Numerous news outlets have uncritically reported President Bush's assertion in a September 6 speech that the CIA's controversial interrogation methods led detained Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah to disclose crucial information. But The New York Times and The Washington Post have highlighted disclosures that contradict Bush's account of both Zubaydah's value as a source and the efficacy of the interrogation methods used on him. Will the other media outlets report this conflict?
In recent days, numerous news outlets have uncritically reported President Bush's assertion in a September 6 speech that the CIA's controversial interrogation methods led detained Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah to disclose crucial information, helping to foil several pending terrorist attacks in the United States. and resulting in the capture of other high-level Al Qaeda players. For instance, Associated Press staff writer Lara Lakes Jordan reported that Zubaydah "helped the government start unraveling al-Qaida's network through nearly 100 detainees nabbed over several years." And McClatchy staff writer James Rosen described Zubaydah as "the first success of a secret CIA program whose use of harsh interrogation techniques and secret prisons became a focus of human rights complaints for nearly five years."
But The New York Times and The Washington Post subsequently highlighted disclosures contained in the 9-11 Commission report and a new book on the Bush administration's terror polices that contradict Bush's account of both Zubaydah's value as a source and the efficacy of the interrogation methods used on him. They reported that much of what Zubaydah purportedly provided was already known by the U.S. government, and that the information he did pass along contributed little to the capture of other high-level Al Qaeda operatives.
But will those media outlets that repeated Bush's dubious claims note these conflicts as well?
In his September 6 speech, Bush announced that 14 high-level suspected terrorists had been transferred from CIA prisons to the Pentagon's detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. Bush talked at length about the information gleaned from one of the prisoners, Abu Zubaydah, whom the United States captured in March 2002. Bush described him as a "senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden" and declared that Zubaydah had given the United States information that "turned out to be quite important." From the speech:
BUSH: 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 "Mukhtar." This was a vital piece of the puzzle that helped our intelligence community pursue KSM.
The claim that Zubaydah identified KSM's moniker also appeared in a document summarizing the CIA's "High Value Detention Program" released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) on September 6. But a September 7 article by Post staff writers Dan Eggen and Dafna Linzer noted that the CIA had, in fact, learned KSM's alias as early as August 2001:
What the DNI documents also do not mention is that the CIA had identified Mohammed's nickname in August 2001, according to the Sept. 11 commission report. The commission found that the agency failed to connect the information with previous intelligence identifying Mukhtar as an al-Qaeda associate plotting terrorist attacks, and identified that failure as one of the crucial missed opportunities before Sept. 11.
Indeed, the 9-11 Commission report disclosed that the CIA unit tasked with finding bin Laden had connected KSM to the alias "Mukhtar" on August 28, 2001:
The final piece of the puzzle arrived at the CIA's Bin Ladin unit on August 28 in a cable reporting that KSM's nickname was Mukhtar. No one made the connection to the reports about Mukhtar that had been circulated in the spring. This connection might also have underscored concern about the June reporting that KSM was recruiting terrorists to travel, including to the United States.
Bush further claimed in the speech that Zubaydah "provided information that helped in the planning and execution of the operation that captured" KSM. But as the Post noted, investigative reporter Ron Suskind documents in his new book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, June 2006), how the CIA was in the dark regarding KSM's location until a $25 million reward led an Al Qaeda operative to tip them off. From the book:
In the ensuing six months, the CIA, in partnership with the Pakistani security forces, rounded up nearly two hundred al Qaeda soldiers or supporters.
But no KSM. Many times since the previous summer ... notices had been posted about a reward for the assistance that led to the capture of the 9-11 mastermind. Whether it was KSM, bin Laden, or Zawahiri, the CIA, in fact, had received no response to any of the proffers.
At the end of February 2003 that changed. The CIA got what various officials at Langley called a "walk-in." He was a man who was moving through the al Qaeda ranks, moving in and out of various operations in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, and Rawalpindi, an old Silk Road trading post that is now a city of 3 million.
He contacted CIA, which has one of its largest stations -- with nearly fifty agents -- in Islamabad. [p. 204]
Suskind goes on to detail KSM's capture the following morning.
Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh
In the September 6 speech, Bush similarly claimed that the CIA's interrogation of Zubaydah led to the arrest of Al Qaeda lieutenant Ramzi bin al-Shibh:
BUSH: Zubaydah was questioned using these procedures, and soon he began to provide information on key al Qaeda operatives, including information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the 11th. For example, Zubaydah identified one of KSM's accomplices in the 9/11 attacks -- a terrorist named Ramzi bin al Shibh. The information Zubaydah provided helped lead to the capture of bin al Shibh.
But in a September 8 article, New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti took issue with Bush's assertion that Zubaydah "identified" bin al-Shibh. Mazzetti noted that U.S. authorities had been aware of bin al-Shibh's involvement in the 9-11 attacks by December 2001:
American officials had identified Mr. bin al-Shibh's role in the attacks months before Mr. Zubaydah's capture. A December 2001 federal grand jury indictment of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, said that Mr. Moussaoui had received money from Mr. bin al-Shibh and that Mr. bin al-Shibh had shared an apartment with Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the plot.
Indeed, the indictment states that bin al-Shibh "shared an apartment" with Atta in 1998 and 1999, and that he repeatedly wired money to the 9-11 hijackers in 2000 and 2001.
