Captured al-Qaeda operatives, facing the threat or reality of torture, appear to have fed the Bush administration's obsession about Iraq, buying Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders time to rebuild their organization inside nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Even now, as al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies expand their power ever closer to Pakistan's capital of Islamabad, ex-Bush administration officials continue to insist they protected U.S. security by repeatedly waterboarding the likes of 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and terrifying others, such as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, with "extraordinary renditions" to foreign countries known to torture.
However, the emerging evidence, including recently released Justice Department memos, suggests that the "high-value detainees" may have helped divert U.S. focus away from their al-Qaeda colleagues by providing tantalizing misinformation about Saddam Hussein's Iraq and dropping tidbits about Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who operated inside Iraq.
The May 30, 2005, memo by Steven Bradbury, then acting head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, also appears to have exaggerated the value of intelligence extracted from detainee Abu Zubaydah through harsh interrogations - references that Bush administration defenders have cited as justification for abusive tactics, including the near-drowning of waterboarding.
The May 30 memo states: "Interrogations of Zubaydah - again, once enhanced techniques were employed - furnished detailed information regarding al Qaeda's ‘organizational structure, key operatives, and modus operandi' and identified KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks. ...
"You [CIA officials] have informed us that Zubaydah also ‘provided significant information on two operatives, [including] Jose Padilla [,] who planned to build and detonate a ‘dirty bomb' in Washington DC area."
However, that last claim conflicts with known evidence about Zubaydah's interrogations and with the time elements of Padilla's arrest. Zubaydah was captured on March 28, 2002, after a gunfight that left him wounded. Padilla, an American citizen who converted to Islam, was arrested on May 8, 2002.
Yet, Bush administration lawyers did not give clearance for the "enhanced interrogation techniques" until late July, verbally, and on Aug. 1, 2002, in writing.
In addition, Zubaydah's information about Padilla and KSM was provided to FBI interrogators who had employed rapport-building techniques with Zubaydah, not the harsh tactics that CIA interrogators insisted upon later, according to published accounts.
For instance, author Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side writes that the two FBI agents, Ali Soufan and Steve Gaudin, "sent back early cables describing Zubayda as revealing inside details of the [9/11] attacks on New York and Washington, including the nickname of its central planner, ‘Mukhtar,' who was identified as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. ...
"During this period, Zubayda also described an Al Qaeda associate whose physical description matched that of Jose Padilla. The information led to the arrest of the slow-witted American gang member in May 2002, at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. ...
"Abu Zubayda disclosed Padilla's role accidentally, apparently. While making small talk, he described an Al Qaeda associate he said had just visited the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. That scrap was enough for authorities to find and arrest Padilla.
"These early revelations were greeted with excitement by [CIA Director George] Tenet, until he was told they were extracted not by his officers but by the rival team at the FBI."
Soon, a CIA team arrived at the secret CIA detention center in Thailand where Zubaydah was being held and took command, adopting more aggressive interrogations tactics. However, the Bush administration did not approve the full battery of harsh tactics, including waterboarding, until mid-summer 2002.
Mayer's account was backed up Thursday by one of the FBI agents, Ali Soufan, who broke his long silence on the topic in an op-ed in the New York Times, citing Zubaydah's cooperation in providing information about Padilla and KSM before the CIA began the harsh tactics.
"It is inaccurate ... to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative," Soufan wrote. "Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence." [NYT, April 23, 2009]
Nevertheless, Bush administration defenders cite the information wrested from Zubaydah -- who was waterboarded at least 83 times in August 2002.-- as justification for the interrogation tactics that have been widely denounced as torture. For instance, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen has credited the CIA's harsh interrogation techniques for the arrest of Padilla.
Thiessen also was given space in the Washington Post's neoconservative editorial section to cite a claim in the May 30 memo that "in particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques." (KSM was waterboarded 183 times after his capture in March 2003.)
