Cheney's Claim On CIA Tactics Examined

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Former Vice President Dick Cheney has maintained that the CIA's interrogation techniques kept the country safe. He said there were CIA memos that showed definitively that waterboarding saved American lives. The Justice Department released Monday two memos related to waterboarding.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

It has been one day now since the release of thousands of pages describing, in new detail, CIA interrogations in overseas prisons. Among them were two reports that stand out because of who called for their release, former Vice President Dick Cheney. Back in April, he said there were classified CIA memos that showed definitively that waterboarding was vital to keeping America safe. Here's part of what he said.

Former Vice President DICK CHENEY: I haven't announced this up til now, I hadn't talked about it, but I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw, that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country.

SIEGEL: Well, as we said, two of those reports were released yesterday. And NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been reading through them. And she joins us now. Dina, you've seen the two reports that Vice President Cheney was referring to. What do they show?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, there had been the impression as we waited all these months for the memos to be released that - or these reports to be released - that there'd be some sort of smoking gun, something that would prove once and for all whether harsh interrogations work. But when you take these two so-called Cheney reports along with the inspector general's report from yesterday, you really don't get that much clarity.

Let me give you an example. One of the reports that Cheney asked to be declassified is called Khalid Sheikh Mohammed preeminent source on al-Qaida. Now according to several CIA sources I talked to, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed started out by saying absolutely nothing. They say that changed when they started using waterboarding on him. Apparently after that, he gave the CIA lots of information it didn't have on al-Qaida. And we've seen some of that in this so-called Cheney report. And it's broken down into short paragraphs. And some of the details he provided was for example, traits and profiles that al-Qaida sought in western operatives after September 11th. He told interrogators how al-Qaida might conduct surveillance of potential targets in the U.S. He mentioned he'd been in the jail in the U.S. for not paying his bills. And apparently that was part of the reason why he so disliked this country. You know, there were other details...


TEMPLE-RASTON: ...too but you get the idea.

SIEGEL: Well, are as those bullet points enough to at least to make an argument that they justify the harsh techniques of interrogation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well the inspector general's report that came out yesterday concluded that the harsh interrogation techniques, and this is his quote, "did not uncover evidence of imminent plots" unquote. And the CIA says the information they got from the detainees led to arrests and disrupted attack plans in progress. But they have stopped short of attributing this directly to the enhanced interrogations. You know, in interrogation circles they talk about an interrogation being successful when you can foil the plot or break-up a cell or get some detainee to give up his boss. And that didn't seem to have happened in this case.

Now one former interrogator told me that if waterboarding had worked, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would have given up Osama bin Laden. And clearly that didn't happen.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

TEMPLE-RASTON: I mean, the only way these reports could've been smoking guns, and this is what I was looking for when I was reading them, is if they included a timeline of exactly what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said and when and then if you could match that up with the waterboarding schedule, you might be able to see a cause and effect. But the reports didn't provide that. So it's really hard to tell whether the rough stuff worked or not.

SIEGEL: Now there was a new set of Department of Justice documents released this morning. What do we learn from those?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, those were mostly filling in blanks. For example, there were memos that talked about former Attorney General John Ashcroft approving the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed more than a hundred times. And we kind of knew that happened but this is the first time we've seen it in print. We also learned more about the role of the CIA's general counsel, John Rizzo. He was clearly involved in trying to find legal justifications for the interrogations. And George Tenet appeared to be involved too. I mean, most people thought that someone in the CIA had to be helping to get these legal justifications.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Now we actually have a paper trail that's sort of filling in those blanks.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: It's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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