Posts

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2013-2015

Happy Birthday to me! To us! To the emptywheel community!

On December 3, 2007, emptywheel first posted as a distinct website. That makes us, me, we, ten today.

To celebrate, over the next few days, the emptywheel team will be sharing some of our favorite work from the last decade. I’ll be doing 4 posts featuring some of my most important or — in my opinion — resilient non-surveillance posts, plus a separate post bringing together some of my most important surveillance work. I think everyone else is teeing up their favorites, too.

Putting together these posts has been a remarkable experience to see where we’ve been and the breadth of what we’ve covered, on top of mainstays like surveillance. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and proud of the community we’ve maintained over the years.

For years, we’ve done this content ad free, relying on donations and me doing freelance work for others to fund the stuff you read here. I would make far more if I worked for some free-standing outlet, but I wouldn’t be able to do the weedy, iterative work that I do here, which would amount to not being able to do my best work.

If you’ve found this work valuable — if you’d like to ensure it remains available for the next ten years — please consider supporting the site.

2013

What a Targeted Killing in the US Would Look Like

Amid now-abandoned discussions about using the FISA court to review targeted killing, I pointed out that a targeted killing in the US would look just like the October 28, 2009 killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah.

Article II or AUMF? “A High Level Official” (AKA John Brennan) Says CIA Can Murder You

When the second memo (as opposed to the first 7-page version) used to authorize the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, it became clear that OLC never really decided whether the killing was done under Article II or the AUMF. That’s important because if it’s the latter, it suggests the President can order anyone killed.

John Brennan Sworn in as CIA Director Using Constitution Lacking Bill of Rights

I know in the Trump era we’re supposed to forget that John Brennan sponsored a whole lot of drone killing and surveillance. But I spent a good deal of the Obama Administration pointing that out. Including by pointing out that the Constitution he swore to protect and defend didn’t have the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth amendment in it.

2014

The Day After Government Catalogs Data NSA Collected on Tsarnaevs, DOJ Refuses to Give Dzhokhar Notice

I actually think it’s unreasonable to expect the government’s dragnets to prevent all attacks. But over and over (including with 9/11), NSA gets a pass when we do reviews of why an attack was missed. This post lays out how that happened in the Boston Marathon case. A follow-up continued that analysis.

A Guide to John Rizzo’s Lies, For Lazy Journalists

Former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo lies, a lot. But that doesn’t seem to lead journalists to treat his claims skeptically, nor did it prevent them from taking his memoir as a statement of fact. In this post I summarized all the lies he told in the first 10 pages of it.

Obama to Release OLC Memo after Only 24 Congressional Requests from 31 Members of Congress

Over the year and a half when one after another member of Congress asked for the OLC memos that authorized the drone execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, I tracked all those requests. This was the last post, summarizing all of them.

The West’s Ideological Vacuum

With the rise of Trump and the success of Russia intervening in US and European politics, I’ve been talking about how the failures of US neoliberal ideology created a vacuum to allow those things to happen. But I’ve been talking about the failures of our ideology for longer than that, here in a post on ISIS.

KSM Had the CIA Believing in Black Muslim Convert Jihadist Arsonists in Montana for 3 Months

There weren’t a huge number of huge surprises in the SSCI Torture Report for me (indeed, its scope left out some details about the involvement of the White House I had previously covered). But it did include a lot of details that really illustrate the stupidity of the torture program. None was more pathetic than the revelation that KSM had the CIA convinced that he was recruiting black Muslim converts to use arson in Montana.

2015

The Jeffrey Sterling Trial: Merlin Meets Curveball

A big part of the Jeffrey Sterling trial was CIA theater, with far more rigorous protection for 10 year old sources and methods than given to 4 year old Presidential Daily Briefs in the Scooter Libby trial. Both sides seemed aware that the theater was part of an attempt, in part, to help the CIA gets its reputation back after the Iraq War debacle. Except that the actual evidence presented at trial showed CIA was up to the same old tricks. That didn’t help Sterling at all. But neither did it help CIA as much as government prosecutors claimed.

The Real Story Behind 2014 Indictment of Chinese Hackers: Ben Rhodes Moves the IP Theft Goal Posts

I’ve written a lot about the first indictment of nation-state hackers — People’s Liberation Army hackers who compromised some mostly Pittsburgh located entities, including the US Steel Workers. Contrary to virtually all the reporting on the indictment, the indictment pertained to things we nation-state hack for too: predominantly, spying on negotiations. The sole exception involves the theft of some nuclear technology from Westinghouse that might have otherwise been dealt to China as part of a technology transfer arrangement.

Obama’s Terrorism Cancer Speech, Carter’s Malaise Speech

In response to a horrible Obama speech capitulating to Republican demands he treat the San Bernardino attack specially, as Islamic terrorism, I compared the speech to Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech. Along the way, I noted that Carter signed the finding to train the mujahadeen at almost the exactly moment he gave the malaise speech. The trajectory of America has never been the same since.

Other Key Posts Threads

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2008-2010

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2011-2012

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2008-2010

Happy Birthday to me! To us! To the emptywheel community!

On December 3, 2007, emptywheel first posted as a distinct website. That makes us, me, we, ten today.

