McCain’s WaPo Op-Ed on the Tortured Debate Over EITs

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To be sure, waterboarding can be torture, depending on how it is carried out. “You can do waterboarding lots of different ways, “says former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, “you can get to the point that the person is actually drowning,” That would be torture- but that is not how the technique is carried out by the CIA.
-Pg 131, Courting Disaster

John McCain is intimately familiar with torture, having endured it at the hands of his Vietnamese captors during his years as a POW.

But he was never waterboarded. Not by the Spanish Inquisition. Not by the Japanese military. Not by the restrictive nature of the program as run by our CIA. And to be clear, he was tortured not to extract information that might save lives; he was tortured out of cruelty for torture’s sake; and he was tortured to elicit a false confession for propaganda purposes. EITs are not used to obtain either confessions or information.

Nor was McCain ever an interrogator. Not in the FBI. Not in the CIA. Not in the military.

Yet McCain, like “Matthew Alexander”, commands “authority” and respect on the topic matter because of their respective experiences.

The CIA interrogators involved in the program that used EITs on 30 out of 100 high value detainees that came into their hands (the other 2/3rds having received standard interrogation practices) are not at liberty to write books nor defend themselves from slander and distortions in the media; nor are they free to counter Alexander’s testimony that comes buttressed with credible experience as a successful military interrogator.

In Marc Thiessen’s book, Courting Disaster, the former Bush speech writer does a great job at trying to rectify the misperceptions and distortions regarding the nature of the CIA program that has been so relentlessly villified.

In one chapter (read pages 158-164), Thiessen also includes the opinions of 3 distinguished former Vietnam POWs to counteract the opinion of John McCain.

George Everett Day, Leo Thorsness, Jeremiah Denton are highly decorated war veterans and former POWs who experienced terrible torture at the hands of their captors. They scoff at the notion that what the CIA subjected their detainees to, up to and including waterboarding, even remotely amounts to their definition of torture.

Greg Sargent and Tom Ricks linked to John McCain’s opinion piece last week, which refutes Michael Mukasey’s claim that the intell information that led us to bin Laden can trace its lineage back to the CIA program that ran under the previous administration. McCain writes:

Former attorney general Michael Mukasey recently claimed that “the intelligence that led to bin Laden . . . began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information — including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.” That is false.

I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.

In fact, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator — none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden — was obtained through standard, noncoercive means.

Thiessen was on O’Reilly and provides the counterpunch:


O’REILLY: Let’s zero in on the courier who was the key to finding bin Laden. I understand that the — that KSM and another guy who is subjected to enhanced interrogation mentioned…

THIESSEN: Abu Faraj al-Libi.

O’REILLY: OK, mentioned the courier, pick it up.

THIESSEN: Well, I mean, they — we had very little information about Al Qaeda’s courier networks. What happened was first — Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who were the first guys brought into the program, gave us some general information about couriers and some code names for those folks. When KSM was interrogated after he underwent waterboarding; not during it, afterwards. When he was going — when he was being questioned, he acknowledged that he — they had given us the name of this fellow al-Kuwaiti which was a nom de guerre and KSM admitted that he knew him. Then in 2004, we captured a fellow named Hassan Ghul who was a senior Al Qaeda operative. He was captured in Iraq, and he told us that this courier al-Kuwaiti was a key lieutenant of KSM’s successor Abu Faraj al-Libi…

O’REILLY: Now, did he do that under duress — let me just — did he do that under duress or did he just tell us?

THIESSEN: Well, this is the thing that people don’t understand. You’re hearing a lot of the left is trying — the deniers of this program are trying to say, well did they use — did they tell us this under waterboarding or under standard interrogation later and that misunderstands how interrogation works. Enhanced interrogation was never used to get intelligence; it was used to get cooperation. So you took a detainee like KSM, who is in the state of total resistance, and you used the enhanced interrogation techniques to bring him to a state of cooperation. And when he’s under enhanced interrogation techniques, they are asking him questions they already know the answers to in order to gauge whether he had stopped lying and made the decision to cooperate. And then, once he starts cooperating, the technique stops. In most cases with enhanced interrogation, the detainees went under them for a couple of days. And KSM — he was a really tough, tough guy. He was — he went for about a month. But once that month ended, the interrogation, the enhanced interrogations stopped and we had a — they had a conversation with him like you and I are speaking today.

