THE BLOG
12/23/2014 12:51 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

How CIA Torture Didn't Prevent an Attack on Heathrow

Christian Kober via Getty Images

Nine years ago today CIA Director Porter Goss wrote to senior U.S. intelligence officers assuring them that the agency's torture interrogations "produced intelligence that allowed the U.S... to disrupt attacks such as 911-style attacks planned for... Heathrow airport. I can inform you with confidence that this program has allowed the U.S. to save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives."

It wasn't true. There was a rudimentary plot to attack London's busiest airport, but it had been stopped early in its planning -- well before the CIA used torture to force anyone to talk. The summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report released earlier this month details several similar examples where senior CIA officers claimed that so-called enhanced interrogation techniques produced precious information that saved lives.

The Heathrow plot is among the clearest. Heathrow is certainly a prestigious target -- the IRA fired mortars onto runways during a series of attacks in 1994 -- but the CIA didn't prevent an attack on the airport by torturing information out of prisoners.

Here's what happened:

Well before the CIA detained those who, according to the agency, provided the crucial information, the CIA already knew about an Al Qaeda plot to attack Heathrow by hijacking commercial planes taking off from the airport, turning them around, and having them crash back into the airport buildings.

The CIA records studied by the Senate committee show that the four guys behind the plot were all captured between September 2002 and April 2003. Ramzi bin al-Shibh had already given up his information on the plot and co-conspirators before he was subjected to torture by the CIA.

When the CIA started torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed over his part in the Heathrow plan, he made stuff up. In other words, the valuable information that the CIA used to stop the attacks was gained without torture, and the useless stuff with it. Torture isn't bad because it doesn't work, just as slavery isn't bad because it's economically inefficient. Torture is immoral. But torture is also ineffective if you want to get detainees to give up useful information, or "actionable intel," in spy jargon.

The CIA continued to insist for years afterwards that its enhanced interrogation had made the difference -- the agency had President Bush say so in a September 2006 speech. "These are some of the plots that have been stopped because of this vital [enhanced interrogation] program. Terrorists in CIA custody... have helped stop a plot to hijack passenger planes and fly them into Heathrow," he said.

This clearly wasn't true, and the CIA knew it. As the Senate report notes, not only did the agency get the information without torturing its detainees, the Heathrow plot was nowhere near being executed when it was stopped. There was "a wide body of intelligence reporting [which] indicated that no operatives were informed of the plot, no pilots were ever identified by al Qaida for the attacks, and only schedules of potential flights were collected for review." This was not a "ticking time bomb" scenario, and even if it had been there's nothing to suggest that torturing information out of prisoners would have been the way to stop it.

The Heathrow plot is just one of many the CIA falsely claimed were stopped by its enhanced interrogation techniques. The Senate report says "The thwarting of the Heathrow Airport and Canary Wharf [another London target] plotting is one of the eight most frequently cited examples provided by the CIA as evidence of the effectiveness of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques." The other claims look just as unconvincing, including that it was the CIA's enhanced interrogation that disrupted plans to detonate a radiological bomb in Washington, D.C. and attacks on California's tallest building.

But nine years on and some people are still slow learners, insisting that the torture was justified because it was a lesser evil than the killing of thousands of innocents. That was never the choice, as the Senate report shows. The real choice was between torture that doesn't work and other techniques that do. The CIA simply chose the wrong option then refused to admit it.​