To celebrate, over the next few days, the emptywheel team will be sharing some of our favorite work from the last decade. I’ll be doing probably 3 posts featuring some of my most important or — in my opinion — resilient non-surveillance posts, plus a separate post bringing together some of my most important surveillance work. I think everyone else is teeing up their favorites, too.

Putting together these posts has been a remarkable experience to see where we’ve been and the breadth of what we’ve covered, on top of mainstays like surveillance. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and proud of the community we’ve maintained over the years.

For years, we’ve done this content ad free, relying on donations and me doing freelance work for others to fund the stuff you read here. I would make far more if I worked for some free-standing outlet, but I wouldn’t be able to do the weedy, iterative work that I do here, which would amount to not being able to do my best work.

If you’ve found this work valuable — if you’d like to ensure it remains available for the next ten years — please consider supporting the site.

2008

We Are All Flint, MI Now

During the bailout, I did a post trying to imagine the worst that could happen if GM went bankrupt. One of my biggest worries — that China would start importing Buicks, making it far harder for US manufacturers to compete, has already happened.

This was, of course, before Republican mismanagement poisoned the entire city of Flint, MI. Perhaps the post is even more true now.

2009

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Was Waterboarded 183 Times in One Month

While most of DC was busily engaged in both sides journalism on the impact of Obama’s decision to release the torture memos in 2009, I (and readers here!) was reading closely. Which is how I noted the reference to the 183 waterboards CIA administered to KSM in one month.

“Affordable” Health Care

Bill Supporters Still Can’t Say “Affordable”

In a series of posts at the end of 2009, I laid out how ObamaCare still required participants to spend too much of their income on health insurance and care, which would lead to lots of people to not use it. That has turned out to be one of the biggest problems with ObamaCare (and one of the reason it wasn’t all that popular until Trump tried to take it away). If Democrats ever wrest control from the Republicans again, this is a problem that still needs to be fixed.

2010

Abu Zubaydah’s Torturers Relied on July 13 Yoo Fax, not Bybee Memo

I found a lot of things (including Gul Rahman’s ID, but I waited on that to protect the identity of the CIA officer who oversaw his killing) in the Office of Professional Management report on John Yoo’s torture memos released in 201. One that remains important — and poorly understood — is that the first torture actually operated under authorization from a freelance fax from Yoo issued weeks before the famous August 1 Bybee memo, rather than the full OLC memo itself.

FDL Book Salon Welcomes Steven Rattner, Author of Overhaul

There were two or three of Bev’s badly missed book salons I hosted that I particularly enjoyed (Bob Woodward is another). But none was better than hosting Steven Rattner, for his very blinkered view of his own role in the auto bailout. The comment thread in it was epic, too, but sadly gone.

Hatfill and Wen Ho Lee and Plame and al-Awlaki and Assange

After a panel on the Scooter Libby case, I meditated on how those with the secrets increasingly use journalists as a stand in for due process. This is not a post I’ve returned to a lot, but particularly given everything that has transpired since, particularly given where Assange has gone since, it strikes a nerve.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

David Cole’s Shiny Objects

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 9.10.21 AMDavid Cole persists in reading some selected documents in isolation from a far more extensive record and patting himself on the back that he has discovered what many of us have been saying for years: that some in the White House were also responsible for torture. But along the way he entirely misses the point.

I will return to the documents that have so entranced Cole at a later time (several other issues are more pressing right now). But for now, here are some significant problems with his latest.

Cole once again presents the CIA Saved Lives site as some mysterious cache, in spite of the fairly clear genealogy and the WSJ op-ed signed by a bunch of people who managed torture introducing it.

The documents, which were uploaded to a mysterious website by the name of ciasavedlives.com, provide dramatic new details about the direct involvement of senior Bush administration officials in the CIA’s wrongs.

It’s as if Cole has never heard of PR and therefore absolves himself of presenting this as a fourth self-interested viewpoint, that of those who managed the torture — the other three being SSCI Dems plus McCain, SSCI Republicans, and official CIA — which doesn’t even encapsulate all the viewpoints that have been or should be represented in a complete understanding of the program.

And so Cole accepts that the narrative presented here is a transparent portrayal of the truth of the torture program rather than — just like the SSCI report, the CIA response, the CIA IG Report, the SASC Report, and the OPR Report — one narrative reflecting a viewpoint.

As a result, some of the conclusions Cole draws are just silly.

Back when his new CIA-friendly opinion was in its early stages at the NYT, Cole accepted as a fair critique (as do I) that Abu Zubaydah’s torture started well before the SSCI report considered, in April with his extreme sleep deprivation and not August when the waterboarding program started (if we can believe CIA records).

The committee contended that the most useful information from Mr. Zubaydah actually came while the F.B.I. was questioning him, using noncoercive tactics before he was waterboarded. But the C.I.A. points out that Mr. Zubaydah had been subjected to five days of sleep deprivation, a highly coercive and painful tactic, when the F.B.I. interrogated him.

I’d actually say — and Cole should, given that elsewhere in his NYT piece he admits we should also look at the torture done in foreign custody — that the timeline needs to come back still further, to Ibn Sheikh al-Libi’s torture in January and February 2002, using the very same techniques that would be used with Abu Zubaydah, in Egyptian custody but with CIA officers present (and, importantly, authorized by the same Presidential finding). But once you do that, Cole’s depiction of the original approval process for the program becomes nonsensical.

