The Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report sheds new light on how the CIA created and then continued to protect its false claim that it found Osama bin Laden in part because of its abusive interrogation tactics.
The report presents detailed evidence based on reviewing millions of pages of CIA documents that the identification of bin Laden’s courier who was eventually found to be living with the al-Qaeda leader in the Abbottabad compound had nothing to do with the CIA torture program.
And in revealing the new details about what the CIA knew and when it knew, the report documents for the first time the extraordinary mendacity of the CIA’s senior managers in seeking to hide the truth from Congress, senior cabinet officers and the public.
From the moment bin Laden was killed, the CIA launched a determined new campaign to convince Congress and the public that its torture program had been key to locating bin Laden – and that the agency’s operations people had tracked him down by a series of operations in which one operation yielded clues that brought still others and led ultimately to Abbottabad. That campaign ultimately extended to using the popular film Zero Dark Thirty to promote the agency’s justification for torture.
The same day as the raid in Abbottabad, the CIA deputy director, Michael Morell, briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee, and two days later CIA director Leon Panetta himself led a second such briefing. In both briefings, the CIA asserted that interrogation of CIA detainees with “enhanced interrogation techniques” had “played a substantial role” in developing the intelligence that led to bin Laden, according to the committee report.
But the report shows that, contrary to the agency’s claim, the CIA’s abusive interrogation methods did not produce any information on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, that did not become available from another authoritative source through traditional interrogation methods.
The CIA rebuttal, currently posted on its website, presents the argument the agency had been making for years: that al-Qaeda operative Ammar al-Baluchi, “after undergoing EITs, was the first detainee to reveal that Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti served as a courier for messages from Bin Ladin after Bin Laden had departed Afghanistan.”
The CIA statement claims the information obtained from al-Baluchi by its “enhanced” interrogation methods “prompted CIA to re-question other detainees on Abu Ahmad’s role, to review previous reporting in light of this information, and to increase the focus of Abu Ahmad’s role in our questioning.” In combination with other information, it said, the information allowed the agency to ultimately “determine his true name and location.”
That CIA argument became the dominant popular understanding of the relationship between the CIA’s torture tactics and the intelligence on al-Qaeda and bin Laden when it was transferred to the silver screen in the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty, which won Academy Award nominations for best picture and best screenplay.
Whatever personal views film director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal may have had about the CIA torture program, the film followed the CIA script on the issue of greatest importance to the agency. That was hardly coincidental. Boal confirmed that he had gotten “first-hand accounts” of the process of tracking the courier from those who were involved. Administration officials acknowledged that Boal had been given access to White House, Pentagon and CIA officials – including the real-life CIA officer depicted in the film. Those meetings ensured Zero Dark Thirty would tell a story that suited the interests of those seeking to protect the CIA’s reputation.
The film begins with a scene showing a detainee bloodied from being beaten and strung up on ropes that is followed by another scene of the detainee being waterboarded. Significantly, the torture victim in the film is named “Ammar.” The filmmakers could not have known to call the character “Ammar” without being told by the real-life “Maya” or other CIA officials, because Ammar al-Baluchi’s name had never been published.
Maya, the female CIA officer in the movie who witnesses the torture of Ammar, appears to experience revulsion to it, but then shakes off her initial reaction and reaffirms her determination to get bin Laden – through torture if necessary.
Left alone with Ammar, who pleads for her to stop the torture, Maya tells him, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Later, after Maya has tried to trick Ammar into revealing the name of bin Laden’s courier, he yields the information under torture. And although the courier had come under different names, according to the movie, it was Ammar’s identification of al-Kuwaiti that motivated Maya to pursue that figure over the next few years.
Thanks to the Senate report, we now know that Bigelow and Boal swallowed a CIA account that used its torture of Ammar al-Baluchi to buttress its argument that the torture program played a role in recognizing the importance of bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti.
The Senate torture report confirms that the CIA did indeed torture Ammar al-Baluchi from May 17, 2003, to May 20, 2003, and that he did tell his interrogators under torture that al-Kuwaiti was bin Laden’s courier. But it also reveals what the CIA and Zero Dark Thirty never acknowledged – that, on May 19, 2003, al-Baluchi insisted that he had fabricated the information he had given them about al-Kuwaiti the previous day.
The report shows that al-Baluchi told his interrogators that a brother of al-Kuwaiti was to take over courier duties for Osama bin Laden. Then in June 2003, al-Baluchi said there were rumors that al-Kuwaiti was a courier. Finally, in January 2004, he retracted all his previous testimony and claimed that al-Kuwaiti was never a courier for bin Laden, because he was too young and inexperienced.
Even more important, however, the report shows how the CIA sought to prevent the Senate Intelligence Committee from learning that the most reliable intelligence on al-Kuwaiti actually came from an al-Qaeda detainee named Hassan Ghul during interrogation immediately after being captured in Iraqi Kurdistan in January 2004 before he was in the custody of the CIA. A footnote in the report quotes former CIA targeting officer Nada Bakos recounting how Ghul provided the critical information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti to Kurdish officials in a free-flowing conversation in a Kurdish safehouse where he was under no coercion.
According to the CIA documents cited by the Senate report, Ghul even told his Kurdish interrogators that al-Kuwaiti and bin Laden would probably be living in the same place. That in itself would have been sufficient to focus the CIA’s bin Laden team on finding al-Kuwaiti.
The report also made it clear that there was no reason to torture Ghul. Nevertheless, the CIA’s torture program managers insisted on torturing Ghul as soon as he was in their custody without even giving him a chance to talk freely. The interrogators subjected him to extreme sleep deprivation and a “hanging position” that caused him “mild paralysis,” as CIA reports described it. In the end, CIA reports show, Ghul provided no additional information on al-Kuwaiti.
And when the Senate committee finally learned about Ghul’s volunteering the crucial information about al-Kuwaiti after being picked up in Kurdistan and asked the CIA about it in October 2013, the agency pretended it knew nothing about it. “We have not identified any information in our holdings suggesting that Hassan Gul [sic] first provided information on Abu Ahmad while in [foreign] custody,” according to the agency’s response.
The CIA response was the most recent move in what we now know was a simple strategy for deceiving Congress and the White House: The officials who had been in charge of the program had used the elementary bureaucratic trick of withholding documents that would contradict the interests of the agency in question and claim upon further questioning that they did not find any such documents. The officials responsible for maintaining the fiction could not have anticipated that a former agency officer who knew the truth would ever speak out publicly and destroy what had appeared to be a successful cover-up.