More Library Tower Nonsense
Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen defends his California-flavored torture defense.
On April 21 I posted a Chatterbox column arguing that if the Central Intelligence Agency and former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen hoped to convince the world that the "enhanced interrogation techniques"described here (and since repudiated by President Obama) prevented terror attacks against the United States, they would have to come up with a better example than the Library Tower plot. The CIA and Thiessen had argued that torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, allowed the U.S. government to thwart the Library Tower attack, wherein al-Qaida planned to hijack a jetliner and fly it into the tallest building in Los Angeles (formally known these days as the U.S. Bank Tower). The trouble with this argument was that the chronology didn't work. Sheikh Mohammed was captured in March 2003, and on more than one occasion (for instance, here, here, and here), the Bush administration stated that the Library Tower plot was broken up in 2002. How could torturing Sheikh Mohammed in 2003 have prevented an attack that had already been foiled a year earlier?
After my column appeared, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America noted (here, here, and here) that the following people continued to repeat the Library Tower canard without acknowledging its logical inconsistency: Karl Rove, Dana Rohrabacher, Clifford May, and Fox News' Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Neil Cavuto, Steve Doocy, Catherine Herridge, and Brian Kilmeade. How annoying! Thiessen did, too, but on April 25, he finally answered with a posting on the National Review's blog, "The Corner," under the headline: "The West Coast Plot: An 'Inconvenient Truth.' "
Noah cites the fact that Fran Townsend, the Bush administration's homeland-security adviser, told reporters in a February 2006 press briefing that a key cell leader in the West Coast plot was arrested February of 2002. This, Noah points out, is before KSM came into CIA custody and underwent enhanced interrogation. He also notes Townsend said that after the cell leader's capture other cell members "believed" that the plot was not going forward.
I hate to break it to Noah, but this does not refute the fact that KSM's interrogation disrupted the West Coast plot.
Let's review. The cell leader, Masran (not "Marsan," as Thiessen calls him) bin Arshad, was captured 13 months before Sheikh Mohammed. Not good enough, Thiessen says, because bin Arshad "did not lead us to the [other three] members of the cell tasked with carrying out the West Coast plot." Maybe so, but a second member of the cell, Zaini Zakaria ("Mussa"), surrendered to authorities in December 2002. That was three months before Sheikh Mohammed was captured. That left Mohammed Nazir Bin Lep ("Lillie") and Mohamad Farik Bin Amin ("Zubair"), neither of whom knew how to fly a plane.
(Two others with at least some pilot experience may have been involved in the Library Tower plot earlier, but they go unmentioned by Thiessen. These were Zacharias Moussaoui and Abderrauf Jdey. But Moussaoui was arrested before 9/11, and Jdey, who apparently dropped out before 9/11, remains at large—if you happen to see him please notify the Federal Bureau of Investigation—so neither is relevant to this discussion.)
Lillie and Zubair weren't captured until 2003, and apparently they remained involved in terror plots, most notably the August 2003 suicide bombing of a J.W. Marriott in Jakarta, Indonesia, which killed 12 people and injured 144. But they did not continue to pursue the Library Tower plot. We know this because, as Townsend told reporters in February 2006, they believed the Library Tower plan had ended with bin Arshad's capture. That jibes with an October 2003 Time magazine account of Lillie's confession, which states that "as far as Lillie knew, the operation was called off." Lillie was in a position to know pretty far, because he and his co-conspirator Zubair (an old school chum) were both working as top lieutenants to Riduan Isamuddin ("Hambali")—leader of a Southeast Asian al-Qaida affiliate called Jemaah Islamiyah and the man Sheikh Mohammed had directed to organize the Library Tower attack.
Thiessen does his level best to confuse this straightforward narrative by relating a complex tale involving Majid Khan (captured around the same time as Sheikh Mohammed) and Hambali's little brother Rusman Gunawan ("Gun Gun"). The gist is that al-Qaida gave $50,000 to Khan, who gave it to Zubair. Thiessen seems to imply that the money was for the Library Tower plot, but a March 2007 transcript of Zubair's tribunal hearing says it was actually "used to fund a safe house and to purchase materials for the J.W. Marriott attack in Jakarta." Thiessen asserts that Khan was "another key operative in the West Coast plot," but I can find no evidence of this in the public record, which by now is pretty extensive; it went unmentioned, for instance, at Khan's April 2007 tribunal hearing. (The rap against Khan, who resided in Baltimore but was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan, is that Sheikh Mohammed chose him for some sort of attack in the United States, possibly involving the detonation of gas stations or the poisoning of reservoirs—the details are very unclear—or, alternatively, to assassinate Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, in a suicide attack.) After 9/11, Khan did introduceSheikh Mohammed to an American named Iyman Faris, with whom Sheikh Mohammed discussed the Library Tower plot, but Faris ended up getting involved in an entirely different plot (which Faris quickly judged impractical) to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its cables.
