Former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who was part of the team which interrogated captured al Qaeda leader Abu Zubayda, appeared Tuesday on the CBS and NBC morning shows, but while CBS's Harry Smith was most interested in how water boarding led Zubayda to reveal future attack plans, on NBC's Today show Matt Lauer focused on fueling political scandal over the use of torture: He zeroed in on getting Kiriakou to confirm the authority to water board came from the White House and to contradict President Bush's insistence the U.S. does not use torture while Lauer contended the videos were destroyed to eliminate “incriminating evidence.”
Lauer wanted to know: “Where was the permission given, in your opinion? The highest levels of the CIA? Was the White House involved in that decision?” Lauer soon played 2006 video of President Bush telling Lauer the U.S. doesn't employ torture and then prodded Kiriakou to disagree with Bush. Wrapping up the segment, Lauer wondered: “Can you think of any reason why the CIA would have destroyed the tapes of those interrogations other than to destroy valuable and incriminating evidence in a possible torture investigation?” When Kiriakou suggested a more innocent explanation that “somebody just wasn't thinking and they went ahead and did it without, without thought,” Lauer countered: “That's somewhat naive.”
In contrast, on CBS's The Early Show, Harry Smith asked: “This technique was used on Zabayda to what result?” Kiriakou answered: “The result was that he opened up and cooperated fully.” Smith added: “Right, he literally cracked like an egg.” Smith soon pushed Kiriakou to elaborate: “So he's water boarded, he cracks like an egg, the next morning he gets up, he says he has a vision, what kind of information did he impart then?” Kiriakou: “He gave us detailed information on planned al Qaeda attacks.”
(In soundbites aired in a story from David Martin later on Tuesday's CBS Evening News, Kiriakou recalled that in 2002 “we were so worried that there was some major attack being prepared” and how “it was that information that he provided after the water boarding that allowed us to disrupt so many different terrorist operations...there was a truck loaded with explosives that we were able to intercept.”)
In the September of 2006 Oval Office interview with Bush which Lauer highlighted with Kiriakou, Lauer had lectured the President about the type a facility used to hold Zubayda: “The head of Amnesty International says secret sites are against international law.”
While NBC's Matt Lauer baited Senator Hillary Clinton on Monday's Today to admonish the administration and to say we're not safer, he attacked the President for, in fact, trying to make the nation safer. Lauer prompted Clinton: "Are you comfortable that the United States did not break the law in conducting that kind of interrogations in those secret sites?" Then later in the program, Lauer repeatedly pressed Bush over interrogation methods used on terrorists: "The head of Amnesty International says secret sites are against international law." Lauer worried: "Are you at all concerned that at some point, even if you get results, there is a blurring the lines of, between ourselves and the people we're trying to protect us against?"
The September 11 CyberAlert recounted (NewsBusters version): Friday's NBC Nightly News previewed an exchange between President Bush and Matt Lauer in the Oval Office, part of a longer session that will air on Monday's Today show, in which Lauer cited Amnesty International as the authority to undermine Bush's assertion that secret prisons to hold al-Qaeda operatives are legal. When Lauer indicted Bush, painting Bush as guilty of some kind of misdeed -- "You admitted that there were these CIA secret facilities" -- Bush scoffed: "So what? Why is that not within the law?" Lauer then retorted: "The head of Amnesty International says secret sites are against international law." Bush countered: "Most American people, if I said that we had who we think's the mastermind of the 9/11, they would say, 'Why don't you see if you can't get information out of him without torturing,' which is what we did."
The MRC's Kyle Drennen corrected the closed-captioning against the video to provide this transcript of the December 11 Early Show segment on CBS:
HARRY SMITH: The Director of the CIA testifies behind closed doors on Capitol Hill today about the controversial destruction of videotapes that recorded the interrogations of two terror suspects. John Kiriakou is a former CIA officer who led the raid which captured the Al Qaeda operative Abu Zabada. And he joins us this morning in New York. Good morning.
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Good morning.
SMITH: Let's talk about this a little bit, because we have done segments on water boarding before on this show, shown what it's about. Many, even former CIA officials, say that this is in fact torture. This technique was used on Zabayda to what result?
KIRIAKOU: The result was that he opened up and cooperated fully.
SMITH: Right, he literally cracked like an egg.
KIRIAKOU: It was quite dramatic.
SMITH: Yeah, how long in the process of the water boarding did it take before he divulged his information.
KIRIAKOU: He lasted about 30 or 35 seconds-
SMITH: 35 seconds.
KIRIAKOU: And then he said he couldn't take it anymore.
KIRIAKOU: The next morning, he said Alla had come to his cell and told him to cooperate because it would make it easier on the other brothers who had been captured.
SMITH: Right, and how long had he been in the interrogation process before the water boarding took place?
KIRIAKOU: Well, he wasn't interrogated for about four weeks at first, because he was so severely wounded in the capture. But then it was about, I guess, four or five weeks before he was finally water boarded.
SMITH: Right, so he's water boarded, he cracks like an egg, the next morning he gets up, he says he has a vision, what kind of information did he impart then?
KIRIAKOU: He gave us detailed information on planned al Qaeda attacks. Once that information became a little bit dated, he began providing information on al Qaeda's leaders and different kinds of operations that they might be conceptualizing.
SMITH: Right, right. This controversy and discussion continues in this country about water boarding. Do you consider water boarding torture?
KIRIAKOU: I do consider it torture. This is something that I have struggled with for several years, because even though I do believe it's torture, I think that it was necessary at the time. Because the information was so -- was so important. And we were so worried about another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, we had no other way of getting the information in a short period of time.
SMITH: Right, alright. Thank you very, very much John.
