December 10, 2005

What Has the Times Got Against Coercion Anyway?

Hatched by Dafydd

Now the New York Times is on a tear because some of the information we obtained about al-Qaeda came (surprisingly enough) from terrorist prisoners who really didn't want to talk to us -- and who therefore required coercion to loosen their tongues. Even more staggering, after ratting out their friends, some of these terrorists claimed that everything we had extracted from them was a lie, and they accused us of torturing them:

Qaeda-Iraq Link U.S. Cited Is Tied to Coercion Claim
by Douglas Jehl
The New York Times
December 9, 2005

WASHINGTON, Dec. 8 - The Bush administration based a crucial prewar assertion about ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda on detailed statements made by a prisoner while in Egyptian custody who later said he had fabricated them to escape harsh treatment, according to current and former government officials.

What is it with the Times and prisoner claims? They seem to believe that the Bush administration cannot be trusted about the war on Islamic jihadism because we have an interest in the issue... but a prisoner who unquestionably has interests at stake is still trusted implicitly by the Times. Note how "said he had fabricated them" above transubstantiates into casual certainty just two paragraphs later:

The new disclosure provides the first public evidence that bad intelligence on Iraq may have resulted partly from the administration's heavy reliance on third countries to carry out interrogations of Qaeda members and others detained as part of American counterterrorism efforts. The Bush administration used [Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi's] accounts as the basis for its prewar claims, now discredited, that ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda included training in explosives and chemical weapons.

By "now discredited," what Mr. Jehl means is "now recanted." But the fact that a prisoner recants is not a refutation of his earlier claims... a fact that seems to elude the CIA, as they immediately withdrew the intelligence they garnered from those claims. Or did they have another reason to withdraw?

Libi was captured in Pakistan in late 2001, and he was at the time the highest ranking leader of the terror group al-Qaeda. This is not a man unfamiliar with interrogation techniques and how to resist them; but he would also know that nobody is so stupid as to believe without evidence anything said by a prisoner with an agenda to lie -- whether in distress or resting easily in a comfy chair. Libi must have known that anything he said would be thoroughly checked out before it was accepted; so the idea that he just spun wild fantasies to avoid being tortured by the Egyptians (to whom we had rendited him in January of 2002) is absurd on its face.

But this is not the first time the CIA has chosen to accept implicitly and absolutely the words of a terrorist prisoner over and above any other evidence: to this day, the primary reason the CIA refuses to buy the claim by Czech intelligence that 9/11 lead hijacker Mohammed Atta met with a top officer of the Iraqi Intelligence Service in Prague is that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh both deny, from U.S. custody, that such a meeting took place... despite the fact that they do not claim to have been out of the country during that time, nor to have personally seen Atta during that period: only that his movements do not match the timelines that Mohammed and Binalshibh gave to the CIA.

(The other main reason is that Atta's cell phone was used during the period he would have been gone. Considering that his cell phone would likely not have worked in Prague anyway, and that he had roommates, this doesn't exactly leap out as a killer alibi to me.)

The claims of al-Qaeda learning from Iraq how to build and use chemical and biological weapons were almost certainly evaluated in light of other intelligence gleaned from other sources; they may be right, they may be wrong -- but their accuracy is not determined by whether Libi later recanted.

From where I'm sitting (in my living room, actually), it appears as though Libi gave little intelligence until he was rendited to Egypt. Then, after some coercion and intelligence interrogation (of Libi and others), he spilled his guts about the Iraq/al-Qaeda connections.

More than a year later, after we invaded Iraq, when al-Qaeda declared Iraq the line in the sand with the West -- then and only then did Libi suddenly retract his claims, according to Mr. Jehl of the Times:

The fact that Mr. Libi recanted after the American invasion of Iraq and that intelligence based on his remarks was withdrawn by the C.I.A. in March 2004 has been public for more than a year. But American officials had not previously acknowledged either that Mr. Libi made the false statements in foreign custody or that Mr. Libi contended that his statements had been coerced.

(Note again the dead certainty in the Times account: the statements may well be controversial or even questionable -- but there is no evidence presented here, or even hinted at, to prove them "false.")

Last, here is a fascinating question-and-answer pair from the article... which Mr. Jehl presents in reverse order and separated by many paragraphs and a page jump, which serve -- perhaps accidentally -- to obscure the fact that the first answers the second.

The question of why the administration relied so heavily on the statements by Mr. Libi has long been a subject of contention. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, made public last month unclassified passages from the February 2002 document, which said it was probable that Mr. Libi "was intentionally misleading the debriefers."