O’REILLY: All right. So you are convinced then that the information provided by KSM and then the other guy Ghoul who was captured a couple of years later…


O’REILLY: …pinpointed for the CIA this courier and then they started to tail him and that led to bin Laden’s demise. Is that correct?

THIESSEN: Well, actually, yes, well, Abu Faraj, I’m sorry Hassan Ghul told us that he was a key operative of Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was KSM’s successor after he was captured. So they capture Abu Faraj in 2005 and he’s brought into the CIA interrogation program. He’s not waterboarded, but he undergoes enhanced interrogation and was resistant, brought into a state of cooperation. And then, he starts giving them information about the courier networks and he’s identifying individuals and giving them information about how the couriers operate, where the drops are and so on and so forth. And then they ask them about al-Kuwaiti, and he says I don’t know him. And you know, people say that’s proof that he, well, he lied. But we knew that he knew him because Abu — because Hassan Ghul had told us that he was his key deputy. So one — that was the red flag that told the CIA this is the guy he’s protecting. This is the guy we have to go after. So if it had not been for that process, starting with Abu Zubaydah in 2002, identifying the names; KSM confirming the name; Hassan Ghul telling us he was Faraj’s deputy and then Faraj denying that he even knew the guy, then they — the CIA would have never known this is the guy to zero in on and they went after him, found him and it took years to do it. Found him and eventually followed him to bin Laden’s lair.

So much of what we’ve learned about al Qaeda, so many of the operations that have since been carried out in killing and capturing operatives, subsequently leading to more info and more kills and captures, can all be traced back to what we began learning about the al Qaeda network from CIA interrogations of HVTs. Waterboarding Zubaydah and KSM had a cascading effect, unlocking intell information that did not require more wateboardings, but which can trace their intell lineage back to the CIA program. By 2006, over half of what we knew about al Qaeda had come out of the CIA program.

Finally, going back to McCain:

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.

And McCain, from personal experience, broke and his torturers were able to obtain a written confession from him. A lie. But again, the purpose of waterboarding and other EITs was not to gain confessions or intell but to achieve a state of cooperation from the detainees.

There’s a world of difference between “us” and “them”. Americans need not feel shame over the CIA program that included coercive interrogation techniques; that included waterboarding (only 3!). We did not trade our American values for security.

I’m not a “torture apologist”. For the most part, I stand with those who claim “torture doesn’t work” (although, there is the issue of “moral casuistry”). Call me a “torture denier” instead. 😉

16 Responses to “McCain’s WaPo Op-Ed on the Tortured Debate Over EITs”

  1. 1

    Nan G

    Very educational read.
    I especially appreciated that after EITs the cooperation started and then continued.

    Our high school drafting teacher was captured by the Japanese and tortured.
    Once in a while he would drum out a pattern on his desk: dum-did-di-di-dum-dee——–.
    If anyone finished the pattern (dum-dum) he would become livid.
    “You can successfully be brainwashed!” He would start in on them.
    So, brainwashing involves torture, but also involves other techniques, less painful.
    This man had no fingernails on most of his fingers.
    He walked with a limp from broken bones not set before they healed.
    He never ”broke.”

  2. 2


    The vast majority of the american people have never served in the military, CIA, FBI, or even the police force. We have never lived in a country that is a war zone with even fewer hearing a shot fired in anger. We have been blessed, but we are also soft. We get those who argue we should not have dropped the nukes on Japan at all, let alone twice. To expect the American people to understand anything about this issue is a laugh. It is interesting to note that three POW’s of Vietnam come out opposed to McCain on this issue. I believe that if a president has a terrorist in custody with knowledge of an upcoming attack and lawyers them up preventing us from gaining that information to save a city from something like 9/11 or worse, they will be impeached. Polls may show that we do not support harsh actions, but wait until after the next attack and take that same poll. The left with a reputation as weak on national defense is especially vulnerable to this type of incident. If they want to lawyer up the terrorist, I would say let them but with the clear understanding that there will be a price for failure to prevent an attack.

  3. 3


    McCains “torture” had nothing to do with stopping more Terrorist attacks on innocent people. No excuse for him, none what so ever.

  4. 4



    Thiessen comments on McCain’s op-ed.

    In a speech on the Senate floor last week, Sen. John McCain dismissed the role of CIA interrogations in the operation that got Osama bin Laden, declaring that “The first mention of the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti [bin laden’s courier], as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country. The United States did not conduct this detainee’s interrogation, nor did we render him to that country for the purpose of interrogation.”

    His statement was carefully worded, technically correct and completely misleading.

