Tuesday 16 December 2008
by: David Rose, Vanity Fair
By the last days of March 2002, more than six months after 9/11, President George W. Bush's promise "to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act" was starting to sound a little hollow. True,
Early in the morning of March 28, in the moonlit police-barracks yard in Faisalabad, Pakistan, hopes were high that this worrisome intelligence deficit was about to be corrected. Some 300 armed personnel waited in silence: 10 three-man teams of Americans, drawn equally from the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., together with much greater numbers from
The plan called for the police to go in first, followed by the Americans and ISI men, whose job would be to gather laptops, documents, and other physical evidence. A few moments before three a.m., the crackle of gunfire erupted. Abu Zubaydah had been shot and wounded, but was alive and in custody. As those who had planned it had hoped, his capture was to prove an epochal event - but in ways they had not envisaged.
Four months after Abu Zubaydah's capture, two lawyers from the Department of Justice, John Yoo and Jay Bybee, delivered their notorious memo on torture, which stated that coercive treatment that fell short of causing suffering equivalent to the pain of organ failure or death was not legally torture, an analysis that - as far as the U.S. government was concerned - sanctioned the abusive treatment of detainees at the C.I.A.'s secret prisons and at Guantánamo Bay. But, as Jane Mayer writes in her recent book, The Dark Side (Doubleday), Abu Zubaydah had been subjected to coercive interrogation techniques well before that, becoming the first
The case of Abu Zubaydah is a suitable place to begin answering some pressing but little-considered questions. Putting aside all legal and ethical issues (not to mention the P.R. ramifications), does such treatment - categorized unhesitatingly by the International Committee of the Red Cross as torture - actually work, in the sense of providing reliable, actionable intelligence? Is it superior to other interrogation methods, and if they had the choice, free of moral qualms or the fear of prosecution, would interrogators use it freely?
President Bush has said it works extremely well, insisting it has been a vital weapon in
Really? In researching this article, I spoke to numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the
Here, they say, far from exposing a deadly plot, all torture did was lead to more torture of his supposed accomplices while also providing some misleading "information" that boosted the administration's argument for invading Iraq.
Everything that was to go wrong with the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah flowed from a first, fatal misjudgment. Although his name had long been familiar to the C.I.A., that did not make him an operational terrorist planner or, as Bush put it in September 2006, "a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden." Instead, Scheuer says, he was "the main cog in the way they organized," a point of contact for Islamists from many parts of the globe seeking combat training in the Afghan camps. However, only a tiny percentage would ever be tapped for recruitment by al-Qaeda.
According to Scheuer, Abu Zubaydah "never swore bayat [al-Qaeda's oath of allegiance] to bin Laden," and the enemy he focused on was
Declassified reports of legal interviews with Abu Zubaydah at his current residence,
In May 2008, a report by Glenn Fine, the Department of Justice inspector general, stated that, as he recovered in the hospital from the bullet wounds sustained when he was captured, Abu Zubaydah began to cooperate with two F.B.I. agents. It was a promising start, but "within a few days," wrote Fine, he was handed over to the C.I.A., whose agents soon reported that he was providing only "throw-away information" and that, according to Fine, they "needed to diminish his capacity to resist." His new interrogators continued to question him by very different means at so-called black-site prisons in
Bush discussed Abu Zubaydah's treatment in his 2006 announcement. "As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the C.I.A. used an alternative set of procedures..... The procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary." Soon, Bush went on, Abu Zubaydah "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 11." Among them, Bush said, were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, and his fellow conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh. In fact, Binalshibh was not arrested for another six months and K.S.M. not for another year. In K.S.M.'s case, the lead came from an informant motivated by a $25 million reward.
As for K.S.M. himself, who (as Jane Mayer writes) was waterboarded, reportedly hung for hours on end from his wrists, beaten, and subjected to other agonies for weeks, Bush said he provided "many details of other plots to kill innocent Americans." K.S.M. was certainly knowledgeable. It would be surprising if he gave up nothing of value. But according to a former senior C.I.A. official, who read all the interrogation reports on K.S.M., "90 percent of it was total fucking bullshit." A former Pentagon analyst adds: "K.S.M. produced no actionable intelligence. He was trying to tell us how stupid we were."
It is, perhaps, a little late, more than six years after detainees began to be interrogated at
There is, alas, no shortage of evidence from earlier times that torture produces bad intelligence. "It is incredible what people say under the compulsion of torture," wrote the German Jesuit Friedrich von Spee in 1631, "and how many lies they will tell about themselves and about others; in the end, whatever the torturers want to be true, is true."