Thiessen also said the harsh tactics extracted information from Zubaydah and KSM about Zarqawi's operation in Iraq that "helped our operations against al-Qaeda in that country."
However, the timetable again works against these assertions by the CIA and Bush apologists. Zubaydah was captured in March 2002 at a time when Zarqawi was an obscure terrorist holed up in a section of Iraq protected by the U.S.-British no-fly zone, which prevented Saddam Hussein's military from attacking Zarqawi's stronghold.
KSM was captured on March 1, 2003, 18 days before President Bush launched the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It was not until after the invasion had given way to a U.S. occupation that Zarqawi tapped into a wellspring of anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East and began recruiting young jihadists from across the region to mount suicide and other attacks against U.S. forces.
Zarqawi also built alliances with disgruntled Sunnis as the insurgency grew.
Whatever information Zubaydah and KSM might have provided about Zarqawi would have been dated and - to the degree they built up his importance - could have played into President Bush's desire to view the Iraq War as "the central front in the war on terror."
The problem of false intelligence had already been demonstrated by the handling of another al-Qaeda captive, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who had responded to threats of torture by claiming an operational link between Hussein's government and al-Qaeda. It was exactly the kind of information that the Bush administration had been seeking.
A June 2002 CIA report, which was dubbed the "Murky" paper, cited claims by al-Libi that Iraq had "provided" unspecified chemical and biological weapons training for two al-Qaeda operatives. Al-Libi's information also was inserted into a November 2002 National Intelligence Estimate.
In January 2003, another CIA paper expanded on al-Libi's claims of an Iraqi-al-Qaeda connection, saying that "Iraq - acting on the request of al-Qa'ida militant Abu Abdullah, who was Muhammad Atif's emissary - agreed to provide unspecified chemical or biological weapons training for two al-Qa'ida associates beginning in December 2000."
By Feb. 11, 2003, as the countdown to the U.S. invasion progressed, CIA Director Tenet began treating al-Libi's assertions as fact. At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Tenet said Iraq "has also provided training in poisons and gases to two al-Qa'ida associates. One of these associates characterized the relationship he forged with Iraqi officials as successful."
But the CIA's confidence about al-Libi's information went against the suspicions voiced by the Defense Intelligence Agency. "He lacks specific details" about the supposed training, the DIA observed. "It is possible he does not know any further details; it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers."
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The DIA's doubts proved prescient. In January 2004, al-Libi recanted his statements and claimed that he had lied because of both actual and anticipated abuse, including threats that he would be sent to an intelligence service where he expected to be tortured.
Al-Libi said he fabricated "all information regarding al-Qa'ida's sending representatives to Iraq to try to obtain WMD assistance," according to a Feb. 4, 2004, CIA operational cable. "Once al-Libi started fabricating information, [he claimed] his treatment improved and he experienced no further physical pressures from the Americans."
Despite his cooperation, al-Libi said he was transferred to another country that subjected him to beatings and confinement in a "small box" for about 17 hours. He said he then made up another story about three al-Qaeda operatives going to Iraq "to learn about nuclear weapons." Afterwards, he said his treatment improved.
In September 2006, the Senate Intelligence Committee criticized the CIA for accepting al-Libi's claims as credible. "No postwar information has been found that indicates CBW training occurred and the detainee who provided the key prewar reporting about this training recanted his claims after the war," the committee report said.
The Senate Intelligence Committee skirted making a conclusion about how al-Libi's statements were extracted. But the al-Libi case demonstrated one of the practical risks of coercing a witness to talk. To avoid pain, people often make stuff up.
Though al-Libi's motivation appeared to be simply his desperation to avoid more pain, there is also the risk that al-Qaeda operatives intentionally "surrendered" intelligence that was designed to divert U.S. attentions away from the crucial terrorist base camps and safe houses along the Afghan-Pakistani border and toward Iraq.
