It’s a scene that has unfolded countless times in police departments all over the world: Two suspects held in separate interrogation rooms are played off each other by investigators trying to crack a case.
Documents released this week related to the CIA’s terrorist interrogation program describe a similar scene, but one with stakes much higher than solving a burglary or car theft.
The documents explain how CIA interrogators tricked Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian scientist who was educated in the U.S., to reveal the details of al Qaeda’s ultimately unsuccessful plot in 2001 to unleash a deadly anthrax attack against Americans.
Mohammed, who was captured in 2003, told CIA interrogators that he and three others had been involved in the anthrax scheme.
“He appears to have calculated, incorrectly, that we had this information already, given that one of the three - Yazid Sufaat - had been in foreign custody for several months before [Mohammed’s] arrest for unrelated terrorist activity,” read an excerpt from a CIA report called “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Preeminent Source On Al-Qaeda.”
Interrogators then confronted Sufaat with the information provided by Mohammed. The report said Sufaat reacted angrily, figuring Mohammed had betrayed him.
“Eventually, Yazid admitted his principal role in the anthrax program and provided some fragmentary information on his, at the time, still at-large defendants,” the report stated.
Authorities said Sufaat had critical knowledge about the plot as he had spent months hunkered down in a laboratory near an airport in Afghanistan trying to cook up a batch of anthrax.
“But it was ultimately the information provided by [Mohammed] that led to the capture of Yazid’s two principal assistants in the anthrax program,” the report said, while not naming the two other suspects.
Overall, that documents say, information obtained from detainees like Mohammed, “played some role … in nearly every capture of al-Qaeda members and associates since 2002.”
The Justice Department released thousands of pages of documents Monday in response to various requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act, including one from the American Civil Liberties Union that sought a 2004 CIA inspector general’s report into the agency’s now-defunct enhanced-interrogation program.
Critics say the program, which included sleep deprivation, waterboarding - which simulates drowning - and forced nudity, were illegal and amount to torture. The inspector general’s report concluded that the program used “unauthorized, improvised and inhumane and undocumented detention and interrogation techniques” and recommended a criminal probe into several interrogations.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. ordered such an investigation, saying that “given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney sharply criticized Mr. Holder’s decision, saying the CIA interrogators “deserve our gratitude” and the criminal investigation “serves as a reminder, if any were needed, of why so many Americans have doubts about this administration’s ability to be responsible for our nation’s security.”
Mr. Cheney has defended the enhanced-interrogation program, and demanded the release of the Mohammed document and a second CIA report called “Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against Al Qaeda.”
“The documents released Monday clearly demonstrate that the individuals subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about al Qaeda,” Mr. Cheney said. “This intelligence saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks.”
The two reports, which are both heavily redacted, didn’t specify that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques helped obtain useful information. But it did say that interrogators elicited the lion’s share of the best information from the “high-value detainees” such as Mohammed, some of whom were subjected to enhanced-interrogation tactics.
Some of the plots that interrogators learned about from detainees were well-known, such as Mohammed’s scheme to use commercial airliners to attack London’s Heathrow Airport and other targets in Britain. Mohammed and other detainees said they had begun recruiting pilots and considering which country - out of a list of 10 - from which to launch the attack.
Mohammed told interrogators that al Qaeda turned its sight to Britain after Sept. 11 because of London’s support for the U.S. war on terrorism. He also said new security measures in the U.S. would have made it difficult to pull off another attack there.
Other plots included in the documents are lesser known, such as a Somali detainee who told interrogators that al Qaeda operatives in East Africa planned to attack Camp Lemonier, a U.S. military facility in the nation of Djibouti.
The Somali, Hassan Ahmed Guleed, told interrogators that the plot called for using suicide bombers driving an explosives-laden water tanker. The plot had gone as far as the casing stage when Guleed provided information on the budding plan, which led U.S. Marines to beef up security around the base. No attack ever happened.
Other cases provide a more detailed glimpse into how the CIA used detainees to hunt down terrorists.
In one of those cases, according to the documents, Mohammed gave the CIA information about al Qaeda operative Majid Khan, who grew up in the U.S. and was accused of taking part in a plot to bomb gas stations in the U.S. Mohammed said he directed Khan to deliver a large sum of money to a person working for a senior al Qaeda associate.
The CIA speculated that Mohammed told this to interrogators because he thought Khan was already “talking.”
Interrogators then confronted Khan with the information they had learned from Mohammed, using a strategy reminiscent of the one used to learn more about the anthrax plot. Khan confessed to interrogators that he gave the money to an operative named “Zubair.”
Continuing its “building block” process, the CIA captured “Zubair,” who provided information that led authorities to Riduan Isamuddin, who is better known as “Hambali” and was the leader of an Indonesian terrorist organization allied with al Qaeda.
The CIA continued tracking Hambali’s group, Jemaah Islamiyah. With information extracted from Mohammed, the CIA learned that Hambali’s brother was likely to be the new leader of Jemaah Islamiyah.
Operatives captured Hambali’s brother, Abd al-Hadi, who, along with Hambali, brought the case full circle by telling interrogators damaging information about Mohammed. They said Mohammed had asked them to draft some members of their group to fly hijacked airplanes into the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles, which is the largest building on the West Coast.
The CIA conducted its enhanced-interrogation program at secret prisons around the globe that have been called “black sites.”
One document said such prisons “were not built as ordinary prisons.” Prisoners’ beards and heads were shaved when they arrived, a presumed slight to Muslim men, though they were allowed to grow the hair back.
The prisoners were kept isolated in cells that remained lighted around the clock, and “white noise” - about as loud as a busy street - was piped into the hallways to prevent the detainees from communicating with one another.
But the prisoners were allowed to have books, games and exercise equipment.
Mohammed said he was tortured while being interrogated at “black sites.” During his interrogations, Mohammed provided biographical details.
Mohammed, 44, told interrogators that he was a rebellious young man. One occasion, he and his nephew Ramzi Yousef, who went on to carry out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, tore down the Kuwaiti flag from their school. Both had been born in Kuwait of families that had moved from Pakistan to take advantage of the small Persian Gulf nation’s oil boom.
Mohammed told interrogators that five of his relatives joined Muslim jihad groups.
Authorities say Mohammed’s negative experiences while a college student in the 1980s in the U.S., which included a brief jail stay for unpaid bills, “almost certainly helped propel him on his path to becoming a terrorist.” Mohammed told interrogators he had minimal contact with Americans while attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, but that those contacts convinced him that the U.S. was a “debauched and racist country.”
Mohammed told investigators that he was so intent on carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks that he purposely did not swear a loyalty pledge to Osama bin Laden. That way, if al Qaeda’s senior leader were to cancel the plot, Mohammed could ignore him and go ahead with the attack.