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Fox’s Angle repeated false and misleading claims on harsh interrogations

Posted in Main Blog (All Posts) on April 29th, 2009 4:42 am by HL

Fox’s Angle repeated false and misleading claims on harsh interrogations

During the April 27 edition of Fox News’ Special Report, correspondent Jim Angle again falsely compared the harsh techniques used in the interrogations of CIA detainees to those used in U.S. military training. He asserted that “many of these techniques, including waterboarding, had been used in training for years on tens of thousands of American pilots and Navy SEALs.” However, as Media Matters for America has noted, officials familiar with both the techniques used in harsh interrogations and those used in military training programs have said that such a comparison is false; those who undergo certain interrogation techniques in such training programs are aware that there are safeguards and know they can stop the training immediately if necessary.

Angle further asserted that “all Justice Department legal memos noted” the military’s training programs “in determining that such methods did not constitute torture.” However, according to one of those “Justice Department memos” — a recently released May 30, 2005, Office of Legal Counsel memo by Steven G. Bradbury, the Bush administration’s principal deputy assistant attorney general at the time — individuals undergoing the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training are “obviously in a very different situation from detainees undergoing interrogation; SERE trainees know it is part of a training program, not a real-life interrogation regime, they presumably know it will last only a short time, and they presumably have assurances that they will not be significantly harmed by the training.”

Moreover, a report released on April 22 by the Senate Armed Services Committee stated, “There are fundamental differences between a SERE school exercise and a real world interrogation”:

(U) SERE school techniques are designed to simulate abusive tactics used by our enemies. There are fundamental differences between a SERE school exercise and a real world interrogation. At SERE school, students are subject to an extensive medical and psychological pre-screening prior to being subjected to physical and psychological pressures. The schools impose strict limits on the frequency, duration, and/or intensity of certain techniques. Psychologists are present throughout SERE training to intervene should the need arise and to help students cope with associated stress. And SERE school is voluntary; students are even given a special phrase they can use to immediately stop the techniques from being used against them.

(U) Neither those differences, nor the serious legal concerns that had been registered, stopped the Secretary of Defense from approving the use of the aggressive techniques against detainees.

The report also included an email written by senior Army SERE psychologist Lt. Col. Morgan Banks to personnel at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba:

Because of the danger involved, very few SERE instructors are allowed to actually use physical pressures. It is extremely easy for U.S. Army instructors, training U.S. Army soldiers, to get out of hand, and to injure students. The training, from the point of the student, appears to be chaotic and out of control. In reality, everything that is occurring [in SERE school] is very carefully monitored and paced; no one is acting on their own during training. Even with all these safeguards, injuries and accidents do happen. The risk with real detainees is increased exponentially.

During the Special Report segment, Angle further stated that “the tough interrogations of three top terrorists yielded intelligence that led to the capture in Malaysia of Hambali [Riduan Isamuddin], who was to lead an airplane attack on the U.S. Bank Tower (formerly known as the Library Tower) in Los Angeles, in a West Coast version of 9-11. Intelligence officials say that attack was prevented precisely because of intelligence gained during tough interrogations.” However, as Media Matters noted, this interpretation of the May 30, 2005, legal memo (the only one of the four that the Obama administration recently released that mentions an attack on Los Angeles) conflicts with the chronology of events put forth on multiple occasions by the Bush administration, as Slate.com’s Timothy Noah noted. Indeed, the Bush administration said that the Library Tower attack was thwarted in February 2002 — at least a month before the first detainee interrogated using the harsh techniques authorized by the Justice Department memos, Abu Zubaydah, was captured on March 28, 2002, and more than a year before 9-11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured in March 2003.

In response to former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen’s April 21 Washington Post op-ed — which also advanced CIA claims that the harsh techniques prevented the Library Tower plot — Noah explained, “What clinches the falsity of Thiessen’s claim … is chronology”:

What clinches the falsity of Thiessen’s claim, however (and that of the memo he cites, and that of an unnamed Central Intelligence Agency spokesman who today seconded Thessen’s argument), is chronology. In a White House press briefing, Bush’s counterterrorism chief, Frances Fragos Townsend, told reporters that the cell leader was arrested in February 2002, and “at that point, the other members of the cell” (later arrested) “believed that the West Coast plot has been canceled, was not going forward” [italics mine]. A subsequent fact sheet released by the Bush White House states, “In 2002, we broke up [italics mine] a plot by KSM to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast.” These two statements make clear that however far the plot to attack the Library Tower ever got — an unnamed senior FBI official would later tell the Los Angeles Times that Bush’s characterization of it as a “disrupted plot” was “ludicrous” — that plot was foiled in 2002. But Sheikh Mohammed wasn’t captured until March 2003.

How could Sheikh Mohammed’s water-boarded confession have prevented the Library Tower attack if the Bush administration “broke up” that attack during the previous year? It couldn’t, of course. Conceivably the Bush administration, or at least parts of the Bush administration, didn’t realize until Sheikh Mohammed confessed under torture that it had already broken up a plot to blow up the Library Tower about which it knew nothing. Stranger things have happened. But the plot was already a dead letter. If foiling the Library Tower plot was the reason to water-board Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, then that water-boarding was more than cruel and unjust. It was a waste of water.

Following Noah’s article, Thiessen responded in an April 25 post on the National Review Online blog The Corner, writing that the “key cell leader” captured in February 2002, Masran bin Arshad, “did not lead us to the members of the cell tasked with carrying out the West Coast plot.” Thiessen continued: “Indeed, when KSM was captured 13 months later — in March of 2003 — almost all of the key operatives in the plot were still at large and operating with impunity.” Thiessen also mentioned that Noah “notes Townsend said that after the cell leader’s capture other cell members ‘believed’ that the plot was not going forward” and asserted “this does not refute the fact that KSM’s interrogation disrupted the West Coast plot.”

