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Context of 'November 5, 2003-January 2004: 9/11 Commission’s Attempt to Get Access to Detainees Fails'

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Kean (left) and Hamilton (right) of the 9/11 Commission.Kean (left) and Hamilton (right) of the 9/11 Commission. [Source: Doug Mills / New York Times]The 9/11 Commission does not receive video or audio recordings of interrogations of detainees thought to know something about the 9/11 plot (see Spring-Late 2002), even though it is unhappy with the amount and quality of information it is getting from detainees (see Summer 2003) and has a series of meetings with CIA officials to improve access (see November 5, 2003-January 2004). The CIA will indicate that the Commission never asks for the tapes, saying it “went to great lengths to meet the requests of the 9/11 Commission,” and that one of the reasons that the tapes are not destroyed until after the Commission releases its final report in 2004 is so that it could have the tapes, if it so desires. [New York Times, 12/8/2007] However, when the tapes’ destruction is revealed in late 2007 (see November 2005 and December 6, 2007), former 9/11 Commission Chairman Tom Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton will dispute this, saying that in hours of negotiations and discussions with the CIA and written requests they make it clear they want all material connected to the interrogations of the relevant detainees. [International Herald Tribune, 12/8/2007] Kean will say, “They knew what they had and they didn’t give it to us.” [ABC News, 12/7/2007] Hamilton will say, “The CIA certainly knew of our interest in getting all the information we could on the detainees, and they never indicated to us there were any videotapes… Did they obstruct our inquiry? The answer is clearly yes. Whether that amounts to a crime, others will have to judge.” [International Herald Tribune, 12/8/2007]

Entity Tags: Thomas Kean, Central Intelligence Agency, Lee Hamilton, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

After becoming unhappy with the quality of information it is receiving from the CIA about detainee interrogations (see Summer 2003), the 9/11 Commission not only gives the CIA more questions for detainees, but also asks it how the interrogations are carried out. The Commission thinks the second set of questions is the most important, but the CIA only responds to them in a vague manner. They concern the translation process in the interrogations, the interrogators’ background, the way the interrogators handle inconsistencies in the detainees’ stories, the particular questions that were asked to elicit reported information, the way interrogators followed up on certain lines of questioning, the context of the interrogations so the Commission can assess the credibility and demeanor of the detainees when they made the reported statements, and the interrogators’ views or assessments. According to a later account by Commission chairman Tom Kean and vice-chairman Lee Hamilton, CIA general counsel Scott Muller writes back with “non-specific replies.” Muller also fails to inform the Commission that the CIA has videotapes of some of the interrogations (see Summer 2003-January 2004). Because the Commission is “not satisfied” with Muller’s response, it pushes for direct access to detainees, but this attempt fails (see November 5, 2003-January 2004 and After January 2004). [New York Times, 1/2/2008]

Entity Tags: Lee Hamilton, 9/11 Commission, Central Intelligence Agency, Scott Muller, Thomas Kean