Even though the program had been approved at its outset by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in July 2002 and by Attorney General John Ashcroft in August 2002,

Of course, all that points back to a place that Cole so studiously avoids it’s hard to imagine it’s not willful, to the September 17, 2001 Memorandum of Notification that CIA and SSCI both agree (though the CIAsavedlives leaves out) authorized this program. (President Obama also went to some length to hide it from 2009 to 2012, when he was busy using it to kill Anwar al-Awlaki.)

Condi didn’t give primary approval for this (and the record is not as clear as Cole claims in any case). President Bush did, months earlier, well before the February 7, 2002 date where CIAsavedlives starts its narrative. And that’s the detail from which the momentum endorsing torture builds (and the one that a Constitutional law professor like Cole might have far more productive input on than details that he appears to be unfamiliar with).

I’m not trying to protect Condi here — I believe I once lost a position I very much wanted because I hammered her role in torture when others didn’t. But I care about the facts, and there is no evidence I know (and plenty of evidence to the contrary) to believe that torture started with Condi (there is plenty of reason to believe CIA would like to implicate Condi, however).

Cole goes onto rehearse the three times CIA got White House officials to reauthorize torture, two of which were reported years and years ago (including some limited document releases) but which he seems to have newly discovered. In doing so, he simply takes these documents from the CIA — which has been shown to have manipulated documents about briefings in just about every case — on faith.

Dan Froomkin pointed out some of the problems with the documents — something which Cole has already thrown up his hands in helplessness to adjudicate.

The new documents don’t actually refute any of the Senate report’s conclusions — in fact, they include some whopper-filled slides that CIA officials showed at the White House. 

[snip]

But the slides also contained precisely the kind of statements that the Senate report showed were inaccurate:

While it doesn’t excuse White House actions, the CIA demonstrably lied about the efficacy of the program. It’s not that the White House was being told they were approving a torture program that had proven counterproductive. They were told, falsely, they were approving a program that was the one thing that could prevent another attack and that it had already saved lives. That is, the people approving the torture were weighing American lives against respecting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s human rights, based on inaccurate information. And note — as the image above shows — the torture managers aren’t revealing what implicit threats they made if Bush’s aides didn’t reapprove torture (though elsewhere they make it clear they said ending torture might cause “extensive” loss of life), which is significant given that the next year they claimed they had to torture to prevent election year plotting that turned out to be based partly on a fabrication.

Those aren’t the only known lies in the documents. Take the record of the July 29, 2003 briefing and accompanying slides. Among the whoppers — even according to CIA’s own documents! — that appear are:

  • The deaths by torture did not include approved torture. They only make that claim by fudging what happened with Gul Rahman. (The silence about Rahman is of particular import for the CIAsavedlives crowd given the reports that Stephen Kappes left the CIA amid allegations he coached field officers to cover up Rahman’s death.)
  • The senior leadership of the Intelligence Committees had been briefed. Jay Rockefeller had not been briefed (one of his staffers was, which the slides admits, though I have new reason to doubt some of CIA’s claims about which staffers have been briefed). In addition, according to CIA documents, no one was briefed on torture in Spring 2002, as CIA would have had to do to comply with the National Security Act. Furthermore, there is now serious question whether the CIA ever did the new briefing after the break, as CIA said it would do in the memo.
  • Safeguards. Many of the safeguards described were imposed in early 2003, after a number of abuses.
  • Islam permits confession under torture. The claim that Abu Zubaydah tied confessing under torture to Islam is apparently something Alfreda Bikowsky got from a walk in.
  • Amount of torture. The summary of the Ammar al-Baluchi torture doesn’t describe his simulated drowning. And the number of waterboards is wrong.

The fact that the CIA misrepresented how many times both Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded is significant, because that’s also related to the dispute about whether Muller’s account of the meeting was accurate. According to John Ashcroft, Muller misrepresented his comments to mean that CIA could waterboard more than had been approved in the Techniques memo, whereas what he really said is that CIA could use the techniques approved in that memo with other detainees. This does not mean — contrary to Cole’s absurd insinuation — that “Ashcroft is my hero.” It means there is a public dispute on this issue. Cole has gone from refusing to adjudicate disputes to simply taking CIA’s word on faith, in spite of the well-documented problems — even based entirely on CIA’s own documents — with their own accounts of briefings they gave.

Note, too, that whether the Abu Zubaydah memo could be used with other detainees was being discussed in 2003, when even by CIA’s count it had already subjected 13 more detainees to torture, is itself telling.

