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The Truth Left Behind: Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie

April 25th 2011

Terrorism - Daniel Pearl

On Thursday, October 16, 2003, a warm and slightly overcast day in Washington, D.C., White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice called Daniel Pearl’s widow, Mariane, with some startling information. It was their first conversation ever, and Mariane was caught off guard.

In a cool voice, Rice delivered blockbuster news that would tie the Pearl abduction-murder to the horrors of the 9/11 attacks that preceded it. “We have now established enough links and credible evidence to think that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was involved in your husband’s murder,” Rice said. KSM, as he was called, was the alleged mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.

“What do you mean ‘involved?’” Mariane Pearl asked. Since the earliest days of discovering that her husband had been murdered, she had suspected Al Qaeda’s involvement. She had never been satisfied with the July 2002 convictions of Omar Sheikh and three co-defendants as closing the case.

“We think he committed the actual murder,” Rice responded.

Rice doled out her information selectively. She didn’t tell Mariane Pearl how officials had reached that conclusion or what evidence they had to back it up. She did not offer any proof that KSM was the killer, nor identify his accomplices in the murder. Most significantly, Rice didn’t let on to what was then one of the Bush administration’s most closely-held secrets—that KSM was being held in a secret CIA prison and had been subjected to waterboarding and other hard-core interrogation techniques. Those facts would turn out to have major consequences. They both raised questions about the reliability of KSM’s confession and created a major obstacle to ever trying him in a U.S. criminal court for Pearl’s murder.


Rice made a similar call to The Wall Street Journal’s managing editor Paul Steiger, who in turn called John Bussey, the paper’s foreign editor, to discuss running a story. There was no question in their minds that this was an important development in the investigation of the murder of their colleague. And Rice had not specifically requested that the conversation be considered off the record, that is, not usable for publication. The editors decided to run a story in the newspaper’s Monday edition. Bussey passed the assignment to Steve LeVine, who had known Pearl and worked with him in Pakistan.

On Friday, the day after Rice called Mariane, Frederick Jones II, deputy press secretary at the National Security Council, called back after learning that The Wall Street Journal was preparing a news story. According to the widow, he expressed outrage. “We’re angry that the Wall Street Journal is doing a story. We called The Wall Street Journal as Danny’s employer,” Jones told Mariane.

Jones later told the Pearl Project that he could not recall details about the phone call, but he said Rice would have made the call to Steiger assuming it would be off the record, not to be published, since the Pearl investigation was ongoing. The Wall Street Journal had spoken to U.S. officials during the investigation to find Pearl with those ground rules. Rice “would have called Steiger as someone who had been involved in the story and [as] this gentleman’s employer,” Jones said. “We do a lot of things as humans and as people. Daniel Pearl was another American citizen that people cared about.”

In response to the National Security Council’s concerns, the editors agreed to cite Rice anonymously as a “government official” in the article. That gave Rice some deniability and made it harder for other reporters to advance the story, which might have led them in the direction of the CIA’s secret activities. Renditions, secret prisons, and “black sites” weren’t yet part of the post-9/11 lexicon. Journalists would only soon start writing about secret detentions.

Despite the certainty expressed by Rice, KSM’s culpability was not a sure thing to everyone. His possible role had surfaced in a January 26, 2003, Time magazine story when reporters identified KSM as the man wielding the knife, citing Pakistani police interrogation of a guard, Fazal Karim. Still, could the confession of a top terrorist be believed or was he just eager to boost his own importance by claiming responsibility for a string of high-profile terrorist acts? Further, there was the issue of whether a confession extracted from waterboarding was reliable. Experts say that someone subject to torture will say anything to make it stop.

FBI agent Michael Dick, one of the agents sent to Pakistan immediately after Pearl’s abduction, still was looking for some confirmation in early 2004, some four months after the Journal’s story on KSM. He knew that the alleged 9/11 mastermind was in secret custody. He wasn’t privy to the interrogation tactics used against KSM.

