Those CIA memos he got released don't show what he said they'd show.
In April, after the Obama White House released memos documenting the Central Intelligence Agency's use of what the Bush administration called "enhanced interrogation techniques" and what everybody else called "torture," former Vice President Dick Cheney said:
One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is they put out the legal memos, the memos that the CIA got from the Office of Legal Counsel, but they didn't put out the memos that showed the success of the effort. … I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw, that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country.
Cheney went on to say that he'd requested that copies of these reports be made public. In May, the CIA denied Cheney's request, but on Aug. 24, it released the documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Judicial Watch, a conservative nonprofit. You can read the reports. Portions have been redacted, so perhaps the evidence Cheney claims that enhanced interrogation saved American lives has been blacked out. But judging from what's visible to the naked eye, the documents do not provide anything like the vindication that Cheney claims.
The first report, dated July 13, 2004, is titled "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Preeminent Source on al-Qaida." The second report, dated June 3, 2005, is titled "Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against al-Qaida." As the titles suggest, these reports are not about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of water-boarding and other techniques employed to elicit information from enemy combatants; they speak only to the value of the information gleaned from Sheikh Mohammed and other detainees. We know that Sheikh Mohammed and other detainees were water-boarded, but the reports shed no light on what they said before they were water-boarded versus what they said afterward.
To the extent that the two reports explore detainees' reasons for revealing valued information, it is to demonstrate not how difficult it was to elicit but how easy. Sheikh Mohammed, we learn, "appears to have calculated, incorrectly, that we had this information [about al-Qaida's attempts to acquire biological and chemical weapons] already." What a chump! Also, "almost immediately following his capture in March 2003," Sheikh Mohammed "elaborated on his plan to crash commercial airplanes into Heathrow Airport." This was probably because he knew a key plotter was already in custody. But he "withheld details about the evolution of the operation until confronted with"—a cat-o'-nine-tails?—no (yawn), just "reporting from two other operatives knowledgeable concerning the plot." Sheikh Mohammed dropped a dime on Iyman Faris, a truck driver from Ohio with whom Sheikh Mohammed had plotted to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its cables with acetylene torches. Sheikh Mohammed, we learn, gave Faris up "[s]oon after his arrest." Far from a tough nut, the Sheikh Mohammed who emerges from these reports sounds like a regular Chatty Cathy.
Abu Zubaydah (whose importance within al-Qaida later became a matter of some dispute) identified Sheikh Mohammed as 9/11's mastermind "early in his detention," which, a March 29 Washington Post story reported, citing unnamed CIA officials, was before Zubaydah was water-boarded. After Zubaydah was water-boarded, the Post said, "Zubaida's revelations triggered a series of alerts and sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms." Every lead "ultimately dissolved into smoke and shadow, according to high-ranking former U.S. officials with access to classified reports."
It's certainly possible that Sheikh Mohammed, Zubaydah, and others gave up key information after being roughed up. In Sheikh Mohammed's case, we know he was subjected to intensive water-boarding almost immediately; according to one Justice Department memo, he was water-boarded 183 times in March 2003, the same month he was captured. But the two CIA reports do not specify which information came before the water-boarding and which came after. Even if they did, one would need to keep in mind the fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc—just because one thing happens after another thing, that doesn't mean it happened because of that other thing. If, in fact, it was easy to elicit from Sheikh Mohammed the information cited above after he was water-boarded, we might still legitimately wonder exactly how difficult it would have been had the water-boarding never occurred.
Iyman Faris, for the record, had already given up on destroying the Brooklyn Bridge well before Sheikh Mohammed's arrest. (Apparently it's more difficult than it looks. Faris is currently serving 20 years for providing material support to al-Qaida.) Extensive details about al-Qaida's anthrax program had been revealed a year and a half before Sheikh Mohammed's arrest, thanks to the Wall Street Journal's discovery of Ayman al-Zawahiri's disk drive, which it promptly turned over to authorities.
To be fair, Sayf al-Rahman Paracha, whom Sheikh Mohammed gave up in March 2003—they'd plotted to bring explosives into the United States for an attack on New York City—may still have been trying to blow something up in New York when he was captured five months later. (He's currently in Guantanamo.) We don't know, and the two CIA reports don't say. But it doesn't inspire confidence that both reports dwell not on whatever it was that Paracha was up to but, rather, on the Library Tower plot, details of which were revealed by Sheikh Mohammed under interrogation. As I have previously demonstrated at great length, the Library Tower, a building in Los Angeles now known as the U.S. Bank Tower, was in no danger at the time of Sheikh Mohammed's arrest. That's because the plot's ringleader had been captured 13 months before, and the second of four conspirators had been captured three months before. That left two plotters, one of whom has stated that he believed the operation to have been called off. He was in a good position to know, because he was working at the time for Riduan Isamuddin ("Hambali")—leader of a Southeast Asian al-Qaida affiliate called Jemaah Islamiyah and the man Sheikh Mohammed had placed in charge of the Library Tower attack. And, anyway, the plot called for a plane to be flown into the Library Tower, 9/11-style. That particular terror technique failed to remain viable even through 9/11, as the heroism of United Flight 93's passengers demonstrated. And there was another problem: Neither of the two plotters who remained at large knew how to fly a plane.
But don't take my word for it. The Bush White House repeatedly claimed that it had shut down the Library Tower plot for good in February 2002.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Dick Cheney by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images.