March 15, 2007 -- Forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner, M.D., a special consultant to ABC News, has worked with prosecutors and defense attorneys on numerous cases where confessions are alleged to have been coerced or even false. He has written and lectured widely on the psychology behind terrorists and their leaders. We asked him to look closely at the Mohammed confession, as revealed in released documents.
How controlled is Mohammed in his statement? Is he being led into his confession?
Mohammed demonstrates an agile mind, spontaneous expression and very active initiative. From offering alibis to witnesses and co-combatants who would create confusion on his behalf as to whether he owned a particular computer possessing incriminating evidence, to downplaying his role, to offering criticism of the process and its detainees, to clasping to his identity and his mission. Whatever Mohammed has been exposed to, it has neither dimmed his allegiance, nor the zealotry of his ideas, nor his willingness to speak up and contest or protest. Likewise, he refers indirectly to his capacity to ramble unedited and how others might expect that of him.
In my professional experience, coerced confessions offer far less substance and initiated material, and require far more direction than is provided Mr. Mohammed here. There is no reason for him to have been coerced to take responsibility for many of the less sensational escapades listed in the unclassified portions of his admissions, given his admissions to other crimes. In my professional experience, qualities of a coerced confession reflect in law enforcement forcing admission of the most serious and meaningful charges, even to the end that lesser events and offenses are overlooked in their questioning because their priority of incriminating a suspect has been achieved. This was not the case here.
It is essential to note Mr. Mohammed as a dedicated, disciplined, highly trained military operative. He has lived and thrived in adverse environments and circumstances, and has been trained to anticipate the harshest of torture. He also belongs to an ideology that considers death to be martyrdom and therefore need not be fearful from threats to him, as might Westerners who value life.
Whatever the physical methods used with Mohammed, the experienced interrogators of American intelligence know that over time, building relationships and personal rapport are necessary to yield the level and sheer quantity of information that Mr. Mohammed has revealed. The benefit of torture is debated hotly, with some endorsing its use. But all high-value prisoners are needed for the quantity of their information, and such interrogations require time and rapport and negotiation. Torture changes the dynamic and creates obstacles to long-term quantity for those interrogators seeking immediate-term details.
Given statements Mr. Mohammed offered in his defense, and a lack of the military panel's leader referring to statements he has made in custody otherwise, my professional experience teaches me that were Mohammed to have made a false statement under duress, he would have recanted it in the proceedings. He disavowed in these proceedings, for example, a statement he once reportedly made to al Jazeera. Nowhere in this proceeding, at least, is he disavowing earlier statements to interrogators.
Some individuals might take credit in order to represent themselves to be more significant than they really are. Do you see this with Mohammed?
No. He provides a statement only after having contorted as much as possible, and even on fine points, to reduce his responsibility as much as possible. He is careful to present how he is lower on the operational chain of command than Abu Hafs al Masri. He distances himself from the title of military commander, and even downplays himself as a media spokesperson at another point. And he denies al Qaeda responsibility for the attack that killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, even as he admits what Internet evidence shows -- that markings of his hands confirm he did kill Mr. Pearl. He downplays his involvement in an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. The bigger concern for law enforcement has to be, in Mohammed's case, whether his creativity can mislead investigators and disrupt other investigations into future al Qaeda plans.
Does deflecting al Qaeda from the Pearl murder necessarily reflect that he is telling the truth?
No. Pearl's murder is internationally unpopular. Mohammed is not so isolated that he would not know that Daniel Pearl will be intertwined through movie immortality into a Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie hero of love and kindness, including to Muslims, the kind that transcends even al Jazeera's ability to distort. Mohammed is smart to distance al Qaeda from that murder, whether he was responsible or not. I would note that his reference to Pearl as a spy plays on a familiar canard in the Muslim world that quite cleverly counters the universally sympathetic impressions of Pearl, even in heavily Islamic fundamentalist hotbeds like Pakistan.
What does he get from telling the truth?
Mr. Mohammed's family means something to him. Their comfort and safety may be a negotiated point. Likewise, a person who seeks to selectively misinform maintains his ability to misinform by giving his interrogators more than enough credible information to maintain his enduring potential value to them. Mr. Mohammed is so uncommonly linked to different aspects and nuances of al Qaeda that he maintains a capacity to control his current and future situation, in part, making decisions about just exactly how much truth he will reveal to his interrogators, when and why, and how and when to mislead them. This distinguishes his situation in custody from other participants in al Qaeda cells who were informed only on a need-to-know basis, and thus have far less enduring value in interrogation.
If he has concerns about his children, does that mean Mohammed is being coerced with the fear for their safety?
