Former terrorist turned captive Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) made his way back into the news this week when a transcript of his confession and somewhat rambling statement during a closed-door military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay became public.
The tribunal is meeting to determine if KSM has correctly been labeled an “enemy combatant”. It’s a quandary… do we call them detainees? Prisoners of war? Enemy combatants? Misguided souls in need of a second chance? Apparently we’re not sure how to label a vicious terrorist so that we might properly protect his rights. He was picked up in early 2003, held in detention facilities overseas and eventually deposited at Guantanamo in September 2006 along with a dozen other high value targets.
KSM has been known to the intelligence community since 1995, and evidence of his involvement in major terrorist attacks (including 9/11 and the 2002 Bali bombings) over the past ten plus years is substantial and, dare we say it, conclusive. I do hope I’m not offending anyone by stating that KSM is guilty.
The evidence against him, aside from his own declarations and confessions, comes from other captured terrorists, technical evidence gathered from communications intercepts, and computers and papers picked up in safehouses where actual terrorists were involved in actual terrorism. I’m pointing this out just in case there are folks out there who think the only evidence we have of KSM’s bloody past is his own confession and admissions made while in captivity.
What happens next is somewhat predictable… no sooner is it reported that KSM has admitted to being involved in numerous vicious terrorist attacks and a variety of unrealized plots, than we start to hear cries of foul … (Oh my God, have we mistreated the terrorist?)
Most of the articles, commentaries and op-eds covering this story veer off along the following lines:
No doubt KSM was subjected to harsh interrogations during his detention between 2003 and transfer to Guantanamo in late 2006… how can we believe what he’s saying?
Look at all the events and plots that he claims to have been involved in… he’s probably making this stuff up.
We can’t believe anything that’s being reported unless KSM has a chance to be represented in an open trial with full legal representation, preferably on CourtTV.
This is obviously a politically motivated effort by the administration to support their war on terror.
Organizations such as Human Rights Watch (that’s a surprise) and Amnesty International have expressed concern over the treatment of KSM. Their show of concern, while touching, would seem rather misplaced. Although, in a bigger construct, they argue this is not about KSM, this is about the erosion of civil liberties and fair play. Umm, for terrorists. Even Rosie O’Donnell got in on the act… using her vast understanding of counterterrorism operations and in-depth knowledge of KSM to cast doubts on his confession.
I’m sure it’s only a matter of minutes before we’re treated to an independent film release looking at the sad upbringing of KSM and how the current administration forced him into a life of terrorism. This could possibly result in an award at Cannes as long as a big name star plays the lead. Based on their respective mug shot photos, may I suggest Nick Nolte.
But I digress. I would argue that what we’re seeing in the reporting of the KSM story is, stay with me now, exactly what makes this country great. The fact that we have a major terrorist in captivity, with evidence from a variety of sources confirming his involvement in countless deaths, and yet give up significant amounts of press time debating whether or not this man was mistreated is a sign of a healthy nation. It’s the very thing, along with the free marketplace, “Girls Gone Wild” and freedom of religion that drives the fundamentalist jihadists/islamofacists over the edge. Picture terrorists sipping coffee around the table in some Waziristan safehouse, clipping coupons and trying to make sense of the press coverage of KSM’s confession. It’s our very ability to have this debate that they cannot, and likely never will, understand.
The question of what constitutes harsh treatment, what represents torture and what is simply “within bounds” when it comes to interrogation is another debate that will never find common ground. I’d like to say I have a moral issue with the use of aggressive interrogation techniques (vice torture which is never acceptable) when it comes to targets such as KSM… but in all honesty, it’s more of an operational issue. Crossing the line from what is acceptable during an interrogation to overly aggressive means instantly taints the credibility of the information being gathered.
I’ll say it… which will result in loads of e-mail from people who won’t believe it, but the CIA does not engage in torture. They gave up the oft-discussed waterboarding when concern was raised that it was too aggressive. They have a clearly defined list of acceptable interrogation techniques that do not cross the line. Is it harsh? Is it unpleasant for the detainees? Is it uncomfortable and designed to break their will? Do I care as long as they don’t engage in torture and the interrogations are carried out in an efficient, professional manner designed to obtain credible and verifiable intelligence? That’s a rhetorical question, but the answer is, no, I don’t care.
According to the argument being tossed around by those who might seem to prefer coddling a terrorist to believing anything the administration says, we can’t trust what KSM is saying because the CIA probably engaged in some harsh interrogation shenanigans. That would be a fine argument if it weren’t for all the evidence collected over the years from sources other than KSM himself. However, to read the flurry of stories about KSM over the past several days is to get the impression that we’re basing everything we know on KSM’s own words. If that’s what you believe, I’m sorry but you’re wrong.
Interrogation is a very difficult, time intensive, detail-oriented process. Over the years, since picking up KSM, there have been countless sessions where experts repeatedly went over the smallest of details… and then correlated, checked, compared, verified or refuted KSM’s information against thousands of details and pieces of information obtained from other detainees, liaison service sources, technical collections and evidence obtained during takedowns and safehouse raids.
KSM has reportedly complained that, while being held by the CIA, he was mistreated. This is the same man who, since the 1980s, has sucked up to Bin Laden, dedicated himself to Al Qaeda, rose through the ranks of the organization to become one of its key operational planners and spent years plotting and assisting in the killing of thousands of individuals. He’s now sitting in a cell in Guantanamo while members of the media and well meaning but misguided citizens argue that he should have full legal representation and an open trial rather than a closed-door military trial. Is this a great country or what?
But that’s just my opinion. Let me know yours, send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. Speaking of your thoughts, we’ve been getting some fascinating responses to the PWB question, “What keeps you up at night?”
Kellie from Boston writes “… I am kept awake at night by the folks down the street at Harvard who believe that we are the cause of the anger that inspires terrorism and it is our responsibility to stop hurting “those poor people”. These academics go out fundraising in the Middle East, boasting about their big donors and bitching about America every chance they get”.
Deb from Edgewood, New Mexico says that “… to let you know what keeps me up nights… I would have to say that our existing batch of so-called ‘leaders’ is what worries me most. If they became good at accomplishing their jobs, the rest of my worries (terrorism, illegal immigration, etc.) would be more likely to be properly handled”.
Philip from parts unknown has a son in the Army who is preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. Philip states “… common sense is something that we are in dire need of. The lack of common sense, personal responsibility and insatiable greed in this country is what really scares me.”
And finally, Chuck from Fulks Run, Virginia responds “… what keeps me up at night? Seems that my retirement could be a difficult thing for my wife and I to accomplish. What with the prospects of social security going down the tubes or terrorism destroying the economy, the two of us may be trying to live on next to nothing. So save social security and rid the world of terrorism, then we’ll both sleep better.”
Stay safe. See you next week.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, and appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker also serves as a script consultant and advisor within the entertainment industry, lending his technical expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," and the major motion pictures "Proof of Life" and "Spy Games."