By Peter Finn, Joby Warrick and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 29, 2009
After enduring the CIA's harshest interrogation methods and spending more than a year in the agency's secret prisons, Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called "terrorist tutorials."
In 2005 and 2006, the bearded, pudgy man who calls himself the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks discussed a wide variety of subjects, including Greek philosophy and al-Qaeda dogma. In one instance, he scolded a listener for poor note-taking and his inability to recall details of an earlier lecture.
Speaking in English, Mohammed "seemed to relish the opportunity, sometimes for hours on end, to discuss the inner workings of al-Qaeda and the group's plans, ideology and operatives," said one of two sources who described the sessions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because much information about detainee confinement remains classified. "He'd even use a chalkboard at times."
These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its "preeminent source" on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.
"KSM, an accomplished resistor, provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate or incomplete," according to newly unclassified portions of a 2004 report by the CIA's then-inspector general released Monday by the Justice Department.
The debate over the effectiveness of subjecting detainees to psychological and physical pressure is in some ways irresolvable, because it is impossible to know whether less coercive methods would have achieved the same result. But for defenders of waterboarding, the evidence is clear: Mohammed cooperated, and to an extraordinary extent, only when his spirit was broken in the month after his capture March 1, 2003, as the inspector general's report and other documents released this week indicate.
Over a few weeks, he was subjected to an escalating series of coercive methods, culminating in 7 1/2 days of sleep deprivation, while diapered and shackled, and 183 instances of waterboarding. After the month-long torment, he was never waterboarded again.
"What do you think changed KSM's mind?" one former senior intelligence official said this week after being asked about the effect of waterboarding. "Of course it began with that."
Mohammed, in statements to the International Committee of the Red Cross, said some of the information he provided was untrue.
"During the harshest period of my interrogation I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop. I later told interrogators that their methods were stupid and counterproductive. I'm sure that the false information I was forced to invent in order to make the ill-treatment stop wasted a lot of their time," he said.
Critics say waterboarding and other harsh methods are unacceptable regardless of their results, and those with detailed knowledge of the CIA's program say the existing assessments offer no scientific basis to draw conclusions about effectiveness.
"Democratic societies don't use torture under any circumstances. It is illegal and immoral," said Tom Parker, policy director for counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International. "This is a fool's argument in any event. There is no way to prove or disprove the counterfactual."
John L. Helgerson, the former CIA inspector general who investigated the agency's detention and interrogation program, said his work did not put him in "a position to reach definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of particular interrogation methods."
"Certain of the techniques seemed to have little effect, whereas waterboarding and sleep deprivation were the two most powerful techniques and elicited a lot of information," he said in an interview. "But we didn't have the time or resources to do a careful, systematic analysis of the use of particular techniques with particular individuals and independently confirm the quality of the information that came out."
After his capture, Mohammed first told his captors what he calculated they already knew.
"KSM almost immediately following his capture in March 2003 elaborated on his plan to crash commercial airlines into Heathrow airport," according to a document released by the CIA on Monday that summarizes the intelligence provided by Mohammed. The agency thinks he assumed that Ramzi Binalshibh, a Sept. 11 conspirator captured in September 2002, had already divulged the plan.
One former U.S. official with detailed knowledge of how the interrogations were carried out said Mohammed, like several other detainees, seemed to have decided that it was okay to stop resisting after he had endured a certain amount of pressure.
"Once the harsher techniques were used on [detainees], they could be viewed as having done their duty to Islam or their cause, and their religious principles would ask no more of them," said the former official, who requested anonymity because the events are still classified. "After that point, they became compliant. Obviously, there was also an interest in being able to later say, 'I was tortured into cooperating.' "
Mohammed provided the CIA with an autobiographical statement, describing a rebellious childhood, his decision to join the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager, and his time in the United States as a student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, from where he graduated in 1986 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
"KSM's limited and negative experience in the United States -- which included a brief jail stay because of unpaid bills -- almost certainly helped propel him on his path to becoming a terrorist," according to the intelligence summary. "He stated that his contact with Americans, while minimal, confirmed his view that the United States was a debauched and racist country."
Mohammed provided $1,000 to Ramzi Yousef, a nephew, to help him carry out the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. In 1994, he worked in the Philippines with Yousef, now serving a life sentence at the federal "supermax" prison in Colorado, on a failed plot to down 12 U.S. commercial aircraft over the Pacific.
Mohammed told interrogators it was in the Philippines that he first considered using planes as missiles to strike the United States. He took the idea to Osama bin Laden, who "at first demurred but changed his mind in late 1999," according to the summary.
Mohammed described plans to strike targets in Saudi Arabia, East Asia and the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks, including using a network of Pakistanis "to target gas stations, railroad tracks, and the Brooklyn bridge in New York." Cross-referencing material from different detainees, and leveraging information from one to extract more detail from another, the CIA and FBI went on to round up operatives both in the United States and abroad.
"Detainees in mid-2003 helped us build a list of 70 individuals -- many of who we had never heard of before -- that al-Qaeda deemed suitable for Western operations," according to the CIA summary.
Mohammed told interrogators that after the Sept. 11 attacks, his "overriding priority" was to strike the United States, but that he "realized that a follow-on attack would be difficult because of security measures." Most of the plots, as a result, were "opportunistic and limited," according to the summary.
One former agency official recalled that Mohammed was once asked to write a summary of his knowledge about al-Qaeda's efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction. The terrorist group had explored buying either an intact nuclear weapon or key components such as enriched uranium, although there is no evidence of significant progress on that front.
"He wrote us an essay" on al-Qaeda's nuclear ambitions, the official said. "Not all of it was accurate, but it was quite extensive."
Mohammed was an unparalleled source in deciphering al-Qaeda's strategic doctrine, key operatives and likely targets, the summary said, including describing in "considerable detail the traits and profiles" that al-Qaeda sought in Western operatives and how the terrorist organization might conduct surveillance in the United States.
Mohammed was moved to the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in September 2006, and his loquaciousness is now largely confined to occasional appearances before a military commission. Back in his 86-square-foot cell at the secret Camp 7 at Guantanamo, he spends most of his waking hours in prayer, according to a source familiar with his confinement who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
But Mohammed has not abandoned his intellectual pursuits. He requested a Bible for study in his cell, according to the source, in order to better understand his enemy.
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.