John McLaughlin: CIA Interrogations Were Legal, Moral and Effective


May 19, 2015

On the night of Sept. 11, 2001, John McLaughlin says he went home and wrote on a piece of paper, “Nothing will ever be the same.”

He was right of course. In the weeks and months that followed, the U.S. would be at war, and the intelligence community was on an urgent mission to capture, detain and interrogate suspected terrorists. Their charge was to prevent the next attack. The question was, what do you do with suspects once you have them?

At the CIA, where McLaughlin served as the agency’s deputy director from 2000 to 2004, and then briefly as its acting director starting in 2004, the decision was made that interrogation methods of the past no longer fit the moment. More extreme measures were needed, McLaughlin says, to crack the “hardcore murderers” of Al Qaeda. At the agency, the new playbook was dubbed “enhanced interrogation.” Outside the CIA, critics called it torture.

“The CIA faced a real dilemma here,” McLaughlin told FRONTLINE. “On the one hand, we knew this program would be contentious. On the other hand, we asked ourselves, wouldn’t it be equally immoral if we failed to get this information and thousands of Americans died? There was another 9/11? How immoral would that be?”

In the following interview, McLaughlin discusses how the CIA developed its enhanced interrogation program, why he believes it was effective and his criticisms of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 report on the agency’s use of torture.

This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore on April 3, 2015. 

Post 9/11, immediately afterwards, take us, if you will, into the meetings that were going on at the CIA.

Immediately after 9/11 at the CIA, our first thought was, “What’s happened here is what we expected to happen.” All through the summer of 2001, we had reporting from many sources indicating there was going to be a major attack. We could not pinpoint the target or the time, but we expected something spectacular to happen. So that was the first thing.

The second thing is that, on the week of Sept. 15, the president signed an order, a finding if you will, giving the CIA authority to do a wide variety of things it had not often done in the past.

Third thing is, we realized that we were the only agency, really in government, that had spent a lot of time working on Al Qaeda. We had been doing this single-mindedly since 1996. And we felt an enormous responsibility, first for not having detected the attack, and then second, for having to prevent another one. We knew that you couldn’t send the 82nd Airborne into the cities of Pakistan and Yemen, where we thought these guys would eventually puddle up, these terrorists. So we felt that terrible responsibility.

We also felt the need to act quickly and vigorously against what was then a known but not very well-known threat. We were, among other things, blind inside the United States. As FBI got better, of course, that has changed. But, at that point, the FBI was not internally focused on terrorism to the degree it is today. And the CIA was not permitted, legally, to do that. So we had no idea whether there were other cells in the United States.

“We felt an enormous responsibility, first for not having detected the attack, and then second, for having to prevent another one.”

Beyond that, as the situation unfolded, and as we got on the ground in Afghanistan with our teams … we began to discover some dimensions of the problem we hadn’t understood before. So this was the context, much of which is left out of the report the Senate majority did.

For example, we discovered that bin Laden had met with two Pakistani nuclear scientists. We learned that, when they told him fissile material, that is, nuclear explosive material was the long pole in the tent, he said, “How do you know I don’t already have it?” We had reports that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York City. We discovered, on the ground in Afghanistan, certain evidence that Al Qaeda was working on an anthrax program.

And so the sense of dread against the many unknowns was enormous. And we felt we had a singular responsibility in the U.S. government to stand between the United States and these terrorists.

Take me into a bit of the tension in those rooms, when everyone is sitting down and discussing all this, about the ramifications for the CIA as an agency, if you got it wrong.

I think one of the things in the mind of everyone at the time was that we could not fail. We could not get this wrong. At that point, remember, many people in Washington were already blaming the CIA for the fact that it had already happened, unfairly I think. But that’s the way it worked.

And so there was a palpable sense that we could not get this wrong. If we did not figure out where Al Qaeda was and get the information that would tell us where the next plots were coming from, and we had concrete evidence of second-wave plotting against the United States, we would fail. And we would be held responsible.

And, moreover, the important thing is, Americans would die. We had the palpable fear that we were the guardians standing between future disaster in the United States and preventing that.