Finally, the Legal Principles are worth special note. They were, per the CIA IG Report, the OPR Report, and declassified documents, one key tension behind this July 29, 2003 briefing. As the record shows, DOJ permitted CIA’s IG to develop the agency’s own fact set about the violations that had occurred by January 2003 to determine whether doing things like mock execution with Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri and killing Gul Rahman were crimes. So CIA set about writing up its own summary of Legal Principles DOJ had given it — it claimed to John Helgerson — with the help of John Yoo and Jennifer Koester (but not, at least according to Jack Goldsmith, the involvement of Jay Bybee or the review of other OLC lawyers, which would be consistent with other facts we know as well as Bybee’s sworn testimony to Congress). That is, CIA was basically writing its own law on torture via back channel to OLC. The record shows that on several occasions, CIA delivered those documents as a fait accompli, only to have DOJ lawyers object to either some provisions or the documents as a whole. The record also shows that CIA used the memos to expand on authorized techniques (something the DOD torture memo process in 2003 also did) to include some of the ones they had used but hadn’t been formally approved by DOJ. That is, one tension underlying this meeting that Cole doesn’t discuss is that some in DOJ were already trying to limit CIA’s own claims to authorization, which devolved in part to a debate over whether bureaucratic manipulation counts as approval.

I raise all this because it gets at the underlying tension, one which, I suspect, created a kind of momentum that doesn’t excuse those involved but probably explains it. Very early after 9/11, certain people at CIA and in the White House decided to affirmatively torture. Torture started — and the Iraq War was justified — early, long before Cole presents. But at each step, that momentum — that need to, at a minimum, protect not only those who had acted on the President’s orders but also the President himself — kept it going such that by 2004, CIA had an incentive to torture Janat Gul just for the sake of having an excuse to torture again (and having an excuse to get Jay Rockefeller to buy off on torture for what appears to have been the first time).

It’s that very same momentum — the need to protect those who tortured pursuant to a President’s order, as well as the office of the presidency itself — that prevents us from holding anyone accountable for torture now. Because ultimately it all comes down to the mutual embrace of complicity between the President and the CIA. That’s why we can’t move beyond torture and also why we can’t prevent it from happening again.

Cole and I agree that there are no heroes in the main part of the narrative (though there were people who deserve credit for slowing the momentum, and outside this main part of the narrative, there were, indeed, heroes, people who refused to participate in the torture who almost always paid a price). What he is absolutely incorrect about, given the public record he is apparently only now discovering, is that CIA did manipulate some in the White House and DOJ and Congress, to cover their ass. I don’t blame them, They had been ordered to torture by the President, and had good reason not to want to be left holding the bag, and as a result they engaged in serial fraud and by the end, crimes, to cover their collective asses. But the evidence is, contrary to Cole’s newly learned helplessness to investigate these issues, that CIA lied, not only lied but kept torturing to protect their earlier torture.

All that said, Cole’s intervention now is not only laughably credulous to the CIA. But it also is not the best use to which he could put his soapbox if his goal is to stop torture rather than do CIA’s bidding.

First, we actually have no idea what went on at the White House because on President Obama’s request though not formal order, CIA withheld the documents that would tell us that from SSCI. Why not spend his time calling for the release of those documents rather than parroting CIA propaganda credulously? I suspect Obama would take Professor Cole’s calls to release the documents CIA protected at the behest of the White House more seriously than he has taken mine. Let’s see what really happened in discussions between CIA and the White House, in those documents the White House has worked hard to suppress.

Just as importantly, though Cole has not mentioned it in any of his recent interventions here, what appears to have set the momentum on torture rolling (as well as the execution of an American citizen with no due process) is the abuse of covert operation authority. This is something that a prestigious Constitutional law professor might try to solve or at least raise the profile of. Can we, as a democracy, limit the Article II authority of the President to order people to break the law such that we can prevent torture?

Because if not, it doesn’t matter who we blame because we are helpless to prevent it from happening again.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

The 2 Year Delay in Getting ASSET X to Bring Us to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

We’ve known for some time that CIA found Khalid Sheikh Mohammed with the help of a walk-in source. Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer describe the source as “Baluchi” in their book, The Hunt for KSM–someone, like KSM, from Baluchistan.

But the Torture Report provides a different take for the delay in having him lure in KSM, which McDermott and Meyer describe as more than a year and the Torture Report describes ASSET X, the source in question, as approaching the CIA in spring 2001. (This heavily redacted narrative starts on page 328) The CIA did not meet with him until after 9/11, probably some time after September 26, 2001. Per the Senate Report (the CIA disputes that they knew what he could bring them until after starting to torture), before the end of the year, ASSET X “proposed multiple times to the CIA that he use his contacts to locate KSM through [redacted]–the same approach that would lead the CIA to KSM more than 15 months later.” He apparently argued for a “more aggressive and proactive approach” than the CIA, but was persuaded otherwise. Then ALEC Station rejected ASSET X’s monetary demands.

So they lost him. For 9 months.

In July 2002, a detainee in foreign government custody confirmed that ASSET X “should know how to contact KSM.”

The CIA appears to have sent ASSET X to do something else before going after KSM, during which period his handler — whom McDermott and Meyer say was an Iranian-American flying into Pakistan whenever ASSET X wanted to meet — got reassigned. When a new officer took over handling ASSET X, he almost lost him.

