoners’ religious beliefs. After taking office in 2009, Mr. Obama dubbed some of the techniques torture, closed the secret prison system and said the administration would abide by the Geneva Conventions.
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