A top al Qaeda expert who remains in a senior position at the CIA was a key architect of the agency’s defense of its detention and “enhanced interrogation” program for suspected terrorists, developing oft-repeated talking points that misrepresented and overstated its effectiveness, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report released last week.
The report singles out the female expert as a key apologist for the program, stating that she repeatedly told her superiors and others — including members of Congress — that the “torture” was working and producing useful intelligence, when it was not. She wrote the “template on which future justifications for the CIA program and the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were based,” it said.
The expert also participated in “enhanced interrogations” of self-professed 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, witnessed the waterboarding of terror suspect Abu Zubaydah and ordered the detention of a suspected terrorist who turned out to be unconnected to al Qaeda, according to the report.
The expert is no stranger to controversy. She was criticized after 9/11 terrorist attacks for countenancing a subordinate’s refusal to share the names of two of the hijackers with the FBI prior to the terror attacks.
But instead of being sanctioned, she was promoted.
The expert was not identified by name in the unclassified 528-page summary of the report, but U.S. officials who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity confirmed that her name was redacted at least three dozen times in an effort to avoid publicly identifying her. In fact, much of the four-month battle between Senate Democrats and the CIA about redactions centered on protecting the identity of the woman, an analyst and later “deputy chief” of the unit devoted to catching or killing Osama bin Laden, according to U.S. officials familiar with the negotiations.
NBC News is withholding her name at the request of the CIA, which cited a climate of fear and retaliation in the wake of the release of the committee’s report in asking that her anonymity be protected.
While the two psychologists who developed the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Dr. James Mitchell and Dr. Bruce Jessen, quickly became household names as a result of the report – including being the subjects of a “Saturday Night Live” skit” – scathing criticism of the expert’s role in defending the program went nearly unmentioned.
The expert — one of several female CIA employees on whom “Maya,” the lead character in the movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” was based — has previously been identified in the media as a CIA officer involved in the rendition program. But the Senate report offers the first detailed account of the depth of her involvement. It quotes from emails, memos and congressional testimony, to document her unique role in what it says were misrepresentations about the efficacy of the CIA’s program, which President Barack Obama has said included torture. The report does not ascribe any motive for the alleged misrepresentations.
In one instance recounted in the report, CIA Director Michael Hayden brought the expert with him on Feb. 14, 2007, to brief members of the Senate intelligence oversight committee on the interrogation program.
The then-41-year-old counterterrorism expert, whose experience and depth of knowledge about al Qaeda was virtually unmatched within the agency, forcefully defended the program in the classified hearing.
“There’s no question, in my mind,” she told the committee, “that having that detainee information has saved hundreds, conservatively speaking, of American lives.”
That testimony was wrong, according to last week’s report.
In the report, Senate Democrats accuse the expert, along with her unit, of providing “additional inaccurate information about the ‘effectiveness’ of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques to the (CIA’s inspector general, who also investigated the program), as well as to senior CIA leadership.”
Critics, including Senate Republicans, former CIA officials, former President George W. Bush and ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, have disputed the report’s account. They contend the report “cherry picked” intelligence reports and internal communications to portray the interrogation program as unproductive and largely punitive.
Few CIA employees have been more central to the agency’s battle against al Qaeda than the expert, a former Soviet analyst who has worked in the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and in the al Qaeda unit since the mid-1990s, according to interviews with several former CIA officers who worked with her.
The expert already survived one controversy; she came under harsh criticism after a subordinate on the bin Laden unit refused to share the names of two the 9/11 hijackers — Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi — with the FBI prior to the attacks, which was considered by the 9/11 Commission as a key intelligence failure. It is unclear if she was ever reprimanded for her role in the incident.
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But one former intelligence officer who worked directly with her at the time said the expert bears direct responsibility for the intelligence failures prior to 9/11 and should have faced consequences.
“She should be put on trial and put in jail for what she has done,” the former officer said.
Described most frequently as the “deputy chief of ALEC Station” — the CIA’s name for the bin Laden unit — the now 49-year-old expert has served most recently as the head of the Global Jihad unit, which is responsible for intelligence and targeting terrorism worldwide and is now a senior member of the CIA, having achieved the civilian equivalent of a general’s rank.
In 2003, a year after the CIA began interrogating top al Qaeda detainees, the CIA’s inspector general launched an investigation into alleged abuses as well as an assessment of the program’s effectiveness.
At the same time, CIA leadership asked the bin Laden unit and other departments of the Counterterrorism Center to assess the value of the program. By then, three top al Qaeda operatives had been waterboarded, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
In addition to working as an analyst, the expert participated in Mohammed’s brutal interrogations at a secret prison in Poland, where he was repeatedly waterboarded, according to the report. As the intelligence picture of al Qaeda developed, she also helped target other suspects for capture.
At one point, she misread intelligence provided by another suspected terrorist, and the faulty information was then used to extract an erroneous admission from Mohammed, often referred to by the acronym KSM, during two days of interrogation in March 2003, the report said.
