WASHINGTON — A former speech writer for President George W. Bush said Monday that confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed mocked his CIA interrogators during his March 2003 waterboarding sessions by using his fingers to tick off the number of seconds he would be subjected to near drowning.
"He was communicating to his interrogators that he was on to them," Marc Thiessen said during a panel discussion on what role harsh interrogation tactics might have played in developing the intelligence that led to Osama bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the record about the report, and there was no independent verification of Thiessen's account. Mohammed's lawyer also declined to comment.
Thiessen said Monday that Mohammed knew that agents had to relent after 40 seconds, something he may have divined after undergoing the procedure repeatedly.
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Only two detainees, Mohammed and a Palestinian, Zayn al Abdeen Mohammed Hussein, who's also known as Abu Zubaydah, were waterboarded scores of times, U.S. documents indicate.
Abu Zubaydah underwent the procedure at least 83 times, while Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, according to a Justice Department memo written in 2005, citing a 2004 report by the CIA's inspector general.
A different 2005 Justice Department memo noted in a footnote that "after multiple applications of the waterboard, it may become apparent to the detainee that, however frightening the experience may be, it will not result in death." In another footnote, the memo quoted the CIA's Office of Medical Services as saying that "some subjects unquestionably can withstand a large number" of waterboard applications.
Neither Justice Department memo nor the portions of the CIA inspector general's report that have been made public, however, mentions Mohammed as counting down the seconds during his waterboard sessions.
Thiessen, who now writes a weekly column for the Washington Post, said he learned of Mohammed's actions while researching a book that defends the Bush administration's use of harsh interrogation techniques. He referred to Mohammed's waterboard experience as "183 splashes" administered in five separate sessions.
The description of Mohammed came during a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute prompted by reports that some of the information that led to bin Laden was developed during harsh interrogation at so-called CIA black sites, where several al-Qaida figures were secretly held for years before being transferred to Guantanamo in 2006.
Former Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey said Monday that information from waterboarding "was part of the mosaic" that led to the May 2 raid that killed bin Laden. But U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Friday that CIA director Leon Panetta had personally assured him that harsh interrogations had not resulted in the information that led to bin Laden.
After the session, Thiessen quoted an unidentified interrogator as speaking admiringly of Mohammed's ability to withstand the waterboard: "For a psychopath, you have to give him his props. He's tough," Theissen said the agent told him.
Mohammed, 46, has been held at Guantanamo since September 2006 after Bush ordered the CIA to transfer him to military custody for a war crimes trial.
The Obama administration had planned to try Mohammed in civilian court in New York City, but after Congress banned the Pentagon from spending money to transfer detainees to the U.S. for trial, Attorney General Eric Holder returned the case t o the Pentagon. New charges have yet to be brought.