We’ve spent a lot of time with John Rizzo. How important was he to the program and … looking at the legality and such?

People may not realize that the CIA wants, all the time, to be on the right side of the law. We have what amounts to an enormous law firm at the CIA to make sure that we are acting in compliance with U.S. law and with the Constitution.

John Rizzo was the head of that law firm for a long period of time, often in an acting capacity. At the time of 9/11, he was the deputy chief of that large law organization. And he was among those who helped us define how to interpret the direction the president had given us, in a lawful way.

John tells one story to us where on 9/11, at one point, he sat down at his desk, and on a piece of paper in front of him, he wrote, “Capture, detain and interrogate.” How do you think that encapsulates what would become the new mission for the CIA?

I think the only word I would add to John Rizzo’s “capture, detain and interrogate” would be the word “learn.” We had a lot to learn at this point. We probably knew more about Al Qaeda than anyone else in Washington. But we still had enormous gaps in our knowledge.

I remember, I sat down at my desk the evening of 9/11, say around 10 o’clock. And I wrote on a piece of paper, “Nothing will ever be the same.” And I could sense at that moment that we had crossed some sort of a line. … In terms of the effect it would have on our operations, on the United States, and on the future of American foreign policy, I could already sense that we’d crossed into a new world.

When the OLC [Office of Legal Counsel] and when the White House authorized the CIA’s program, what did you specifically see the CIA was authorized to do? …

When the White House and the OLC signed off on the new program, we thought we had authority to capture, interrogate, detain and pass on reporting from what we learned to national security decision-makers, so that we as a government could go and attack Al Qaeda. That was what it came down to.

How daunting a task was this?

When we got the direction from the president to capture and detain the terrorists, particularly those of us who had been there for a while realized that this was going to be a steep hill for us. We had not done that sort of thing in any magnitude before in modern times. And questions arose, like: How do we do this? Where are they? Where can we enter these networks? If we capture someone and detain them, where can we put them? The military clearly did not want detainees from the CIA at that point.

And so all of those bridges had to be crossed. How do we do it? Where do we put them? How do we get the information? And how do we in the end the object, rip up this network that attacked the United States?

Abu Zubaydah is captured in March of ’02. Explain to me a little bit about when you first hear his name … and how he was viewed.

Most people don’t realize that Abu Zubaydah was all over the reporting that we got in the summer of 2001, before 9/11, the reporting that alerted us to the possibility that something big was going to happen. “The lights were blinking red,” is what we said. Abu Zubaydah’s name was woven all through that reporting as a facilitator for Al Qaeda, that is, someone who knew what was going on, who had been involved in training, who had operated as a logistician, just someone who was very important to the infrastructure of Al Qaeda.

Tell me a little bit about when you hear, how you hear that he has been captured.

As I recall, I had just come into work that day. … We searched aggressively for him after 9/11 in ways and with techniques that I can’t describe. But they were very effective. And eventually we captured him in Faisalabad, as I recall, in a violent situation in which he was wounded, a gunfight going on.

And when we heard this, we were very glad to have him finally taken off the street, because (a) he was very prominent in all of our reporting, (b) we assumed that he knew a lot, and (c) this was our first chance with a high-level detainee to find out what they knew.

… The contractors, [James] Mitchell and [Bruce] Jessen, are brought onboard. How do you hear about these guys? Why does the CIA go to them, to contractors? And what’s the plan?

I don’t know a lot about the contractors. It was not something I dealt with personally. What I can tell you is that the CIA did not have a lot of experience in doing interrogations of this magnitude and with these kind of people. Remember, these were the top leaders of Al Qaeda that we were capturing over the course of months. And the contractors who were brought in to assist were people who had had experience training special forces in both interrogation and in counterinterrogation techniques. And so they came to the effort with knowledge and experience that very few people in the CIA had. …

… So Abu Zubaydah was interrogated for a bit. And then there was a delay of 47 days, where the interrogators came back to the United States. There were lots of discussions. Legalities were worked out. [The Senate report says] that in fact, puts a lie to the point of the fact that we didn’t have the time, that things had to be done immediately, and therefore, we couldn’t use the techniques of the past. What’s your response to that?