The MRC's Geoffrey Dickens provided this transcript of the December 11 Today show session on NBC:
MATT LAUER, TOP OF SHOW TEASE: Also members of Congress are gonna have some very tough questions for the head of the CIA this morning. Among them, why did the CIA destroy videotapes of the interrogation and water boarding of a top al Qaeda operative. This, as a former CIA agent, directly involved in the capture of that operative contradicts the White House and the Justice Department saying that, in fact, the United States used torture to get that al Qaeda operative to crack. We'll talk to that CIA agent in just a couple of minutes.
LAUER, SETTING UP A STORY: Now to the CIA under fire today. Did it try to cover up the harsh tactics used to get al Qaeda suspects to talk? NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell has more on that. Andrea, good morning to you.
[On screen headline: "CIA Under Fire, Former Agent Defends Torture"]
LAUER, AFTER THE MITCHELL PIECE: The former CIA agent, you just saw in Andrea's piece, John Kiriakou led the team that captured al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah. Now he calls the water boarding that was used on Zubayda, torture. Mr. Kiriakou, good morning, nice to see you.
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Thanks for having me.
LAUER: Let's compare and contrast. When, when Zubayda was arrested in Pakistan and you were the first person to question him back in 2002 what was his level of cooperation? What information did he give you?
KIRIAKOU: He was in terrible physical condition when we first captured him. He had been shot in the operation to capture him and he was in a coma for, for much of the first several days. He finally came out of it and at first was just speaking nonsensically. He wanted a glass of red wine, for example. Then he asked me if I would smother him with a pillow. But once he really came out of it and began talking he expressed regret for the, for the attacks and things like that.
LAUER: Fast forward and Zubayda is sent to one of these secret locations somewhere. You will not disclose that and I understand why and he was questioned using these so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques."
LAUER: Were you actively involved in the decision to use those techniques?
KIRIAKOU: I was not.
LAUER: Where was the permission given, in your opinion? The highest levels of the CIA? Was the White House involved in that decision?
KIRIAKOU: Absolutely. This is, this isn't something that's done willy-nilly. It's not something that, that an agency officer just wakes up in the morning and decides he's going to carry out an enhanced technique on a prisoner. This was a policy decision that was made at the White House with concurrence from the National Security Council and Justice Department.
LAUER: Was it blanket permission for this particular prisoner? In other words, use it no matter what, or did there have to be permission before each interrogation?
KIRIAKOU: Before each interrogation but more than that before each technique was used. For example, if, if you want to water board someone, you have to come in with a cable with a, with a well laid out, well thought out reason for wanting to do something like this.
LAUER: Alright so water boarding the guy is laid on his back, a cloth over his face, water is poured on that cloth, it simulates the feeling of drowning. Fair description?
KIRIAKOU: It does.
LAUER: In your opinion torture or not torture?
KIRAKOU: I think, yes, torture. I'm, I'm not saying that it wasn't necessary at the time and I'll let the lawyers decide if it's legal or not. But at the time I think it was necessary to disrupt terrorist attacks.
LAUER: But it was torture, in your opinion?
KIRIAKOU: I believe it was.
LAUER: Let me play you something that President Bush said to me about a year-and-a-half ago on this very subject in the Oval Office.
[BEGIN CLIP FROM SEPTEMBER 2006 INTERVIEW]
GEORGE W. BUSH: Matt, I'm not gonna talk about techniques and I'm not gonna explain to the enemy what we're doing. All I'm telling you is that you've asked me whether or not we're doing things to protect the American people and I want the American people to know we are doing so. [edit jump] I told our people get information without torture and was assured by our Justice Department that we were not torturing.
LAUER: You disagree.
KIRIAKOU: I disagree. I know that there was a high level policy debate on whether or not this was torture and that the Department of Justice and the White House Counsel and the National Security Council decided that it was not, at the time.
LAUER: The, the criticism is this, John. That under no circumstances should we cross the line, in this country, and resort to torture. Yours is somewhat of a nuanced opinion on that.
KIRIAKOU: It is and it's something that, that a lot of us at the agency struggled with as these decisions were being made and implemented. We, we wanted to do anything we could to disrupt future terrorist attacks especially on American soil. But at the same time you have to sleep with yourself at night.
LAUER: And yet I understand that today you would not agree, you would not agree that it's proper. However, so if we were to get another top level al Qaeda operative and learned that an attack might be imminent you would say, today, we shouldn't use this?
KIRIAKOU: Well we, we've had six years since September 11th to develop sources of information inside al Qaeda. We've had six years to, to work our relationships with foreign governments and foreign intelligence services to help them work their sources in al Qaeda.
LAUER: But if you've got that guy in front of you has the valuable information on potential threat coming, an attack coming, you can't be half-pregnant.
KIRIAKOU: No you can't be but I think enough time has passed and we've, we've been able to make enough in-roads into some of these groups that we don't need enhanced techniques to really get that nugget of information.
LAUER: Finally do you see any reason, can you think of any reason why the CIA would have destroyed the tapes of those interrogations other than to destroy valuable and incriminating evidence in a possible torture investigation?
KIRIAKOU: I want to believe that, that somebody just wasn't thinking and they went ahead and did it without, without thought for-
LAUER: You've been 14 years in the CIA.
KIRIAKOU: I know, I know.
LAUER: That's somewhat naive.
KIRIAKOU: It is, it is and I want to think the best but I think it was just a terrible mistake, at the very least, for the historical record.
LAUER: And it destroyed evidence.
KIRIAKOU: I think it did.
LAUER: John Kiriakou, Mr. Kiriakou, thanks for your time this morning.
KIRIAKOU: Thanks for having me.