Retired FBI agent: Waterboarding produced 'crap' information from detainee
FBI interrogators suspected CIA's aim was to 'belittle' detainee with harsh treatment
Contradicting the assertions of President Bush and waterboarding advocates at the CIA, federal investigators say a suspected al Qaeda operative who was subjected to the simulated drowning technique produced increasingly unreliable information after his interrogators began treating him harshly.
Abu Zubaida was captured in 2002 and moved through the CIA's secret prison system for much of that year. Although the FBI says Zubaida was a fairly low-level associate of some al Qaeda players, the CIA was convinced that he actually was a high-level terrorist who simply was holding out on them.
They turned to waterboarding and other unknown harsh interrogation techniques in an attempt to break the suspect, but ended up producing little more than a stream of specious claims delivered under duress from a suspect who was having water forced into his lungs, according to a former investigator who reviewed his case file.
"I don't have confidence in anything he says, because once you go down that road, everything you say is tainted," retired FBI agent Daniel Coleman told the Washington Post, referring to the harsh measures. "He was talking before they did that to him, but they didn't believe him. The problem is they didn't realize he didn't know all that much."
Zubaida's interrogation and harsh treatment were recorded by the CIA, but the evidence of what, if any, actionable intelligence he delivered under conditions critics liken to torture disappeared in 2005, when the agency destroyed hundreds of hours of videotapes depicting similar interrogations.
Captured at a suspected al Qaeda safe house in Pakistan on Mar. 28, 2002, Zubaida was soon identified and whisked off to the CIA's network of secret prisons. He had been named as a fellow plotter in a failed 1999 attempt to bomb the Los Angeles airport, and the 9/11 Commission said he was a "longtime ally of bin Laden" who helped run a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks.
In his first month of captivity, report the Post's Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus, Zubaida handed over information that led to the capture of Jose Padilla and identified Khalid Sheik Mohammed as a 9/11 plotter.
That was all before the CIA turned to harsh techniques. Instead of continuing what appeared to be working, though, the CIA was convinced Zubaida was holding out on them, and they decided to begin "not torturing" him by keeping him naked in his cell, subjecting him to extreme cold and playing loud rock music at all hours.
FBI agents had been pleased with Zubaida's earlier disclosures but were dismayed by the harsh treatment he was then subjected to.
"They said, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Coleman told Eggen and Pincus, recalling accounts from FBI employees who were there. "'This guy's a Muslim. That's not going to win his confidence. Are you trying to get information out of him or just belittle him?'" Coleman helped lead the bureau's efforts against Osama bin Laden for a decade, ending in 2004.
The FBI team eventually had to drop out of the interrogation because they, unlike the CIA, were prohibited from participating in the harsh treatment.
"Whether harsh tactics were used on Abu Zubaida prior to official legal authorization by the Justice Department is unclear. Officials at the CIA say all its tactics were lawful. An Aug. 1 Justice document later known as the 'torture memo' narrowly defined what constituted illegal abuse," report Eggen and Pincus. "It was accompanied by another memo that laid out a list of allowable tactics for the CIA, including waterboarding, according to numerous officials."
For its part, the CIA says the harsh interrogation helped extract information from Abu Zubaida. Retired CIA officer John Kiriakou claimed that waterboarding -- which he now considers torture -- probably saved lives. Kirakou participated in Abu Zubaida's capture and saw classified reports of the agency's harsh interrogation.
Former CIA director George Tenet wrote in his memoirs that claims Abu Zubaida was over-valued were "baloney" and claimed the captured operative was "at the crossroads of many al Qaeda operations" and shared critical information.
Coleman told the Post that much of Abu Zubaida's information on pending threats, which he provided under harsh interrogation, "was crap." Coleman and others in the FBI believed Abu Zubaida had mental problems and was little more than a lackey within al Qaeda who claimed to know more than he really did about the terror organization.
"They all knew he was crazy, and they knew he was always on the damn phone," Coleman said, referring to al-Qaeda operatives. "You think they're going to tell him anything?"