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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Selective Edits on Interrogation?

On May 21, President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney both gave speeches on national security, specifically focusing on Guantanamo Bay, detainees and interrogation techniques. We combed through the transcripts of both and found a few items worth mentioning from Cheney’s speech.

In defending so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, Cheney quoted Obama’s director of national intelligence, Adm. Dennis C. Blair, as saying that "high value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country." Cheney went on to say that "Blair put that conclusion in writing, only to see it mysteriously deleted in a later version released by the administration."

It’s true that a version of the memo in question, released on April 16 by Blair’s office, did not include the passage Cheney mentions. But Blair also has had more to say on the subject that doesn’t exactly support the vice president’s viewpoint.

The passage Cheney quoted was part of an original draft of the memo leaked to the media. Blair’s office claims it didn’t "mysteriously disappear" from the officially released version. The New York Times reported that "[a] spokeswoman for Admiral Blair said the lines were cut in the normal editing process of shortening an internal memo into a media statement."

A few days later, Blair released another statement in which he said: "The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means. The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

Cheney also claimed that the "enhanced" tactics were used only when interrogators hit a brick wall. "The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed," Cheney said. "They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do." But that has been contradicted by former FBI supervisory special agent Ali Soufan. In an April 22 op-ed piece in the New York Times, Soufan, who questioned high-ranking al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in 2002 using conventional methods, wrote:

Soufan: Under traditional interrogation methods, [Zubaydah] provided us with important actionable intelligence. We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives. There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified."

Additionally, Cheney said that "on numerous occasions, leading members of Congress including the current speaker of the house, were briefed on the program and on the methods." But that is a matter of some debate. As we previously examined, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has raised some questions about the extent to which she was briefed on interrogation methods.