Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Saturday, September 9th, 2006.

Tough Interrogation

Bush Administration, torture

David Johnston provides us with a look at the “tough interrogation” that isn’t torture in tomorrow New York Times. Apparently, what Bush said in his speech of September 6 about “tough” interrogation may not have been, um, accurate.

The basic story: Abu Zubaydah, thought to be a pivotal figure in al Qaeda, was captured on March 28, 2002. After his capture, initially he was questioned by FBI agents using standard techniques. The Bush Administration decided Zubaydah wasn’t spilling enough beans, so by authority of President Bush the CIA took him in hand and got tougher.

The Bush Administration version of history says that the CIA’s more aggressive questioning provided better information. President Bush said in his speech of September 6, 2006:

Within months of September the 11th, 2001, we captured a man known as Abu Zubaydah. We believe that Zubaydah was a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden. Our intelligence community believes he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained, and that he helped smuggle al Qaeda leaders out of Afghanistan after coalition forces arrived to liberate that country. Zubaydah was severely wounded during the firefight that brought him into custody — and he survived only because of the medical care arranged by the CIA.

After he recovered, Zubaydah was defiant and evasive. He declared his hatred of America. During questioning, he at first disclosed what he thought was nominal information — and then stopped all cooperation. Well, in fact, the “nominal” information he gave us turned out to be quite important. For example, Zubaydah disclosed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — or KSM — was the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, and used the alias “Muktar.” This was a vital piece of the puzzle that helped our intelligence community pursue KSM.

So far, so good. This agrees with what Johnston writes:

According to accounts from five former and current government officials who were briefed on the case, F.B.I. agents — accompanied by intelligence officers — initially questioned him using standard interview techniques. They bathed Mr. Zubaydah, changed his bandages, gave him water, urged improved medical care, and spoke with him in Arabic and English, languages in which he is fluent.

(Zubaydah had been wounded in the abdomen and groin during his capture.)

To convince him they knew details of his activities, the agents brought a box of blank audiotapes which they said contained recordings of his phone conversations, but were actually empty. As the F.B.I. worked with C.I.A. officers who were present, Mr. Zubaydah soon began to provide intelligence insights into Al Qaeda. …

In his early interviews, Mr. Zubaydah had revealed what turned out to be important information, identifying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — from a photo on a hand-held computer — as the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Returning to Bush’s speech:

Abu Zubaydah also provided information that helped stop a terrorist attack being planned for inside the United States — an attack about which we had no previous information. Zubaydah told us that al Qaeda operatives were planning to launch an attack in the U.S., and provided physical descriptions of the operatives and information on their general location. Based on the information he provided, the operatives were detained — one while traveling to the United States.

The “one” was our old pal Jose Padilla. Johnston writes:

Mr. Zubaydah also identified Jose Padilla, an American citizen who has been charged with terrorism-related crimes.

But Mr. Zubaydah dismissed Mr. Padilla as a maladroit extremist whose hope to construct a dirty bomb, using conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials, was far-fetched. He told his questioners that Mr. Padilla was ignorant on the subject of nuclear physics and believed he could separate plutonium from nuclear material by rapidly swinging over his head a bucket filled with fissionable material.

Padilla was arrested in May 2002. A month later, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest using Padilla’s Muslim name:

We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or “dirty bomb,” in the United States. … Let me be clear: We know from multiple independent and corroborating sources that Abdullah Al Muhajir was closely associated with al Qaeda and that as an al Qaeda operative he was involved in planning future terrorist attacks on innocent American civilians in the United States.

However, at the moment Padilla is under indictment for conspiracy to provide material support for terrorists, and providing material support for terrorists. It turns out he wasn’t such a big deal, which is probably why Bush didn’t mention him by name.

Back to Bush’s speech:

We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures. These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used — I think you understand why — if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.

Johnston describes what the CIA did to Zubaydah:

Abu Zubaydah, the first Osama bin Laden henchman captured by the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was bloodied and feverish when a C.I.A. security team delivered him to a secret safe house in Thailand for interrogation in the early spring of 2002. Bullet fragments had ripped through his abdomen and groin during a firefight in Pakistan several days earlier when he had been captured.

The events that unfolded at the safe house over the next few weeks proved to be fateful for the Bush administration. Within days, Mr. Zubaydah was being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques — he was stripped, held in an icy room and jarred by earsplittingly loud music — the genesis of practices later adopted by some within the military, and widely used by the Central Intelligence Agency in handling prominent terrorism suspects at secret overseas prisons. …

…At times, Mr. Zubaydah, still weak from his wounds, was stripped and placed in a cell without a bunk or blankets. He stood or lay on the bare floor, sometimes with air-conditioning adjusted so that, one official said, Mr. Zubaydah seemed to turn blue. At other times, the interrogators piped in deafening blasts of music by groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sometimes, the interrogator would use simpler techniques, entering his cell to ask him to confess.