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

After the 9/11 Commission becomes unhappy with the information it is getting from detainees in US custody who may know something about the 9/11 plot (see Summer 2003), it asks CIA Director George Tenet to let it either talk to the detainees itself, or at least view interrogations through a one-way mirror. [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 119-126]
Reasoning - Dieter Snell, the head of the Commission’s plot team and a former prosecutor, is extremely keen that the detainees, such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, be interviewed. According to author Philip Shenon, he is aware that “testimony from key witnesses like the al-Qaeda detainees would have value only if they were questioned in person, with investigators given the chance to test their credibility with follow-up questions. The face-to-face interrogations would be especially important in situations in which the al-Qaeda members were giving conflicting testimony.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 182]
Request Denied - However, Tenet denies the request because he does not want the Commission to know where the detainees are, and he claims questioning by a Commission staffer could apparently damage the “relationship” between interrogator and detainee and “upset the flow of questioning.” In addition, Tenet is worried that if the Commission has access to the detainees, Zacarias Moussaoui might also be able to compel them to testify in court, so he rejects compromise proposals.
Pushback - The Commission decides “to push the issue” and drafts a letter outlining why they should have direct access. Although the draft is seen by Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, it is never officially sent. At a White House meeting attended by Rumsfeld and commissioners Lee Hamilton and Fred Fielding, Tenet and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales repeat the arguments Tenet made previously, but Tenet says the Commission can submit written questions, and a CIA “project manager” will try to get them answered. After the administration “plead[s]” with the Commission not to use public pressure to get access to detainees, the Commission decides to drop the matter.
Relatives and Media Blamed - Hamilton and Commission Chairman Thomas Kean will later partially blame the victims’ relatives and media for this failure: “Interestingly, there was no pressure from some of the usual sources for us to push for access. For instance, the 9/11 families never pressed us to seek access to detainees, and the media was never engaged on this issue.” Kean and Hamilton will later say that the “project manager” arrangement works “to a degree.”
Report Includes Disclaimer - However, a disclaimer will be inserted into the 9/11 Commission Report in the first of two chapters that draw heavily on detainees’ alleged statements (see After January 2004). It will say that the Commission could not fully judge the credibility of detainee information, so, according to Kean and Hamilton, “it [is] left to the reader to consider the credibility of the source—we had no opportunity to do so.” [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 119-126]
Criticism from Staffer - Commission staffer Ernest May will later criticize the Commission’s “reluctance ever to challenge the CIA’s walling off al-Qaeda detainees.” May will also say: “We never had full confidence in the interrogation reports as historical sources. Often we found more reliable the testimony that had been given in open court by those prosecuted for the East African embassy bombings and other crimes.” [New Republic, 5/23/2005] CIA videotapes and transcripts of interrogations are not provided to the Commission (see Summer 2003-January 2004).

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Thomas Kean, Fred F. Fielding, Lee Hamilton, US Department of Defense, Ernest May, Dietrich Snell, 9/11 Commission, Alberto R. Gonzales, Central Intelligence Agency, Donald Rumsfeld