The fact that we stopped and deliberated for a few days as we designed this program. It’s absurd to suggest that that indicates we had lots of time. Obviously, we had to think through what we were doing. Second, we had to make sure we were on solid legal ground. It’s very important, every step of the way here, before we did anything, there was a lawyer involved to say, “Are you in line with the guidance we have from the president, from the Office of Legal Counsel, and so forth?”

“For anyone to say that this program was not effective is nonsense.”

So you know, I can’t say it any more clearly. We did not have time. We went as quickly as we humanly could. And we got that information, and we stopped plots … For anyone to say that this program was not effective is nonsense. By simply using the information we got to capture the 9/11-era leadership of Al Qaeda, imagine the number of plots we disrupted just by doing that, if we had not done anything else. And we did that largely on the strength of information we got from these detainees.

The legality issue, of course, is a very important one. John Rizzo talks a lot about it. What were some of the talks like?

Look, legality was so important to us here, because the CIA pays a lot of attention to being on the right side of the law. We have to be in line with U.S. law and with the U.S. Constitution. And therefore, in pursuing a program like this, we wanted to make sure we were on solid legal footing. We knew it would be controversial. And so therefore, we wanted a clear ruling on whether what we were doing was legal under U.S. law, and legal under the Constitution. And any time that anyone blinked on those issues, we would suspend the program, as we did quite clearly in 2004.

… Phil Zelikow [executive director of the 9/11 Commission] basically said that during this period of time, when the programs were being evaluated, when EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] were being discussed, he said that there was a lot of time spent on looking at the legalities. But there was no time spent on the policy or moral implications of the decisions made.

As we were thinking this program through, a lot of time was spent on the moral implications of what we were embarking on. Now people who say, simply, that this was immoral or unethical, they want this to be easy. The CIA faced a real dilemma here: On the one hand, we knew this program would be contentious. On the other hand, we asked ourselves: Wouldn’t it be equally immoral if we failed to get this information and thousands of Americans died? If there was another 9/11? How immoral would that be? That’s the dilemma we were up against. And we felt a moral commitment to protect the United States. …

Did the president know about this? Did the CIA brief the president? What was the connection to the White House? And how did that work?

Part of our approach to this program was to make sure, first, that we were legal, but second, and simultaneously, that we had policy approval. So you wanted legal approval and policy approval. The policy approval we got through the White House, by briefing, in detail, the national security adviser, the deputy national security adviser, the White House legal counsel, all of those people who had a say within the White House. They approved.

Perhaps the national security adviser briefed the president, because he says in his memoir that he was briefed and that he approved this program. And so therefore, anyone who says that we were holding anything back here has got it wrong. We were not holding anything back. We misled no one. We gave very graphic briefings to all of the people involved in the White House. And the president says that he was informed and approved. So I think case closed on that one.

The approval comes through, Aug. 4, I think it is, in 2002. The team goes back to Thailand. The interrogation is started again. Soon after — again, this is from the Senate report — on Aug. 9, the interrogation team writes back to Langley that they don’t believe that Abu Zubaydah knows more, that it’s “unlikely” that he knows more. The CTC [Counterterrorism Center] pushes them forward, tells them to push on, because, “We know he knows more.”

This becomes an issue because, of course, it seems like micromanaging from Washington. Take me to that point, or give me any part of it you want, about the fact that soon after, on the 9th, that that kind of communication is taking place.

Two important points. First, when I read the Senate report, and I read some of what’s in it, I don’t know how much to take it at face value, because I know of instances where they’re reciting emails that they have either distorted, or they have taken out of context. In one case, for example, they reported an email from an employee that they characterized as the employee saying, “Abu Zubaydah has no more to tell us,” when, in fact, if read in context, the entire email, what the employee is saying is, “He’s very resistant to interrogation techniques. He’s been well-trained.” … That’s the first point.

