KSM Was Lying about OBL’s Location While Hiding the Courier Who Could Locate Him

I apologize for yet another post on why the torture apologists claims that torture got us Osama bin Laden are wrong.

The debate is now manipulating the question at issue, suggesting that the fact Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi provided tidbits (or, according to several reports, unconvincing denials) that led to OBL equates to us needing torture to get that intelligence. Particularly given that CIA used the denials of KSM and al-Libi as indications they were hiding something, it’s unclear why a denial without coercion would have served differently.

But there are two points that seem key in assessing the torture question. First, both KSM and al-Libi had critical intelligence they withheld under torture. KSM knew of Abu Ahmed’s trusted role and real name; al-Libi knew Abu Ahmed was OBL’s trusted courier and may have known of what became OBL’s compound.

And neither of them revealed that information to the CIA.

They waterboarded KSM 183 times in a month, and he either never got asked about couriers guarding OBL, or he avoided answering the question honestly. Had KSM revealed that detail, Bush might have gotten OBL 8 years ago.

And just as importantly, the whole time KSM was shielding Abu Ahmed’s true identity while being waterboarded, KSM was also lying to the CIA about where OBL was. When asked what things he lied about under torture at his 2007 CSRT hearing, KSM specifically said he first said he didn’t know of OBL’s whereabouts, and then confirmed false locations for him, in response to the torture.

President [of the Tribunal]: What I’m trying to get at is any statement that you made was it because of this treatment, to use your word, you claim torture. Do you make any statements because of that?


KSM: I make up stories just location UBL. Where is he? I don’t know. Then he torture me. Then I said yes, he is in this area or this is al Qaida which I don’t him. I say no. They torture me.

So at the time when KSM was guarding crucial information about Abu Ahmed and with it OBL’s location, he was making shit up to get the torture to stop.

As I understand the torture apologists’ arguments, the whole point of it (aside from generating propaganda and making chicken hawks excited) is to get crucial intelligence quickly, to skip the laborious process of acquiring a mosaic of information and developing deep knowledge of an organization over years–that is, to skip the process that has now resulted in the death of OBL. But instead of skipping that step, we got denials and–in the case of KSM–disinformation. And only now, eight and six years later, we’re only now becoming aware of the intelligence these men had that would have led to OBL had our interrogation been more successful.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

  1. WilliamOckham says:

    I’d like to put my money on “never got asked about couriers guarding OBL”. In March 2003, they didn’t know enough to realize that finding the couriers would be the only way to find bin Laden. I suspect that KSM got asked a whole bunch of stupid questions about Iraq.

    • emptywheel says:


      But we do know they asked where bin Laden was. Yet another reason it’d be nice if more experienced interrogators/people more knowledgeable about KSM had done the interrogations. This is a point both Ali Soufan and Philip Zelikow made.

      The experts knew what he knew and were probably better equipped to get it. Instead we sent in torturers who didn’t have that finesse.

    • bobschacht says:

      WO, I’m sure you’re right. They were asking the wrong questions because they were interested in the wrong things.

      And they obviously had not read much Sherlock Holmes, or they would have known about the dog that didn’t bark.

      Bob in AZ

    • nextstopchicago says:

      I’d bet the other way. Among other things, we know the case of Sami al-Hajj, the al-Jazeera cameraman who was suspected of being a courier or of knowing couriers. He was picked up in 2001!

      So they were already focused on the question of couriers quite early. It looks like the torturers must have known to ask, but couldn’t get the info from KSM. Which is even more damning.

      And EW, I don’t know about anybody else, but this is the kind of post I paid my membership for. I assume you were joking, but keep the “torture apologists are lying” posts coming!

      • bobschacht says:

        I’d bet the other way. Among other things, we know the case of Sami al-Hajj, the al-Jazeera cameraman who was suspected of being a courier or of knowing couriers. He was picked up in 2001!

        So they were already focused on the question of couriers quite early….

        Well, and Jane Harman was just on MSNBC saying that she was focusing on couriers almost immediately after 9/11 because remember the thing about Osama’s cell phone.

        But the Cheney-bots, clever folks that they are, took their eyes off the ball so they could talk with detainees about their plans for Iraq.

        Condi’s plaintive “who could have known?” rings SO hollow.

        Bob in AZ

        • nextstopchicago says:

          Mine will be the Illinois Chamboursin from Galena Vineyards. It’s a bit more expensive, but I’ll share, and once you taste it, you’ll realize you’ve won too.

