McCain vs. Mukasey on CIA tactics and the trail to Osama bin Laden
“I hope former Attorney General Mukasey will correct his misstatement.”
— Sen. John McCain, on the Senate floor, May 12, 2011
“He is simply incorrect”
-- Former attorney general Michael Mukasey, May 12, 2011
It’s a rare sight to see a Republican senator and a former Republican attorney general trading charges of dishonesty and falsehood. But this is exactly what Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Michael Mukasey have been doing in recent days regarding the use of harsh interrogations -- what McCain and other critics call torture — and their role in discovering the location of Osama bin Laden.
McCain was a victim of torture in Vietnam and takes this issue as a personal crusade. He wrote about this issue in The Washington Post, in part in response to an article written by Mukasey in the Wall Street Journal, and also at length on the Senate floor. (See clip above.)
But the political stakes are high for former members of the Bush administration. Within days of becoming president, Obama announced that he was scrapping the CIA interrogation program, in what was intended as a rebuke of the Bush tactics. If harsh methods did indeed lead to bin Laden, that would be seen as a vindication of those tactics. For that reason, it is also in the Obama administration’s interests in minimize the importance of such interrogation techniques in the search for bin Laden.
The truth may not be known for years. We, at this point, don’t feel comfortable enough to make a judgment without being privy to more information. Mukasey had top-secret clearance and presumably knows what information was obtained (though he could be spinning the facts to serve his purposes.) For his part, McCain cites an official account by CIA Director Leon Panetta (which also could have spin) and the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Let’s parse what the two men have said about this issue. They act as if they are saying the same thing, and thus accuse each other of falsehoods. But they really are speaking past each other.
“Consider how the intelligence that led to bin Laden came to hand. It began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), 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.”
— Mukasey, May 6
Upon first reading, Mukasey appears to be saying that the initial tip about the courier came from KSM. He does not say anything so specific, though the article is artfully worded to leave that impression.
Instead, he is speaking about a broader intelligence effort, which becomes clear in the paragraphs following this one, when he describes how detainees subjected to these techniques provided information that led to other terror planners and supposedly broke up plots.
Regarding the courier, Mukasey is saying that KSM gave up the guy’s nickname after harsh interrogation techniques. But readers would be excused for thinking that the KSM disclosure was central to the bin Laden investigation, especially because this image was reinforced by the article’s headline: “The Waterboarding Trail to bin Laden.”
“The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times.”
— McCain, May 11
In his article for the Washington Post, McCain appears to recognize the tenuous but misleading link that Mukasey made between KSM and the discovery of the courier. That’s because he uses ellipsis to make the link explicit when he quotes from Mukasey’s article: “Former attorney general Michael Mukasey recently claimed that ‘the intelligence that led to bin Laden . . . began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed.’”
Concluded McCain: “That is false.”
McCain then gives a different narrative that focuses on the trail to bin Laden, not the broader investigation against al Qaeda. The “first mention” of the courier came from a detainee held in another country. “None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s [the courier’s] real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda,” McCain says. He added that the interrogation techniques of KSM “produced false and misleading information,” including saying the courier no longer worked for al-Qaeda.
Mukasey actually never addressed whether much of the information from KSM was false or misleading; he simply said KSM said the nickname. He also did not address McCain’s other point — that the best information on the courier came from standard interrogation techniques. Instead he made a broader point that harsh interrogation techniques helped in the battle against al-Qaeda — a subject on which McCain is silent.
“Senator McCain described as ‘false’ my statement that Khalid Sheik Mohammed broke under harsh interrogation that included waterboarding, and disclosed a torrent of information that included the nickname of Osama bin Laden’s courier. ….He is simply incorrect.”
— Mukasey, May 12
In response to McCain’s article, Mukasey offered a denial that breaks the link he originally implied between the interrogation of KSM and the search for bin Laden.
McCain had said it was false to say the intelligence from KSM led to bin Laden — which Mukasey did not say. Now Mukasey denies something that McCain did not quite say.
Instead, Mukasey’s denial focuses on whether KSM spoke to investigators after harsh interrogation and whether he mentioned the courier’s nickname. (McCain essentially acknowledges KSM spoke about the courier because he says the information he provided was misleading.)
Then, in his statement, Mukasey shifts back to his broader point that the interrogations were useful in the overall fight: “KSM disclosed the nickname — al Kuwaiti — along with a wealth of other information, some of which was used to stop terror plots then in progress. “
The Bottom Line
We do not have enough information to make a definitive judgment. But it appears that Mukasey is straining to make a connection between the killing of bin Laden and the harsh interrogation techniques that appears, at best, tangential. Otherwise, he would not have had to resort to verbal sleight of hand to make his case. McCain, by contrast, appears to clearly connect the dots from the courier to bin Laden, citing information derived from conventional techniques.
At the same time, while the enhanced techniques may not have provided the Rosetta stone to bin Laden’s whereabouts, Mukasey may be right when he asserts that valuable leads in the broader war against al-Qaeda were derived through these techniques.
We probably will never know whether the same information -– or more accurate information -- could have been obtained through conventional interrogation. The use of these techniques also harmed the U.S. image overseas — another question U.S, policymakers will have to balance in the future.