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Torturing detainee may have produced false terror alerts
Muriel Kane
Published: Friday April 24, 2009


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As the nation struggles to make sense of a wave of new revelations regarding the "harsh interrogation techniques" brought to bear on detainees by the CIA, two very different narratives are shaping up to describe the treatment of captured al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah in April and May of 2002.

On one hand, there is what might be called the "official" version, as presented in a timeline released by the Senate Intelligence Committee and summarized by the Washington Post. According to this version, Abu Zubaydah was subjected only to traditional interrogation methods until an August 1 memo from Justice Department lawyer Jay Bybee gave a green light for the use of waterboarding and other aggressive techniques.

On the other, there is a far more incriminating narrative that has been pieced together by various observers over the last several years. In this version, harsher methods were being applied to Abu Zubaydah as early as mid-April, and by mid-May he had been subjected to virtually every aggressive technique short of waterboarding.

This second version appears to be supported by a number of external facts. One is that in 2005, the CIA destroyed all videotapes of Abu Zubaydah's interrogation from prior to August 1, even though taping had begun in April.

There were also two peculiar episodes of heightened security alerts in the US in April and May, which were said at the time to have been based on information obtained from Abu Zubaydah. These vague and ultimately implausible threats gave a strong impression that Abu Zubaydah might have been inventing al Qaeda plots simply to satisfy his interrogators.

The interrogation of Abu Zubaydah

All parties appear to agree that following Abu Zubaydah's capture in Pakistan on March 28, 2002, CIA and FBI agents immediately began questioning him using traditional rapport-building interrogation techniques. He quickly proved willing to discuss al Qaeda plans and philosophy in general terms and even named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of 9/11.

However, the CIA soon came to believe that Abu Zubaydah was withholding information about more specific, imminent threats, and lawyers from the CIA, the National Security Council, and the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel began discussing alternative interrogation plans.

In May, the CIA formally asked the OLC to furnish an opinion on the legality of waterboarding and other techniques derived from the the Defense Department's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training program.

The official version of the story insists that these alternative plans were not put into effect until after the August 1 Bybee memo had provided legal cover for harsher measures. In contrast, alternative sources provide a wealth of information which suggests that the policy towards Abu Zubaydah had begun shifting much earlier.

According to a lengthy article published in Vanity Fair in July 2007, by mid-April the CIA had begun implementing a plan to extract information from Abu Zubaydah by breaking down his personality. This plan was designed by two psychologists, James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jensen, who had no prior experience with interrogation. Both had come out of the military's SERE program, which had been designed to train US personnel to resist attempts to break them if they were captured by enemies.

The SERE program was originally developed to mimic the brainwashing techniques which were used by the Chinese on captured Americans during the Korean War and which were intended to induce false confessions rather than accurate intelligence.

Former SERE trainer and military interrogator Colonel Steven Kleinman, who is quoted in the Vanity Fair article, has been speaking out widely about the "shocking" nature of the CIA decision to hire Mitchell and Jensen. He recently told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, "There's a lot of people who don't understand the difference between a model that would train people to resist harsh interrogation ... and intelligence interrogation which is designed to elicit cooperation."

Abu Zubaydah makes himself useful

According to Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, published in 2006, Abu Zubaydah "turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure [his captors] supposed him to be. ... Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics -- travel for wives and children and the like."

Despite these limitations, the SERE-based techniques appear to have quickly turned Abu Zubaydah into a font of knowledge concerning al Qaeda's plans and capacities -- although there were doubts as to his testimony even at the time.

On Monday, April 22, 2002, CNN reported that "the most senior al Qaeda leader in U.S. custody has told interrogators the terrorist organization was interested in producing a radiological weapon, or 'dirty bomb,' and knew how to do it. ... But the official cautioned the United States remains highly skeptical of the credibility of Zubaydah, whom government officials said also was a source for an FBI warning issued Friday that al Qaeda members discussed plans for attacking banks and other financial institutions, particularly in the northeastern United States."

The New York Times cautioned at the same time that "officials said, Mr. Zubaydah might well be lying to interrogators either in hopes of lenient treatment or in hopes of creating panic."

Abu Zubaydah is named 'Person of the Week'

By mid-May, Abu Zubaydah was recovering from gunshot wounds sustained when he was captured, and in response his interrogation grew even more aggressive. According to one of the FBI agents who had initially interrogated him, the techniques being used by then amounted to "borderline torture."

It was around this time that the second false alarm occurred. According to the New York Times, during the weekend of May 18-19, Abu Zubaydah revealed a threat to either the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty. The FBI informed New York City police of this uncorroborated threat on Monday, May 20 and security was heightened as a result.

Although the FBI did not make any formal announcement of the alert, Fox News ran a report of it on Tuesday, and the Daily News revealed the next day that the threat had come from Abu Zubaydah, which earned him Time magazine's title of Person of the Week.

Time reported, "It was a good week to be a bad guy. The U.S. went into high alert mode, at least briefly, after warnings from the FBI that attacks from al-Qaeda or some other malevolent group could hit banks and apartment buildings. The New York City Police Department stepped up security around bridges, tunnels and city landmarks Monday after receiving vague threats. Vice President Dick Cheney warned further terror strikes were inevitable; FBI director Bob Mueller said to get ready for suicide bombers; Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld said it was only a matter of time before the bad guys get The Bomb. ... Then, Thursday, we learned that the threats to New York (like the bank and apartment threats) came from one man: Al-Qaeda COO Abu Zubaydah, whom the feds have been sweating at an undisclosed overseas location."

A convenient uproar

The timing of the alert was extremely convenient for the Bush administration, which had been stung a week earlier by reports that it had received what should have been ample warnings of 9/11, including the August 6, 2001 daily intelligence briefing titled "Bin Laden determined to strike in US."

A May 22 story in the Washington Times stated outright that "the Bush administration issued a spate of terror alerts in recent days to mute criticism that its national security team sat on intelligence warnings in the weeks before the September 11 attacks. ... The latest alerts were issued 'as a result of all the controversy that took place last week,' said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, referring to reports that the president received a CIA briefing in August about terror threats, including plans by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network to hijack U.S. commercial airliners."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded to the controversy over the alerts by suggesting that "terrorists might deliberately be planting disinformation to waste US resources and enable them to study the responses."

"They jerk us around, try to jerk us around, and test us," Rumsfeld complained. "We are going to be living in a period of limited or no warning because of the asymmetrical advantages of the attacker as opposed to the defender."

In addition, Vice President Cheney went on Larry King Live to insist that there was no connection between the alerts and the embarrassment over 9/11. He told King, "If nothing had happened, if there had not been the totally irresponsible charges last week, that wouldn't have affected any of this anyway."

"We now have a large number of people in custody," Cheney continued, "detainees, and periodically as we go through this process we learn more about the possibility of future attacks. And based on that kind of reporting, we try to be very cautious and alert people when we think there's a reason to be concerned about a particular subject or target."

"The fact of the matter is," Cheney added menacingly, "the more we learn, the more convinced we become about how extensive the network is, that there is a global network, that even after you destroy and disrupt their base of operations in Afghanistan, they've still got cells all over the world, any one of which is capable of moving forward and carrying out an operation."

According to an op-ed this week by FBI agent Ali Soufan, however, "There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process."



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