Profiling the Terrorists

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It's about as close to the Full Monty as you're likely to get from the CIA.

In a remarkable pair of documents, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte today laid out more detail in one place than the U.S. has ever openly released about the Central Intelligence Agency's once-secret prison system, as well as about the hardened al-Qaeda operatives who have called it home since their capture after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The first document, a memo really, defends the legality and propriety of the detention and interrogation program, giving a peek at how it has operated and why it has been invaluable. The second document (both can be found on the DNI's website is a compilation of the bios of the 14 CIA captives being sent to the U.S.'s Guantanamo Bay detention facility to await trial by military tribunal — and a possible execution if convicted. Though much biographical information about the terrorists in question has been previously disclosed, today's document musters it all in one place in the CIA's official version of history.

The bios read like a collection of resumes for terrorist job applicants. Several of the the 14 biographies note that the terrorists came from distinguished extremist or terrorist lineage. Walid Bin 'Attash, for instance, "is the scion of a prominent terrorist family," whose father was close to Osama bin Laden. Several of his brothers trained and fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the bio notes; two of them were killed, and another brother has been detained at Guantanamo Bay since 2004. Bin Laden "reportedly selected" Bin 'Attash, who lost a leg in a 1997 battlefield accident in Afghanistan, to be a 9/11 hijacker. But ultimately Bin 'Attash was limited to helping pick other hijackers, after he was arrested and briefly detained in Yemen in 2001, the bio says.

Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, a key 9/11 facilitator, said — apparently under interrogation — that after he was rebuffed in several attempts to enter the U.S., "in late 2000 he tried to convince a U.S. citizen in San Diego via e-mail to marry him to gain entry... but [lead hijacker Mohammad] Atta convinced him to abandon the idea." Just before his capture, the document says, bin al-Shibh had identified four operatives for an attack on London's Heathrow Airport. Indeed, several of the detainees are asserted to have been planning or close to executing new attacks at the time of their capture — assertions clearly intended to buttress the U.S.' justification for holding these men.

It was the 2002 capture of another key 9/11 operative, Abu Zubaydah, that first tested the limits of the CIA's detention and interrogation program, the first memo says. After providing some information during his early interrogations, Zubaydah "soon stopped all cooperation," prompting the CIA to win approval of new interrogation methods. "The procedures proved highly effective," the document states. "Abu Zubaydah soon began providing accurate and timely actionable intelligence."

The memo repeatedly insists that the interrogation methods are thoroughly reviewed for legal and Geneva Convention compliance, and that top officials, and currently the CIA director himself, "must approve — prior to use — each and every one of the lawful interrogation procedures to be used." It also says questioning sessions are constantly monitored "by non-participants" who are authorized to end a session instantly over the slightest variation from the rulebook. It says the CIA requires that its interrogators, whose average age is 43, receive "more than 250 hours of specialized training before they are allowed to come face-to-face with a terrorist," followed by supervised fieldwork before they can direct an interrogation. Detainees are also questioned by subject-matter experts — analysts who may have been following a terrorist's bloody career for years before getting the opportunity to confront their target in person.

The memo also discusses how a thread of information revealed by one detainee would be used as leverage or leads for questioning another, often in rapid succession. The documents assert that numerous plots have been killed in their crib and many dangerous operatives have been put out of commission based on information gleaned from interrogations.

But now, with the five-year anniversary of 9/11 just days away, the continued usefulness of the information from these captives, who haven't roamed and plotted freely for years, has waned, experts say. The staleness of the detainees' information is one reason Bush felt he could send the detainees on to Gitmo for trial. That, of course, and the court rulings that forced the President's hand.

Following his speech on Wednesday and the release of the documents, the President has asked Congress to pass legislation setting protected standards within which the CIA may continue detaining and interrogating terrorists who are caught in the future — while sending others to be tried in military tribunals. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, pronounced the CIA prisons "a thing of the past." But Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, told of Graham's conclusion, said he was "not so sure." Bush, who is at a low ebb in relations and credibility with Congress, faces tough sledding if he wants to get his legislation passed exactly as he demands.