By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
The Obama administration's chief intelligence officer has told the White House that harsh interrogations of suspected al-Qaeda officials produced "valuable" information, but he added that it is impossible to tell whether the same intelligence leads might have been obtained using less controversial methods.
In any case, the damage to the country's image caused by the use of waterboarding and similar techniques exceeded any potential benefit, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said.
"The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances," he said in a statement yesterday, "but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means."
Blair, Obama's appointee to oversee the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, summarized in the statement an assessment he gave his staff in a memo last week, according to U.S. officials familiar with the document. Blair is a participant in a White House-ordered review of CIA interrogation methods used on high-value terrorism suspects between 2002 and 2006.
"The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world," Blair said in the statement. "The damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."
Blair said he supported Obama's decision to ban "enhanced interrogation techniques," and he rejected assertions by former vice president Richard B. Cheney and others that the methods were crucial to protecting the country. He added that he had backed Obama's decision last week to order the release of Justice Department memos that authorized the use of harsh interrogation practices.
"I made clear," he said, "that the CIA should not be punished for carrying out legal orders."
Obama's intelligence advisers have been scrutinizing the Bush-era interrogation policy since shortly after the election. The overarching conclusion is that the benefits are not clear-cut -- information was gained, but it is impossible to prove whether coercive measures were decisive, say senior administration officials who have participated in the review.
For example, interrogations of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, or Abu Zubaida, the CIA's first high-value detainee, helped its officials understand links between terrorist groups but did not lead directly to the disruption of al-Qaeda plots, according to former intelligence officials with access to intelligence reports. Many of the leads he provided were obtained before harsh methods were applied, the officials said.
The memo that circulated last week among Blair's staff included language that was not in a public statement released the same day, the Associated Press reported last night. Blair told his staff "a deeper understanding of the al-Qaeda network" resulted from the interrogation methods, adding: "I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.