    I interviewed several former senior intelligence officials after McCain’s speech. Every one of them told me that they first learned about al-Kuwaiti from CIA detainees, not from a detainee in another country. I was told that McCain was referring to an old foreign liaison report that included a passing reference to al-Kuwaiti, but that CIA officials did not become aware of this report until many years later, after CIA detainees had alerted them to al-Kuwaiti’s importance. They only found it because they had ordered a “deep dive” on him — scouring all their databases for everything they could find about the bin Laden courier — based on intelligence from detainees.

    Many officials did not remember the report at all — a sign of how little importance it held. Those that did said the agency would never have come across the old report had they not already been looking for al-Kuwaiti, and it told them nothing useful that they did not already know. So while the report may technically have been the “first mention” of al-Kuwaiti, the CIA did not “learn” about bin Laden’s courier from this report — it learned about him from the questioning of high-value terrorists, many of whom underwent enhanced interrogation.

    As one former CIA official with direct knowledge told me, “Detainees provided the information regarding the courier network and Ahmed in particular that started this whole thing. None of it came from another detainee from another location.”

    McCain’s speech, and his Post op-ed piece, were replete with technically correct but misleading assertions such as this. For another example, McCain declared in his speech: “None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.” Of course, since only three of the roughly 100 CIA detainees underwent waterboarding, McCain’s statement conveniently glossed over about 97 percent of those questioned by the CIA.

    Note that McCain did not claim that none of the detainees who underwent enhanced interrogation techniques gave us “key leads” on the courier — because he knows this would be false. Moreover, after being waterboarded, Khalid Sheik Mohammed did confirm al-Kuwaiti’s kunya (or nom de guerre), which is the name the courier actually used. And the fact that both KSM and his successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi, attempted to protect al-Kuwaiti was the red flag that alerted CIA officials to his importance.

    McCain said in his speech that the “best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to Osama bin Laden — was obtained through standard, noncoercive means, not through any ‘enhanced interrogation technique.’ ” Note again, the careful wording: McCain did not say that this detainee did not undergo enhanced interrogation (he did) – only that he did not provide the information “through” enhanced interrogation. This is deceptive. McCain was briefed in detail more than once on enhanced interrogation, so he knows full well that enhanced techniques were not used to gain intelligence from detainees — they were used to compel their cooperation.

    While applying enhanced techniques, interrogators would ask detainees questions to which the interrogators already knew the answers, so they could judge when the detainees had made the decision to begin cooperating. Once they did so, the techniques stopped and the detainees moved into noncoercive debriefing.

    McCain knows that Hassan Ghul — the detainee who provided “the best intelligence” on al-Kuwaiti — resisted during his initial questioning, was put through enhanced techniques and subsequently became cooperative. When Ghul began cooperating, the enhanced techniques stopped and he moved into debriefing, where he provided vital information about al-Kuwaiti. The fact that Ghul provided this information “through standard, noncoercive means” simply shows that he provided it after the enhanced process was complete.

    In fact, two-thirds of detainees underwent no enhanced techniques at all. This is because during their initial “neutral assessment,” the alternative was made clear to them. The story of one senior al-Qaeda terrorist, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, illustrates the point. When Abd al-Hadi was brought to a CIA black site, agency officials told him, “We’re the CIA.” He replied, “I’ve heard of you guys. I’ll tell you anything you need to know.” And he did. Detainees like Abd al-Hadi cooperated without enhanced techniques because they feared enhanced techniques.

    Here’s the big question McCain needs to answer: If his claims are true, and enhanced interrogation really did not play an important role in producing “the major leads that ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find Osama bin Laden,” why isn’t CIA Director Leon Panetta making these same claims? After all, who has a bigger interest in discounting the role of enhanced interrogation than the Obama administration? If administration officials could make this argument, they would be shouting it from the rooftops. They are not doing so, because they know the truth: Enhanced interrogation worked.

  5. 5

    Hard Right

    Excellent post Word.

    Torture doesn’t work? I have read the account of POWs in Vietnam who said they almost all broke under torture and gave legitimate intel to their captors. BTW, by all, I mean the POWs in the camp. The Nazis wiped out entire cells of French resistence fighters by extracting information thru torture from those they captured. Torture has a history of working. Yes there is the kind meant solely to inflict pain as McCain went thru, but as noted there is an obvious difference between the two.
    Torture does work, but we don’t do it and didn’t use it.

