*About that Library Tower plot

ABOUT THAT LIBRARY TOWER PLOT…. Yesterday, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen offered a defense of torture in the Washington Post, arguing, among other things, that it’s the appropriate way to help Muslim detainees.

But there was another point he raised that’s also worth noting, because it’s a common canard among Republicans.

[I]nterrogation with enhanced techniques “led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the ‘Second Wave,’ ‘to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into’ a building in Los Angeles.” KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast. The memo explains that “information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the ‘Second Wave.’ ” In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.

The terrorist plot against the Library Tower is the loyal Bushies’ favorite. Indeed, Thiessen has used it in more than one Washington Post op-ed, and it’s been repeated by Bush administration officials many, many times over the years. Both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have even told the story on several occasions, citing it as proof that their abusive tactics were a success (the former president would often call the Library Tower the “Liberty Tower”).

The entire claim has been exposed as dubious over the years, but as long as torture apologists are going to keep bringing it up, it’s probably worth taking a moment to periodically set the record straight. Tim Noah had this piece late yesterday:

The first reason to be skeptical that this planned attack could have been carried out successfully is that, as I’ve noted before, attacking buildings by flying planes into them didn’t remain a viable al-Qaida strategy even through Sept. 11, 2001. Thanks to cell phones, passengers on United Flight 93 were able to learn that al-Qaida was using planes as missiles and crashed the plane before it could hit its target. There was no way future passengers on any flight would let a terrorist who killed the pilot and took the controls fly wherever he pleased.

What clinches the falsity of Thiessen’s claim, however (and that of the memo he cites, and that of an unnamed Central Intelligence Agency spokesman who today seconded Thessen’s argument) is chronology. In a White House press briefing, Bush’s counterterrorism chief, Frances Fragos Townsend, told reporters that the cell leader was arrested in February 2002, and “at that point, the other members of the cell” (later arrested) “believed that the West Coast plot has been canceled, was not going forward” [italics mine]. A subsequent fact sheet released by the Bush White House states, “In 2002, we broke up [italics mine] a plot by KSM to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast.” These two statements make clear that however far the plot to attack the Library Tower ever got — an unnamed senior FBI official would later tell the Los Angeles Times that Bush’s characterization of it as a “disrupted plot” was “ludicrous” — that plot was foiled in 2002. But Sheikh Mohammed wasn’t captured until March 2003.

How could Sheikh Mohammed’s water-boarded confession have prevented the Library Tower attack if the Bush administration “broke up” that attack during the previous year? It couldn’t, of course. Conceivably the Bush administration, or at least parts of the Bush administration, didn’t realize until Sheikh Mohammed confessed under torture that it had already broken up a plot to blow up the Library Tower about which it knew nothing. Stranger things have happened. But the plot was already a dead letter.

Remember, according to Bush, Cheney, and their most ardent supporters, the thwarted “plot” against the Library Tower is the single best piece of evidence that torture — waterboarding, in specific — saved American lives.

Demagogic hyperbole notwithstanding — “a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York” — the claim is bogus.

Update: Apparently, CNSNews, a right-wing website, had its own report yesterday about waterboarding preventing an attack on the Library Tower. Conservative blogs are all excited about it. They shouldn’t be.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.