The unreliability of intelligence acquired by torture was taken as a given in the early years of the C.I.A., whose 1963 kubark interrogation manual stated: "Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, concocted as a means of escaping from distress. A time-consuming delay results, while investigation is conducted and the admissions are proven untrue. During this respite the interrogatee can pull himself together. He may even use the time to think up new, more complex 'admissions' that take still longer to disprove."
A 1957 study by Albert Biderman, an Air Force sociologist, described how brainwashing had been achieved by depriving prisoners of sleep, exposing them to cold, and forcing them into agonizing "stress positions" for long periods. In July 2008, The New York Times reported that Biderman's work formed the basis of a 2002 interrogators' training class at
Experience derived from 1990s terrorism cases also casts doubt on torture's value. For example, in March 1993, F.B.I. agents flew to
In the fall of 2001, publications such as Newsweek, The
Murad was certainly tortured. At his trial in 1996, transcripts of his interrogation by the
Equally significant was what Murad didn't give up under torture. Bojinka was partly the brainchild of none other than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, later alleged to be the chief planner of 9/11. He had been living in the
On April 10, 2002, 13 days after Abu Zubaydah's capture, in
In notes by his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, made from days of interviews with him at Guantánamo, the picture that emerges is one more of naiveté than wickedness. He said he went to
The first 10 days of Mohamed's detention, at Landi prison, near
"They seemed to think I was some kind of top al-Qaeda person," Mohamed said. "How? It was less than six months since I converted to Islam, and before that I was using drugs!" After the Americans' visit, Mohamed said, he was hung by his wrists for hours on end, so that his feet barely touched the ground. Suspended thus, he said, he was beaten regularly by Pakistani guards. He said he was also threatened with a gun.
Mohamed has maintained that if he had ever met Padilla it would have been a fleeting, chance encounter, perhaps when they both fled Afghanistan, and he has no memory of it. But the first time Mohamed tried to fly to
By late April, Abu Zubaydah was being tortured and giving up details of a plot that sounded truly terrifying: a plan for Padilla to build and detonate a radioactive dirty bomb in
Convinced that the dirty-bomb plot was real, those interrogating Binyam Mohamed assumed that he must be part of it, and if he could not fill in missing details, he must have been covering up. Agents such as the F.B.I.'s Jack Cloonan, who spent years fighting al-Qaeda before his retirement in 2002, had learned that it had an impressive "quality-control system," which meant "they looked for people with the right makeup, they did their own due diligence, and they would not pick weak guys" - not, typically, heroin addicts. But no one was listening to these agents.
M.I.5 seems to have shared the C.I.A.'s groupthink. Sources in
But even M.I.5 couldn't help but notice "glaring inconsistencies" among the different accounts of the plot being given by those getting interrogated. And instead of asking whether the plot was real, the investigators seem to have assumed that the different accounts of those being interrogated were merely an attempt to protect al-Qaeda operations.
Clive Stafford Smith believes that the weakness of the dirty-bomb charge against Padilla may well explain what happened to Binyam Mohamed: "Maybe what they were trying to do was turn him into a prosecution witness." After all, he had already confessed in
With the help of
After another nine months, he was brought to Guantánamo, where he remains. He filed a habeas corpus lawsuit in federal court in the
In October, the charges were withdrawn, after the prosecutor, Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld, resigned. Later he told the BBC he had concerns at the repeated suppression of evidence that could prove prisoners' innocence. Meanwhile, as of December 2008, Mohamed's lawyers were fighting separate court cases to force the
"There was no dirty-bomb plot. I'm sure it was just Abu Zubaydah trying to get them excited," says the F.B.I.'s Dan Coleman. "There's never been any corroboration except the confessions of Binyam Mohamed under torture. No one was willing to take their time." But, in the words of the former C.I.A. official Mike Scheuer, "That dirty-bomb business put the fear of God into these people in the administration." As a result, he says, "they may well have sent Binyam Mohamed somewhere where the authorities would do things we wouldn't - or couldn't."
On June 10, 2002, then attorney general John Ashcroft interrupted a visit to
"Let me be clear: we know from multiple independent and corroborating sources that Abdullah Al Mujahir [Padilla's nom de guerre] was closely associated with al-Qaeda and that Ö he was involved in planning future terrorist attacks on innocent American civilians in the United States," Ashcroft said. Had his dirty bomb gone off, it could have caused "mass death and injury."