The second point is, there are often differences between headquarters and the field about the scope or magnitude or approach to use. Sometimes the field is right. But, frankly, sometimes headquarters is right, because at headquarters, you have people with a broader field of vision, who are looking at the large strategic picture, and who have, frankly, more information than you do in some isolated spot in the field about the larger picture.

I experienced this in both the CIA and in the army. I recall being an army trooper in Vietnam and realizing that I was looking over the next mountain, but that someone back in Washington was looking at the whole corps. That goes on all the time. Not unusual.

In these five o’clock meetings, were you all, being the management, being briefed in detail about the interrogations?

In the five o’clock meetings, we didn’t have detailed briefings on the interrogations, minute by minute or anything like that. What we were hearing is the basics: What were we learning? Was the detainee being cooperative? Resistant? And what was the state of that?

The more important thing about the five o’clock meetings is that we made operational decisions there based on this information.

When we heard from an interrogation that, for example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed tells us the name of an operative that he had designated to case-building in New York City, that’s all we knew, we run with that. What’s the next thing we need to find out about that? And that’s another case. But ultimately, it leads two, three years later, to the arrest of an operative in Britain who had done precisely that.

… These five o’clock meetings were quite famous. But they really were not getting way down deep into the weeds. They were basically taking the information we had, making operational decisions, and literally, within hours or days, stopping plots and capturing terrorists. The five o’clock meetings were probably the most effective forum of government that I was in, in 40 years.

… Were you getting enough detailed information about the interrogations and the specificity that would be necessary to really manage the program?

Yes, we got detail from the interrogations that allowed us to manage the counterterrorism effort. There weren’t a lot of Hollywood moments, meaning a detainee tells you something that opens up the whole operation and the whole field of vision. It might be just a name. It might be a phone number. It might be the location of a safe house, where meetings were being held. But you link that up with other information you have from detainees perhaps weeks earlier, and you start to get a pattern. And then you know what to ask the next detainee, or to go back to all of these detainees and ask them, in a serial fashion, and get all of their opinions.

“The CIA faced a real dilemma here. On the one hand, we knew this program would be contentious. On the other hand, we asked ourselves, wouldn’t it be equally immoral if we failed to get this information and thousands of Americans died?”

This is the one thing the Senate study does not understand. It does not understand how analysis works. They will say, for example, if you’ve heard something before, it doesn’t count that you’ve learned it from a detainee. No, they fail to understand the role of corroboration, of increasing confidence, before you take an actual kinetic action in an operation. Or, one detainee has told you this. Why do you need to hear it from another? Well, because there will be a variation in that story. It might take two or three versions of that story before you have a sense of what the truth of it is. So this is a pattern-building operation, little bits and pieces going together to form a mosaic.

And the information that you’re getting, is it enough to oversee the program and make sure that there were not mistakes being made, or mismanagement, or directions taken that were the wrong way to go?

It’s apparent to us, after the first, let’s say, four months of the program, that we’re not doing this as well as we would like. The Senate report makes the mistake of assuming and trying to convince everyone that some of the errors made in the first three or four months were characteristic of the whole program. But by January 2003, we’ve stepped back, taken a look at this, and put the whole thing under a single program office and tightened it all up.

By 2004, there had been a number of inspector general inquiries of the program. … So as this program went along, we were careful to monitor it to find out if people were doing what they were supposed to do, legally, under the guidance. And if they weren’t, if there were infractions, we did one of two things. We reported them to the inspector general, or in about 20 cases, we reported them to the Justice Department.

One of the things people don’t realize is how well policed this program was. There were, in the course of it, approximately 60 inquiries done by the inspector general, with our encouragement. In about 50 of those cases, there was not a substantiated infraction. And the ones where there was an infraction, we held six accountability boards. We examined the behavior of 30 individuals. We sanctioned 16. As a result of all of this, one person went to prison. One, a contractor, was fired. And other people were disciplined in one way or another. This was a very well self-policed program.

… As you know, the report goes into some of the stuff that was going on at the Salt Pit, as being sort of the worst of the worst. And the report, the SSCI’s [Senate Select Committee on Intelligenge] report says there were unauthorized techniques that were going on regularly. The most famous ones are the Gul Rahman death and the threats of using drills and such. What do we know about what was going on in the Salt Pit? What did headquarters know about this? Was this an aberration? Was this the worst of the worst?