ASSET X was thus handled by a new CIA officer who was unfamiliar with ASSET X’s potential utility in tracking KSM. Seeking guidance on how to proceed with ASSET X, the new CIA case officer sent several cables to CIA Headquarters, which he later described as disappearing into a “black hole.” According to an interview of a CIA officer involved in the operation, the cables were being sent to a special compartment at CIA Headquarters which had been previously used by the team [redacted]. With the dispersal of that CIA team, however, the compartment was idle and no one at CIA Headquarters was receiving and reading the cables being sent to the special compartment. When the CIA case officer received no response to the cables he was sending to CIA Headquarters, he made preparations to terminate the CIA’s relationship with ASSET X. According to interviews, in [redacted] 2002, the CIA officer [redacted] and was on his way to meet ASSET X to terminate the asset’s relationship withthe CIA. By chance, the CIA officer who had previously handled ASSET X [redacted] was visiting [redacted]. This visiting CIA officer overheard the discussion between the chief of Base and the CIA case officer concerning the CIA’s termination of ASSET X as a CIA source. The discussion included names that ASSET X had been discussing with the case officer [redacted]—names that the visiting officer recognized [redacted]. The visiting CIA officer interceded and recommended that the CIA Base delay the termination of ASSET X as a CIA source. At the next meeting ASSET X again demonstrated that he had direct access to KSM’s [redacted]. As a result, the CIA decided not to terminate ASSET X’s work as a CIA source.

ASSET X then traveled on his own and set up a meeting with KSM, which set off something the report redacts entirely. The debate over whether to go after KSM’s associates or directly after him appears to have continued, however.

The internal debate within the CIA continued, however, with the [redacted] and ASSET X and his CIA handlers urging the CIA to delay action and wait for an opportunity for ASSET X to locate KSM. ALEC Station initially supported immediate action to capture any KSM associate ASSET X could lead them to, before reversing its position on February [redacted] 2003. The next day, ASSET X arrived in Islamabad [redacted] where he was surprised to find KSM.

After some reservations (not included in McDermott and Meyer’s description), ASSET X appears to have again been able to locate KSM, after which Pakistani authorities conducted a raid and caught the 9/11 mastermind.

That is, even aside from CIA’s claims that they didn’t know ASSET X could bring them to KSM without further evidence gained through torture, there seems to have been delay and debate about how to do it and in what priority. But it appears the guy who eventually led the CIA to KSM had offered up his services even before 9/11.

It just took two years before the CIA would act on his ability to bring them to KSM.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

KSM Had the CIA Believing in Black Muslim Convert Jihadist Arsonists in Montana for 3 Months

Before I get into the weeds, let me be clear: there are almost no black Muslims in Montana. Just 0.6% of Montana’s roughly 1 million people are African American, or about 6,100 total. Just 0.034 Montanans identify as Muslim (or around 345 people). Montana has both the fewest African Americans and fewest Muslims. It is almost certainly the least likely state to find black Muslims seeking to wage jihad.

Nevertheless, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had the CIA believing he was going to send Dhiren al-Barot (an Indian Muslim Brit whom KSM did have case out actual US terrorist targets in 2000) to Montana to recruit African American converts to Muslim to start forest fires.

On March 17, 2003, KSM stated that, prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks, he tasked Issa[al-Hindi, whose real name is Dhiren Barot] to travel to the United States to “collect information on economic targets.” On March 21, 2003, KSM was waterboarded for failing to confirm interrogators’ suspicions that KSM sought to recruit individuals from among the African American Muslim community. KSM then stated that he had talked with Issa about contacting African American Muslim groups prior to September 11, 2001 The next day KSM was waterboarded for failing to provide more information on the recruitment of African American Muslims. One hour after the waterboarding session, KSM stated that he tasked Issa “to make contact withblack U.S. citizen converts to Islam in Montana,” and that he instructed Issa to use his ties to Shaykh Abu Hamza al-Masri, a U.K.-based Imam, to facilitate his recruitment efforts.KSM later stated that Issa’s mission in the United States was to surveil forests to potentially ignite forest fires.1502

It took the ALEC Station team over 3 months to conclude that KSM’s plan to send an Indian Muslim to Montana to recruit virtually non-existent African American Muslim converts to start forest fires was a fabrication, in part because they first spent a week after he recanted this claim believing it was an attempt to trick them again.

On June 22, 2003, CIA interrogators reported that “[KSM] nervously explained to debriefer that he was under ‘enhanced measures’ when he made these claims” about terrorist recruitment in Montana, and “simply told his interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear.”1505 A CIA Headquarters response cable stated that the CIA’s ALEC Station believed KSM’s fabrication claims were “another resistance/manipulation ploy” and characterized KSM’s contention that he “felt ‘forced’ to make admissions” under enhanced interrogation techniques as “convenient excuses.” As a result, ALECStation urged CIA officers at tiie detention site to get KSM to reveal “who is the key contact person in Montana?”1506 [citing a June 26, 2003 ALEC Station cable] By June 30, 2005, ALEC Station had concluded that KSM’s reporting about African American Muslims in Montana was”an outright fabrication.”

A year after CIA decided KSM was not really going to have a non-existent cell of black Muslims start forest fires, the FBI nevertheless warned a bunch of Rocky Mountain states, including Montana, to be on guard for the threat.

I can think of many more useful things the national security establishment could be doing than chasing ghosts — non-existent black Muslim jihadist ghosts, in the forests of Montana. But by torturing, we signed up to a ghost chase.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

Why Did Alfreda Bikowsky Invent a Story about al Qaeda Trash-Talking Us?