    Jain, McCain is a pompous jackass who has been in office faaar too long. He injected himself into the debate only to feed his oversized ego. I was among those trying to keep him from another term, but there weren’t enough of us.

  6. 6

    Alfonso Bedoya

    “…he probably thinks he’s a real cowboy, so you gotta break that son of a bitch in two. If you wanna know something and he won’t tell you, cut off one of his fingers. The little one. Then tell him his thumb’s next. After that he’ll tell you if he wears ladies underwear.” – Mr. White, Reservoir Dogs

  7. 8

    Hard Right

    I love the word games the left plays. No one revealed the couriers full true name. So?
    1) Perhaps they did not know it
    2) What they did provide was still valuable and allowed us to gather more info that resulted in OBL’s death. Not to mention other plots were stopped.
    3) McCain proves himself to be an arrogant *ss who would undermine the war on terror for his ego.

    Word, the second article you linked was amusing in a sick kind of way. Besides leaving out the plots we stopped because of EIT, they called waterboarding and other EIT methods torture. If idiot libs like Mr. Sargent want to see real torture I suggest they put themselves into the hands of some terrorists. Then we’ll see if their definition changes.

  8. 9



    @Hard Right:

    Yes there is the kind meant solely to inflict pain as McCain went thru, but as noted there is an obvious difference between the two.
    Torture does work, but we don’t do it and didn’t use it.

    Good point from a commenter, HumanSimpleton, that I should have thought of, but which slipped by me:

    ” he did not become cooperative under “enhanced interrogation” at all, and in fact gave his tormentors false information to get them to stop.”

    Untrue. McCain in his 1999 autobiography, “Faith of My Fathers,” McCain describes

    “Eventually, I gave them my ship’s name and squadron number, and confirmed that my target had been the power plant.”

    McCain said: “I regret very much having done so. The information was of no real use to the Vietnamese, but the Code of Conduct for American Prisoners of War orders us to refrain from providing any information beyond our names, rank and serial number.”

    “I had learned what we all learned over there,” McCain said. “Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.”

    Let’s be clear, Santorum has more than just a Google problem, and it is shameful that he attacks McCain over torture, but torture did work on McCain.

    This does not endorse torture, and Santorum does not have a point, but you need to be accurate

    5/18/2011 11:38:56 AM PDT

  9. 10




    In one four-day period, McCain says he was beaten “every two to three hours,” and his arm was broken and ribs cracked. So if nothing else, this is a man who can be said to know how enhanced interrogation works.

    Nope. McCain is a man who knows how torture works. Not how the CIA program’s EITs work; or refuses to acknowledge how they work because it sounds like he’s been briefed before, as mentioned by Thiessen in his op-ed linked earlier:

    Note again, the careful wording: McCain did not say that this detainee did not undergo enhanced interrogation (he did) – only that he did not provide the information “through” enhanced interrogation. This is deceptive. McCain was briefed in detail more than once on enhanced interrogation, so he knows full well that enhanced techniques were not used to gain intelligence from detainees — they were used to compel their cooperation.

  10. 11

    rich wheeler

    HARD RIGHT says Mac a pompous jackass. You want a REAL pompous JACKASS you got Haynesworth.
    JAINPHX says Mac’s “torture” WTF

  11. 12


    During WWII, when someone in the resistence was captured, it was standard practice to make sure the rest of the cell knew of the capture to allow them to change as much as possible to protect themselves and to disappear. Why was this done? Because they knew everyone, with very rare exceptions, in the hands of the Germans would talk and reveal everything they knew to end the torture. Soldiers in the USA are told to give the standard name rank and serial number and nothing more. However, they are not held for revealing information under torture because it is known that when there is enough torture, almost everyone will break and talk, including McCain. Torture has been going on since the first battle between one human and another because it works. For those against torture to argue it does not work seems to be idiotic at best. You can argue we do not want to lower ourselves to torture, but do not argue it is not effective.

    If the argument is the USA is too good for this type of activity, how does that work with the killing of over 50 million babies in the womb since we made that killing legal? How does that work with the fact that for years, we allowed partial birth abortion to be horribly allowed in the USA which did to a baby almost delivered under the most severe pain far beyond any the US CIA or others agencies ever dreamed of inflicting on terrorist? Why is it that those who so supported partial birth abortion or abortion in general are often the same folks screaming about torture today? Obama, who voted to allow babies who survived abortion to be killed fully out of the mothers womb, was against this procedure to extract information to save lives. Does any of this make sense??

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