Posted by: Lister | March 29, 2009

Waterboarding Produced False Leads

From the WaPost:

When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

[…] One connection Abu Zubaida had with al-Qaeda was a long relationship with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said. Mohammed had approached Abu Zubaida in the 1990s about finding financiers to support a suicide mission, involving a small plane, targeting the World Trade Center. Abu Zubaida declined but told him to try bin Laden, according to a law enforcement source.

Abu Zubaida quickly told U.S. interrogators of Mohammed and of others he knew to be in al-Qaeda, and he revealed the plans of the low-level operatives who fled Afghanistan with him. Some were intent on returning to target American forces with bombs; others wanted to strike on American soil again, according to military documents and law enforcement sources.

Such intelligence was significant but not blockbuster material. Frustrated, the Bush administration ratcheted up the pressure — for the first time approving the use of increasingly harsh interrogations, including waterboarding.

[…] Abu Zubaida was born in 1971 in Saudi Arabia to a Palestinian father and a Jordanian mother, according to court papers. In 1991, he moved to Afghanistan and joined mujaheddin fighting Afghan communists, part of the civil war that raged after the 1989 withdrawal of the Soviet Union. He was seriously wounded by shrapnel from a mortar blast in 1992, sustaining head injuries that left him with severe memory problems, which still linger.

In 1994, he became the Pakistan-based coordinator for the Khalden training camp, outside the Afghan city of Khowst. He directed recruits to the camp and raised money for it, according to testimony he gave at a March 2007 hearing in Guantanamo Bay.

The Khalden camp, which provided basic training in small arms, had been in existence since the war against the Soviets. According to the 9/11 Commission’s report, Khalden and another camp called Derunta “were not al Qaeda facilities,” but “Abu Zubaydah had an agreement with Bin Laden to conduct reciprocal recruiting efforts whereby promising trainees at the camps could be invited to join al Qaeda.”

Abu Zubaida disputes this, saying he admitted to such a connection with bin Laden only as the result of torture.

[…] [Noor al-Deen’s] interrogations corroborated what CIA officials were hearing from Abu Zubaida, but there were other clues at the time that pointed to a less-than-central role for the Palestinian. As a veritable travel agent for jihadists, Abu Zubaida operated in a public world of Internet transactions and ticket agents.

“He was the above-ground support,” said one former Justice Department official closely involved in the early investigation of Abu Zubaida. “He was the guy keeping the safe house, and that’s not someone who gets to know the details of the plans. To make him the mastermind of anything is ridiculous.”

As weeks passed after the capture without significant new confessions, the Bush White House and some at the CIA became convinced that tougher measures had to be tried.

The pressure from upper levels of the government was “tremendous,” driven in part by the routine of daily meetings in which policymakers would press for updates, one official remembered.

“They couldn’t stand the idea that there wasn’t anything new,” the official said. “They’d say, ‘You aren’t working hard enough.’ There was both a disbelief in what he was saying and also a desire for retribution — a feeling that ‘He’s going to talk, and if he doesn’t talk, we’ll do whatever.’ “

The application of techniques such as waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning that U.S. officials had previously deemed a crime — prompted a sudden torrent of names and facts. Abu Zubaida began unspooling the details of various al-Qaeda plots, including plans to unleash weapons of mass destruction.

Abu Zubaida’s revelations triggered a series of alerts and sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms. The interrogations led directly to the arrest of Jose Padilla, the man Abu Zubaida identified as heading an effort to explode a radiological “dirty bomb” in an American city. Padilla was held in a naval brig for 3 1/2 years on the allegation but was never charged in any such plot. Every other lead ultimately dissolved into smoke and shadow, according to high-ranking former U.S. officials with access to classified reports.

“We spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms,” one former intelligence official said.

[…] Since 2006, Senate intelligence committee members have pressed the CIA, in classified briefings, to provide examples of specific leads that were obtained from Abu Zubaida through the use of waterboarding and other methods, according to officials familiar with the requests.

The agency provided none, the officials said.

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Responses

  1. CSMonitor:

    The New York Times reports that, according to a recently released May 2005 interrogation memo, Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding 83 times in August 2002.

    Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, who has confessed to planning the September 11, 2001, attacks as well as personally beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was subjected to waterboarding 183 times in March 2003.

    That version of events is starkly different than the one reported by ABC News in December 2007, when former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who was involved in the interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah, claimed he had only been waterboarded once for 35 seconds.

    “The next day, he told his interrogators that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate,” said Kiriakou in an interview…

    “From that day on, he answered every question,” Kiriakou said. “The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.”

  2. Adm. Dennis C. Blair, Obama’s intelligence director:

    “High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,”

    […] Admiral Blair’s assessment that the interrogation methods did produce important information was deleted from a condensed version of his memo released to the media last Thursday. Also deleted was a line in which he empathized with his predecessors who originally approved some of the harsh tactics after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

    “I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past,” he wrote, “but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given.”

    […] “The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”

    […] Several news accounts, including one in the New York Times last week, have quoted former intelligence officials saying the harsh interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a Qaeda operative who was waterboarded 83 times, did not produce information that foiled terror plots. The Bush administration has long argued that harsh questioning of Qaeda operatives like Zubaydah helped prevent a planned attack on Los Angeles and cited passages in the memos released last week to bolster that conclusion.

    […] The assessment by Admiral Blair represents a shift for him since he took office. When he was nominated for the position and appeared before the Senate intelligence committee on Jan. 22, he said: “I believe strongly that torture is not moral, legal or effective.” But he declined to assess whether the interrogation program under Mr. Bush had worked.

    “Do you believe the C.I.A.’s interrogation detention program has been effective?” Senator Christopher Bond, a Missouri Republican, asked him.

    “I’ll have to look into that more closely before I can give you a good answer on that one,” Admiral Blair answered.

  3. From the Washington Post:

    The military agency that provided advice on harsh interrogation techniques for use against terrorism suspects referred to the application of extreme duress as “torture” in a July 2002 document sent to the Pentagon’s chief lawyer and warned that it would produce “unreliable information.”

    […] “The requirement to obtain information from an uncooperative source as quickly as possible — in time to prevent, for example, an impending terrorist attack that could result in loss of life — has been forwarded as a compelling argument for the use of torture,” the document said. “In essence, physical and/or psychological duress are viewed as an alternative to the more time-consuming conventional interrogation process. The error inherent in this line of thinking is the assumption that, through torture, the interrogator can extract reliable and accurate information. History and a consideration of human behavior would appear to refute this assumption.”

    There was no consideration within the National Security Council that the planned techniques stemmed from Chinese communist practices and had been deemed torture when employed against American personnel, the former administration official said. The U.S. military prosecuted its own troops for using waterboarding in the Philippines and tried Japanese officers on war crimes charges for its use against Americans and other allied nationals during World War II.

    […] The JPRA attachment said the key deficiency of physical or psychological duress is the reliability and accuracy of the information gained. “A subject in pain may provide an answer, any answer, or many answers in order to get the pain to stop,” it said.

  4. Glenn Greenwald collects some of the “caved really quickly” lies told in the media about KSM and Zubaida.


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