  2. bobschacht says:

    Thanks for focusing on this issue. The Cheney-bots are doing their best to wave shiny bright objects, and sow a trail of frosted donuts to distract us. Please keep your focus and your resolve!

    Bob in AZ

  3. harpie says:

    EW, I’m sure Andy Worthington is relieved that you have written “another post on why the torture apologists claims that torture got us Osama bin Laden are wrong.” [And he’s not the only one!]

    With Osama bin Laden’s Death, the Time for US Vengeance Is Over; Andy Worthington; 5/3/11

    […] The importance of these revelations — and the exultation already being demonstrated by torture apologists in the US — deserves to be challenged, as it must not be used as a justification either for the use of torture or for the continued existence of the abomination that is Guantánamo, […]

    [I can’t seem to get onto his comment section to tell him, though.]

  4. lsls says:

    EW keep up the great work. The apologists are all over the place and unfortunately the “people” are now ripe to accept whatever they are told by the Main Stream Mimics…it is maddening.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    We seem to have a penchant for the down and dirty. Never mind actually speaking the interrogator’s language or understanding his culture or specific experiences; torture is the universal language. It makes our interrogations light and maneuverable, an extension of the kind of military Donald Rumsfeld wanted, and got when his minions refused to employ aides who actually spoke Arabic or knew the Middle East, the better to stand out as top dogs themselves.

    Never mind understanding how to elicit information in something close to its truthful form; rip it out (or miss it entirely), along with everything else and let the geeks sort it out.

    Plus, the interrogators get the satisfaction from enjoying Miller Time “payback time”. I suspect it works out about as often as it did for those fictional soldiers who found themselves in a jungle the wouldn’t wish “on a broke-dick dog.”

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Even a talented, cooperative, knowledgeable witness in a public trial can only answer the questions asked of him. I would have thought that was one of the lessons learned in Watergate and even the Kennedy assassination (the Warren Commission never interviewed the doctors at Parkland Hospital about his wounds; congressional investigators did it decades later).

  7. Bustednuckles says:

    Don’t you ever apologize for what you do best ever again.

    I just love you for all that you do.
    Weed whacker, in their back lot, with a magnifying glass.



  8. onitgoes says:

    Thanks, EW, for keeping the light shining on this important topic. I really have no idea if there’s any value in bringing this up, but didn’t the military fire several Arabic linguists who happened to be gay:


    Team USA has always been about bluster & chest-pounding USA exceptionalism, which pretty much seems to pan out into someone screaming English LOUDER at a non-English speaker in order to make him/her “understand” what’s being said. USA tends to be blindingly ignorant about the nations with whom we pick fights. The British were just arrogant and racist, which was bad enough, but we’re just stupid.

    We barrel in full-speed ahead and then do everything in a ham-fisted way in the vain notion to “might” = “right.”

    Why ramble on about this? Back on topic, seems to apply to the torture “investigations.” Whatever did these fools really know in terms of asking the questions they did? What questions did they use? Did they have Arabic and/or other local language linguists there?

    It’s been proven over & over that standard criminal investigation techniques work better than torture at elicting info. I highly suspect that ham-fisted torture wrought by ignorant people who don’t understand cultures and languages probably provides even less chance of elicting needed information.

    Yes: shine the light of truth bc right now, everyone’s out there crowing the lie that, Go Team USA, torture WORKS!!! Hooray!

  9. EvilDrPuma says:

    I apologize for yet another post on why the torture apologists claims that torture got us Osama bin Laden are wrong.

    Don’t apologize. It’s vitally important to the collective integrity of this country to point out loudly and often that the torture apologists are and were, completely and in every way, inexcusably wrong.

  10. Tom in AZ says:

    No matter how much the Bush admin apologists try, they can’t make honey out of the dogshit way they handled this entire mess. Stay on their asses, Marcy. Makes me proud to donate to the cause.

  11. wavpeac says:

    Nothing is more important than telling the truth about torture. It made me naseaus this morning watching scarborough (as it does every day) and Guilliane going out of their way to emphasize how important torture was to this outcome. So much so, that I would have known as a con job just by the tone and repetition. This is a necessary part of the game, to convince the world that there were no war crimes committed and if their were…well, we had to do it to save the world from Osama. Keep it coming EW!