The shakiness of Ashcroft's "multiple independent and corroborating sources" claim was demonstrated by an affidavit from an F.B.I. agent, Joe Ennis, in support of Padilla's detention. Referring to Binyam Mohamed as "Subject-1," it said that his "wife" had told law-enforcement authorities that he "would often become emotional and cry when he discussed his willingness to die for his God." Strangely enough, Mohamed was and remains unmarried.
Mohamed, the affidavit said, "has not been completely candid about his association with Al Qaeda, and his own terrorist activities," and was trying to "mislead or confuse
In the brig, Padilla's attorneys claimed, he too was tortured. He was deprived of all contact with the outside world for two and a half years, and, according to one court filing, "He would be shackled and manacled, with a belly chain, for hours in his cell. Noxious fumes would be introduced to his room causing his eyes and nose to run. The temperature of his cell would be manipulated, making the cell extremely cold for long stretches of time." Chained in agonizing "stress positions" repeatedly, he was also allegedly "threatened with imminent execution.... Often he had to endure multiple interrogators who would scream, shake, and otherwise assault [him]."
The government did not deny these assertions, only the claim that they amounted to torture. Donna Newman, Padilla's attorney before he was taken to the brig, says that afterward "he was not the same person. Beforehand, he was engaged in his case; he asked pertinent questions. When I saw him again, he hardly said a word. He had no interest in what was happening, even though his case was nearing the Supreme Court."
Under this pressure, Padilla produced ever more elaborate confessions. Former deputy attorney general James Comey said in June 2004 that Padilla spoke of discussing the dirty bomb with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, of an instruction from K.S.M. to blow up apartments by filling them with gas and igniting it, and of a dinner party with Binyam Mohamed, K.S.M., and al-Qaeda bigwigs the night before he left Pakistan.
Very senior officials had a lot invested in Padilla. But in November 2005, three days before the Justice Department was to file a brief before the Supreme Court in response to his lawyers' claim that his treatment was unconstitutional, the administration returned him to civilian custody. With all mention of the dirty-bomb plot deleted, he stood trial in
On March 27, 2007, Abu Zubaydah was able to make a rare public statement, at a "Combatant Status-Review Tribunal" at Guantánamo - a military hearing convened to determine whether he should continue to be detained. Everything he said about the details of his treatment was redacted from the unclassified record. But a few relevant remarks remain: "I was nearly before half die plus [because] what they do [to] torture me. There I was not afraid from die because I do believe I will be shahid [martyr], but as God make me as a human and I weak, so they say yes, I say okay, I do I do, but leave me. They say no, we don't want to. You to admit you do this, we want you to give us more information Ö they want what's after more information about more operations, so I can't. They keep torturing me."
The tribunal president, a colonel whose name is redacted, asked him: "So I understand that during this treatment, you said things to make them stop and then those statements were actually untrue, is that correct?" Abu Zubaydah replied: "Yes."
Some of those statements, say two senior intelligence analysts who worked on them at the time, concerned the issue that in the spring of 2002 interested the Bush administration more than almost any other - the supposed operational relationship between al-Qaeda and
Some of what he did say was leaked by the administration: for example, the claim that bin Laden and his ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were working directly with Saddam Hussein to destabilize the autonomous Kurdish region in northern
Within the administration, Abu Zubaydah's interrogation was "an important chapter," the second analyst says: overall, his interrogation "product" was deemed to be more significant than the claims made by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, another al-Qaeda captive, who in early 2002 was tortured in
"As soon as I learned that the reports had come from torture, once my anger had subsided I understood the damage it had done," the Pentagon analyst says. "I was so angry, knowing that the higher-ups in the administration knew he was tortured, and that the information he was giving up was tainted by the torture, and that it became one reason to attack
One result of Abu Zubaydah's torture was that the F.B.I.'s assistant director for counterterrorism, Pasquale D'Amuro, persuaded Director Robert Mueller that the bureau should play no part in future C.I.A. interrogations that used extreme techniques forbidden by the F.B.I. The Justice Department's Glenn Fine indicated in a statement before the
If torture doesn't work, what does? The evidence suggests that when the Bush administration decided to ignore many of
After reports of Abu Zubaydah's torture, F.B.I. director Robert Mueller - pictured here before the Senate Intelligence Committee in February 2008 - agreed that the bureau should play no part in future C.I.A. interrogations that use extreme techniques. By Ken Cedeno/Bloomberg News/Landov.