Further, Bush's claim that Zubaydah "helped lead to the capture" of bin al-Shibh is contradicted by Suskind's reporting. In The One Percent Doctrine, Suskind describes how information gleaned from an Al Jazeera reporter and the Emir of Qatar provided crucial leads regarding his location. The reporter, Yosri Fouda, had interviewed KSM and bin al-Shibh in a safe house in Karachi, Pakistan, on April 19, 2002, and subsequently informed the Emir of the likely whereabouts of the two Al Qaeda lieutenants. The Emir in turn disclosed this information to then-CIA director George Tenet and, on September 11, 2002, the CIA stormed the safe house and captured bin al-Shibh. In a September 6 interview on Salon.com regarding Bush's speech, Suskind noted that the Emir -- not Zubaydah -- had provided the "key break" that led the CIA to bin al-Shibh:
That was the key break in getting those guys. KSM slipped away; in June of 2002, the Emir of Qatar passed along information to the CIA as to something that an Al Jazeera reporter had discovered as to the safehouse where KSM and bin al Shibh were hiding in Karachi slums. He passed that on to the CIA, and that was the key break. Whether Zubaydah provided some supporting information is not clear, but the key to capturing those guys was the help of the Emir.
In his speech, Bush presented the information extracted from Zubaydah as evidence that the CIA interrogation program "has saved lives; of why it remains vital to the security of the United States, and our friends and allies; and why it deserves the support of the United States Congress and the American people." Bush claimed that when the CIA interrogated Zubaydah using these "tough" procedures, "he began to provide information on key al Qaeda operatives."
But Suskind reports in The One Percent Doctrine that the CIA's harsh techniques -- Zubaydah was "water-boarded," "beaten," "repeatedly threatened," "bombarded with deafening, continuous noise," and deprived of his medication -- only led him to disclose a variety of apparently nonexistent plots:
Under this duress, Zubaydah told them that shopping malls were targeted by al Qaeda. That information traveled the globe in an instant. Agents from the FBI, Secret Service, Customs, and various related agencies joined local police to surround malls. Zubaydah said banks -- yes, banks -- were a priority. FBI agents led officers in a race to surround and secure banks. And also supermarkets -- al Qaeda was planning to blow up crowded supermarkets, several at one time. People would stop shopping. The nation's economy would be crippled. And the water systems -- a target, too. Nuclear plants, naturally. And apartment buildings. [p.115]
A tried-and-true maxim: the only intelligence of value is that which can be independently confirmed. Interrogators, sending home one open-ended alert after another, pressed Zubaydah for the verifiable. They needed a body, a colleague. The captive wouldn't give up one. [p. 116]
Suskind went on to note that the only valuable information gleaned from Zubaydah came when the CIA switched to non-physical tactics:
Then there was a small break. A CIA interrogator, according to sources who monitored the program, was skilled in the nuances of the Koran, and slipped under Zubaydah's skin. The al Qaeda operative believed in certain ideas of predestination -- that things happen for reasons preordained. The interrogator worked this, pulling freely from the Koran. Zubaydah believed he had survived the attacks in Faisalabad, when several colleagues were killed, for a purpose. He was convinced that the purpose, in the fullness of time, was to offer some cooperation to his captors, something a dead man couldn't do. [pp.116-117]
When asked about Bush's characterization of the interrogation of Zubaydah during the Salon.com interview, Suskind confirmed that "we got the stuff of value" through milder tactics:
Zubaydah gave us the information he gave us because, in using softer techniques, we convinced him that his religious belief in predetermination was such that he believed that he wasn't killed, but captured, when other people died, obviously, that he was wounded and captured for a reason, and the reason was to give us some information. That was why he gave us some information, that was the rationale he used. That was what one would consider more sophisticated, "soft" interrogation techniques, where we got the stuff of value.
Zubaydah's mental state
Further, while news outlets have repeated Bush's claim that Zubaydah was a "senior terrorist leader," they have largely ignored the revelation in Suskind's book that he was mentally unstable and largely managed logistical concerns for Al Qaeda:
Zubaydah was a logistics man, a fixer, mostly for a niggling array of personal items, like the guy you call who handles the company health plan, or benefits, or the people in the human resources. There was almost nothing "operational" in his portfolio. That was handled by the management team. He wasn't one of them. [pp. 95-96]
Meanwhile, Dan Coleman and other knowledgeable members of the tribe of al Qaeda hunters at CIA were reading Zubaydah's top secret diary and shaking their heads.
"This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality," Coleman told a top official at FBI after a few days reviewing the Zubaydah haul. "That's why they let him fly all over the world doing meet and greet. That's why people used his name on all sorts of calls and e-mails. He was like a travel agent, the guy who booked your flights. You can see from what he writes how burdened he is with all these logistics -- getting families of operatives, wives and kids, in and out of countries. He knew very little about real operations, or strategy. He was expendable, you know, the greeter ... Joe Louis in the lobby of Caesar's Palace, shaking hands."
This opinion was echoed at the top of the CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President. [p.100]
An extraordinary moment in the "war on terror" was about to unfold. After months of interdepartmental exchanges over the detainment, interrogation, and prosecution of captives in the "war on terror" - as well as debates over which "debriefing" techniques would work most effectively on al Qaeda - the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered. [p. 111]