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.
Marc A. Thiessen
A fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, Thiessen writes a weekly column for The Post.
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.