The document showed that the Defense Intelligence Agency had identified Mr. Libi as a probable fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims about ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda involving illicit weapons.

And the answer, which appears before the question:

A government official said that some intelligence provided by Mr. Libi about Al Qaeda had been accurate, and that Mr. Libi's claims that he had been treated harshly in Egyptian custody had not been corroborated.

I have often wondered: I can't possibly be the only person able to add a pair of integers to get a third. The solution to Carl Levin's conundrum seems pretty clear to me:

Libi is a serial fabricator; of course he is. To quote from the wonderful Charles Bronson movie Breakheart Pass (screenplay by Alistair MacLean, from his novel), "if a man is a thief and murderer, it follows he may be a liar as well." All al-Qaeda leaders are fabricators.

But one doesn't fabricate from nothing. Interrogators already know some information, and they will check out other things the prisoner claims before relying upon them. If he lies, the prisoner will be punished -- probably very harshly.

So what do fabricators do? They tell part of the truth... just not the whole. They lie about some things but not all. And that is how you crack them: you separate and interrogate many people who each have some piece of the puzzle. Then you combine narratives and eliminate obvious lies. You come back to each prisoner with information he likely knows -- information he knows he did not tell you; he believes you know more than you actually do, so his lies will become smaller, and more of what he says is the truth.

Lather, rinse, repeat -- many times, over a space of months. You use coercive techniques to wear him down, not to torture him into screaming out anything he thinks you want to hear, because that is useless to you.

Almost certainly, Libi lied as best he could; equally certainly, he let slip much that was true. His "recantation" therefore is probably designed more to make us doubt what is true than help us eliminate what is false. Why would Libi feel any regret at having misled us, his enemy? Why try to set straight a narrative that is in his interest to keep ambiguous and obscure?

The CIA knows this; they're not utter fools. So they, too, have an agenda: they do not want Libi's confessions to be true, or at least not proven true, because that would help justify the invasion of Iraq... and we already know the CIA is willing to move heaven and earth, and even leak data to smear itself, in order to damage George W. Bush on his signature issue. So after their assessment has been used to justify that invasion, they seize upon the opportunity of Libi's "recantation" to withdraw their own intelligence, thus leaving Bush twisting slowly in the wind.

I may have some details off, but I think the basics are sound. And if that is the case, we have answered the question in the title of this post: the Times, like the CIA, doesn't like rendition and coercive interrogation not because they're seriously worried about the civil liberties of al-Qaeda leaders, but because such tactics can actually wring the truth out of terrorist prisoners.

And they can't handle the truth.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, December 10, 2005, at the time of 2:39 AM

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Tracked on December 13, 2005 12:29 AM


The following hissed in response by: hunter

What is striking to me is that a years-after-the-fact recanting is more credible than the info gathered at the time, to the NYT. It is also strange that the US policy of sending non-American terrorists home to face their local jsutice is controversial to anyone.
It is also odd that the NYT is too lazy to mention that one of the points Al Qaeda trains its terrorists on is to claim torture and abuse and to recant.
I am also struck by how childish the MSM/DNC view is: that since some of the intel for part of the reason we went to war was wrong, we therefor ahve no ability to do anything but to quit.
It is like the primal scream of Dean in Iowa in 2004 was the end of rational discourse from the left.

The above hissed in response by: hunter [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2005 5:49 AM

The following hissed in response by: stackja1945

The coercion did not seem to be too harsh if the memory is recalled.

The above hissed in response by: stackja1945 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 11, 2005 1:02 AM

The following hissed in response by: Texas Jack

Apologies, but I don't understand this entire flap over torture. It's simple, really.
The leaders of this nation must never, under any circumstances, condone or appear to condone torture. It is their duty to reject torture in ANY form, frequently and firmly.
It is the duty of the captured terrorists to claim torture as often as possible, with great volume and drama, even if the extent of that "torture" is to permit only one shower per day, or fresh sheets weekly instead of daily.
It is the duty of those in need of information to calmly and quietly get that information, using ANY MEANS REQUIRED. They must also learn to be very discreet about how they got their "subjects" to talk, because finally, it is their duty to SILENTLY suffer the proper outrage and swift punishment they MUST receive if they get caught. Unfair? How fair is a car bomb that kills a couple of American Marines and a dozen or two Iraqis, most of whom were children? It's called WAR, people. Thank God for those few crude, rough men who will offer up their humanity to help keep the rest of us clean, and alive.

The above hissed in response by: Texas Jack [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 11, 2005 8:21 AM

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