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Harsh terror interrogations were necessary, legal and effective

By Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., Special to CNN
updated 9:53 AM EDT, Thu May 10, 2012
In this courtroom drawing, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed sits in court Saturday at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In this courtroom drawing, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed sits in court Saturday at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former CIA official Jose Rodriguez: It's a myth that detainees were tortured
  • He says the methods used were legal and saved lives
  • Rodriguez: Media exaggerated the degree to which harsh techniques were used

Editor's note: Editor's note: Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., the former director of the National Clandestine Service for the Central Intelligence Agency, served for 31 years at the agency. He is the author, with Bill Harlow, of the new book, "Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives."

(CNN) -- The arraignment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others charged as terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, over the weekend was widely described by the media as a "circus."

While the antics of these al Qaeda terrorists were certainly colorful, I would like to take a moment to focus on the performance of an entirely different group, the journalists who covered the proceedings.

While most reporters have been careful to write that those who were arraigned are "alleged" to have committed terrorism (an allegation Mohammed has previously gleefully accepted), they are less careful when discussing the treatment these top terrorists received at the hands of the CIA.

Mohammed, four others charged in 9/11 attacks

Jose Rodriguez
Jose Rodriguez

As I detail in my new book: "Hard Measures, How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives," there are many myths surrounding the detention of a relatively small number of top terrorists at CIA-run "black sites" from 2002 until they were sent to Guantanamo Bay in 2006.

The biggest myth is that the detainees were "tortured." Some of the stories coming out of Gitmo this past weekend simply state that as a fact. There is no "allegedly" attached to the allegation in these stories. About 30 out of the 100 or so detainees that the CIA held were subjected to some harsh treatment.

But the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice assured us in writing that the treatment was specifically not torture.

Arraignment for 9/11 suspects chaotic

Many of the techniques were essentially bluffs -- designed to get the attention of a detainee and perhaps scare him -- but to cause no physical harm.

Some of the stories this weekend talked of "years" of abusive treatment these detainees endured. In fact, the enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) that CIA used were applied at most for only 30 days. On average, it was much less.

Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee subjected to EITs, received them for less than three weeks. Mohammed's period of harsh -- but legal and necessary -- treatment was even less.

The public impression, aided and abetted by the media, is that the practice of waterboarding was rampant.

In fact, only three detainees: Mohammed, Zubaydah and one other were ever waterboarded, the last one more than nine years ago. Many of the stories this weekend repeated the assertion that Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times. But 183 is a count of the number of pours of water from a plastic water bottle. Mohammed told the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2007 that he had been waterboarded five times.

If his story has now changed, it is only to match the media narrative.

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Some will say it doesn't matter how many times Mohammed was waterboarded -- the practice is brutal and must never be used. What goes unacknowledged is that in addition to the three terrorists, the United States has waterboarded tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel.

If the practice is torture for the al Qaeda operative who masterminded the killing of three thousand Americans, why weren't there court-martials in the cases of those thousands of servicemen similarly treated as part of their training?

There is no doubt that the detainees will try to use the legal proceedings as a soapbox to spout their contempt for America -- a contempt already indelibly displayed by such acts as ordering passenger jets to fly into iconic buildings or, in the case of Mohammed, personally beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

In my book, I detail the critical information we obtained from al Qaeda terrorists after they became compliant following a short period of enhanced interrogation. I have no doubt that that interrogation was legal, necessary and saved lives.

It is good that these terrorists are now facing justice, but in the reporting of the case, it would be helpful if the media didn't help them with their propaganda mission by unquestioningly repeating false information about their detention.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jose A. Rodriguez Jr.

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