During his first days in detention, senior al-Qaeda operative Khalid Sheik Mohammed was stripped of his clothes, beaten, given a forced enema and shackled with his arms chained above his head, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. It was then, a Red Cross report says, that his American captors told him to prepare for "a hard time."
Over the next 25 days, beginning on March 6, 2003, Mohammed was put through a routine in which he was deprived of sleep, doused with cold water and had his head repeatedly slammed into a plywood wall, according to the report. The interrogation also included days of extensive waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning.
Sometime during those early weeks, Mohammed started talking, providing information that supporters of harsh interrogations would later cite in defending the practices. Former vice president Richard B. Cheney has justified such interrogations by saying that intelligence gained from Mohammed resulted in the takedown of al-Qaeda plots.
But whether harsh tactics were decisive in Mohammed's interrogation may never be conclusively known, in large part because the CIA appears not to have tried traditional tactics for much time, if at all. According to the agency's own accounting, Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times during his first four weeks in a CIA secret prison.
The effectiveness of the Bush administration's use of harsh interrogation techniques has emerged as a key point of dispute in a burgeoning political and public debate sparked by the release this month of Justice Department memorandums authorizing the CIA to use such methods.
Six years after Mohammed was captured, the scrutiny of the agency's approach seems unfair to some intelligence veterans, who argue that the interrogation program cannot be separated from the atmosphere of the day, when further attacks seemed imminent. At the time, there was little or no dissent, including from congressional Democrats who were briefed on the program, according to former intelligence officials.
Two former high-ranking officials with access to secret information said the interrogations yielded details of al-Qaeda's operations that resulted in the identification of previously unknown suspects, preventing future attacks.
"The detainee-supplied data permitted us to round them up as they were being trained, rather than just before they came ashore," said one former intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the cases are classified. "Not headline stuff, but the bread and butter of successful counterterrorism. And something that few people understand."
Other officials, including former high-ranking members of the Bush administration, argue that judging the program by whether it yielded information misses the point.
"The systematic, calculated infliction of this scale of prolonged torment is immoral, debasing the perpetrators and the captives," said Philip D. Zelikow, a political counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who reviewed secret Bush administration reports about the program in 2005. "Second, forfeiting our high ground, the practices also alienate needed allies in the common fight, even allies within our own government. Third, the gains are dubious when the alternatives are searchingly compared. And then, after all, there is still the law."
The Obama administration's top intelligence officer, Dennis C. Blair, has said the information obtained through the interrogation program was of "high value." But he also concluded that those gains weren't worth the cost.
"There is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means," Blair said in a statement. "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."
It is unclear from unclassified reports whether the information gained was critical in foiling actual plots. Mohammed later told outside interviewers that he was "forced to invent in order to make the ill-treatment stop" and that he "wasted a lot of their time [with] several false red-alerts being placed in the U.S.," according to the Red Cross, whose officials interviewed Mohammed and other detainees after they were transferred to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in September 2006.
The CIA's reviews of the value of its program remain classified, and any final assessment will probably await a painstaking, forensic accounting of the program.
A 2005 memo by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel said that Mohammed and Abu Zubaida, the nom de guerre of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, an al-Qaeda associate who was also subjected to coercive interrogation, have been "pivotal sources because of their ability and willingness to provide their analysis and speculation about the capabilities, methodologies and mindsets of terrorists."
Counterterrorism officials also said the two men and other captured suspects provided critical information about senior al-Qaeda figures and identified hundreds of al-Qaeda members, associates and financial backers.
The accumulation and triangulation of information also allowed officials to vet the intelligence they were receiving and to push other prisoners toward making full and frank statements.
Mohammed continued to be a valued source of information long after the coercive interrogation ended. Indeed, he has gone on to lecture CIA agents in a classroom-like setting, on topics from Greek philosophy to the structure of al-Qaeda, and wrote essays in response to questions, according to sources familiar with his time in detention.
Fear of imminent attacks
But the government's justification for the CIA program hinged on the need to break up imminent terrorist threats, not the mapping of strategic intelligence, which can take weeks and months.
One of the Justice Department memos said waterboarding "may be used on a High Value Detainee only if the CIA has 'credible intelligence that a terrorist attack is imminent.' " It also stated that waterboarding can be employed only if "other interrogation methods have failed to elicit the information [or] CIA has clear indications that other methods are unlikely to elicit this information within the perceived time limit for preventing the attack."
The memo said the CIA waterboarded Mohammed only after it became apparent that standard interrogation techniques were not working, a judgment that appears to have been reached rapidly. Mohammed, according to the memo, resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, saying, "Soon you will know."
The memo, while saying it discussed only a fraction of the important intelligence gleaned from Abu Zubaida and Mohammed, cited three specific successes: the identification of alleged "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla; the discovery of a "Second Wave" attack targeting Los Angeles; and the break-up of the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiya cell, an al-Qaeda ally led by Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali.
The last example was an undoubted success that led to the capture of several suspects, but the other two are much less clear-cut.
'Dates just don't add up'
The Office of Legal Counsel memo said Abu Zubaida provided significant information on two operatives, including Jose Padilla, who "planned to build and detonate a dirty bomb in the Washington D.C area."
Padilla, however, was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on May 8, 2002, more than two months before the issuance of the Justice Department's Aug. 1, 2002, memo authorizing the use of harsh methods in interrogating Abu Zubaida.
"The dates just don't add up," wrote Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent, in an opinion piece in the New York Times last week. Soufan, who questioned Abu Zubaida between his capture in March 2002 and early June of that year, said the detainee gave up Padilla without any physical or psychological duress. He also said Abu Zubaida identified Mohammed as the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks "under traditional interrogation methods."
Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was sentenced in January 2008 to 17 years in prison after being convicted of conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism.
An attack on both coasts was conceived by Mohammed before Sept. 11, 2001, but the plot was scaled back to target only New York and Washington. Mohammed continued to consider striking the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles, administration officials said. His interrogation led to information that he planned "to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into a building in Los Angeles," according the 2005 Justice Department memo.
A number of officials have questioned the viability of the plot in the wake of the changes in airport security after Sept. 11. And President George W. Bush, in a speech in 2007, said the plot was broken up in 2002, before Mohammed's capture in Pakistan on March 1, 2003.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.