POLITICS
12/09/2014 01:34 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

The Inside Story Of How The CIA Actually Caught The 9/11 Mastermind, But Nearly Didn't

WASHINGTON -- Buried in the 500-page Senate report on the Bush administration's CIA torture program, made public for the first time on Tuesday, is a description of how the U.S. captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Despite the Bush administration's assertions that "enhanced interrogation" methods helped lead to his capture, his seizure was actually the result of a conventional human intelligence relationship -- a relationship that the CIA did everything it could to bungle and nearly destroy.

President George W. Bush indicated in a Sept. 6, 2006, speech that information from the torture of Abu Zubaydah identified and led to the capture of 9/11 conspirator Ramzi bin al-Shibh, which ultimately led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (often referred to as KSM). In the speech, Bush described the CIA's enhanced interrogation procedures as "safe and lawful and necessary."

"Zubaydah was questioned using these procedures, and soon he began to provide information on key Al Qaeda operatives, including information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the 11th," said Bush.

But the Tuesday report finds that, "Contrary to CIA representations, there are no CIA records to support the assertion that Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, or any other CIA detainee played any role in the 'the planning and execution of the operation that captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.'" It was a CIA asset, referred to in the report as Asset X, who provided the information. In the report, the CIA officer who handled Asset X says it "was a [human intelligence operation] pretty much from start to finish."

The report states that CIA officers had already identified Asset X prior to Sept. 11. Within a few weeks of the attacks, the agency sought him out for information because his access to KSM "was readily apparent." After the second meeting between Asset X and CIA officers -- the date is redacted -- CIA officers reported that Asset X was "very willing to clandestinely assist the [U.S. government] as directed," the report says.

The CIA nearly blew its relationship with Asset X, however. The report notes that the CIA station (an agency bureau in a foreign country) “rejected the CIA case officer's recommended financial compensation for ASSET X,” after which the asset declined to work with the CIA. Following those late 2001 meetings, the CIA lost track of Asset X for nine months. The report notes that the CIA "continued to believe that ASSET X had the potential to develop information on KSM and his location, and sought, but was unable to reestablish contact with ASSET X."

The CIA found him in 2002 (again, the date is redacted), but the asset's original CIA handler had changed posts. The asset was reassigned to another officer, “who was unfamiliar with ASSET X's potential utility in tracking KSM.” This new case officer “sent several cables to CIA Headquarters” to try to get guidance on dealing with Asset X, “which he later described as disappearing into a ‘black hole,’” according to the report.

The report says the cables were sent to a special compartment at CIA headquarters, but the "compartment was idle and no one at CIA Headquarters was receiving and reading the cables." When the new case officer got no response, he made preparations to terminate the CIA’s relationship with Asset X. The report notes that “by chance,” another officer who had previously handled Asset X was visiting the station and overheard discussion about terminating the relationship. The visiting officer advised them to delay the termination, and the CIA decided not to end the relationship.

After reconnecting with Asset X, the report notes that there was ongoing “internal debate” at the CIA about the best use of his access to KSM. “ALEC Station initially supported immediate action to capture any KSM associate ASSET X could lead them to, before reversing its position on February [REDACTED], 2003.” While the agency debated, Asset X traveled to Islamabad, “where he was surprised to find KSM.” He sent a text message to his CIA handler that said “I M W KSM.”

The next portion of the report is heavily redacted, but it indicates that Asset X’s information helped lead to Pakistani authorities capturing KSM on March 1, 2003. Indeed, the agency was confident enough in Asset X's centrality in finding KSM that when he began to go wobbly, a case officer reminded him why he should push forward: "Look brother, there are 25 million frigging reasons," the officer said, according to a CIA oral history cited in the report. He was referring to the reward available to anybody who helped find KSM -- a $25 million payout that would ultimately be given to Asset X.

In its response to the torture report, the CIA describes the Senate's version of the account as an "incorrect repetition of an error made by a CIA officer in a cable in 2003." The CIA's response also states that the Senate report "fails to note that detainees gave us the critical information on KSM."

"CIA should have been more precise in laying out the role that the various elements of the program played in this complicated case, but we stand by the assessment that detainee information contributed to KSM's capture," the agency wrote.

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