One curious revelation in the Torture Report is the specific stories invented by the torturers. One of those is the oft-repeated claim that Abu Zubaydah said detainees were only permitted to start talking after they had reached the limits of their ability to endure torture.

The CIA has consistently represented that Abu Zubaydah stated that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were necessary to gain his cooperation. For example, the CIA informed the OLC that:

As Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques,’brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have ‘reached the limit of their ability to withhold it’ in the face of psychological and physical hardships.

As is described in greater detail in the full Committee Study, CIA records do not support the CIA representation that Abu Zubaydah made these statements.229 CIA records indicate that Abu Zubaydah maintained that he always intended to talk and never believed he could withhold information from interrogators.230 In February 2003, Abu Zubaydah told a CIA psychologist that he believed prior to his capture that every captured “brother” would talk in detention and that he told individuals at a terrorist training camp that “brothers should be able to expect that the organization will make adjustments to protect people and plans when someone with knowledge is captured.”231

229 While there no records of Abu Zubaydah making these statements, the deputy chief of ALEC Station, [redacted, Alfreda Bikowsky] told the Inspector General on July 17, 2003, that the “best information [the CIA] received on how to handle the [CIA] detainees came from a walk-in [a source [redacted] to volunteer information to the CIA] after the arrest of Abu Zubaydah. He told us we were underestimating Al-Qa’ida. The detainees were happy to be arrested by the U.S. because they got a big show trial. When they were turned over to [foreign governments], they were treated badly so they talked. Allah apparently allows you to talk if you feel threatened. The [CIA] detainees never counted on being detained by us outside the U.S. and being subjected to methods they never dreamed of.” See [redacted] Memorandum for the Record; subject: meeting with deputy chief, Counterterrorist Center ALEC Station; date: 17 July 2003.

More interesting still, CIA claimed that both Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said the US was weak and would not do what is necessary — purportedly meaning, torture — to combat al Qaeda.

The CIA representation that Abu Zubaydah “expressed [his] belief that the general US population was ‘weak,’ lacked resilience, and would be unable to ‘do what was necessary’ to prevent the terrorists from succeeding in their goals” is not supported by CIA records.1190

On August 30, 2006, a CIA officer from the CIA’s al-Qa’ida Plans and Organization Group wrote: “we have no records that ‘he declared that America was weak, and lacking in resilience and that our society did not have the will to ‘do what was necessary’ to prevent the terrorists from succeeding in their goals.'”1191 In a CIA Sametime communication that same day, a CIA ALEC Station officer wrote, “I can find no reference to AZ being deifant [sic] and declaring America weak… in fact everything I have read indicated he used a non deifiant [sic] resistance strategy.” In response, the chief of the [redacted] Department in CTC, [redacted], wrote: “I’ve certainly heard that said of AZ for years, but don’t know why….” The CIA ALEC Station officer replied, “probably a combo of[deputy chief of ALEC Station, [redacted, Alfreda Bikowsky] and [redacted]. I’ll leave it at that.” The chief of the Department completed the exchange, writing “yes, believe so… and agree, we shall pass over in silence.”1192

[snip]

Finally, the CIA attributed to KSM,along with Abu Zubaydah, the statement that “the general US population was ‘weak,’ lacked resilience, and would be unable to ‘do what was necessary’ to prevent the teiTorists from succeeding in their goals.”1265 There are no CIA operational or interrogation records to support the representation that KSM or Abu Zubaydah made these statements.

It seems to suggest both of these claims came from Alfreda Bikowsky, who was Deputy Chief of ALEC station in this period. Indeed, it suggests that others within CIA believed she (and someone else, whose name is redacted) made that up.

These aren’t the only oft-repeated stories the report says were made up (others include the claim that Abu Zubaydah wrote the al Qaeda manual, which was always so problematic it’s surprising it lasted this long).

But I find it interesting that Bikowsky, in particular, seems to have been inventing this kind of trash talking from al Qaeda. Trash talking that served to justify torture.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

Moussaoui Wants to Testify Against the Saudi Banks

Zacarias Moussaoui sent a letter to the judge presiding over a lawsuit against Jordanian Arab Bank, offering to testify against that bank and several Saudi banks that he says supported 9/11.

I want to testify against financial institutions such as Arab Bank, Saudi American Bank, the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia for their support and financing of Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda from the time of the Eastern Africa embassy bombing, U.S.S. Cole bombing and 9/11.

As Alison Frankel — who broke this story — noted, Moussaoui’s testimony would be inappropriate in the case in question, which found that Arab Bank funded Hamas.

But that’s not the most interesting part of her report (and Moussaoui’s letter). He claims the lawyers for the 9/11 victims have tried to meet with him in the SuperMax at Florence, CO, and also claims he sent a letter to the judge presiding over that case, where his testimony would be on point.

Moussaoui said that plaintiffs’ lawyers representing victims of the Sept. 11 attacks have requested permission to meet with him but that prison officials have denied the request. Moussaoui also claimed that he has previously offered to testify about al Qaeda financing in letters to the judge overseeing the Sept. 11 victims’ consolidated litigation, U.S. District Judge George Daniels of Manhattan, but that he does not know if the prison has mailed them. The docket in that case does not show any communications from Moussaoui, who was once named as a defendant by Sept. 11 victims.