    • nextstopchicago says:

      Sure. This is a 2008 document. So it’s consistent with for instance, the Miami Herald report that they learned Abu Ahmed’s real name from al-Libi:

      >The name of bin Laden’s designated courier, al Khaliq Jan, appears to have come from al Libi during 2005 and 2006 interrogations.

      It’s also consistent with other potential stories, and the Herald story notably lacks sourcing for this tidbit; it doesn’t even phrase very authoritatively. But bottom line, finding his name in al-Libi’s 2008 interrogation file isn’t particularly surprising. Meaning your OOPS seems misplaced unless I misunderstand what you’re finding fault with.

      But it’s still an interesting link. Thanks.

      • reddog says:

        The OOPS is because some idiot put the name of the courier into a report on a poorly administrated web site (SIPERNET) and then Wikileaks published it. Not Wikileaks fault, but anyone following the Wikileaks releases, including Al Q could have suddenly known that the cover was blown and the crap hit the fan. Obviously, someone isn’t paying attention.

  12. mzchief says:

    As I understand the torture apologists’ arguments, the whole point of it (aside from generating propaganda and making chicken hawks excited) is to get crucial intelligence quickly, to skip the laborious process of acquiring a mosaic of information and developing deep knowledge of an organization over years–that is, to skip the process that has now resulted in the death of OBL. But instead of skipping that step, we got denials and–in the case of KSM–disinformation. And only now, eight and six years later, we’re only now becoming aware of the intelligence these men had that would have led to OBL had our interrogation been more successful.

    Right on, EmptyWheel. And no free passes for war criminals!

  13. croyal says:

    CBS Nightly News with Katie Couric reported tonight that “enhanced interrogation technique” aided in finding bin Laden. Couric even asked whether we should “review” Obama’s choice to end use of those techniques at the start of his term “in light” of bin Laden’s capture.

    Heh. CBS cares. Just not about the truth.

  14. Chewiest Crayon says:

    You know, I’m kind of conflicted on this particular issue. After I read this article, I went two doors down to my buddy who was deployed to Iraq three times (marines) abd asked him about his views on torture. I pointed out that the 8th prohibits this, answer was that constitutional rights only apply in US jurisdiction. I bring up Geneva, applies to uniformed combatants only. He said and i quote verbatim, “if we got captured, the chances of torture is pretty high. You’ve got to do what you need to do to keep the country safe.”

    In other words, the jack Bauer doctrine. He says that other countries will most likely torture POWs in order to serve their agenda, why should we claim the moral high ground. Torture happens but it’s just often not spoken about.

    I honestly don’t know what to think but I’ve spoken to a fair amount of service members who have been deployed there. I asked him, “if your commanding officer ordered you to extract info from a prisoner by any means necessary, would you refuse the order since it’d be unconstitutional.”

    Nope. What then with this mindset?

    • nextstopchicago says:


      I too have spoken with soldiers about this, and I’ve heard them take both sides. One thing I’d mention – there’s a reason we don’t let soldiers make up their own rules for how they’ll act as they go. Angry men do not always think straight. I wouldn’t judge a soldier who tortured someone on the field the same way I judge the cold torturers of Guantanamo. Anger and the heat of battle and seeing a buddy shot do in my mind palliate some of the response. Though others here will come back strongly with the argument that that thinking yields a never-ending death spiral of hatred.

      But there are a variety of reasons against what you’re saying, most of which have been articulated here. First, torture doesn’t seem to work. Even on the battlefield, why torture someone if the outcome is that you send a withering attack against the vacant post he misdirected you to, and then get cut down by flanking fire from his comrades? Second, it’s wrong. It’s just wrong. And third, the moral high-ground is worth quite a lot. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re at least theoretically trying to win over the locals. But meanwhile, we’re committing brutality against their cousins and nephews. In many cases, we’ve committed this brutality against people we were later forced to admit were utterly and completely innocent. That has a devastating affect on, say, our ability to get locals to give us the intel that might help us win.

      Others will rank those items differently. Some will say #2 is so overpowering that 1 and 3 aren’t necessary. I’d say that any one of them individually is probably sufficient reason not to torture.

    • jhand says:

      Several years ago, probably during the last years of the Clinton adm., I vaguely remember reading that one of the duties of the new all-volunteer army’s leadership was to change the way soldiers looked on “the enemy.” Apparently citizen soldiers carried with them a bit of the attitude of Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Man He Killed,” where the speaker says if there hadn’t been a war on, he would have bought the dead man a drink. It seemed to be a psy-ops sort of issue. Perhaps that would help to explain the response you have received from young veterans. On the other hand, the hellish nature of places they have found themselves in may explain it all. Just speculating on my part; good point on your part, Crayon.

