What really happened to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed?

Earlier this week, liberal bloggers breathlessly repeated this remarkable discovery, dredged up from CIA interrogation memos and published by the New York Times on Monday: “Waterboarding Used 266 Times On 2 Suspects.”

An incredible claim, to be sure, and one so perfect in its characterization of Bush Administration officials as merciless Nazis that it immediately outweighed all the other revelations about enhanced interrogation methods made during the rest of the week.

If the notion of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed being subjected to six waterboarding sessions per day continuously for a month seemed a little far-fetched to you, you weren’t the only one. I held off writing about this story in the hope that a reasonable explanation would eventually surface. Writing for National Review Online, Clifford May seems to be offering that explanation:

How many times have you read and heard in the mainstream media that terrorists were waterboarded more than 180 times?

It turns out that’s not true. What is?

According to two sources, both of them very well-informed and reliable (but preferring to remain anonymous), the 180-plus times refers not to sessions of waterboarding, but to “pours” — that is, to instances of water being poured on the subject.

Under a strict set of rules, every pour of water had to be counted — and the number of pours was limited.

Also: Waterboarding interrogation sessions were permitted on no more than five days within any 30-day period.

No more than two sessions were permitted in any 24-hour period.

A session could last no longer than two hours.

There could be at most six pours of water lasting ten seconds or longer — and never longer than 40 seconds — during any individual session.

Water could be poured on a subject for a combined total of no more than 12 minutes during any 24 hour period.

You do the math.

A little over a year ago, ABC News interviewed former CIA interrogator John Kiriakou. Kiriakou spoke bluntly about interrogating captured Al Qaeda terrorists, and provided quite a bit of detail regarding the interrogation process and the use of progressively violent or coercive techniques in order to pry information from detainees:

“It wasn’t up to individual interrogators to decide, ‘Well, I’m gonna slap him.’ Or, ‘I’m going to shake him.’ Or, ‘I’m gonna make him stay up for 48 hours.’

“Each one of these steps, even though they’re minor steps, like the intention shake, or the open-handed belly slap, each one of these had to have the approval of the deputy director for operations,” Kiriakou told ABC News.

“The cable traffic back and forth was extremely specific,” he said. “And the bottom line was these were very unusual authorities that the agency got after 9/11. No one wanted to mess them up. No one wanted to get in trouble by going overboard. So it was extremely deliberate.”

“That’s why so few people were waterboarded. I think the agency has said that two people were waterboarded, Abu Zubaydah being one, and it’s because you really wanted it to be a last resort because we didn’t want these false confessions. We didn’t want wild goose chases,” Kiriakou said.

“A former colleague of mine asked him during the conversation one day, ‘What would you do if we decided to let you go one day?’ And he said, ‘I would kill every American and Jew I could get my hands on…It’s nothing personal. You’re a nice guy. But this is who I am.'” (emphasis added)

Both the Kiriakou interview and the details about waterboarding published by Cliff May agree on a key point — enhanced interrogations were very carefully scripted and monitored. Procedures were specific. Escalations required approval far up the chain of command. There was no room for “improvisation” or “rogue interrogators” or sessions that accidentally went too far.

Cliff May further explains:

Not only lawyers but also physicians and psychologists were involved in these decisions. Indeed, these interrogations were supervised by physicians and psychologists who had the power to stop them.

Remember that Abu Zubaydah said: “Brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardships.”

Any interrogator worth his salt would understand this means it is his job to bring his subject to the point at which cooperation is no longer betrayal but permitted according to his religious beliefs. Can that be achieved short of torture? Sure. Can it be achieved without coercive interrogation techniques? No, not with subjects who have the beliefs described above.

These are obviously inconvenient truths for the Left, which must avoid them at all costs if it is to write off the Bush Administration as nothing more than über-evil racists, sadists, and war criminals. The Left obviously wants to steer the national conversation away from any substantive questions regarding the veracity and usefulness of information gained during the interrogations that we conducted during the early years of the War on Terror. They also want to focus the discussion solely through the lens of 20/20 hindsight and omit any serious historical review of the fears and uncertainties that gripped our nation in 2002 and 2003. They seem to have no interest in revisiting the trial-and-error process of assembling intelligence information about Al Qaeda, which began essentially from scratch after the decimation of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan in early 2002.

And they especially want to avoid talking about the extent that Congressional Democrats were involved in the oversight and approval of CIA interrogation methods during the early years of the War on Terror. Not a single Democrat objected to those interrogation techniques until they all agreed that it would be politically expedient to do so.

The truth is that our interrogation of Al Qaeda prisoners yielded a tremendous amount of useful information. The interrogation of Abu Zubaydah brought forth information that led to the capture of numerous high-ranking Al Qaeda operatives including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Al Qaeda was neutralized primarily by the elimination of key personnel (either by killing or apprehending them) and the interrogation of captured Al Qaeda members was a critical part of that effort.

Undoubtedly there are still some loose ends that need to be tied up with respect to enhanced interrogation procedures. For example, when John Kiriakou was interviewed by ABC News, he stated that Abu Zubaydah broke after only 35 seconds of waterboarding. This directly contradicts the CIA memo stating that Zubaydah was subjected to 83 “pours.” Also, much of the video that was taken during Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation sessions was destroyed by the CIA in 2005 (date corrected). That doesn’t inspire much confidence in Kiriakou’s version of events. Even though waterboarding has been discontinued as an interrogation technique, we ought to know the truth about how often it was actually used.

As our own HughS and other bloggers have already noted, the Obama Administration’s clumsy hindsight attempt to sensationalize certain enhanced interrogation procedures and question their necessity, while dodging questions about the overall effectiveness of the program, has been a dismal failure. This issue will be far from over as long as key information is deliberately withheld — not just by the CIA, but by the Obama White House as well.

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