Baby-Sitting Terrorists Rather Than Tracking Osama Bin Laden

A few comments from Mary got me thinking about how damning today’s AP story on our Romanian black site is for the torture apologists’ tale that torture–and CIA interrogations more generally–helped find Osama bin Laden.

The AP’s story reminds readers that Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was first captured on May 2, 2005, provided information about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. The suggestion is that al-Libi provided the information while in Romania.

A deceptive Al-Libi, who was taken to the prison in June 2005, provided information that would later help the CIA identify Osama bin Laden’s trusted courier, a man who unwittingly led the CIA to bin Laden himself.

Al-Libi’s Gitmo file reports that the Pakistanis transferred him to US custody on June 6, 2005, so assuming the two 2005 cables reporting on al-Kuwaiti, whom the report calls Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan, were written while he was officially in US custody, then that would clearly be the case.

So al-Libi was doused while in Romania, which led him to describe that he was “responsible for facilitation within the settled areas of Pakistan, communication with UBL
and external links” and “responsible for communicating with al-Qaida members abroad and obtaining funds and personnel from those al-Qaida members.” He said he accomplished his communication with OBL via a courier he called Abd al-Khaliq. And the CIA’s response to that information was … to stop looking for OBL.

But here’s what’s really curious about the story.

As the AP story makes clear, sitting just one cell over in the prison in which al-Libi apparently provided that information was one of the other guys who, the CIA says, gave information on al-Kuwaiti: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

There it held al-Qaida operatives Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and others in a basement prison before they were ultimately transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2006, according to former U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the location and inner workings of the prison.


Flight records for a Boeing 737 known to be used by the CIA showed a flight from Poland to Bucharest in September 2003. Among the prisoners on board, according to former CIA officials, were Mohammed and Walid bin Attash, who has been implicated in the bombing of the USS Cole.

While it’s not critical to this post, it is sort of curious that KSM reportedly provided information on al-Kuwaiti in Fall 2003–so probably not until he got moved to Romania. Maybe the springs in the floors made it easy to talk about OBL’s couriers?

So in spite of the fact that al-Libi was talking about someone who was a KSM protégé in the very same prison where the CIA still held KSM, no one thought to cross-check this information with KSM?

Nope. You see, the CIA considered itself to be babysitting KSM. His intelligence value had diminished, they say.

One former officer complained that the CIA spent most of its time baby-sitting detainees like Binalshibh and Mohammed whose intelligence value diminished as the years passed.

One more note on this. Al-Libi and KSM were setting in the same prison actively hiding details about al-Kuwaiti after the time Hassan Ghul had already told us how important al-Kuwaiti was, as described in this earlier Goldman and Apuzzo piece.

Then in 2004, top al-Qaida operative Hassan Ghul was captured in Iraq. Ghul told the CIA that al-Kuwaiti was a courier, someone crucial to the terrorist organization. In particular, Ghul said, the courier was close to Faraj al-Libi, who replaced Mohammed as al-Qaida’s operational commander. It was a key break in the hunt for in bin Laden’s personal courier.

In fact, Ghul was apparently himself in Eastern Europe at the time (though it sounds like the Romanian prison had five of six cells accounted for at that point).

You’d think the CIA might have asked all of these guys about this courier, as they were all in our custody in Eastern European prisons at the time, at least two of them in the same place.

But apparently the CIA was too busy babysitting.

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.

12 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    EW, your post makes me wonder just how soundproof those basement cells were or were not, and if not, whether detainees held together at the same time were able to communicate with one another or hear each other’s interrogations.

    In a number of reports on detainees over the years, in descriptions of their trussed up nature, sound-deadening earmuffs (or maybe even sound-blasting headphones perhaps) were frequently used by their US captors, so whether the Romanian basement cells were themselves soundproof or not, it may not have mattered.

  2. lysias says:

    I thought KSM was held (and waterboarded) at the secret CIA prison at Szymany airfield in Poland until he was finally shipped to Gitmo.

    Does this mean KSM was not at Szymany when the Cheneys paid a side visit to that prison during their trip to Poland in January 1945 whose ostensible purpose was to take part in the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz?

  3. emptywheel says:

    @lysias: According to today’s story, he was moved to Romania in September 2003. He told the ICRC he had 5 places of imprisonment, with Szymany being the third (and worst). Not sure whether Romania was supposed to be 4th or 5th. At his 5th detention site, he was allowed to work out at a gym.

  4. emptywheel says:

    Incidentally, all this raises very interesting questions about why the Pakistanis arrested al-Libi. Did we track him to the meeting? Because if so, did anyone tip off al-Kuwaiti not to show up?

    Then again, you put all these details together and you begin to wonder whether Jose Rodriguez (who remember, a year later flew to Pakistan to get the ISI to trip the liquid plane plot prematurely) stopped looking for OBL because the Pakistanis told him to.

  5. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Sounds like you watched that National Geographic “Stopping the Second 9/11” program. I DVR’d it and watched it again just to refresh my picture of Mikey Hayden’s shit-eating grin as he relayed that remarkable coincidence of that co-conspirator’s arrest by the Pakistani ISI at the very same time Mikey was informing them about the co-conspirator in Pakistan.

  6. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Well, if you ever get that chance again to see National Geographic’s “Stopping the Second 9/11″ program, do so! Remarkably forthcoming (and I thought damning) commentary throughout the entire 2 hour program from Mikey Hayden, Mikey Chertoff, and other US intel folks.

    They basically come right out and admit they deliberately fucked over the Brits.

    Mikey Hayden said that he just happened to fly over to schmooze with Pakistan’s then head of ISI Kayani about the leader/co-conspirator running the plot from Pakistan and while Mikey was there, the Pakistanis magically arrested the guy.

    Hayden also repeatedly admits that the US was viewing everything from a war perspective, and that law enforcement stuff like trials and convictions had no place in the US’s thinking. That Cheney mindset of the ends justifying the means was faithfully adopted in full by Hayden. Taking an adversary off the board was all that mattered and what to do long-term with captured folks didn’t fookin’ matter. It was somebody else’s problem.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @may: That’s how al Qaeda does noms de guerres: often they name the person after his country. In this case, al-Libi is from Libya.

  8. lysias says:

    @MadDog: Putting warfighting first is fine as long as you then don’t try to use the law to punish the people to whom you’ve denied their legal rights because you’ve put warfighting first.

    These guys want to have their cake and eat it too.

  9. Timbo says:

    @MadDog: MadDog, me too! Either that or the torturers and interrogators themselves concocted these connections through inadequate and/or incompetent intelligence work.

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