Dick edited the Pearl murder video to create still photos of frames of the video that showed the hand of the masked killer. His idea was to see if the beefy right hand matched KSM’s. He turned to a CIA officer assigned to the FBI as a liaison officer. Dick asked him: Could he send the still to his CIA colleagues holding KSM? The liaison officer agreed to the request. A response soon arrived: “The photo you sent me and the hand of our friend inside the cage seem identical to me.”

The distinguishable feature: the bulging vein that ran across the murderer’s hand. Vascular technology, or “vein-matching,” is a forensics technology that has not been widely tested. It’s popular among some forensics experts, but is not as reliable as other biometrics techniques such as fingerprints. However, the CIA and FBI sometimes use this type of technology in order to identify suspects. By extracting the information of the vascular structure of a hand or finger and converting it into a mathematical quantity, this technology creates a template for each structure and then compares the template of a known individual to a suspect.

The FBI agent was ecstatic. This was informal confirmation, and now he wanted to go through channels to get official documentation to add to the evidence against KSM. He asked Jay Kanetkar, the FBI case agent on the Pearl case, to send a forensic scientist to KSM to confirm the match. Eager to get the evidence, Dick went to the acting chief in his unit, Ed Dickson. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” Dickson responded, according to people familiar with the conversation.

The agent protested. Dickson reiterated his point: “Don't mess with the case.” The caution reflected two concerns: keeping distance from CIA activities and upsetting the Omar Sheikh convictions by bringing in a suspect who actually wielded the murder weapon. The agent walked away, frustrated.

In 2006, in a nondescript building in the northern Virginia suburbs, outside Washington, D.C., retired Army Col. Robert Swann, a lead military prosecutor, sat at his computer and accessed a database with the interrogation reports, evidentiary files, and other information against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other high value detainees.

Among the evidence Swann pulled up were two images. Col. Morris Davis, chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo Bay military commissions at the time, studied them quickly. One was a still of the killer’s hand, the one from the video. There was just one murder video that the FBI had received; but it had been edited for distribution on the Internet. The video in FBI custody has better resolution than the one circulated on the Internet.

The second image was a close up of KSM’s hand in the same position, photographed while he was in CIA custody. Davis had heard the story of how KSM was told to hold his hand in a specific pose—to replicate the video image—but wasn’t told why he had to hold it that way.

And, indeed, forensic experts had found that the hands matched precisely, down to the pattern of the vein that crossed over the back of the hand. “Looking at the two photos, there was nothing that stood out to me to contradict that conclusion,” Davis, who has since left the military to become executive director of the Crimes of War Project, a non-profit group based in Washington, D.C., told the Pearl Project. “I have no reason to doubt that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed killed Daniel Pearl.”

By the summer of 2006, the Bush administration was in a quandary about how to pursue a 9/11 case against the high-value detainees, including KSM. In a July 2006 meeting, more than a dozen people gathered around a conference table at the U.S. Justice Department, not far from the room where the U.S. had held proceedings on Nazi war criminals. This time, Justice Department, CIA, and military lawyers gathered, including Davis, the military prosecutor.

The team believed KSM’s confession of the Pearl murder, Davis recalled. But it had a strategy for bundling the cases against five of the detainees, including KSM, for the 9/11 attacks. If KSM was charged with the Pearl case, too, it would unravel the prosecutorial strategy because the other four defendants would say they weren’t involved in the Pearl case, and their cases should be separated from KSM’s case. Complicating matters, U.S. officials had initially gotten KSM’s murder confession during the controversial interrogation tactic of “waterboarding”—casting doubt that it could be used in court.

For the time being, then, the complete truth about Pearl would have to wait. Beyond KSM’s confession, the U.S. government has never revealed any corroborating evidence. After scores of interviews, the Pearl Project found that the best evidence U.S. officials have against KSM is the vein match.

