The West Coast Plot: An “Inconvenient Truth”

Critics of the CIA program are desperate to convince Americans that no valuable information came from the interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and other senior terrorists.  They know that if our citizens learn the details of how enhanced interrogations stopped terrorist plots, most would support the CIA program.  A recent Pew poll showed that 71% of Americans believe that there are circumstances under which torture (not just enhanced interrogations, but actual torture) is justifiable to get information from captured terrorists.

This is why Timothy Noah of Slate (with Andrew Sullivan cheerleading him on his blog) is at such pains to debunk the story of the West Coast plot.

This was a KSM plot for a “Second Wave” attack using East Asian operatives to use shoe-bombs to hijack an airplane and fly it into the Library Tower in Los Angeles.  Noah states in a blog post that this plot was never realistic.  Here is his rationale:

The first reason to be skeptical that this planned attack could have been carried out successfully is that, as I’ve noted before, attacking buildings by flying planes into them didn’t remain a viable al-Qaida strategy even through Sept. 11, 2001. Thanks to cell phones, passengers on United Flight 93 were able to learn that al-Qaida was using planes as missiles and crashed the plane before it could hit its target. There was no way future passengers on any flight would let a terrorist who killed the pilot and took the controls fly wherever he pleased.

Really?  Planes were off the table after 9/11?  That would come as a surprise to every passenger in the past three years who had their liquids confiscated in an airport security line.  Those security measures were instituted because in 2006 we foiled an al-Qaeda plot to hijack airplanes leaving London’s Heathrow airport and blow them up over the Atlantic (a plot our intelligence community says was just weeks from execution).  Apparently al-Qaeda didn’t get Noah’s memo explaining that hijacking airplanes for terrorist attacks is “no longer viable al Qaeda strategy.”

In his post, Noah calls the West Coast plot “Thiessen’s claim” and Anderw Sullivan calls it“Thiessen’s LA Tower Canard.”   What these two fail to appreciate is that the story of how enhanced interrogation broke up the West Coast plot is not my story — it is the official position of the intelligence community. 

In my Washington Post piece, I was citing the very documents which President Obama released, which quote the CIA saying that interrogation with enhanced techniques “led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the ‘Second Wave,’ to ‘use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into’ a building in Los Angeles.”  The memo released by Obama goes on the explain that “information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the ‘Second Wave.’ ”

Again, those are not my words.  That is the position of our intelligence community.

And not just in the released memos.  In his September 2006 speech revealing the existence of the CIA program, President Bush described specifically how the interrogation of KSM led to the capture of the key operatives in this attack.  This was the most carefully vetted speech in presidential history — reviewed by all the key players from the individuals who ran the program all the way up to the director of national intelligence, who personally attested to the accuracy of the speech in a memo to the president.  And just last week on Fox News, former CIA Director Michael Hayden said he went back and checked with the agency as to the accuracy of that speech and reported:  “We stand by our story.” 

In numerous subsequent speeches, President Bush said that the West Coast plot was disrupted because of the CIA program.   Each of those speeches was carefully reviewed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — and each time the DNI provided the White House with a classified memo stating that the contents of the speech was accurate and did not compromise sources and methods.  So the Director of National Intelligence has repeatedly affirmed the accuracy of the statement that the West Coast plot was disrupted because of the CIA program.  And Noah himself acknowledges in his post a CIA spokesman affirmed the accuracy of the story. 

So bottom line: The intelligence community says it is so.

In his blog, Noah cites the fact that Fran Townsend, the Bush administration’s homeland-security adviser, told reporters in a February 2006 press briefing that a key cell leader in the West Coast plot was arrested February of 2002.  This, Noah points out, is before KSM came into CIA custody and underwent enhanced interrogation.  He also notes Townsend said that after the cell leader’s capture other cell members “believed” that the plot was not going forward.

I hate to break it to Noah, but this does not refute the fact that KSM’s interrogation disrupted the West Coast plot.
It is true that a key cell leader in the West Coast plot was detained in February 2002.  According press accounts, his name was Marsan bin Arshad. What is also demonstrably true is that the captured terrorist did not lead us to the members of the cell tasked with carrying out the West Coast plot. Indeed, when KSM was captured 13 months later — in March of 2003 — almost all of the key operatives in the plot were still at large and operating with impunity. 

This is what happened next:

·     *   In March of 2003, the CIA captured another key operative in the West Coast plot — a terrorist named Majid Khan. 

·     *   When KSM was captured later that same month, he knew that Khan was in CIA custody — and assumed that Khan had given us the details of the West Coast plot. 

·     *   KSM refused to provide any information about active plots, telling his interrogators: “Soon you will find out.”

·     *   After undergoing enhanced-interrogation techniques, KSM revealed that Khan had been told to deliver $50,000 to individuals working for a terrorist named Hambali — the leader of al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliate Jemmah Islamiyah and KSM’s partner in developing the West Coast plot. 

·     *   CIA officers then confronted Khan with this information from KSM.  Khan confirmed that the money had been delivered to an operative named Zubair.  He provided both a physical description and contact number for this operative — which led to the capture of Zubair in June 2003.

·     *   Zubair then provided information that led to the capture of Hambali in August 2003, along with another key operative, a JI terrorist named Bashir bin Lep (aka “Lillie”).

