President Obama’s national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.
“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.
Admiral Blair sent his memo on the same day the administration publicly released secret Bush administration legal memos authorizing the use of interrogation methods that the Obama White House has deemed to be illegal torture. Among other things, the Bush administration memos revealed that two captured Qaeda operatives were subjected to a form of near-drowning known as waterboarding a total of 266 times.
Some parts of memo deleted
Admiral Blair’s assessment that the interrogation methods did produce important information was deleted from a condensed version of his memo released to the media last Thursday. Also deleted was a line in which he empathized with his predecessors who originally approved some of the harsh tactics after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past,” he wrote, “but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given.”
A spokeswoman for Admiral Blair said the lines were cut in the normal editing process of shortening an internal memo into a media statement emphasizing his concern that the public understand the context of the decisions made in the past and the fact that they followed legal orders.
"The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."
Admiral Blair’s private memo was provided by a critic of Mr. Obama’s policy. His assessment could bolster Bush administration veterans who argue that the interrogations were an important tool in the battle against al Qaeda.
Techniques 'made us safer'
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Mr. Bush, said on Fox News Sunday last weekend that “the use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer. It really did work.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney, in a separate interview with Fox, endorsed that conclusion and said he has asked the C.I.A. to declassify memos detailing the gains from the harsh interrogations.
Several news accounts, including one in the New York Times last week, have quoted former intelligence officials saying the harsh interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a Qaeda operative who was waterboarded 83 times, did not produce information that foiled terror plots. The Bush administration has long argued that harsh questioning of Qaeda operatives like Zubaydah helped prevent a planned attack on Los Angeles and cited passages in the memos released last week to bolster that conclusion.
The White House would not address the question of whether the tactics have been effective on Tuesday but fired back at Mr. Cheney. “We’ve had an at least two-year policy disagreement with the vice president of the United States,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. “That policy disagreement is whether or not you can uphold the values in which this country was founded at the same time that you protect the citizens that live in that country.”
Mr. Obama’s team has cast doubt on the effectiveness of the harsh interrogations, but in a visit to the C.I.A. this week, the president did not directly question that. Instead, he said, that any sacrifice from banning those tactics was worth it to uphold the nation’s belief in rule of law.
“I’m sure that sometimes it seems as if that means we’re operating with one hand tied behind our back or that those who would argue for a higher standard are naïve,” he said. “I understand that. You know, I watch the cable shows once in a while.”
But he added: “What makes the United States special, and what makes you special, is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.”
'Torture is not moral'
The assessment by Admiral Blair represents a shift for him since he took office. When he was nominated for the position and appeared before the Senate intelligence committee on Jan. 22, he said: “I believe strongly that torture is not moral, legal or effective.” But he declined to assess whether the interrogation program under Mr. Bush had worked.
“Do you believe the C.I.A.’s interrogation detention program has been effective?” Senator Christopher Bond, a Missouri Republican, asked him.
“I’ll have to look into that more closely before I can give you a good answer on that one,” Admiral Blair answered.
This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.