But in his response, Thiessen did not present any evidence that the West Coast plot was reactivated or continued after bin Arshad’s capture in February 2002, an event that “disrupt[ed]” the plot, according to Townsend. Instead, Thiessen argued that the remaining cell members would have carried out the plot at some time, because “Al-Qaeda’s modus operandi is to continue going after the same target time and time again until they succeed”:

To buy Noah’s argument that the plot was over before KSM’s capture, you would have to accept that premise that if Zubair … and Hambali … and Lillie … and Gun Gun … and the 17-member Guraba cell were all left at large and unmolested, they would not have eventually carried out the West Coast plot.

This flies in the face of logic — and the official position of the intelligence community. And it is contrary to everything we know about the way al-Qaeda operates. If we have learned anything from recent history, it is that once al-Qaeda develops a plot for a major attack, it never gives up until that attack has been carried out. Al-Qaeda’s modus operandi is to continue going after the same target time and time again until they succeed.

Noah responded to Thiessen’s criticism in an April 27 Slate article, writing that “a second member of the cell, Zaini Zakaria (‘Mussa’), surrendered to authorities in December 2002.” Noah continued: “That was three months before Sheikh Mohammed was captured. That left Mohammed Nazir Bin Lep (‘Lillie’) and Mohamad Farik Bin Amin (‘Zubair’), neither of whom knew how to fly a plane.” Noah stated that the remaining members of the cell “did not continue to pursue the Library Tower plot … because, as Townsend told reporters in February 2006, they believed the Library Tower plan had ended with bin Arshad’s capture”:

Lillie and Zubair weren’t captured until 2003, and apparently they remained involved in terror plots, most notably the August 2003 suicide bombing of a J.W. Marriott in Jakarta, Indonesia, which killed 12 people and injured 144. But they did not continue to pursue the Library Tower plot. We know this because, as Townsend told reporters in February 2006, they believed the Library Tower plan had ended with bin Arshad’s capture. That jibes with an October 2003 Time magazine account of Lillie’s confession, which states that “as far as Lillie knew, the operation was called off.” Lillie was in a position to know pretty far, because he and his co-conspirator Zubair (an old school chum) were both working as top lieutenants to Riduan Isamuddin (“Hambali”) — leader of a Southeast Asian al-Qaida affiliate called Jemaah Islamiyah and the man Sheikh Mohammed had directed to organize the Library Tower attack.

Indeed, the October 2003 Time magazine article about Lillie’s confession states, “As far as Lillie knew, the operation was called off after the cell leader, Masran bin Arshad, was arrested.”

From the April 27 edition of Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier:

BAIER: Republicans continue to resist calls for investigations and prosecutions of Bush administration officials involved in terrorist interrogations. Chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle reports the latest strategy is to bring up a little history.

[begin video clip]

ANGLE: While President Obama decides whether to release additional memos about enhanced interrogation techniques, some argue Congress should own up to having known in advance.

SEN. KIT BOND (R-MO): When the enhanced interrogation techniques were used, they were briefed to the chairs and ranking members in both intelligence committees.

ANGLE: In fact, on the House side, Democrat Nancy Pelosi [CA], who wants a truth commission to investigate, has acknowledged being briefed in advance. On the Senate side, Senator Jay Rockefeller [D-WV] was the top Democrat during most of the period.

Bond and others argue that if Democratic lawmakers had a problem with tough interrogation of terrorists such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the planner of 9-11, they could have objected.

BOND: If Speaker Pelosi and Jay Rockefeller thought they were excessive or should not have been done, they should have said something then. There was plenty of opportunity to do it, and they didn’t.

ANGLE: Not only that, but Senator Edward Kennedy [D-MA] proposed in 2006 that Congress explicitly make waterboarding illegal.

ANDY McCARTHY (former U.S. attorney): That amendment was proposed because the law on that was unclear. The amendment lost.

ANGLE: And many of these techniques, including waterboarding, had been used in training for years on tens of thousands of American pilots and Navy SEALs, which all Justice Department legal memos noted in determining that such methods did not constitute torture. But critics also make another argument: The techniques were not effective.

ROBERT GIBBS (White House press secretary): In some instances, you got information. In some instances, you got information that turned out to be a lie.

ANGLE: But the legal memos indicate the CIA was getting good intelligence. One memo said, “We understand that interrogations have led to specific actionable intelligence.” “Significantly,” said another, “you have informed us the CIA believes that this program is largely responsible for preventing a subsequent attack within the United States.”

In fact, the tough interrogations of three top terrorists yielded intelligence that led to the capture in Malaysia of Hambali, who was to lead an airplane attack on the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles, in a West Coast version of 9-11. Intelligence officials say that attack was prevented precisely because of intelligence gained during tough interrogations. Nevertheless, there is plenty of criticism.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI): Look, I think these policies were an abomination. I think the legal opinions were abominable.

ANGLE: But a man who was tortured in North Vietnam argues against prosecuting people for bad legal advice.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): Maybe there’s an element of settling old political scores here. We need to put this behind us. We need to move forward.

[end video clip]

ANGLE: Though Speaker Pelosi and others want a truth commission to investigate, the Obama White House made clear this weekend it wants to leave the matter to the Senate Intelligence Committee. That way, it could all be done behind closed doors, where it won’t suck up all the oxygen that President Obama wants for other issues, such as health care and a new energy policy — Bret.

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