The material the report covers on the Salt Pit operation in Afghanistan was an aberration. This was in the very early stages of the program, before, frankly, we had our arms around what the scope of this program would be, and how to govern it. And what we learned from it, in fact the major learning from it was we had to step back, as we did, approximately in January 2003, four months after the program began, take a zero-based look at it, ask ourselves what wasn’t working here? Did we have the right people assigned? And then, put it all under one program office with a tight set of regulations that were clear to everyone. In other words, I would call that the run-in phase of this program.

And most of the ugly reading that you’ll find in the Senate report comes out of that period, even though the report seeks to convince you that that was characteristic of the whole six years of the program. It was not.

But was this a case, for instance, at the Salt Pit, of just plain mismanagement?

Looking back at the Salt Pit case, I think the difficulty came from a couple of things. First, remember, at the time of 9/11, we are coming off of a decade of cuts in both personnel and budget. After 9/11, we get authority to start building up. …

I think a lot of the problems we had in those first four months came from two things. First, inexperience, which eventually we cured by experience. And second, the fact that we were doing things we had never been asked to do before. And I might add a third one: We were at war. Bad things happen in wars.

And when I look at the totality of this program, from end to end, for all six years, and I count up the bad things that happened against the good things that happened, the positive outcomes, the benefits that we gained from it, the latter clearly outweighs the former.

How do we end up with a series of black sites?

The explanation for why there were black sites is pretty simple. First, CIA had no prisons. Second, no one else, including the military, wanted these high-level prisoners. Third, no one in the United States wanted them. And we had to put them somewhere. And we had to do it quickly. And that’s how black sites came about.

… Let’s talk a little bit about KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed]. The report points to the fact that EITs were used, aggressive EITs, waterboarding and stuff, with him immediately. What was your sort of overview of that issue, that with KSM, everything was done aggressively and immediately?

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, KSM, was the most important and the toughest detainee that we had. He was tough to capture and tough to deal with. Remember, KSM was the man who, long before there was a CIA program, had gleefully cut off the head of Danny Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter. This was not a guy who was amenable to establishing an easy rapport with, or a quick relationship. When first asked if there would be attacks on the United States again, his answer was, “Soon you will know.”

Well it turns out that, over time, KSM became very cooperative. He became almost a consultant to the United States, almost lecturing when he was asked questions. And he turned out to be probably the single-most valuable source of information in this entire program.

The way the report paints it is that KSM beat the program. He learned how to get around waterboarding.

He tapped his fingers.

Yeah. And he lied constantly, leading us into dead-end scenarios.

All detainees lie. KSM lied sometimes. But, more often than not, he gave us information that turned out to be true. And we learned to distinguish between the lies and the truth. And, in one crucial case, the lie itself was very revealing.

So KSM gives us the name of someone he had told [to] case institutions in the United States, in New York City, such as Citigroup, Issa al-Hindi. That’s all we knew. Two or three years later, we come up with a computer in Pakistan that has the name of that individual on casing reports of New York City. That, combined with a lot of other information, working with the British, eventually that man is taken into custody and is in jail in Britain now. And buildings in New York City are a lot safer because they’ve seen these casing reports and know what terrorists were planning.

KSM tells us he gave $50,000 to Majid Khan to transfer to another person named Zubair, ultimately, heading for the head of operations for a Southeast Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda, named Hambali. Long story short, we chased this money, and we chased these people across three continents, from Zubair to a man named Lillie, from Lillie to Hambali. And we catch Hambali in a Southeast Asian nation, and take him off the street. This was the man who had planned the Bali bombing and the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Indonesia. …

“We were at war. Bad things happen in wars.”

Before KSM knows that we have captured this Southeast Asian terrorist named Hambali, we go to him and we say, “If Hambali were to retire, who would take his place?” He tells us, “Probably his brother Gunawan.”