Cloonan says, "We all went to a beautiful safe house outside of town, with gazelles bouncing around in the grounds and three solid meals fit for a king each day. We all sat on sofas in a big room - me, Ali Soufan [an F.B.I. colleague], Pat Fitzgerald [the
The intelligence Kherchtou provided, at a time when
Finally Fitzgerald offered Kherchtou a deal: if he came to
To reach a final calculus of the Bush administration's use of torture will take years. It will require access to a large body of material that for now remains classified, and the weighing not just of information gained against false or missed leads but of the wider consequences: of the damage done to
"We were done a tremendous disservice by the administration," one official says. "We had no background in this; it's not something we do. They stuck us with a totally unwelcome job and left us hanging out to dry. I'm worried that the next administration is going to prosecute the guys who got involved, and there won't be any presidential pardons at the end of it. It would be O.K. if it were John Ashcroft or Alberto Gonzales. But it won't be. It'll be some poor G.S.-13 who was just trying to do his job."
At the F.B.I., says a seasoned counterterrorist agent, following false leads generated through torture has caused waste and exhaustion. "At least 30 percent of the F.B.I.'s time, maybe 50 percent, in counterterrorism has been spent chasing leads that were bullshit. There are 'lead squads' in every office trying to filter them. But that's ineffective, because there's always that 'What if?' syndrome. I remember a claim that there was a plot to poison candy bought in bulk from Costco. You follow it because someone wants to cover himself. It has a chilling effect. You get burned out, you get jaded. And you think, Why am I chasing all this stuff that isn't true? That leads to a greater problem - that you'll miss the one that is true. The job is 24-7 anyway. It's not like a bank job. But torture has made it harder."
Several of those I interviewed point out the dearth of specific claims the administration has proffered. "The proponents of torture say, 'Look at the body of information that has been obtained by these methods.' But if K.S.M. and Abu Zubaydah did give up stuff, we would have heard the details," says Cloonan. "What we got was pabulum." A former C.I.A. officer adds: "Why can't they say what the good stuff from Abu Zubaydah or K.S.M. is? It's not as if this is sensitive material from a secret, vulnerable source. You're not blowing your source but validating your program. They say they can't do this, even though five or six years have passed, because it's a 'continuing operation.' But has it really taken so long to check it all out?"
Officials who analyzed Abu Zubaydah's interrogation reports say that the reports were afforded the highest value within the Bush administration not because of the many American lives they were going to save but because they could be cited repeatedly against those who doubted the wisdom of ousting Saddam by force.
"We didn't know he'd been waterboarded and tortured when we did that analysis, and the reports were marked as credible as they could be," the former Pentagon analyst tells me. "The White House knew he'd been tortured. I didn't, though I was supposed to be evaluating that intelligence." To draw conclusions about the importance of what Abu Zubaydah said without knowing this crucial piece of the background nullified the value of his work. "It seems to me they were using torture to achieve a political objective. I cannot believe that the president and vice president did not know who was being waterboarded, and what was being given up."
One of the most specific claims Bush made in 2006 was that secret black-site C.I.A. interrogations "helped foil a plot to hijack passenger planes and fly them into Heathrow [airport] and
One man who knows is Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard's Anti-terrorist Branch from the spring of 2002 until May 2008, and as such the
Perhaps the most dangerous of the plots disrupted on Clarke's watch was through Operation Crevice, the 2004 bust of a gang of seven who had 1.3 tons of homemade explosive material, with which they had intended to blow up targets including a nightclub and a shopping mall. But the lead that led to Crevice came not from torture, Clarke says, but an electronic intercept. He says he can think of only one arrest made by his team that could be said to have been partly the result of C.I.A. interrogations - that of Dhiren Barot, sentenced to life, in 2006, for conspiracy to murder stemming from his plan to attack a range of British targets. But even here, the original lead, reportedly given up by K.S.M., was vague. "All we had was a nom de guerre, Esa al-Hindi, and the claim that he was a serious player and a Brit," Clarke says. "We had no idea who he was. It took weeks and months of painstaking work to identify and find him."
In an interview in London in April 2008, I remind F.B.I. director Robert Mueller of the attacks planned against targets on American soil since 9/11 that his agents have disrupted: for example, a plot to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and another to wreak mayhem at army recruiting centers and synagogues in and around Torrance, California. These and other homegrown conspiracies were foiled by regular police work. The F.B.I. learned of the
I ask Mueller: So far as he is aware, have any attacks on
"I'm really reluctant to answer that," Mueller says. He pauses, looks at an aide, and then says quietly, declining to elaborate: "I don't believe that has been the case."
David Rose is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.
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