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Other 9/11 Commission reports are heavily based on detainee interrogations. The red underlines are endnotes based on the interrogation of Abu Zubaida in the 9/11 Commission’s Terrorist Travel Monograph.Other 9/11 Commission reports are heavily based on detainee interrogations. The red underlines are endnotes based on the interrogation of Abu Zubaida in the 9/11 Commission’s Terrorist Travel Monograph. [Source: Public domain via Wikipedia] (click image to enlarge)Following unsuccessful attempts by the 9/11 Commission to get direct access to high-value detainees on which some sections of its report will be based (see Summer 2003 and November 5, 2003-January 2004), the Commission decides to add a disclaimer to its report at the beginning of Chapter 5, the first of two that describe the development of the 9/11 plot. The disclaimer, entitled “Detainee Interrogation Reports,” reads: “Chapters 5 and 7 rely heavily on information obtained from captured al-Qaeda members. A number of these ‘detainees’ have firsthand knowledge of the 9/11 plot. Assessing the truth of statements by these witnesses—sworn enemies of the United States—is challenging. Our access to them has been limited to the review of intelligence reports based on communications received from the locations where the actual interrogations take place. We submitted questions for use in the interrogations, but had no control over whether, when, or how questions of particular interest would be asked. Nor were we allowed to talk to the interrogators so that we could better judge the credibility of the detainees and clarify ambiguities in the reporting. We were told that our requests might disrupt the sensitive interrogation process. We have nonetheless decided to include information from captured 9/11 conspirators and al-Qaeda members in our report. We have evaluated their statements carefully and have attempted to corroborate them with documents and statements of others. In this report, we indicate where such statements provide the foundation for our narrative. We have been authorized to identify by name only ten detainees whose custody has been confirmed officially by the US government.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 146] Most of the endnotes to the report indicate the sources of information contained in the main body of the text. Of the 132 endnotes for Chapter 5, 83 of them cite detainee interrogations as a source of information contained in the report. Of the 192 endnotes for Chapter 7, 89 cite interrogations. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 488-499, 513-533] The interrogation of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) is mentioned as a source 211 times. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004] He was repeatedly waterboarded and tortured (see Shortly After February 29 or March 1, 2003) and it will later be reported that up to 90 percent of the information obtained from his interrogations may be unreliable (see August 6, 2007). Interestingly, the 9/11 Commission sometimes seems to prefer KSM’s testimony over other sources. For instance, in 2003 the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry reported that the CIA learned in 1996 that KSM and bin Laden traveled together to a foreign country in 1995, suggesting close ties between them (see 1996). But the 9/11 Commission will ignore this and instead claim, based on KSM’s interrogation, that KSM and bin Laden had no contact between 1989 and late 1996. [US Congress, 7/24/2003; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 148-148, 489] The interrogations of al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash are used as a source 74 times, 9/11 hijacker associate Ramzi bin al-Shibh, 68 times, al-Qaeda leader Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, 14 times, al-Qaeda leader Hambali, 13 times, and and a generic “interrogation[s] of detainee” is used as a source 57 times. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004] Most of these detainees are said to be tortured (see May 2002-2003 and Shortly After February 29 or March 1, 2003). Although the CIA videotaped some of the interrogations, it does not pass the videos to the 9/11 Commission (see Summer 2003-January 2004). Slate magazine will later say that these detainees’ accounts are “woven into the commission’s narrative, and nowhere does the 9/11 report delve into interrogation tactics or make any recommendations about the government’s continuing or future practices. That wasn’t the commission’s mandate. Still, one wonders where video evidence—or the knowledge that such evidence was being withheld—might have led it.” [Slate, 12/10/2007]

Entity Tags: Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, 9/11 Commission, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Hambali, Khallad bin Attash

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

Following its failure to get direct access to high-ranking al-Qaeda detainees (see October 2003 and November 5, 2003-January 2004), the 9/11 Commission has the CIA ask the detainees more questions about how the plot developed. This is a second round of questions from the Commission, which was dissatisfied with the answers produced by the first round. According to CIA and 9/11 Commission staffers, as well as an MSNBC analysis in 2008, this second round is “specifically to answer new questions from the Commission.” Analysis of the 9/11 Commission report indicates this second round includes more than 30 separate interrogation sessions. Based on the number of references attributed to each of the sessions, they appear to have been “lengthy.” The Commission is aware that the detainees are being harshly treated (see Late 2003-2004), but it is unclear whether they are further tortured during these additional sessions. The CIA is still using some or all of its “enhanced techniques” at this time (see Shortly After April 28, 2004-February 2005). [MSNBC, 1/30/2008]

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

In an op-ed published by the New York Times, former 9/11 Commission chairman Tom Kean and vice-chairman Lee Hamilton write that their 9/11 inquiry was “obstructed” by the CIA, which failed to provide them with videotapes of detainee interrogations. The White House also knew of the videotapes’ existence but failed to inform the Commission, which had repeatedly asked for all material related to detainee interrogations and was unhappy with what the CIA gave it (see Summer 2003-January 2004, Summer 2003, November 5, 2003-January 2004, and After January 2004). Kean and Hamilton write that the CIA “failed to respond to our lawful requests for information about the 9/11 plot. Those who knew about those videotapes—and did not tell us about them—obstructed our investigation. There could have been absolutely no doubt in the mind of anyone at the CIA—or the White House—of the commission’s interest in any and all information related to Qaeda detainees involved in the 9/11 plot. Yet no one in the administration ever told the commission of the existence of videotapes of detainee interrogations.” [New York Times, 1/2/2008]

Entity Tags: Thomas Kean, 9/11 Commission, Central Intelligence Agency, Lee Hamilton

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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