“You know what I want,” the interrogator would say to him, according to one official’s account, departing leaving Mr. Zubaydah to brood over his answer.

F.B.I. agents on the scene angrily protested the more aggressive approach, arguing that persuasion rather than coercion had succeeded. But leaders of the C.I.A. interrogation team were convinced that tougher tactics were warranted and said that the methods had been authorized by senior lawyers at the White House.

Was this necessary? Bush claims that the more aggressive techniques squeezed information out of Zubaydah that brought about the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But some of Johnston sources say that the CIA didn’t get anything useful out of Zubaydah.

Some former and current government officials briefed on the case, who were more closely allied with law enforcement, said Mr. Zubaydah cooperated with F.B.I. interviewers until the C.I.A. interrogation team arrived. They said that Mr. Zubaydah’s resistance began after the agency interrogators began using more stringent tactics.

Other officials, more closely tied to intelligence agencies, dismissed that account, saying that the C.I.A. had supervised all interviews with Mr. Zubaydah, including those in which F.B.I. agents asked questions. These officials said that he proved a wily adversary. “He was lying, and things were going nowhere,” one official briefed on the matter said of the early interviews. “It was clear that he had information about an imminent attack and time was of the essence.”

Several officials said the belief that Mr. Zubaydah might have possessed critical information about a coming terrorist operation figured significantly in the decision to employ tougher tactics, even though it later became apparent he had no such knowledge.

The Bush Administration version of the story is different:

Mr. Bush on Wednesday acknowledged the use of aggressive interview techniques, but only in the most general terms. “We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking,” Mr. Bush said. He said the C.I.A. had used “an alternative set of procedures’’ after it became clear that Mr. Zubaydah “had received training on how to resist interrogation. …

… “As the president has made clear, the fact of the matter is that Abu Zubaydah was defiant and evasive until the approved procedures were used,” one government official said. “He soon began to provide information on key Al Qaeda operators to help us find and capture those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.”

This official added, “When you are concerned that a hard-core terrorist has information about an imminent threat that could put innocent lives at risk, rapport-building and stroking aren’t the top things on your agenda.”

Reading between the lines — it sounds as if the early FBI interrogations were going perfectly well, but the Bushies decided to Zubaydah must know more, and so they squeezed him. But whatever they got by squeezing turned out to be useless. Of course, it might be that the FBI is just complaining because the CIA took over their turf.

But according to Ron Suskind, the CIA’s methods obtained information on plots that did not exist. After the September 6 speech Suskind, the author of The One Percent Solution, was interviewed by Alex Koppelman for Salon.

I don’t think that the president contradicted anything that’s in the book. I say in the book that we did get some things of value from Abu Zubaydah. We found out that “Muktar” — the brain, that’s what it means in Arabic — was Khalid Sheik Mohammed. That was valuable for a short period of time for us. We were then able to go through the SIGINT [signal intelligence], the electronic dispatches over the years, and say, “OK, that’s who ‘Muktar’ is.” Zubaydah, of course, is showing up on signal intelligence as Zubaydah.

Also, we essentially said, “You’ve got to give us a body, somebody we can go get,” and he gave us [Jose] Padilla. Padilla turned out to not be nearly as valuable as advertised at the start, though, and I think that’s been shown in the ensuing years. So that’s what we got from Zubaydah.

At the same time, I think we oversold [Zubaydah’s] value — the administration did — to the American public. That’s indisputable. As well, what folks inside the CIA and FBI were realizing, even as the president and others inside the administration were emphasizing the profound malevolence and value strategically to the capture of Zubaydah, is that Zubaydah is psychologically imbalanced, he has multiple personalities. And he was not involved in various events that we thought he was involved in. During various bombings in the late ’90s, he was not where we thought he would be. That’s shown in the diaries, where he goes through long lists of quotidian, nonsensical details about various people and what they’re doing, folks that he’s moving around, getting plane tickets for and serving tea to, all in the voices of three different characters; page after page of his diary, filled, including on dates where, I’m trying to think, it was either the Khobar Towers or the Cole, where we thought he was involved in the bombing and he clearly wasn’t.

So that’s the real story of Zubaydah, more complicated than the administration would like, and maybe more complicated than the president at this point feels comfortable saying in an election season. It’s one of the many instances where you could shine a light through this prism and see an awful lot about some of the dilemmas of the war on terror.