That raises the priority of search for Gunawan. We find Gunawan. It turns out Gunawan has taken Hambali’s place, and he is training 17 terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, Southeast Asians, for what appears, we’re convinced, to be an airline plot against our West Coast. So there again, something KSM told us led — not a Hollywood moment — connecting one thing to another thing to another thing, led us to take down a plot against our West Coast.

What’s your take, then when the report brings up like a case of the Montana story, the black Muslims, that he tells them about. They send the FBI out to Montana searching for it, and it turns into a wild goose chase. And then after the EITs are done with, he admits, “They were torturing me, and I gave them what they wanted,” which was basically a lie.

Well, you know, dealing with hardcore murderers is not patty cake. They’re going to tell you lies sometimes. And the only way to combat that is to learn so much about them, and to learn so much about the problem you’re dealing with, in this case Al Qaeda, that you know when they’re lying. …

… What are the implications of Abu Ghraib when it happens?

When Abu Ghraib occurs, I mean the CIA is as disturbed by it as everyone else. It was a tragic situation. And it is totally unconnected to our interrogation program, of course. This was a breakdown in the military chain of command, involving very young troops. But at the same time, it grabs attention in the United States, as it should. …

And it’s in that context that we suspend the program. We say: “OK, at the slightest blink of a reservation here, we’re done. We’re not doing this.” And that opens up a period of time in which we go to the administration, and we go to the Justice Department, and we say: “You all need to figure out where you stand on this. In order to continue, we want affirmation that we are on solid legal ground under U.S. law. But more than that, we want you to reaffirm, as you have in the past, that our program is consistent with what’s called the ‘shock the conscience standard’ in the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.” We wanted to be in line with American law and with the Constitution.

And that opened up that chapter in which the Justice Department went back, looked at everything. I had left the government, but by sometime in 2005, they came back and reaffirmed that, in their judgment, the program was still on solid legal ground.

When you pick up the newspaper and you read Dana Priest’s article about the black sites, what are your thoughts?

When I read the public exposure of the black sites, I was appalled, because I could see that that was going to generate a controversy that would ultimately end this program and generate a lot of criticism of the CIA. Without any context, without any understanding of why it had come about, and also creating problems for countries that had cooperated with us. So that was a bad outcome, in my view.

The last sort of big problem that people keep bringing up … is the Hamdan Supreme Court decision, which basically opened up prosecutions as a possibility, war crime prosecutions against CIA. When you heard about the Supreme Court decision, what were your thoughts?

Well, again, I’m out of government at that point.

But you could have been prosecuted, I guess. If that was literally read, you might have been one of the people in the hot seat.

… I think the first thought I had was, “Thank goodness that we were so meticulous in ensuring that we had solid legal approval for this program, that we suspended it when we had any doubts about that, that we briefed the Congress 65 times between 2002 and 2008, that we had reported approximately 20 cases to the Justice Department, that we had had accountability proceedings involving 30 people with 16 sanctioned, including one who went to prison.” My thought was, “Thank goodness we have done this program by the numbers.”

… The Senate investigation, what’s your thoughts on the unprecedented access that they did have to documents, the 6 million pages and stuff?

My sense, in looking at the report, is that they started with their conclusions, and looked through 6 million pages of documents, an unprecedented number, looking for fragments of chats and emails, taking them out of context, and stacking them up to prove the points they wanted to make all along. That’s my sense of how to read this. It has such a prosecutorial tone to it, it has no recommendations, that I think even people who stoutly oppose the program ought to have some suspicion about the integrity of this report.

This debate seems to be, in a lot of ways, sort of trying to get control of the history of how this story is told. What’s at stake here? …

What’s at stake here is the truth. Also, what’s at stake is a major public policy issue. And I believe the Senate Democrats blew an opportunity to have a serious discussion of a major public policy issue, which is, what do you do with detainees at a time when you desperately need information to save American lives? That’s a valid question. And people who have strong views about the merits or the ethics of the program are entitled to have a view. There can be two views of this. And so I respect those who say they would not have a program like this.

“Dealing with hardcore murderers is not patty cake. They’re going to tell you lies sometimes.”

