THE INTERROGATION: Account of Plot Sets Off Debate Over Credibility

By DAVID JOHNSTON and DON VAN NATTA Jr.

The New York Times

Published: June 17, 2004

WASHINGTON, June 16 - In the Sept. 11 commission reports released Wednesday, the striking portrait of Al Qaeda as a wobbly but determined organization lurching toward its catastrophic strike against America was built largely on the two plot leaders' own words.

In a series of interrogations in secret locations with United States officials, two of the plot masterminds, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, have provided the most detailed account yet of the origins of the Sept. 11 attacks and the challenges faced by the group's top lieutenants.

But their accounts have stirred an unresolved debate about their credibility. Mr. bin al-Shibh, who was captured in 2002, and Mr. Mohammed, who was apprehended in 2003, have been the subjects of highly coercive interrogation methods authorized by the Bush administration for use against high-level Qaeda detainees, senior government officials say. Those methods, some officials said, cast doubt on the reliability of the accounts.

In interviews ear lier this year, some counterterrorism officials in the United States and Europe said that Mr. Mohammed had begun to cooperate and that important breakthroughs were being made in the understanding of the Sept. 11 plot and Al Qaeda's strengths and limitations. "He's singing like a bird," a senior European counterterrorism official said in a recent interview.

Mr. bin al-Shibh has also proven to be cooperative with interrogators, several senior officials said. But they said his cooperation also did not begin immediately. Several senior counterterrorism officials overseas said recently that they understood that both men possibly had begun to cooperate either after being subjected to coercive interrogations or after being threatened with torture, an accusation adamantly denied by American officials.

None of the high-level Qaeda figures like Mr. bin al-Shibh and Mr. Mohammed was questioned under the rules of the Geneva Conventions, which require humane treatment of prisoners in questioning. Senior offic ials have said Mr. Mohammed was "waterboarded," a technique in which his head was pushed under water and he was made to believe that he might drown. Another detainee had a noose placed around his neck.

These techniques have led to a debate within the government about the completeness and reliability of the detainees' statements. While the accounts of Mr. bin al-Shibh and Mr. Mohammed are believed to be mostly credible, the officials said that a significant number of law enforcement and intelligence officials took a more skeptical view than was reflected in the commission reports.

At Wednesday's hearing, at least one commissioner, Fred F. Fielding, wondered aloud about how trustworthy Mr. Mohammed's information was, declaring, "Our concern is that while there's some that can be verified, there are other areas where it certainly could be a source of disinformation for whatever reason." The disagreements are nuanced, but significant. Not all counterterrorism officials believe, for example, that Osama bin Laden exercised the kind of command over the Sept. 11 operation that is described in the report released Wednesday. In part, the officials said, they suspect that the captured Qaeda figures have a strong desire to play down their own roles and have been willing to make it appear that Mr. bin Laden was the dominant figure in an effort to enhance his stature.

Investigators conducted a vast analysis of communications, including cellphone, Internet and courier traffic between the Sept. 11 plotters and their confederates, like Mr. Mohammed, the officials said. That analysis failed to show a close collaboration between them in the months before the attacks and virtually no communication with Mr. bin Laden, a finding that contradicts Wednesday's reports.

As portrayed by Mr. Mohammed and Mr. bin al-Shibh, Mr. bin Laden was far more hands-on than was previously known, establishing attack dates and approving target sites in Washington. His subordinates say he wanted them to try to ram a plane into the White House, though Mohamed Atta, the hijacking leader who died in the 9/11 attacks, and Mr. Mohammed were reported to have been concerned that it might prove to be too difficult.