Majid Khan, who was in Pakistani custody, had stated that Mohammed had sought to recruit “two to three unknown Black American Muslim converts who were currently training in Afghanistan” to carry out attacks on gas stations in the U.S. But in a cable describing the intelligence, the expert incorrectly stated that "KSM was interested in using anyone with U.S. status to assist with this operation,” suggesting that Mohammed was seeking to recruit Muslims in the U.S.
She followed up with an email blithely noting that Mohammed would be subject to harsh interrogation as a result: "i love the Black American Muslim at AQ camps in Afghanuistan (sic). ... Mukie (KSM) is going to be hatin' life on this one," she wrote, according to the report.
(After being repeatedly “walled” — slammed into a wall — and then waterboarded, Mohammed told his interrogators that he had, in fact, sought to recruit American Muslims living in Montana to launch the attacks. But he recanted several months later, saying he was “under ‘enhanced’ measures” at the time and had simply told his captors what they wanted to hear, the report said.)
The CIA’s argument that waterboarding and the techniques used in interrogations were effective centered on what the detainees were providing to their debriefers.
On July 16, 2003, the IG interviewed the expert, who told investigators that KSM “provided information that helped lead to the arrest” of five other al Qaeda operatives. The Senate report states, “These representations were almost entirely inaccurate.”
Two days later, the expert wrote a memo to the agency’s leadership that argued that the CIA’s program was a success by any measure.
“Khalid Shaykh Muhammed’s information alone saved at least several hundred, possibly thousands, of lives.”
According to the Senate report, that memo used language that she and the CIA would use for years to defend the program, contending that it had “saved countless lives” and that enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and stress positions, had been the “key to unlocking” intelligence from detainees.
In February 2004, the expert wrote part of another memo for CIA leadership to use to defend the program to the inspector general.
“Khalid Shaykh Muhammed’s information alone saved at least several hundred, possibly thousands, of lives,” the report quoted her as saying in an email to colleagues, using an alternative spelling of the al Qaeda leader’s middle name.
At roughly the same time she was making the internal case for the CIA’s secret program, the expert orchestrated the rendition of a German citizen named Khalid al-Masri, who was detained while traveling on a bus in Macedonia.
The expert and others in the agency believed al-Masri knew “key information that could assist in the capture of other (al Qaeda) operatives … who may be planning terrorist activities,” according to the report. Al-Masri was flown to Afghanistan where he was interrogated and, he would later say, tortured for three months. Within a few weeks of al-Masri’s arrival, however, the CIA determined he wasn’t part of al Qaeda and that they had made a mistake, according to the report. He was released some five months after he was first grabbed and given 14,500 euros.
John Maguire, a former senior CIA officer, who spent 23 years at the agency and has read the report, defended the expert — though he did not confirm any specific reference to her in the report.
She’s extraordinarily capable analyst,” said Maguire, who knows the woman.
“She has a caustic personality, but she is frighteningly intelligent and knows more about al Qaeda than virtually anyone else at the CIA. She’s hard to manage but brings a lot to the table. … She wasn’t afraid to make mistakes.”
According to Maguire, the expert is “furious” about the report’s conclusions and characterizations of her role in the program, as documented in the report.
“There is a horrendous degree of intellectual dishonesty in the building.”
Other counterterrorism veterans see it differently. According to a former senior officer with more than 20 years at CIA who still consults with the agency, the expert often “exaggerated the interrogation program’s success.”
This CIA veteran, who also read the report and was involved in the program, said the report was about “85 percent” accurate in its portrayal of what the CIA gained from torturing detainees.
“There is a horrendous degree of intellectual dishonesty in the building,” the former senior official said, referring to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. “(The expert) suffers from that as well — and you can see it in the report.” The former official said he did not believe the expert lied intentionally.
The CIA declined to comment on the expert’s role in crafting the agency’s defense of the enhanced interrogation program or on the report’s characterization. The expert could not be reached for comment.
But the agency pointed to CIA Director John Brennan’s response to the report last week, in which he said, “The Agency takes no position on whether intelligence obtained from detainees who were subjected to EITs (enhanced interrogation techniques) could have been obtained through other means or from other individuals. The answer to this question is, and will remain, unknowable.
“However, CIA reviews indicate that the program, including interrogations of detainees on whom EITs were used, did produce valuable and unique intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives.”
A few months after the expert testified with CIA Director Hayden before the Senate intelligence oversight committee, the CIA’s inspector general released its findings of the wrongful 2004 rendition of al-Masri. As first reported by the Associated Press in 2011, the inspector general found that the expert and a colleague had pushed for the rendition of an innocent man and compounded the mistake by not releasing him sooner.
Despite acknowledging that their judgment about al-Masri’s terrorist connections “was not supported by available intelligence,” Hayden informed the Senate committee that the agency would not discipline the expert. In fact, she was promoted to run the Global Jihad unit.
Defending her, Hayden wrote that the “high threat environment” at the time of the rendition was “essentially identical to the one in which (CIA) employees, including (the expert), previously had been sharply criticized for not connecting the dots prior to 9/11.”
Matthew Cole is an investigative producer for NBC News focusing on national security matters. He joined NBC News in 2013 after three years as an investigative producer for ABC News. He has reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and several countries in the Middle East, focusing on terrorism, war and intelligence.