The implication is that the Special Administrative Measures to which Moussaoui is subject may be preventing his letters from getting out or plaintiffs lawyers from being able to meet with him.

I’m not convinced Moussaoui would really have known about the financing of the 9/11 attack; from reports, al Qaeda kept the operation much better compartmented than that, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly had real questions about the competence of Moussaoui (which is why he got others for the mission). Plus, Moussaoui’s been in solitary so long, it’s unclear how cogent he can be (though his letter sounds more cogent than some of what he sent during his own trial).

Still, I am curious whether the government has been using the SAMs imposed on Moussaoui as yet another way to bury larger Saudi complicity in the attacks.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

Remember that Nashiri’s Torture — “Real Torture” — Didn’t Work

Yesterday, the Telegraph reported that the “waterboarding” used with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was far worse than described before — more actual drowning to the point of death than “pours.”

The description of the torture meted out to at least two leading al-Qaeda suspects, including the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, far exceeds the conventional understanding of waterboarding, or “simulated drowning” so far admitted by the CIA.

“They weren’t just pouring water over their heads or over a cloth,” said the source who has first-hand knowledge of the period. “They were holding them under water until the point of death, with a doctor present to make sure they did not go too far. This was real torture.”

That CIA was drowning people rather than “pouring” water over them is not news. Details described by the Telegraph exactly match the WaPo’s description of CIA’s drowning of Ammar al-Baluchi just months after KSM’s worst torture.

If declassified, the report could reveal new information on the treatment of a high-value detainee named Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, the nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Pakistanis captured Ali, known more commonly as Ammar al-Baluchi, on April, 30, 2003, in Karachi and turned him over to the CIA about a week later. He was taken to a CIA black site called “Salt Pit” near Kabul.

At the secret prison, Baluchi endured a regime that included being dunked in a tub filled with ice water. CIA interrogators forcibly kept his head under the water while he struggled to breathe and beat him repeatedly, hitting him with a truncheon-like object and smashing his head against a wall, officials said.

As with Zubaida and even Nashiri, officials said, CIA interrogators continued the harsh treatment even after it appeared that Baluchi was cooperating.

But I’m a little curious about this story.

It comes from a “security source” (which sounds like a contractor), single sourced. And it describes the treatment of two detainees whose torture has been most closely scrutinized, which makes it interesting this is only coming out now.

All that said, one question I hope we’ll answer once the summary of the SSCI torture report gets released later this year is what happened with Nashiri’s waterboarding.

Two things distinguish his treatment from Abu Zubaydah and KSM’s, after all: at least according to public reports, he was only waterboarded twice (by whatever twisted means you want to quantify torture). More interestingly, even Liz BabyDick Cheney doesn’t claim Nashiri gave up useful information after being waterboarded.

There’s a story about Nashiri’s “waterboarding” that’s overdue to be told. I wonder how close to death CIA brought him?

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

Behold, John Brennan’s Scary Memo!

Brennan with TortureI’ve been writing for a long time about the “Scary Memos” the government used to justify its dragnet.

As the Joint IG Report described, they started in tandem with George Bush’s illegal wiretap program, and were written before each 45-day reauthorization to argue the threat to the US was serious enough to dismiss any Fourth Amendment concerns that the President was wiretapping Americans domestically.

Jack Goldsmith relied on one for his May 6, 2004 memo reauthorizing some — but not all — of the dragnet.

Yesterday, James Clapper’s office released the Scary Memo included in the FISA Court application to authorize the Internet dragnet just two months later, on July 14, 2004.

ODNI calls it the Tenet Declaration — indeed it is signed by him (which, given that he left government on July 11, 2004 and that final FISC applications tend to be submitted days before their approval, may suggest signing this Scary Memo was among the very last things he did as CIA Director).

Yet the Memo would have been written by the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, then headed by John Brennan.

Much of the Scary Memo describes a “possible imminent threat” that DOJ plans to counter by,

seeking authority from this Court [redacted] to install and use pen register and trap and trace devices to support FBI investigations to identify [redacted], in the United States and abroad, by obtaining the metadata regarding their electronic communications.

There is no mention of NSA. There is no mention that the program operated without legal basis for the previous 2.5 years. And there’s a very curious redaction after “this Court;” perhaps CIA also made a show of having the President authorize it, so as to sustain a claim that all this could be conducted exclusively on Presidential authority?

After dropping mention of WMD — anthrax! fissile material! chemical weapons! — the Scary Memo admits it has no real details about this “possible imminent threat.”

[W]e have no specific information regarding the exact times, targets, or tactics for those planned attacks, we have gathered and continue to gather intelligence that leads us to believe that the next terrorist attack or attacks on US soil could be imminent.

[snip]

Reporting [redacted] does not provide specific information on the targets to be hit or methods to be used in the US attack or attacks.

But based on “detainee statements and [redacted] public statements since 9/11,” the Scary Memo lays out, CIA believes al Qaeda (curiously, sometimes they redact al Qaeda, sometimes they don’t) wants to target symbols of US power that would negatively impact the US economy and cause mass casualties and spread fear.