People who want to just then say, “Well, not only do I not like the program, but it was ineffective,” they want this to be too easy. Because the truth of the matter is, regardless of what you think of the program, its merits, its ethics, it was effective. And scholars now who are looking at this information more carefully, are now coming to realize that it’s actually a difficult question. And the Senate report doesn’t address that question. It simply says, “This program was wrong, and it was ineffective.” And that is an unsustainable argument, when you look at all of the data.

So, what’s at stake here, I think, is a serious conversation that has yet to be had about an important public policy issue, which is, what do you do with detainees?

[Georgetown University Professor] David Cole’s overview of this is that the Senate is focused only on the effectiveness of it, and the debate is about the effectiveness of it. And, in fact, that’s not the point. The point is the morality of it. What’s your thoughts on his take on that?

When people talk about the morality of the program, I think they have to, once again, not make it too easy on themselves. At that time, the CIA knew this would be controversial. They knew some people would find it unethical. But the CIA also realized that if they failed to get this information, if there were further attacks on the United States, that would too be seen as not only unethical, but immoral, to have allowed that to happen when the information was within your grasp. That was the dilemma that the CIA was wrestling with.

… When President Barack Obama comes in, he shuts down the program. It seems like this story is over basically. But then Osama bin Laden is captured. And immediately, you’ve got [Dick] Cheney, former vice president, coming out, and the CIA members and former members coming out and defending the fact that this was proof of the effectiveness. What’s your take about that point in history, when all of a sudden the debate is heated up again?

There’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that having these detainees, and being able to question them, was a major contributing factor to ultimately finding bin Laden. Not the slightest doubt. Clearly, the courier who led us ultimately to bin Laden, what happened here is that, as a result of the program we had a number of detainees, Hassan Ghul in particular, gave us details about the courier. The courier’s name had been floating around as one of many associates of bin Laden back in the Afghan days. But what we got from the detainees was very specific information that the courier had delivered a letter from bin Laden to Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the operations chief. And we got from that information that led the agency to then focus on the courier’s family and ultimately to figure out that this courier was at that compound. And that strengthened the case very much that bin Laden was there. …

So to me, yes, there were other things involved. There was signals intelligence, imagery intelligence. It was a mosaic. But this program played an important role in the foundation of intelligence that led us to bin Laden, no doubt at all.

… What’s your take on Obama’s position on the report, and [CIA Director John] Brennan’s position? Brennan basically said these tactics could possibly be used at some other point. He didn’t close the door completely. The Democrats were very angry at the White House in the way that it dealt with the report. Why do you think that is?

I think the situation put President Obama in a very difficult situation. On the one hand, he disapproves of this program, and he ended it. On the other hand, when he looks out at the world, he sees terrorists having, really, the largest safe haven they’ve had in modern history — a war in the Middle East, a terrorist state having established itself in the middle of the Middle East, things falling apart in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iran going at each other, and realizes, I think, that he needs a strong intelligence organization probably more than at any other time in his administration. And so therefore, he’s got a fine line to walk here, maintaining his position on the interrogation program, while also not damaging the CIA at this point.

Looking back, has the CIA been harmed by these revelations, an agency that you certainly gave your life to, and that you probably love very deeply. When you look back at the program, was it a mistake?

I don’t think the CIA has been permanently harmed by this controversy. The CIA bears many scars over the years from controversies. It’s the nature of the beast. The CIA is the part of the U.S. government that gets asked to do things that no one else can do in difficult circumstances. It’s a field, a discipline, where trouble is inevitable. And sometimes mistakes are inevitable, mathematically certain, because you’re asked to do extraordinary things with incomplete information, in crisis circumstances, with no time, and with an adversary that’s always trying to deceive you. So you’re up against tremendous odds here.

I know, from having lived there, that the CIA’s successes over the time I was there are dramatically greater than its shortcomings or failures. And looking back at this program, I’m sure there are things we should have done differently. We all say that. But looking back at it, its effectiveness was such that I’m convinced it saved American lives, and it thwarted terrorism at the most perilous moment that the country had faced up to that time.

