How the Use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques Saved Thousands of American Lives

by JANET LEVY March 7, 2017

The intelligence community unjustly suffered a black eye when its use of enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) was publicized by the media and used as a political issue by Democrats trying to discredit a Republican administration and undermine the post 9/11war effort.  In addition, CIA black site operations were unfairly tied to an isolated case of prisoner abuse by military police at Abu Ghraib, a U.S.-run Iraqi detention facility for terrorist detainees.  What was missing from the head-on attacks on the intelligence agency was the reality of how EIT thwarted terrorist plans and potentially saved thousands of American lives. 

A new bookEnhanced Interrogation:  Inside the Minds and Motives of Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America (Crown Forum, 2016) by psychologist and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Dr. James E. Mitchell, describes the author's involvement in the development and implementation of the CIA's enhanced interrogation program from its inception in 2002 until it was shut down by Obama in 2009.

The book is an eye-opening account of how thoughtfully and judiciously enhanced interrogation techniques were developed, how they were applied, how much valuable intelligence was gleaned from their use and how effectively they thwarted potentially deadly attacks.

The unfair discrediting of EIT began when California Senator Diane Feinstein, a Senate Select Intelligence Committee member, cherrypicked information from CIA documents and alleged that corrupt CIA officials mercilessly tortured detainees and failed to produce a scintilla of useful intelligence in the process. Yet, her dubious claims were far from the truth.  Feinstein was poised for a witch-hunt against the Bush administration and the CIA.  The Senate Intelligence Committee failed to produce a balanced, bipartisan investigation and even refused to interview any of the CIA operatives and contractors involved in the EIT operation.

In his book, Mitchell defends the CIA program as well run, effective, conducted fully within the bounds of the law and a source of valuable counterterrorism intelligence.  Further, the same Democratic members of the House and Senate intelligence committees that condemned the program were fully briefed ahead of time and supported it before it became politically useful to denounce it.

In Enhanced Interrogation, Mitchell laments that traditional rapport-building techniques typically used by law enforcement did not work with Islamic terrorist detainees who were trained to resist using various methods laid out in theManchester Manual.  The manual was a computer file found by Manchester Metropolitan Police in 2000 in the home of Abu Anas al-Libi, a Libyan under indictment in the U.S. for his part in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings.  Al-Libi worked as a computer specialist for Al Qaeda. The 180-page document on how to wage war included instructions on how to withstand interrogation methods and falsely claim torture.

Faced with detainees trained to resist traditional interrogation techniques, U.S. officials, after much analysis and soul-searching at the CIA, decided to use Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape or SERE techniques.  These interrogation methods had been used for decades without significant injuries to train the U.S. military in resistance techniques when in enemy captivity.  One of the techniques was waterboarding, which the author and another psychologist lobbied to eliminate from training because they felt it was too effective and would undermine the confidence of soldiers in their ability to withstand interrogation and protect military secrets.  Ultimately, CIA head, George Tenet, the DOJ, White House lawyers, then national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, VP Cheney and President Bush, all approved use of these techniques.

One of the first Islamic terrorist detainees waterboarded was Abu Zubaydah, an operational planner for Al Qaeda prior to 9/11, who was believed to have much valuable intelligence to share with U.S. authorities.  At one critical point after 9/11, Zubaydah had shut down and was unresponsive to questioning.  Prior to waterboarding, he was intensely observed and subjected to a variety of interrogation methods.  In addition, medical doctors, religious leaders and psychologists were consulted to determine if he would experience any long-term medical, psychological or cultural impact from the procedure.

In the end, the waterboarding operation proved to be enormously useful. Zubaydah provided critical information necessary to capture terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks and to break up plans for future attacks.

Zubaydah revealed the roles of others, including Ramzi bin al-Shibh, an accomplice to 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; Adnan el-Shukrijuman, a senior Al Qaeda operative; and dirty bomber, Jose Padilla.  Zubaydah also admitted that, before he was captured, he had been planning to start his own Al Qaeda-like jihadist group to kill Jews in Israel.  Interestingly, he advised his interrogators to use harsh techniques on other detainees to lessen their guilt and sense of betrayal of Islamic ideals when they yielded after a significant amount of pressure.

Continued waterboarding as time went on resulted in, not a useless torture operation, as later claimed, but the uncovering of a treasure trove of information about terrorists and their plans to launch horrific attacks that could now be thwarted.

When Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi citizen who was the mastermind behind the USS Cole bombing and other maritime terrorist attacks was captured in the United Arab Emirates, he endured EIT at a CIA black site before being transferred to GITMO.  Al-Nashiri had much valuable intelligence to impart, having been Osama bin Laden's go-to guy on sea attacks.  Also, Abu Zubaydah because of his position in Al Qaeda provided a check on the veracity of the information gleaned from the Al-Nashiri interrogations.

Bin Al-Shibh, one of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 's operatives, headed a cell whose plans to crash a hijacked plane into Heathrow and into buildings in London's financial district were disrupted in 2003.  He had previously moved to Germany in the mid-1990s and joined the Hamburg cell that planned the 9/11 attacks.  Bin al-Shibh, often identified as the "20th hijacker," was the only one of the group who failed to obtain a U.S. visa.  He was accused of aiding the hijackers by wiring money and passing on information from key Al Qaeda leaders.  Further, Bin al-Shibh's capture was crucial for locating Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, himself a rich source of information, whose main priorities were to protect Osama bin Laden and withhold information about planned attacks.

When Sheikh Mohammed was in custody, the use of EIT led to disruption of post 9/11 attacks, which included the West Coast attack on the Library Tower, the Plaza Bank in Washington State, the Sears Tower in Chicago and possibly other locations.  It also led to the capture of Hambali, a Jemaah Islamiya leader with close ties to Al Qaeda and the mastermind of the 2002 Bali attack who Sheikh Mohammed enlisted to execute the so-called "second wave."

In the aftermath of waterboarding, Sheikh Mohammed provided information on Al Qaeda operative, Iyman Faris, who was working on a plot to cut the Brooklyn Bridge suspension cables and cause a rush-hour collapse. Sheikh Mohammed also gave up information on Jose Padilla, who was plotting a radiologic dirty bomb attack inside the U.S.  Further, Sheikh Mohammed identified two other Al Qaeda terrorists: Uzair Paracha, who was charged with smuggling explosive devices into the country to blow up gas stations along the East Coast, and Adnan Shukrijumah, who surveilled nuclear power plants, the homes of past presidents, historic landmarks, subways and bridges and proved a critical link to locating Osama bin Laden.  

The author learned a great deal in the thousands of hours he spent with Sheikh Mohammed, particularly about Islamic jihadist ideology and logistics.  Sheikh Mohammed described how the failed Bojinka plot launched in the Philippines to simultaneously bomb a dozen U.S. commercial planes and crash them into the ocean was the genesis for the 9/11 attacks.  The terrorist expressed surprise that the U.S. did not respond to the African embassy attacks, the U.S.S. Cole bombing and the Beirut Marine barracks hit.  Mohammed declared that large-scale attacks would not defeat America, which would be destroyed by massive immigration and the outbreeding of non-Muslims.  Mohammed explained that Islamists would use the welfare system to support themselves while they spread jihad and employed America's laws and rights to protect themselves and their activities.

Another little-discussed side benefit of EIT was that terrorist detainees were conditioned to cooperate in interrogations when they expected that harsh techniques might be used, even when they weren't going to be used.  Mitchell explains that this type of Pavlovian anticipation meant that EIT could be tapered off after an average of 72 hours.

Enhanced Interrogation makes clear that a significant amount of critical intelligence was acquired through EIT techniques that helped the U.S. capture terrorists, disrupt plots, save lives and better understand the enemy.  The CIA's interrogation program was a success and provided much information about terrorist organizational structure, leadership financing and planning.  Without EIT, according to Mitchell, the United States would never have killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

When it comes to using EIT, Americans must ask what they value most:  the so-called rights of terrorists intent on destroying America or the safety and security of the American people.  Should U.S. authorities stop people who see themselves as being at war with us and our way of life by employing a pre-emptive, war-focused intelligence gathering approach or do we use an ex post facto law enforcement or criminal approach of convicting terrorists in a court of law?  Surely, the former pro-active perspective offers the best chance for keeping Americans safe.

In Enhanced Interrogation, we see how the limited use of approved non-life threatening enhanced interrogation techniques can be instrumental in gleaning much critical information to thwart terrorist plots and potentially saved thousands of lives.

A version of this piece also appeared on http://www.americanthinker.com/

Janet Levy, MBA, MSW, is an activist, world traveler, and freelance journalist who has contributed to American Thinker, Pajamas Media, Full Disclosure Network, FrontPage Magazine, Family Security Matters and other publications. She blogs at www.womenagainstshariah.com


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