Thiessen goes on to assert that Gun Gun (arrested in Pakistan six months after Sheikh Mohammed's capture and later jailed in Indonesia for his role in the J.W. Marriott bombing) was "the leader of [a second] cell that was to carry out the West Coast plot." Again, I can find no evidence of this in the public record.
In both instances, I strongly suspect that Thiessen runs afoul of the distinction between the Library Tower plot and what Sheikh Mohammed referred to as the post-9/11 "Second Wave" of attacks. They are not the same thing. Yet the two terms are used interchangeably in the May 30 Justice Department memo on which Thiessen bases his argument and perhaps (it's hard to tell) in a CIA "effectiveness memo" cited in that same Justice Department memo. "You have informed us," writes Stephen G. Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney general, "that the interrogation of KSM—once enhanced techniques were employed—led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' 'to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into' a building in Los Angeles." In fact, though, Second Wave, a term apparently used by Sheikh Mohammed himself, could refer to any one of a variety of possible post-9/11 attacks in the United States—none of them very far along in the planning—of which the Library Tower plot was only one. Sheikh Mohammed's use of the term was sufficiently imprecise that it drove his CIA interrogators a little batty. Second Wave, they complained, "has meant different things over the course of Sheikh Mohammed's debriefings." Asked finally to clarify, Sheikh Mohammed said Second Wave referred (here I quote the CIA's paraphrase) "to efforts begun in parallel with the 9/11 plot to identify and train pilots and muscle for additional 9/11-style strikes in the United States." In a final statement (read by his lawyer) at his March 2007 tribunal hearing, Sheikh Mohammed said:
I was responsible for planning, training, surveying, and financing the New (or Second) Wave attacks [italics mine] against the following skycrapers after 9/11:
a.) Library Tower, California
b.) Sears Tower, Chicago
c.) Plaza Bank, Washington State
d.) The Empire State Building, New York City
Sheikh Mohammed then went on to further cite plots to bomb suspension bridges in New York City, to destroy the New York Stock Exchange, and to assassinate former President Jimmy Carter. Given Sheikh Mohammed's expansive definition, Khan's seemingly inchoate desire to wreak havoc back home in the United States might easily be classified, too, as Second Wave, even though it bore no apparent connection to the Library Tower plot.
And Gun Gun? Thiessen links him to the Library Tower plot via a cell of plotters—not the four Library Tower plotters we've already discussed but a second cell consisting of 17 Indonesians and Malaysians who were arrested in September 2003. Members of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian affiliate led by Gun Gun's brother Hambali, these 17 souls constituted the "Guraba cell." According to Thiessen, they were going to carry out the Library Tower attack, too.
I'm at a disadvantage here because I'm pretty much in the dark about who the Guraba cell members were. Practically the only public reference I can find to them is in that May 30 Justice Department memo, and a quick check with several very reliable terrorism sources yielded nothing. But I have a strong hunch that Thiessen doesn't know who they are, either, outside of the May 30 memo—which mentions them once in reference to Sheikh Mohammed's catchall phrase "Second Wave" and once in reference to the "planned Second Wave attacks against Los Angeles." My best guess is that this second reference arises from a mistaken belief by the memo's Justice Department author, Bradbury, that Second Wave and Library Tower attack meant the same thing.Bradbury was a lawyer, not an intelligence official,and therefore unlikely to make much independent effort to find out where in the United States the Guruba cell planned its mischief. Surely someone inside the Bush administration knew, though. And if the Bush White House knew the Library Tower plot wasn't truly foiled until the Guraba cell bust in the fall of 2003, what possible reason would it have had to broadcast, repeatedly, years later, that the Library Tower plot was foiled in 2002?
[Update, April 28: A reader kindly informs me that among the "Second Wave" buildings Sheikh Mohammed "admitted" he'd plotted to destroy after the CIA waterboarded him 183 times, the Plaza Bank in Washington State seems especially farfetched. That's because the only bank bearing that name in the Evergreen State wasn't even founded until three years after Sheikh Mohammed was taken into custody. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer puzzled over this riddle at the time of Sheikh Mohammed's tribunal hearing.]
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of the U.S. Bank Tower by David McNew/Getty Images.