That is always a consideration. Again, the statements he offered were far too inclusive to be necessary to protect a loved one. This would be more of a consideration to me, as a forensic psychiatrist, if Mr. Mohammed offered nothing more than a complete confession on the 9/11 plot, confession that establishes his testimony as credible in other proceedings, and nothing more. Here he offers statements that have not been used in other prosecutions and have not yet demonstrated any evidentiary significance, to any degree. And again, he disputes claims of his involvement in cases, such as Pearl, that have drawn accusations against him from actual heads of state.
With all of the information provided, including that information for which other evidence exists, can you tell whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is telling the truth in everything he says?
Absolutely not, without additional evidence. He is canny and spontaneous and communicating in a self-serving manner. It would help to corroborate his account wherever possible. Suspects and defendants, in many circumstances, give statements in which their details do not match the facts known, for many reasons.
Can you give some examples?
To throw investigators off a trail; to protect someone from scrutiny; to minimize one's own involvement; to direct investigators away from uncovering an even more significant plot; to prevent investigators from discovering even more valuable evidence. Criminal investigations, especially those so elaborate as terrorism are complex and painstaking. Those who concretely say that when a person gives a confession that does not match the facts is necessarily innocent or uninvolved demonstrate their naivete through such blanket statements. Lying to the infidel, to advance the cause of jihad, would be perfectly acceptable to Mr. Mohammed and entirely consistent with the peculiar but wily Zacharias Moussaoui, who also gave investigators information that did not quite check out, even as other evidence involved him in flight instruction and other key elements of apocalyptic al Qaeda plotting.
What character qualities does Mohammed demonstrate in his testimony?
Mr. Mohammed is devout and believes he is right -- not surprising. Such conviction is required to inspire and direct others to kill themselves, and to justify your own living while they end their lives. He has the ideological resilience found in two types -- those of devout faith, those who recognize that others look to their statements for inspiration, or those who are both.
Are there other clues about the conditions of his confinement?
Mr. Mohammed expresses greater concern with the notion of his and other children being locked up than he does his own treatment. He speaks of the "language of war," and in my professional opinion, this refers to his own ideas about what he would expect from his being a prisoner.
Are there terror plots Mohammed takes credit for that are now revealed to the public for only the first time?
Rep. Curt Weldon wrote of the plot to destroy the Seabrook nuclear reactor that fell apart when Canadian police arrested Arabs in Ontario who were practicing flying maneuvers. Yet little attention arose in the press about this plot or even an al Qaeda plot to fly planes into nuclear reactors. The FBI and CIA have not released this information to the public and have kept it silent. Mohammed admits planning such attacks. Similarly, Mohammed's was the first confession to call attention to what has never been publicly disclosed -- that Richard Reid was only one shoe bomber of a wider plot aiming to involve at least one other.
Why is that significant to us, even if the plots were aborted?
Al Qaeda is a patient and optimizing enemy that tends to continue along similar modus operandi. Targeting of air travel will continue. So, too, will targeting of nuclear reactors for their maximum casualty capability. The significance of Canada as a launching point for airplanes as guided missiles no doubt must remain an important concern for the American public and our Canadian brethren who can inform law enforcement officials about any suspicious activity.
What is the al Qaeda operational strategy revealed through his testimony?
He characterizes a focus on targets on economic, military and political significance.
Does Mohammed's reference to political targets highlight the conflict through the eyes of Muslims, that this is a conflict over Western influence and Western support of Israel?
No. The list of targets he notes are visible symbols within the United States. The Empire State Building, one of the targets he claims to have plotted to destroy, has nothing to do with American cultural and economic influence in the Arab world. Nor are assassinations of former American presidents, who have no power to exert in foreign relations. Mohammed even noted a plot against former President Jimmy Carter, who has done more to delegitimize U.S. support of Israel than any American leader in recent memory. This demonstrates the agenda for al Qaeda to be one of aiming attacks for their sensation value, to attract news coverage that demoralizes the secular West into fearing the potency of Islam. High-media-exposure attacks such as 9/11 also affected the choice of other bombings, such as that of the London transportation system, in order to recruit the ideologically sympathetic with "successes." Yet to date, al Qaeda has not advanced beyond pronouncements and its capacity to destroy. Some say that it is a movement without a country. To the contrary, it is a movement in many countries, including the United States. But Mr. Mohammed's description and listing of targets and plots is very much consistent with al Qaeda's personality as a movement that has little substance to it beyond its sheer capacity to destroy.
Dr. Michael Welner is chairman of the the Forensic Panel, a national forensic science practice. Welner, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, is also researching an evidence-based measure, the Depravity Scale at http://www.depravityscale.org, which invites Americans to participate in surveys that are being used to help develop a legal standard of what represents the worst of crimes.