May 23, 2011 | National Review Online

Misled by Senator McCain?

After my column appeared yesterday, I did a follow up post wondering aloud whether I myself had been misled by Senator McCain’s Washington Post essay, which I’d described as misleading. My specific focus was my assumption — which I am now convinced was erroneous — that the unidentified informant Sen. McCain referred to was Hassan Ghul, an al Qaeda operative who was captured in Iraq.

At the time Sen. McCain’s op-ed appeared last Friday, there was rampant speculation that Ghul, rather than other top al Qaeda leaders like KSM who’d been captured elsewhere and subjected to harsh interrogation, was the source of the most critical intelligence leading to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. That critical intelligence strand involved the identification of a bin Laden courier whose nom de guerre is Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

In the op-ed, Sen. McCain indicated that, according to information he’d gotten from CIA Director Leon Panetta, al-Kuwaiti’s name had first come to the CIA’s attention “from a detainee in another country.” I assumed the Senator was referring to Ghul. Ghul, after all, had clearly provided critical intel about al-Kuwaiti. Marc Thiessen, however, reported Monday (also in the Post) that another unidentified detainee held in an unidentified country had mentioned al-Kuwaiti in 2002. That mention was insignificant — the CIA only found it in the files (in a dated liaison report from another country’s intelligence service) because information from detainees subjected to harsh interrogation tactics had caused them to scrub their files for any intelligence about al-Kuwaiti. Moreover, the fleeting mention of al-Kuwaiti did not tell them anything they did not already know by that point. That is, I gave Sen. McCain the benefit of the doubt that he’d at least been referring to a source of some importance (Ghul) — that he’d not attributed significance to a source who was unimportant.

It is now clear that Sen. McCain was, in fact, speaking about the unimportant source. I can confirm that because we now know the source mentioned the name in 2002. Ghul was not even captured until 2004.

How do I know this? After my post from yesterday, I got an email from a member of Sen. McCain’s staff, who told me she “wanted to point out some hard facts” that had been “provided to the Senator in a letter from the CIA from Director Panetta.” The staffer, however, was not looking to provide me those facts directly. Rather, the Senator’s office is touting a post on Monday from the Washington Post’s leftwing blogger Greg Sargent. Mr. Sargent’s post, which I had not seen, contains a lengthy excerpt from Director Panetta’s letter — although Sargent does not explain who gave him the letter (it “was sent my way by a source,” says he).

When I read the published portions of the letter, and compared them to Sen. McCain’s essay, I was taken aback by the information McCain elected not to include in his essay. Here are the Panetta letter passages excerpted by Sargent:

Nearly 10 years of intensive intelligence work led the CIA to conclude that Bin Ladin was likely hiding at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. there was no one “essential and indispensible” key piece of information that led us to this conclusion. Rather, the intelligence picture was developed via painstaking collection and analysis. Multiple streams of intelligence — including from detainees, but also from multiple other sources — led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was at this compound. Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Whether those techniques were the “only timely and effective way” to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively. What is definitive is that that information was only a part of multiple streams of intelligence that led us to Bin Ladin.

Let me further point out that we first learned about the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002. It is also important to note that some detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques attempted to provide false or misleading information about the facilitator/courier. These attempts to falsify the facilitator/courier’s role were alerting.

In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.

Based on this, Sen. McCain’s staffer opined, “I don’t think you were misled and I hope you will conclude as much from the information in this [Sargent] story below.” I have written back as follows:

Thank you for sharing this, which I hadn’t seen — I was on a cross-country trip Monday into Tuesday.
When I said I may have been misled, I was referring to Sen. McCain’s essay, which is what I read, not to a leftwing blogger’s spin on the “hard facts” in the essay, which I had not read. Those details, of course, were not released by Senator McCain; they were revealed a few days later in the Greg Sargent article you tout — Mr. Sargent having used these revelations to grouse about “conservatives” after somehow obtaining this “private letter” from the Director of the CIA to the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Now that I’ve read the published portions of the Panetta letter that you’ve highlighted for me, I must say I am even more mystified by Sen. McCain’s essay. Particularly curious are the “hard facts” from Director Panetta that Sen. McCain chose to omit. Clearly, the Senator elected not to reveal the Director’s concession that useful information leading to bin Laden’s capture came from detainees subjected to what Director Panetta calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” (but Sen. McCain calls “torture”). This is a striking omission given that the Senator, in the course of accusing former Attorney General Mukasey of giving a “false” account, conveyed the impression that the information from detainees subjected to harsh interrogation had been uniformly “false and misleading” — as the Senator put it with respect to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (who, it turns out, did provide the CIA with al-Kuwaiti’s nickname … one of the assertions by Judge Mukasey that the Senator summarily dismissed as “false”).

Sen. McCain even left out Director Panetta’s explanation that the CIA first heard the al-Kuwaiti nickname in 2002. Had he simply included this innocuous fact in his essay, it would have been clear that Hassan Ghul — who was not captured until 2004 — could not have been the source. I’d also note that Sen. McCain attributed to Director Panetta a claim that does not appear in the published portions of what Mr. Panetta wrote, namely, that the unidentified 2002 source singled out al-Kuwaiti as “an important member of al-Qaeda.” 

At any rate, given that Sen. McCain is now having his staff point people to a published account of what Director Panetta actually wrote, one is left to wonder why the Senator himself did not just tell us exactly what the Director said, rather than selectively mine the Director’s letter.

While I don’t know that anything’s been clarified, I do appreciate your courtesy.

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