  15. workingclass says:

    Torturers are the dregs of humanity. They are not fit to associate with decent human beings. If good people were in power all torturers would be in prison for life. Apologists must be shunned. I would never allow an apologist in my home. I will not break bread or hold conversation with apologists. I will not knowingly do business with apologists. There is nothing to argue about or discuss. There is no way to dignify torture.

  16. spanishinquisition says:

    So unless Obama is a torture apologist, how can he have indefinite detentions? I guess Obama is moving from indefinite detentions to outright executions so he doesn’t have to be faced with the bothersome rights of the accused/detained by just simply offing them instead.

  17. nextstopchicago says:

    One of the things I found interesting in al-Libi’s file – given the furor about “Pakistan” right now (a misguided furor that should be directed at their nearly independent military-security complex, but instead, you’ve got idiots like Carl Levin making angry noises against Prime Minister Zardari.) Al-Libi was already in Pakistan 20 years ago, but fled with his entire al-Qaeda training class when, as the notes drily note, “the situation in Pakistan changed.” How did it change? Benazir Bhutto (ie, Zardari’s wife) was elected Prime Minister.

  18. donbacon says:

    CIA chief: Waterboarding aided bin Laden raid

    WASHINGTON — Intelligence garnered from waterboarded detainees was used to track down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and kill him, CIA Chief Leon Panetta told NBC News on Tuesday.

    “Enhanced interrogation techniques” were used to extract information that led to the mission’s success, Panetta said during an interview with anchor Brian Williams. Those techniques included waterboarding, he acknowledged.

    Panetta, who in a 2009 CIA confirmation hearing declared “waterboarding is torture and it’s wrong,” said Tuesday that debate about its use will continue.

    “Whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always gonna be an open question,” Panetta said.

  19. donbacon says:

    This guy Panetta will be the next SecDef, a very powerful position given current US operating principles in the world. He has already made himself persona no grata with a US “ally” Pakistan and now this.

  20. MadDog says:

    I really look forward to a timeline from EW surrounding the events, information, and people which led to OBL.

    While we’re waiting with bated breath for that, I wanted to mention something that I don’t think has really been discussed in the MSM yet. Namely the hunt for Number 2 – Ayman al-Zawahiri.

    Given the now public information on how tracking the couriers led to OBL, imagine what that might mean to Ayman al-Zawahiri.

    Ayman al-Zawahiri, too, must have been using couriers to stay in touch with OBL.

    I would imagine now that Ayman al-Zawahiri is shitting bricks. Very big bricks!

    He has to question that since the US has been tracking OBL’s couriers now for a couple of years, that the US has constructed a web of Al Qaeda courier traffic.

    It is likely that any OBL to Ayman al-Zawahiri communication occurred via courier to courier transfer.

    He has to think that with that web of Al Qaeda courier traffic, the US is not now far behind in tracking Ayman al-Zawahiri down.

    What does Ayman al-Zawahiri now do?

    I would imagine that his only real choice now is to abandon any his own courier contacts and go to ground.

    Zero communication with any of his former contacts, and likely also abandoning any of his recent hideouts.

    Given that assumption, one might conclude that now being head of an organization with which you cannot contact is being no head of an organization at all.

    And into the future, Ayman al-Zawahiri is going to be even more paranoid about ever getting into contact with his Al Qaeda colleagues again with the fear that any of them may already be compromised by the US courier web.

    The very same paranoia is likely to affect all Al Qaeda members who depended for communications on that courier web.

  21. donbacon says:

    Carrier pigeons. “Before the advent of radio, carrier pigeons were frequently used on the battlefield as a means for a mobile force to communicate with a stationary headquarters.” — wiki

  22. pdaly says:

    On the “ion” TV channel (Boston market) there is a rebroadcast right now of a Criminal Minds episode.
    The FBI’s BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit) goes to Gitmo and several minutes of treating a prisoner with respect gets the prisoner to reveal information that his captors could not.

    In addition, the computer expert casually notes to another team member that NSA, during national emergencies, trains its electronic ears on all domestic communication and asks whether it is legal.

    It’s an old episode because Mandy Patinkin’s character is still heading the BAU. Patinkin left the show after 2007.

