Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti

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.

[snip]

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.

The Weird Circumstances Surrounding Hassan Ghul’s Interrogation

As I noted earlier, the AP and other outlets have reported that Hassan Ghul was among the first to inform American interrogators of the importance of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Here’s what the AP reported.

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.

“Hassan Ghul was the linchpin,” a U.S. official said.

Given the apparent importance of Ghul’s interrogation, as well as reports that he was freed at some point, I wanted to point out several oddities that may relate to his interrogation.

A Long Delay Before Entering CIA Interrogation

Here’s an outdated timeline I did of Ghul’s treatment (I’m working on an updated one). But we know he was first reported captured on January 22 or 23 2004. Yet, CIA was just getting approval for interrogation techniques to use with Ghul in August 2004, seven months later.

We know this from an unredacted reference to Ghul in the May 30, 2005 CAT Memo.

The interrogation team “carefully analyzed Gul’s responsiveness to different areas of inquiry” during this time and noted that his resistance increased as questioning moved to his “knowledge of operational terrorist activities.” Id at 3. [redacted] feigned memory problems (which CIA psychologists ruled out through intelligence and memory tests) in order to avoid answering questions. Id.

At this point, the interrogation team believed [redacted] “maintains a tough, Mujahidin fighter mentality and has conditioned himself for a physical interrogation.” Id. The team therefore concluded that “more subtle interrogation measures designed more to weaken [redacted] physical ability and mental desire to resist interrogation over the long run are likely to be more effective.” Id. For these reasons, the team sought authorization to use dietary manipulation, nudity, water dousing, and abdominal slap. Id at 4-5. In the team’s view, adding these techniques would be especially helpful [redacted] because he appeared to have a particular weakness for food and also seemed especially modest.

The document referred to here was a August 25, 2004 memo from the CIA to Daniel Levin, who was acting OLC head after Jack Goldsmith left in 2004. While we haven’t seen that memo, we have seen his response, written the following day, which approves the use of dietary manipulation, nudity, water dousing, and abdominal slap. That letter also references an August 13, 2004 meeting (at which water dousing was clearly discussed), and a July 30, 3004 letter, with attachment, and the attachment to a August 2 letter.

In other words, from this correspondence, it would appear that it took at least six months (from late January to late July) before the CIA got around to torturing Ghul.

This, in spite of the fact that an earlier reference to the August 25 letter claims that CIA believed Ghul had information about pending attacks.

On [redacted] the CIA took custody of [redacted] whom the CIA believed had actionable intelligence concerning the pre-election threat to the United States. [reference to August 25 letter] [redacted] extensive connections to various al Qaeda leaders, members of the Taliban, and the al-Zarqawi network, and intelligence indicated [redacted] arranged a … meeting between [redacted] and [redacted] at which elements of the pre-election threat were discussed. Id at 2-3; see also Undated CIA Memo, [redacted]

That paragraph is followed by more intelligence that may pertain to Ghul alone, to another detainee alone, or to Ghul and then another detainee:

Intelligence indicated that prior to his capture, [redacted] perform[ed] critical facilitation and finance activities for al-Qa’ida,” including “transporting people, funds, and documents.” Fax for Jack L. Goldsmith, III, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, from [redacted] Assistant General Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency (March 12, 2004). The CIA also suspected [redacted] played an active part in planning attacks against United States forces [redacted] had extensive contacts with key members of al Qaeda, including, prior to their capture, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (“KSM”) and Abu Zubaydah. See id. [Redacted] was captured while on a mission from [redacted] to establish contact” with al-Zarqawi. See CIA Directorate of Intelligence, US Efforts Grinding Down al-Qa’ida 2 (Feb. 21, 2004)

In addition to the information on Ghul contained in the August 30 CAT Memo, there’s further reference to correspondence on Ghul in the May 10, 2005 Techniques memo (which for a variety of reasons must have been written to pertain to Ghul specifically).

You asked for our advice concerning these interrogation techniques in connection with their use on a specific high value al Qaeda detainee named [redacted] You informed us that the [redacted] had information about al Qaeda’s plans to launch an attack within the United States. According to [redacted] had extensive connections to various al Qaeda leaders, members of the Taliban, and the al-Zarqawi network, and had arranged meetings between an associate and [redacted] to discuss such an attack. August 25 [redacted] Letter at 2-3. You advised us that medical and psychological assessments completed by a CIA physician and psychologist, and that based on this examination, the physician concluded [redacted] medically stable and has no medical contraindications to interrogation, including the use of interrogation techniques addressed in this memorandum. 20

20 You have advised us that the waterboard has not been used [redacted] We understand that there may have been medical reasons against using that technique in his case. Of course, our advice assumes that the waterboard could only be used in the absence of medical contraindications.

The following footnote describes, among other things, that Ghul “was obese, and that he reported a “5-6 year history of non-exertional chest pressures.”

And there’s this information, which was leaked to Fox:

Ghul, a Pakistani, is known to have been an Al Qaeda member since the early 1990s, when Al Qaeda was established.

[snip]

One official said Ghul was “definitely in Iraq to promote an Al Qaeda, Islamic extremist agenda.” Ghul is described by officials as a facilitator known in terrorist circles as “the Gatekeeper” who moves money and people around the Middle East, Africa and possibly beyond. Officials added that Ghul has extensive contacts in Al Qaeda and wider terrorist communities, and is thought to have had some kind of connection to the 1998 East African embassy bombings, though officials stress those links are still being probed.

All of which presents us with the highly implausible possibility that Ghul was captured in January 2004, believed to be a key facilitator for al Qaeda, yet not entered into the CIA program and tortured until six or seven months later.

There are several possible explanations for this odd fact, including (note, these are all possibilities–I’m not saying they definitely happened):

  • Ghul’s transfer to CIA custody was delayed by concerns about removing him from Iraq
  • Ghul was moved to CIA only after they got intelligence about pre-election attacks
  • Ghul’s torture happened under DOD, not CIA, custody
  • CIA required Ghul’s interrogation to be approved personally by the Principal’s Committee, which it did without the advice of Jack Goldsmith or Jim Comey
  • Ghul’s interrogation approvals were retroactive

I believe some combination of these factors explains they delay between the time when Ghul was captured and when CIA first got approval for his interrogation. If I had to make a wildarsed guess, I think DOJ prevented Ghul’s transfer into the CIA program for some time, and once he was transferred (with approval directly from the Principals Committee and possibly without any more formal legal cover), CIA used water dousing, which had not yet been formally approved, all of which forced them to retroactively approve his treatment.

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