Al-Qaida's plot to bomb the Library Tower was not worth torturing anyone over.
The Library Tower? Is that the best that Bush's torture apologists can do?
On April 16, the Obama administration publicly released four Justice Department memos, now repudiated, in which President George W. Bush's administration defined the parameters of what it termed, euphemistically, "enhanced interrogation techniques." This has enlivened the debate about whether water-boarding, walling, Room 101-ing and whatever other torture methods the Bush-era CIA may have used against al-Qaida captives actually prevented acts of terror. Various journalists (Ron Suskind, the Washington Post's Peter Finn and Joby Warrick, the New York Times' Scott Shane) have looked into Bush administration claims that water-boarding Abu Zubaida, the first "high-value" captive, yielded vitally important information, and concluded it did not. We have since learned that Abu Zubaida was water-boarded 83 times. ABC News reported a couple of years ago that water-boarding 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was what prompted him to confess, "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the American Jew, Daniel Pearl." That same report claimed Sheikh Mohammed had been water-boarded only once, an estimate we now know was off by 182. The confession may have been shaky, too. Bernard-Henri Lévy, among others, doubts Sheikh Mohammed killed Pearl. In any event, confessing to past murder had no obvious bearing on future acts of violence.
Now Mark A. Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter, argues in a Washington Post op-ed ("The CIA's Questioning Worked") that justification for the Bush administration's techniques is there for all to see in a memo from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel dated May 30, 2005, one of the four made public.
Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques "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." KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast. The memo explains that "information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the 'Second Wave.' " In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.
Ah, the Library Tower. The thwarting of al-Qaida's attack on it was a favorite talking point of President Bush (though he sometimes called it the "Liberty Tower"; for the past six years, its formal name has been the U.S. Bank Tower). Because the Library Tower is in Los Angeles, the al-Qaida plot to bring it down is sometimes confused with the Millennium Plot, a separate plan to attack Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Day 2000—supported but not organized by al-Qaida—that came much closer to fruition. The Library Tower, designed by I.M. Pei's architectural firm, stands 73 stories high and is the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi. * Sheikh Mohammed initially planned to crash a jetliner into it on 9/11 as part of a scheme involving not four but 10 passenger planes on both coasts. Osama Bin Laden vetoed that as too ambitious and scaled back the plan to focus on New York and Washington. After 9/11, Sheikh Mohammed still hoped to execute the attack on the Library Tower and, working with a Southeast Asian al-Qaida affiliate (the aforementioned Hambali), recruited four terror cell members to carry it out.
The first reason to be skeptical that this planned attack could have been carried out successfully is that, as I've noted before, attacking buildings by flying planes into them didn't remain a viable al-Qaida strategy even through Sept. 11, 2001. Thanks to cell phones, passengers on United Flight 93 were able to learn that al-Qaida was using planes as missiles and crashed the plane before it could hit its target. There was no way future passengers on any flight would let a terrorist who killed the pilot and took the controls fly wherever he pleased.
What clinches the falsity of Thiessen's claim, however (and that of the memo he cites, and that of an unnamed Central Intelligence Agency spokesman who today seconded Thessen's argument), is chronology. In a White House press briefing, Bush's counterterrorism chief, Frances Fragos Townsend, told reporters that the cell leader was arrested in February 2002, and "at that point, the other members of the cell" (later arrested) "believed that the West Coast plot has been canceled, was not going forward" [italics mine]. A subsequent fact sheet released by the Bush White House states, "In 2002, we broke up [italics mine] a plot by KSM to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast." These two statements make clear that however far the plot to attack the Library Tower ever got—an unnamed senior FBI official would later tell the Los Angeles Times that Bush's characterization of it as a "disrupted plot" was "ludicrous"—that plot was foiled in 2002. But Sheikh Mohammed wasn't captured until March 2003.
How could Sheikh Mohammed's water-boarded confession have prevented the Library Tower attack if the Bush administration "broke up" that attack during the previous year? It couldn't, of course. Conceivably the Bush administration, or at least parts of the Bush administration, didn't realize until Sheikh Mohammed confessed under torture that it had already broken up a plot to blow up the Library Tower about which it knew nothing. Stranger things have happened. But the plot was already a dead letter. If foiling the Library Tower plot was the reason to water-board Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, then that water-boarding was more than cruel and unjust. It was a waste of water.
Correction, April 23, 2009:An earlier version of this column stated that Pei was the architect of the Library Tower. The lead architects were Pei's colleagues Henry Cobb and Harold Fredenburgh. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.