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Real plots or false confessions?

ASK THIS | October 23, 2007

President Bush has listed four terrorist attacks he says his administration prevented thanks to the CIA's harsh interrogations. But what do we really know about these alleged plots that he now says should be so central to the public debate over torture? Not much.

By Dan Froomkin

In a speech at National Defense University today, President Bush listed four terrorist attacks that he said had been prevented due to intelligence gathered through the CIA’s interrogation program that critics say involves the use of torture.

But there is plenty of reason for journalists to display skepticism in the face of Bush’s assertion.

Here’s what he had to say in defense of the CIA program:

"This program has produced critical intelligence that has helped us stop a number of attacks -- including a plot to strike the U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti, a planned attack on the U.S. consulate in Karachi, a plot to hijack a passenger plane and fly it into Library Tower in Los Angeles, California, or a plot to fly passenger planes into Heathrow Airport and buildings into downtown London.

"Despite the record of success, and despite the fact that our professionals use lawful techniques, the CIA program has come under renewed criticism in recent weeks. Those who oppose this vital tool in the war on terror need to answer a simple question: Which of the attacks I have just described would they prefer we had not stopped?"

But here are some questions the press should ask:

Q. What do we really know about these plots that Bush says should be so central to the public debate over CIA interrogation techniques?

Q. Which of those attacks was more than a fantasy?

Q. Who is to say they would not have been stopped with more humane and arguably more effective interrogation techniques?

The first time Bush disclosed what he alleged were thwarted terror plots was in a speech on Oct. 6, 2005. “Overall, the United States and our partners have disrupted at least ten serious al Qaeda terrorist plots since September the 11th, including three al Qaeda plots to attack inside the United States,” he said. The White House even distributed what it called a fact sheet.

But a few days later, Sara Kehaulani Goo wrote in The Washington Post: “Intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the White House overstated the gravity of the plots by saying that they had been foiled, when most were far from ready to be executed.…

“The president made it ‘sound like well-hatched plans,’ said a former CIA official involved in counterterrorism during that period. ‘I don't think they fall into that category.’”

One of the ten plots he mentioned that day -- the alleged plot on Library Tower (now US Bank Tower ) -- made it into another Bush speech on Feb. 9, 2006. At that point, Peter Baker and Dan Eggen wrote in The Washington Post that "several U.S. intelligence officials played down the relative importance of the alleged plot and attributed the timing of Bush's speech to politics. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize the White House, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the Library Tower scheme and whether it was ever much more than talk.”

Very little authoritative reporting has been done on the highly secretive interrogation program. But the most detailed account, in Ron Suskind’s book, “The One Percent Doctrine,” suggests that the brutal methods in at least some cases resulted in false confessions and unreliable intelligence. Describing the case of Abu Zubaydah, one of the terror suspects Bush has mentioned several times as a source of valuable intelligence, Suskind wrote:

“According to CIA sources, he was water-boarded, a technique in which a captive’s face is covered with a towel as water is poured atop, creating the sensation of drowning. He was beaten, though not in a way to worsen his injuries. He was repeatedly threatened, and made certain of his impending death. His medication was withheld. He was bombarded with deafening, continuous noise and harsh lights….

“Under duress, Zubaydah told them that shopping malls were targeted by al Qaeda. That information traveled the globe in an instant. Agents from the FBI, Secret Service, Customs, and various related agencies joined local police to surround malls. Zubaydah said banks – yes banks – were a priority. FBI agents led officers in a race to surround and secure banks. And also supermarkets – al Qaeda was planning to blow up crowded supermarkets, several at one time. People would stop shopping. The nation’s economy would be crippled. And the water systems – a target, too. Nuclear plants, naturally. And apartment buildings.”

“Thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each flavor of target,” Suskind wrote, and so, “the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”

About Those Plots

The four alleged plots Bush mentioned today all appear to have been described, ever-so-sketchily, in the Summary of the High Value Terrorist Detainee Program released by the director of national intelligence on Sept. 6, 2006.

“Detainees have provided lead information that has aided the US and its allies in capturing al Qa'ida operatives who pose a serious threat,” the report said.

Here’s what the report had to say about the Djibouti plot Bush mentioned: “In early 2004, shortly after his capture, al-Qa'ida facilitator Gouled Hassan Dourad revealed that in mid-2003 al-Qa'ida East Africa cell leader Abu Talha al-Sudani sent him from Mogadishu to Djibouti to case the US Marine base at Camp Lemonier, as part of a plot to send suicide bombers with a truck bomb into the base. His information -- including identifying operatives associated with the plot -- helped us to enhance the security at the camp.”

The “planned attack on the U.S. consulate in Karachi”would appear to be this one: “In the spring of 2003, the US and a partner detained key al-Qa'ida operatives who were in the advanced stages of plotting an attack against several targets in Karachi, Pakistan that would have killed hundreds of innocent men, women, and children.”

(Interestingly enough, at least one such attack was successfully carried out in Karachi. In August 2006, a suicide bombing near the consulate killed a U.S. diplomat and three Pakistanis.)

The Library Tower plot I’ve already addressed.

As for the “plot to fly passenger planes into Heathrow Airport and buildings into downtown London” ostensibly broken up due to CIA interrogations, Bush was apparently not talking about the liquid explosives plot broken up to great fanfare in August 2006, but this one: In 2003, the US and several partners -- acting on information from several detainees -- disrupted a plot to attack Heathrow Airport using hijacked commercial airliners. [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and his network were behind the planning for this attack.”

Another Cautionary Tale

Another cautionary tale about taking administration charges as the gospel came just this week in a Texas courtroom. Leslie Eaton writes in the New York Times: "A federal judge declared a mistrial on Monday in what was widely seen as the government's flagship terrorism-financing case after prosecutors failed to persuade a jury to convict five leaders of a Muslim charity on any charges, or even to reach a verdict on many of the 197 counts.”

That’s more evidence, in case any was needed, that the Bush administration at times doesn’t hesitate to make accusations that it can’t prove.

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