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Torture Report Message: Let Pakistan Handle It

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Senate Democrats this week issued a declassified report stating that the harsh interrogations the Central Intelligence Agency once claimed saved American lives failed to produce unique and valuable intelligence. But Senate Democrats also assert that third-world interrogations of al-Qaeda operatives often did produce such vital intelligence.

The report, written by the majority staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, cites six instances in which Pakistani authorities, in particular, obtained leads through interrogating al-Qaeda operatives that helped disrupt plots or locate other terrorist leaders. The Pakistanis often got first crack at detainees before they were sent to CIA prisons.

Take the example of Ammar al-Baluchi. In the movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” the torture of al-Baluchi is depicted as revealing the key piece of intelligence identifying Osama bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. In 2011, the CIA was able to find and kill bin Laden because it had tracked the movements of al-Kuwaiti.

The CIA’s rebuttal to the Senate report says al-Baluchi gave up much more specific information on al-Kuwaiti after he went through the agency’s harsh interrogations. The Senate report, however, says al-Baluchi gave up al-Kuwaiti first to the Pakistanis.

A footnote on page 399 of the Senate report says al-Baluchi was arrested along with another al-Qaeda operative, Khallad bin Attash, by Pakistani authorities on April 29, 2003. “Upon his arrest in Pakistan, Ammar al-Baluchi was cooperative and provided information on a number of topics to foreign government interrogators, including information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti that the CIA disseminated prior to al-Baluchi being transferred to CIA custody,” the footnote says.

A footnote on page 244 of the report also says al-Baluchi was interrogated by a Pakistani who had built a rapport with him, leading al-Baluchi to disclose key information on plots against U.S. targets in Pakistan. The Senate report does not however discuss the conditions of al-Baluchi’s short detention in Pakistan any further, other than noting that some of his interrogation was conducted in a non-coercive manner.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine that al-Baluchi’s interrogation by the Pakistanis met Geneva standards. A former senior Pakistani diplomat who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said it’s likely that al-Baluchi and other detainees mentioned in the report were tortured; threatened with torture; or told that their family members would be in danger if they did not cooperate. “After 9/11, there was enormous pressure on the Pakistani services to produce intelligence for the Americans,” this diplomat said. “I cannot believe al-Baluchi’s interrogation in 2003 would have met international standards.”

Human Rights Watch and other groups have long documented how Pakistan’s security services torture suspected terrorists. U.S. officials in 2011 asserted publicly that Pakistani authorities sanctioned the disappearance, torture and murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad, an intrepid Pakistani journalist who wrote unsparingly about the connections between al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistan’s own security services.

James Connell, a lawyer who represents al-Baluchi (who is now imprisoned at Camp 7 at Guantanamo Bay) said in an interview that he cannot confirm or deny that his client was tortured by the Pakistanis. “Everything within the prohibited topics, names places and coalition partners, remains classified,” he said.

Other current and former U.S. intelligence officials told me that it was almost a certainty that al-Baluchi was at the very least threatened with torture when he was in a Pakistani jail.

“If this was someone first picked up by a liaison service, I don’t know if we would always have much insight into how they were treated or more importantly, how they might have expected to be treated,” said Michael Hayden, the CIA director at the end of the George W. Bush presidency who has taken to the news media this week to defend the CIA’s interrogations.

Al-Baluchi is not the only high-value detainee who gave up valuable information to foreign intelligence services before being sent to a CIA black site, according to the Senate report. Others include Majid Khan and Hassan Ghul, who were held by the Pakistanis. In both cases, the Senate report says or implies that they were questioned in a non-coercive manner, usually through interrogators pointing out inconsistencies in the suspect’s initial story or attempting to befriend the detainee and earn his trust. And both Khan and Ghul opened up in response to this non-coercive interrogation, according to the report.

This is not the case for others, however. Redha al-Najar, who became one of the CIA’s first high-value detainees, mentioned al-Kuwaiti first to Pakistani authorities when he was picked up in Karachi in 2002. The report does not say whether al-Najar’s interrogation was coercive. The report also mentions an unnamed associate of Ghul whom Pakistani authorities interrogated to learn Ghul’s location. The brother of another suspected al-Qaeda leader, known as Hambali, was also interrogated by the Pakistanis, and said to have given up a group of Malaysian and Indonesian students in Pakistan affiliated another terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah. In these cases, too, the report is silent on the manner in which they were interrogated.

In the case of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, an al-Qaeda operative picked up by Pakistani authorities on Sept. 11, 2002, the report implies that harsh interrogation did produce valuable intelligence. Shortly after his arrest, the report says, the Pakistanis sent bin al-Shibh to a third foreign government. The report doesn’t name that country, but it has been reported bin al-Shibh was sent to a jail in Morocco. In early 2003, the Moroccans sent bin al-Shibh to a CIA black site. While he was in Moroccan custody, CIA headquarters at first was dubious of the intelligence taken from bin al-Shibh, but CIA officers on the ground said the bulk of his information was useful intelligence.

Indeed, the reporting from bin al-Shibh contributed to learning about al-Qaeda plots in the Arabian peninsula and against Heathrow Airport outside London, according to the Senate report. “Personnel at CIA Headquarters concluded in 2005 that the most significant intelligence derived from bin al-Shibh was obtained during his detention in foreign government custody, which was prior to his rendition to CIA custody and the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation technique,” the report says.

Again, we don't know for certain what happened at that Moroccan site, but we have a pretty good idea. A U.S. federal appeals court in 2010 dismissed a lawsuit on behalf of some former CIA prisoners against a CIA contractor, Jeppesen Dataplan Inc., used to send prisoners to Morocco, among other foreign jails. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege the Moroccan authorities tortured detainees during interrogations.

If more information about bin al-Shibh’s interrogation comes to light, possibly in new lawsuits spurred by the release of the Senate report, the Democrats themselves may find that their report on CIA torture inadvertently makes the case that sometimes torture works, as long as it’s not the U.S. that’s doing the torturing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net