·     *   Told of Hambali’s capture, KSM then identified Hambali’s younger brother Rusman Gunawan (aka "Gun Gun") as Hambali’s conduit for communications with al-Qaeda, and the leader of the JI cell that was to carry out the West Coast plot.  This information led to the capture of “Gun Gun” in September 2003 in Pakistan. 

·     *   Hambali’s brother then gave us information that led to a cell of 17 JI operatives — the Guraba Cell — that was going to carry out the West Coast plot.

All of these operatives were captured because of information gained from the interrogation of KSM using enhanced interrogation techniques.

To buy Noah’s argument that the plot was over before KSM’s capture, you would have to accept that premise that if Zubair … and Hambali … and Lillie … and Gun Gun … and the 17-member Guraba cell were all left at large and unmolested, they would not have eventually carried out the West Coast plot.

This flies in the face of logic — and the official position of the intelligence community.  And it is contrary to everything we know about the way al-Qaeda operates.  If we have learned anything from recent history, it is that once al-Qaeda develops a plot for a major attack, it never gives up until that attack has been carried out.  Al-Qaeda’s modus operandi is to continue going after the same target time and time again until they succeed. 

In 1993, al-Qaeda tried to blow up the World Trade Center, and failed.  In 2001, al-Qaeda finished the job. 

In 1995, KSM hatched the “Bojinka Plot” to hijack multiple passenger planes and blow them up over the Pacific.  The plot failed — and so al-Qaeda tried it again over the Atlantic in 2006. 

From this experience, Noah takes the lesson that because one al-Qaeda cell leader in the West Coast plot was captured, al-Qaeda just gave up.  Indeed, he claims, they not only gave up on the Library Tower, after 9/11 they decided they would never try to fly a plane into a building again.  But in the same briefing Noah cites, Fran Townsend says that “the intelligence tells us that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed began to initiate [the attack on the Library Tower] in October 2001” — a month after 9/11.  She also states that “KSM, himself, trained the leader of the cell in late 2001 or early 2002 in the shoe bomb technique” — again after the 9/11 attacks.

The fact is Noah and Sullivan’s claims are absurd.  But put aside the West Coast plot off for a moment.  What about all the other plots that were stopped as a result of enhanced interrogations?

Here are some facts: On Fox News last weekend, General Hayden declared that after enhanced interrogation techniques were used on Abu Zubaydah “he gave up … information that led to the arrest of Ramzi Bin al-Shibh.”  Bin al-Shibh was KSM’s right-hand-man, and a key 9/11 plotter.  At the time of his arrest, Bin al-Shibh was in the midst of planning a 9/11-style attack on Britain, in which al-Qaeda operatives would hijack planes in Europe and fly them into Heathrow airport.  According his CIA biography, “as of his capture, Bin al-Shibh had identified four operatives for the operation.”

Enhanced interrogations also helped us capture an al-Qaeda terrorist named Ammar al-Baluchi.  Ammar had prepared Jose Padilla for his plot to blow up apartment buildings in America (which was foiled thanks to information from Abu Zubaydah), and was the one who had sent Majid Khan to deliver the $50,000 to Zubair for the West Coast plot.  According to Ammar’s CIA biography, “From late 2002, Ammar began plotting to carry out simultaneous attacks in Karachi against the U.S. Consulate, Western residences, and Westerners at the local airport…. He was within days of completing preparations for the Karachi plot when he was captured.”

These are just a few of the plots that were broken up because of information gained from CIA interrogations.  According to the intelligence community, terrorists held in CIA custody also provided information that helped stop a planned strike on U.S. Marines at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti using an explosive laden water tanker.  They provided information the helped us uncover al-Qaeda cell from developing anthrax for attacks against the United States.  And according to the memos released by the Obama administration “intelligence derived from CIA detainees has resulted in more than 6,000 intelligence reports and, in 2004, accounted for approximately half of the [Counterterrorism Center's] reporting on al Qaeda.”

General Hayden calls these facts an “inconvenient truth.”  He put it this way in his Fox News interview: “Most people who oppose these techniques want to be able to say: I don’t want my country doing this – which is a purely honorable position – and they didn’t work anyway.  That back half of the sentence isn’t true.  The facts of the case are that the use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer.  It really did work.”

Former CIA Director George Tenet has said, “I know that this program has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots. I know this program alone is worth more than [what] the FBI, the [CIA], and the National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us.”

Former National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell has said, “We have people walking around in this country that are alive today because this process happened.”

And even Obama’s director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, said in a letter to the intelligence community on April 16, 2009: “High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al-Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.”

So you can believe Hayden, Tenet, McConnell, and Blair … or Tim Noah and Andrew Sullivan.  

By Marc Thiessen

Posted:  Marion’s Place

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About Ask Marion

I am a babyboomer and empty nester who savors every moment of my past and believes that it is the responsibility of each of us in my generation and Americans in general to make sure that America is as good or even a better place for future generations as it was for us. So far... we haven't done very well!! Favorite Quotes: "The first 50 years are to build and acquire; the second 50 are to leave your legacy"; "Do something that scares you every day!"; "The journey in between what you once were and who you are becoming is where the dance of life really takes place".
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