  23. reddog says:

    You know, thinking about it, if the U.S. was really paying attention and made the raid because they understood that the courier’s cover was blown, then Wikileaks would actually be responsible for someone’s death–Bin Laden’s. Oh, the irony.

  24. MadDog says:

    Related to my SWAG earlier in the day, there’s this from the NYT’s Scott Shane and Charlie Savage tonight:

    Harsh Methods of Questioning Debated Again

    …In 2004, however, a Qaeda operative named Hassan Ghul, captured in Iraq, gave a different account of Mr. Kuwaiti, according to the American official. Mr. Ghul told interrogators that Mr. Kuwaiti was a trusted courier who was close to Bin Laden, as well as to Mr. Mohammed and to Abu Faraj al-Libi, who had become the operational chief of Al Qaeda after Mr. Mohammed’s capture.

    Mr. Kuwaiti, Mr. Ghul added, had not been seen in some time — which analysts thought was a possible indication that the courier was hiding out with Bin Laden.

    The details of Mr. Ghul’s treatment are unclear, though the C.I.A. says he was not waterboarded. The C.I.A. asked the Justice Department to authorize other harsh methods for use on him, but it is unclear which were used. One official recalled that Mr. Ghul was “quite cooperative,” saying that rough treatment, if any, would have been brief

    (My Bold)

    I’ll up my SWAG wager from a nickel to a dime. *g*

  25. WilliamOckham says:

    I am starting to think that what we really need is a Kurosawa-style movie telling this story from multiple points of view. One of them should be from the POV of the 12 yo daughter who sees her father killed.

  26. cabeachbum says:

    I guess from the torturer’s perspective, the use of torture is justified if you get the desired results.

    When politicians speak about ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they say we are in wars that we can’t win, as if winning is the qualifier.

    It follows that if we could win the wars we are involved in and torture prisoners into giving information we deemed valuable, we would be justified in our actions; notwithstanding the number of casualties, the dead and maimed innocent civilians, and the violation of International and United States law.

    The argument is not whether torture produces results or if winning justifies our wars; the argument should be why we engage in unlawful torture and immoral wars.

  27. rosalind says:

    ot: bradley manning update via his lawyer, really good news (relatively speaking):

    PFC Manning was transferred to the Joint Regional Corrections Facility (JRCF) at Fort Leavenworth on April 20, 2011. I was able to tour the facility and meet with PFC Manning last week. PFC Manning is now being held in Medium Custody. He is no longer under Prevention of Injury watch and is no longer subjected to harsh pretrial confinement conditions.

    Unlike at Quantico, PFC Manning cell has a large window that provides adequate natural light. His cell also has a desk, a bed, and a toilet. The cell is approximately 80 square feet. He is provided with a normal mattress, sheets and a pillow. None of his clothing is taken away from him at night. PFC Manning is able to have all of his personal items in his cell, which include his clothing, his legal materials, books and letters from family and friends. He is also able to have a pen and paper at all times in his cell, and is able to write whenever he chooses.

    h/t greg mitchell

  28. radiofreewill says:

    Just speculating…

    …but what if OBL was ‘allowed’ – ie, a negotiated ‘escape’ – to flee from the very real possibility of capture or death at Tora Bora in December 2001 – to a secret confinement program under our ‘ally’ Musharraf?

    Think about that…

    Why would we ‘pass’ on publicly bringing bin Laden to Justice – in favor of secretly controlling him – more than a year before we invaded Iraq?

    Could it have happened that way?

    • bobschacht says:

      Bogeymen are useful. The Bush administration may have thought him more valuable alive, than dead. Would it have been more difficult to wage a long war in Iraq if OBL was dead?

      Bob in AZ

  29. timtimes says:

    All torture is bad and illegal. The vast majority of the torture done in Iraq was to find WMD’s that didn’t exist. So we tortured innocent people into making false confessions. We definitely weren’t looking for OBL in Iraq. I’m convinced the purpose of the torture in Iraq was to secure those false confessions to cover Bush’s ass. Our government knew (or should have) that Saddam didn’t have shit. That’s the real torture crime IMHO, not splitting hairs over imaginary ticking time-bomb torture scenarios.

    When you’ve got prima facie evidence that the torture happened (183 times to just ONE guy ferchrissakes), an admitted leader who ordered it (Bush), and evidence it doesn’t work to boot, PUT THE CRIMINALS IN JAIL.