In that sense, the interests of Bush's neocon foreign policy team and al-Qaeda were symbiotic. The Bush administration was determined to force regime change in Iraq while al-Qaeda was desperate for a respite from U.S. and NATO assaults in late 2001 and 2002. So, diverting U.S. military and intelligence resources toward Iraq bought al-Qaeda leaders valuable time.
As the U.S. military got bogged down in the Iraq War, al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies strengthened their safe havens inside Pakistan and began expanding their areas of control, threatening to destabilize the fragile government of Pakistan, the only Islamic country that has a nuclear bomb.
There has been other evidence that al-Qaeda's leaders understood the value of tying down the U.S. military in an open-ended war in Iraq, so they could reorganize and emerge as a more deadly threat in the future, especially if Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falls into their hands.
Osama bin Laden even intervened in Election 2004 by releasing a rare videotape on Oct. 29, 2004, railing against President Bush. Bush's supporters immediately dubbed the video tape "Osama's endorsement of John Kerry."
But inside the CIA, analysts concluded that the video was intended as a backdoor way to help Bush gain a second term, according to Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, which draws heavily from CIA insiders.
According to Suskind's book, CIA analysts had spent years "parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, [Ayman] Zawahiri. What they'd learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. ...
"Their [the CIA's] assessments, at day's end, are a distillate of the kind of secret, internal conversations that the American public [was] not sanctioned to hear: strategic analysis. Today's conclusion: bin Laden's message was clearly designed to assist the President's reelection.
"At the five o'clock meeting, [Deputy CIA Director] John McLaughlin opened the issue with the consensus view: ‘Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President.'"
McLaughlin's comment drew nods from CIA officers at the table. The CIA analysts felt that bin Laden might have recognized how Bush's policies - including the Guantanamo prison camp, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the endless bloodshed in Iraq - were serving al-Qaeda's strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.
"Certainly," CIA's deputy associate director for intelligence Jami Miscik said, "he would want Bush to keep doing what he's doing for a few more years," according to Suskind's account.
As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts drifted into silence, troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. "An ocean of hard truths before them - such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected - remained untouched," Suskind wrote.
One consequence of bin Laden breaking nearly a year of silence to issue the videotape the weekend before the U.S. presidential election was to give the Bush campaign a much needed boost. From a virtual dead heat, Bush opened up a six-point lead, according to one poll.
Bush himself said later he considered the bin Laden tape an important turning point in the election. [For details, see our book, Neck Deep.]
Prolonging the War
Al-Qaeda's strategic interest in bogging the United States down in Iraq also was disclosed in a late 2005 letter to Zarqawi from a top aide to bin Laden known as "Atiyah," who upbraided Zarqawi for his reckless, hasty actions inside Iraq.
The message from Atiyah, who is believed to be a Libyan named Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, emphasized the need for Zarqawi to operate more deliberately in order to build political strength and drag out the U.S. occupation. "Prolonging the war is in our interest," Atiyah told Zarqawi.
Besides the value that al-Qaeda saw in dragging out the Iraq War, the harsh interrogations also had severe consequences for American troops.
As former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008, "there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq - as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat - are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."
Zarqawi was killed in June 2006, but only after a new team of military intelligence interrogators arrived in Iraq and rejected the brutal interrogation strategies that had survived the Abu Ghraib scandal two years earlier.
Instead, the team employed FBI-style "rapport-building" techniques and won the confidence of captured Sunni insurgents who gave up Zarqawi's location, which was destroyed by a U.S. aerial attack. [For details, see Washington Post, Nov. 30, 2008, or Consortiumnews.com's "Connecting CIA Torture to Abu Ghraib."]
So, the "enhanced interrogations techniques" may have had two deadly consequences: eliciting misinformation that helped lead the United States into the quicksand of Iraq (while al-Qaeda and its Islamic fundamentalist allies strengthened their position in nuclear-armed Pakistan) and contributing significantly to the deaths of more than 4,200 American soldiers in Iraq.