On September 6, 2006, almost five years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, President Bush publicly acknowledged for the first time that the United State had secret prisons outside the country where “high value” detainees—mainly suspects in the “war on terror”—were held and interrogated. That month, “high value” detainees were transferred to the U.S. Defense Department’s prison at Guantanamo Bay. Among them: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his young nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali. The news that KSM had been waterboarded a total of 183 times would come out only later.

In early 2007, John Bauman, who had been U.S. consul general in Karachi at the time of Pearl’s kidnapping, had an opportunity to talk firsthand to Rice—by then Secretary of State—about KSM’s confession. He had moved to Berlin in late 2002 as minister-counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy. On February 5, 2007, Bauman was assigned to greet Rice at the Berlin airport. During the 10-minute ride to her hotel, Bauman reminded her that his last assignment had been in Karachi during the Pearl episode. “Of course you know that KSM has admitted to this,” she told him, apparently satisfied that the issue was settled.

The next month, the Pentagon made KSM’s confession public.

On March 14, 2007, U.S. Navy Lt. Commander J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, prepared to release the transcript of KSM’s proceedings before a military tribunal four days earlier in Guantanamo Bay. During the course of that session, the Al Qaeda operational chief claimed responsibility for Pearl’s murder, along with a lengthy list of other attacks and plots.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called Pearl’s parents to let them know they were about to release KSM’s confession to the public. Ruth Pearl, the slain journalist’s mother, remembered, “We spent most of the evening convincing him personally that publishing the statement will only serve KSM and will not be in the interest of the United States to give him that platform. He was convinced and stopped it, but at five in the morning they let us know that it was leaked to the media.”

At the Pentagon, Gordon started redacting KSM’s statements about Pearl’s murder and released the redacted transcript. Across the Potomac River at the Justice Department, Gonzales also called Mariane Pearl to tell her the Defense Department was about to announce that KSM had confessed to killing her husband.

The next morning, the Defense Department released the full transcript of the hearing, including the confession redacted the night before: “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head.”

He went on to say the killing was “not related” to Al Qaeda, but just to Pakistani “mujahedeen” groups. He said Pearl drew attention by seeking to track Richard Reid’s activities, and he repeated unfounded allegations that Pearl was working for the CIA and Israel’s Mossad.

In October 2007, at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, KSM had visitors. One he knew: FBI agent Frank Pellegrino, who had pursued him since the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He had interviewed him earlier in the year about 9/11. With him was an FBI analyst and another agent, John Mulligan, who had jetted to Karachi in the days after Pearl’s kidnapping.

“No one’s happy with the resolution of the Daniel Pearl case,” said an FBI agent. “If he did it, we want him prosecuted.”

Pellegrino explained Mulligan was there to ask about the Pearl murder. First, the men took photos of KSM’s hands in various positions. “I know what you’re doing,” Mohammed said at one point, repeating what he had supposedly said in CIA custody.

What they were doing was very simple: They wanted their own confirmation that KSM’s hand matched that of the man who killed Pearl.

Mulligan left the interview convinced KSM was the murderer. Pellegrino wasn’t sure. It had been a year and two months between Pearl’s murder and KSM’s arrest. He could have learned details of the murder from other folks. But he had started the interview not believing it was possible. After the interview, he sat on the fence.

Back in the office, Pellegrino looked at the images of KSM’s hand and the killer’s hand. It was enough of a match that he couldn’t rule KSM out. In Pakistan, the news of KSM’s confession was music to the ears of Rai Bashir Ahmad, the grizzled defense attorney that Omar Sheikh had hired to defend him in the 2002 case that sentenced him to death for Pearl’s kidnapping and murder. Bashir said he would file a new appeal that rested on one new fact: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s confession. It would join a long list of appeals, citing errors including contradictions in the evidence introduced in trial.

Asra Q. Nomani, Barbara Feinman Todd, Kira Zalan, Rebecca Tapscott, Bonnie Rollins, Karina Hurley, and Dmitri Ivashchenko write for the Center for Public Integrity, from where this article, part 11 of the Pearl Project series, is reprinted.

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