In the case of Zubaydah, when it comes to some of the harsh interrogation tactics he was put through, what occurred then was that he started to talk. He said, as people will, anything to make the pain stop. And we essentially followed every word and various uniformed public servants of the United States went running all over the country to various places that Zubaydah said were targets, and were not.

Ultimately, we tortured an insane man and ran screaming at every word he uttered.

What about the valuable information the CIA got from Zubaydah by being tough, according to Bush? In the same interview, Suskind says the information used to capture Khalid Sheik Mohammed came (voluntarily!) from the Emir of Qatar, not Zubaydah.

Right now, as you know, Bush is pushing Congress to ratify the continued use of secret military tribunals at Guantanamo and whatever else Bush wants to do with prisoners. Suskind says the Bushies actually have figured out that the really nasty stuff, like waterboarding, doesn’t work, but they won’t admit this in public. Personally, I’d like to tell the President that I’ll be happy to let him do whatever he wants to get truthful information out of prisoners, but only after we citizens start to get truthful information out of him.

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David Horowitz: Sticky Fingers

Bush Administration

At The Huffington Post, Max Blumenthal exposes the secret right-wing “network within the network” responsible for ABC’s “The Path to 9/11.”

“The Path to 9/11” is produced and promoted by a well-honed propaganda operation consisting of a network of little-known right-wingers working from within Hollywood to counter its supposedly liberal bias. This is the network within the ABC network. Its godfather is far right activist David Horowitz, who has worked for more than a decade to establish a right-wing presence in Hollywood and to discredit mainstream film and TV production. On this project, he is working with a secretive evangelical religious right group founded by The Path to 9/11’s director David Cunningham that proclaims its goal to “transform Hollywood” in line with its messianic vision.

Before The Path to 9/11 entered the production stage, Disney/ABC contracted David Cunningham as the film’s director. Cunningham is no ordinary Hollywood journeyman. He is in fact the son of Loren Cunningham, founder of the right-wing evangelical group Youth With A Mission (YWAM). The young Cunningham helped found an auxiliary of his father’s group called The Film Institute (TFI), which, according to its mission statement, is “dedicated to a Godly transformation and revolution TO and THROUGH the Film and Television industry.”

Cunningham hired a screenwriter with a suitably right-wing pedigree, Cyrus Nowrasteh, who was a featured speaker at the Liberty Film Festival, also a David Horowitz operation. Etc., etc., etc. The web of interconnections includes prominent members of the rightie media echo chamber and Richard Mellon Scaife, who bankrolled the Arkansas Project.

This isn’t the first time a rightie cabal connected to David Horowitz presented historical revisionism as drama to an unsuspecting television audience. Back in 2003 Showtime ran “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis,” which J. Hoberman of The Village Voice called “a shameless propaganda vehicle for our superstar president George W. Bush.” President Bush, played by Timothy Bottoms, was portrayed as clear and decisive rather than frozen and befuddled; the actual events of the day were re-ordered to show other administration officials (notably Veep Dick “the Dick” Cheney) in a better light. Hoberman observed,

The upcoming Showtime feature DC 9/11: Time of Crisis is a signal advance in the instant, ongoing fictionalization of American history, complete with the president fulminating most presidentially against “tinhorn terrorists,” decisively employing the word problematic in a complete sentence, selling a rationale for preemptive war, and presciently laying out American foreign policy for the next 18 months. …

…Scheduled for cablecast on September 7, DC 9/11 inaugurates Bush’s re-election campaign 50 weeks before the 9-11 Memorial Republican National Convention opens in Madison Square Garden. DC 9/11 also marks a new stage in the American cult of personality: the actual president as fictional protagonist.

There are, of course, precedents. “One of the original aspects of Soviet cinema is its daring in depicting contemporary historical personages, even living figures,” André Bazin dryly observed in his 1950 essay, “The Myth of Stalin in the Soviet Cinema.” It was one of the unique characteristics of Stalin-era Soviet movies that their infallible leader was regularly portrayed, by professional impersonators, as an all-wise demiurge in suitably grandiose historical dramas. So it is with DC 9/11, where documentary footage of the collapsing WTC is punctuated by the pronouncements of Bottoms’s Bush. …

…The movie is thus the story of Bush assuming command, first of his staffers (who attest to his new aura with numerous admiring reaction shots) and then the situation. He is the one who declares that “we are at war,” who firmly places Cheney (Lawrence Pressman) in his secure location—not once but twice. (To further make the point, Chetwynd has Scott Alan Smith’s Fleischer muse that the press refuses to get it: “The Cheney-runs-the-show myth is always going to be with some of them.”) Rudy Giuliani, who eclipsed Bush in the days following the attack, is conspicuously absent—or, rather, glimpsed only as a figure on television.