… There is a moment in August 2002, after Abu Zubaydah has been subjected to the EITs, when the Senate report described the CIA as deciding to turn it into a model and to expand what was originally a program just for Abu Zubaydah. And the Senate says that the CIA was falsely claiming that the quality of the intelligence had increased when Zubaydah had been subjected to EITs, and that he had given information that would help to stop plots. First, what were you being told about what was going on and what Abu Zubaydah was providing under the EIT, and what is the truth?

I know, quite confidently, what Abu Zubaydah told us, both before and after enhanced interrogation. … Abu Zubaydah was receiving some techniques even before this program began formally. They were, at that time, considered standard techniques, like sleep deprivation. And so even in the period before the program began, in August of 2001, he had already been in a stressful situation. What we noticed was that after the program began more fully, after August, we learned more detail from him that was extraordinarily valuable.

For example, he provided identification of someone named Ramzi bin al-Shibh by photograph. Ramzi bin al-Shibh was a major facilitator for the 9/11 hijackers prior to their attacks here. That led us to Ramzi bin al-Shibh. … Had Abu Zubaydah not led us to him, we would not have learned from Ramzi bin al-Shibh the critical information we needed to capture KSM. It was a chain here. One thing leads to another.

We also learned, after the program began, very specific data from Abu Zubaydah about Jose Padilla, the individual now in jail, who had intended to carry out apartment bombings here, that is, bombings of high-rise buildings. So those are a couple of examples. There are many more. But once the program began, the richness and detail of what we heard from Abu Zubaydah increased dramatically.

There’s another point about that period I want to make. The Senate Democrats’ report is riddled with factual errors, distortions and omissions. And one of them is right at this point, where in the report they say that the CIA began the program in August but didn’t tell them about it for a full month, until September. Now that makes it sound like we were dragging our feet or hiding things from them.

They leave out a critical fact. They were on recess in August. And we briefed them immediately upon their return in September. This is very typical of one of the many times in the report when they leave out a fact in order to prove their point, a fact that would otherwise have made it hard to establish the allegation.

The Senate report says, and others have told us, these were techniques that the Koreans used to get show confessions. Even today, the CIA says it’s unknowable whether these techniques produce information that might have come from rapport building or field manual techniques. How confident, at that moment, before you’ve done anything, are you that these techniques are really necessary if there isn’t experience with them?

At the time the program begins, we are not confident that these techniques and this program will produce the information we need. We hope it will. And what we did know at that point was that relationship building was not working well in the amount of time that we had to discover what bin Laden intended to do with information he got from Pakistani nuclear scientists, what was the status of their anthrax program that we knew to exist. We knew we had to get to that information.

And so this program was one that we hoped would work. Over time, it did. And we learned gradually, as we went along, what worked and what didn’t work. But, at the very beginning, no one could be absolutely confident — and this is true of many things in life and intelligence generally, how can you know the future.

… When the current president comes in and declares these techniques off the table, and it’s at the same time that there’s a drone program ramping up, does the CIA lose anything by not having that option available?

I think it’s impossible to know whether the ending of this program represents a loss for us in the war on terror or not. Here is what I do know: I know that it was a valuable program when it existed, in the time that it existed, and the circumstances it existed. Times have changed. The administration has changed. Circumstances have changed.

I also know that the drone program has been a serious weapon against Al Qaeda and against terrorists generally, that has retarded and disrupted them. And in some respects, all of this is impossible to measure. All of these tools in terrorism have to be used in concert as appropriate and as judged legal and politically feasible in the time and circumstances that the nation finds itself in. And that’s about all I can say on that.

Will EITs, do you think, ever be used again?

It’s impossible to know whether a program like this would ever be used again. Clearly, the Senate Democrats report is designed to ensure that it isn’t. On the other hand, they failed the test of judging its effectiveness. And so they didn’t come up against the really tough question, which is, if techniques like this are effective, is there any room at all for them in any circumstances, ticking bomb scenarios or any circumstances in the future? That’s a debate worth having. But this report does not set up that debate.

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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