It took an “intelligence” agency to come up with that.

Based on that “intelligence,” it appears, but not on any solid evidence, CIA concludes that the Presidential conventions would make juicy targets for al Qaeda.

Attacks against or in the host cities for the Democratic and Republican Party conventions would be especially attractive to [redacted].

And because of that — because CIA’s “intelligence” has decided a terrorist group likes to launch attacks that cause terror and therefore must be targeting the Presidential conventions — the FBI (though of course it’s really the NSA) needs to hunt out “sleeper cells.”

Identifying and disrupting the North American-based cells involved in tactical planning offers the most direct path to stopping an attack or attacks against the US homeland. Numerous credible intelligence reports since 9/11 indicate [redacted] has “sleepers” in North America. We judge that these “sleepers” have been in North American, and the US in general, for much of the past two years. We base our judgment, in part, [redacted] as well as on information [redacted] that [redacted] had operatives here.

Before we get to what led CIA to suggest the US was targeted, step back and look at this intelligence for a moment. This report mentions detainee reporting twice. It redacts the name of what are probably detainees in several places. Indeed, several of the claims in this report appear to match those from the exactly contemporaneous document CIA did on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to justify its torture program, thus must come from him.

Yet, over a year after KSM had been allegedly rendered completely cooperative via waterboarding, CIA still did not know the answer to a question that KSM was probably one of the only people alive who could answer.

We continue to investigate whether the August 2001 arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui may have accelerated the timetable for the 9/11 attacks because he knew of al-Qa’ida’s intention to use commercial aircraft as weapons.

Nevertheless, they believed KSM was being totally straight up and forthcoming.

Note, too, the CIA relied on claims of sleeper cells that were then two years old, dating back to the time they were torturing Abu Zubaydah, whom we know did give “intelligence” about sleeper cells.

To be sure, we know CIA’s claims of a “possible imminent threat” in the US do not derive exclusively from CIA’s earlier torture (though CIA had claimed, just months earlier, that their best intelligence came from that source for the Inspector General’s report).

Less than 3 weeks after this Scary Memo was written, we’d begin to see public notice of this “possible imminent threat,” when Tom Ridge raised the threat level on August 1, 2004 because of an election year plot, purportedly in response to the capture of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan in Pakistan on July 13 (which could only have been included in “the Tenet declaration” if Khan were secretly arrested and flipped earlier, because Tenet was no longer CIA Director on July 13). But what little basis the election year plot had in any reality dated back to the December 2003 British arrest and beating of Khan’s cousin, Babar Ahmed, which would lead to both Khan’s eventual capture as well as the British surveillance of Dhiren Barot as early as June 10 and the latter’s premature arrest on August 3. KSM’s nephew, Musaad Aruchi, was also handed over by Pakistan to CIA on June 12; best as I know, he remains among those permanently disappeared in CIA’s torture program. This would also lead to a new round of torture memos reauthorizing everything that had been approved in the August 1, 2002 Bybee Memo plus some.

The claims the US was a target derive, based on the reporting in the NYT, from Dhiren Barot. Barot apparently did want to launch a terrorist attack. Both KSM and Hambali had identified Barot during interrogations in 2003, and he had scouted out attack sites in the US in 2000 and 2001. But his active plots in 2004 were all focused on the UK. In 2007 the Brits reduced his sentence because his plots weren’t really all that active or realistic.

Which is to say this election plot — the Scary Plot that drives the Scary Memo that provided the excuse for rolling out (or rather, giving judicial approval for continuing) an Internet dragnet that would one day encompass all Americans — arose in significant part from 2003 torture-influenced interrogations that led to the real world detention of men who had contemplated attacking the US in 2000, but by 2004 were aspirationally plotting to attack the UK, not the US, as well as men who may have been plotting in Pakistan but were not in the US.

That, plus vague references to claims that surely were torture derived, is what John Brennan appears to have laid out in his case for legally justifying a US dragnet.

You see, it’s actually John Brennan’s dragnet — it all goes back to his Scary Memo — and his role in it is presumably one of the reasons he doesn’t want us to know how many lies went into the CIA torture program.

Brennan’s Scary Memo provides yet more evidence how closely linked are torture and the surveillance of every American.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

Intelligence Response to KSM’s Claim Intelligence Supersedes Justice Holds Up His Own Trial

Matt Apuzzo collects the thoughts of a number of people who are getting frustrated with the way the CIA and FBI (though I suspect it might be CIA and CIA) keep holding up the Gitmo show trials.

Most damning of them is this quote from top military justice lawyer professor, Eugene Fidell.

“It’s a courtroom with three benches,” said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. “There’s one person pretending to be the judge, and two other agencies behind the scenes exerting at least as much influence.”

That assessment is not all that far from the claim Khalid Sheikh Mohammed made in the propaganda tract behind this latest delay.

Every democratic country in the west has a constitution, an executive branch, a judicial branch, and a legislative branch. They also have a big black box above and beyond these branches that implements all that it sees as being in the interest of the country or ruling party without consideration for any constitution, morality, religion, or principle. This black box is called Intelligence and its authority supersedes all other considerations.

The Kangaroo Court trying KSM is proving him right. That’s not a good thing.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.