Rumsfeld (impersonated with frightening veracity by Broadway vet John Cunningham) emerges as the Soviet-style positive hero, embodying the logic of history. In the very first scene, he is seen hosting a congressional breakfast, invoking the 1993 attack on the WTC, and warning the dim-witted legislators that that was only the beginning. Rumsfeld is the first to utter the name “Saddam Hussein” and, over the pooh-poohs of Colin Powell (David Fonteno) goes on to detail Iraq’s awesome stockpile of WMDs. But there can be only one maximum leader. Increasingly tough and folksy, prone to strategically consulting his Bible, it is Bush who directs Rummy and Ashcroft to think in “unconventional ways.” This new Bush is continually educating his staff, instructing Rice in the significance of “modernity, pluralism, and freedom.” (As played by Penny Johnson Jerald, the president’s ex-wife on the Fox series 24, Condi is a sort of super-intelligent poodle—dogging her master’s steps, gazing into his eyes with rapt adoration.)

The screenwriter and co-executive producer of this monstrosity was Lionel Chetwynd, who in December 2001 had been appointed by Bush to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (quid pro quo?). Hoberman continues (emphasis added),

Chetwynd, whose vita includes such politically charged movies and telefilms as The Hanoi Hilton, The Heroes of Desert Storm, The Siege at Ruby Ridge, Kissinger and Nixon, and Varian’s War, is a prominent Hollywood conservative—a veteran of the 1980 Reagan campaign who, after Bill Clinton’s election 12 years later, was recruited by right-wing pop culture ideologue David Horowitz to set up the Wednesday Morning Club (“a platform in the entertainment community where a Henry Hyde can come and get a warm welcome and respectful hearing,” as Chetwynd later told The Nation).

Back to Max Blumenthal at The Huffington Post and the present:

Since the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1992, Horowitz has labored to create a network of politically active conservatives in Hollywood. His Hollywood nest centers around his Wednesday Morning Club [The link takes you to an article written by David Corn in 1999 about Chetwynd, Horowitz, and the establishment of the Wednesday Morning Club.], a weekly meet-and-greet session for Left Coast conservatives that has been graced with speeches by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Victor Davis Hanson and Christopher Hitchens. The group’s headquarters are at the offices of Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a “think tank” bankrolled for years with millions by right-wing sugardaddies like eccentric far right billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. (Scaife financed the Arkansas Project, a $2.3 million dirty tricks operation that included paying sources for negative stories about Bill Clinton that turned out to be false.)

Make no mistake; “Path to 9/11” is a considerably more ambitious project than “DC 9/11.” “Path” is on broadcast network instead of cable, creating a larger potential audience. And ABC tried to pass “Path” off as the official film version of the respected p/11 Commission report, complete with school classroom materials furnished by Scholastic.

But there’s another big difference between Then and Now: reaction from the Left. The 2003 drama came and went with little more than grumbling. But this past week has seen the Left Blogosphere and many “establishment” media writers and Democrats work together to discredit if not stop the broadcast of “Path to 9/11.” It’s a good change.


Back in 2003 Kristen Breitweiser called “DC 9/11” a “mind-numbingly boring, revisionist, two-hour-long wish list of how 9/11 might have gone if we had real leaders in the current administration.”

Interesting take from Billmon, writing in May 2003, on “DC 9/11”:

The Republican campaign to turn President Bush into an imitation war hero is definitely one of the more interesting propaganda tactics to emerge from the Iraq invasion. The made-for-TV movie — like the Top Gun scene filmed aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln — seems aimed at filling in a weak spot in Bush’s public image, something which must have been identified in the campaign’s polling or focus group work. …

…The odd thing is that the American people seem inclined to give Bush a pass on his 9/11 performance — as they did on his less-than-heroic record during the Vietnam War. The polls I’ve seen all show Bush scoring very high on the “strong leader” question.

So why is the Karl Rove Construction Co. pouring so much concrete into building Shrub his very own cult of personality?

Maybe there is something in the polling details — or the focus group interviews — that makes Rove uneasy about the true strength of Bush’s strength on the strong leader question. Maybe they’re afraid more evidence will come to light about the president’s actions on 9/11 — or about his mysterious absence from his National Guard flight duties — and they’re trying to inoculate him in advance.

Or, maybe they’ve concluded that John Kerry is the likely Democratic nominee, and are already moving to counter Kerry’s war bio, which they know will be both his main defense against the “Massachusetts liberal” charge, and his main credential for attacking Bush on his conduct of the war on terrorism.

Maybe it’s all of the above.

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