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 â€” accompanied by intelligence officers â€” 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 â€” from a photo on a hand-held computer â€” 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 â€” he was stripped, held in an icy room and jarred by earsplittingly loud music â€” 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.
â€œYou know what I want,â€ the interrogator would say to him, according to one officialâ€™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. Zubaydahâ€™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. â€œHe was lying, and things were going nowhere,â€ one official briefed on the matter said of the early interviews. â€œIt was clear that he had information about an imminent attack and time was of the essence.â€
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. â€œWe knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking,â€ Mr. Bush said. He said the C.I.A. had used â€œan alternative set of proceduresâ€™â€™ after it became clear that Mr. Zubaydah â€œhad received training on how to resist interrogation. …
… â€œAs the president has made clear, the fact of the matter is that Abu Zubaydah was defiant and evasive until the approved procedures were used,â€ one government official said. â€œHe soon began to provide information on key Al Qaeda operators to help us find and capture those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.â€
This official added, â€œWhen 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 arenâ€™t the top things on your agenda.â€
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.