Zubaydah, Bush and the Bureaucracy of Torture
"The United States does not torture."
Pres. Bush, Sept. 6, 2006
Zubaydah, Bush and the Bureaucracy of Torture
"Scoop" Independent News
The devastating attack of 9/11 conferred unprecedented popularity on the Bush administration. This was more a reflection of the strong desire for national unity in the wake of a tragedy than an endorsement of Bush policies.
After the attack, there was a frantic effort inside the administration to show a major success in their newly proclaimed war on terror. The administration knew what the public didn't: Far from being surprised by airplanes used as weapons, they'd had a series of warnings from intelligence sources that commercial airplanes were indeed the next weapon of choice by terrorists. Once that information became public, the Bush administration would need something more to boost its image.
In addition to warnings on the use of airplanes, the administration received at least 28 advanced intelligence warnings prior to 9/11. Was there more damaging information and analysis in the files of the agencies and individuals involved?
The "Mailman" Delivers
When Abu Zubaydah was captured in April 2002, he presented the first opportunity to show that the administration was actually doing something to protect the nation and rectify the losses of September 11, 2001.
There was just one seemingly insurmountable problem: Zubaydah was not the "mastermind" that the White House needed so desperately. After several weeks of nonviolent interrogation, the initial interrogators said he'd given up what he had. .Zubaydah was a good find but not top tier al Qaeda material -- more like a "mailman," as noted by the FBI's Dan Coleman, a highly regarded agent. Also, according to Coleman, "Zubaydah was "certifiable, insane, a split personality," hardly a credible source of information. (Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11.)
None of that mattered.
Abu Zubaydah had to become what the administration needed him to be: an al Qaeda mastermind imprisoned just months after 9/11 and a font of invaluable information vital to national security. His birth reflected an act of political desperation. The administration had nothing up to that point.
Never mind that his diary of ten years showed three distinct personalities commenting on "what people ate" and other mundane matters. George Tenet countered that "Agency psychiatrists eventually determined that he was using a sophisticated literary device to express himself.” Tenet did not specify which literary device that was.
The administration dismissed the experts' strong opinion that the prisoner had little more to offer. Quite the opposite, his silence was telling. Abu Zubaydah had more to say. He was, after all, a high level al Qaeda mastermind. He had to have more to tell, much more. And more importantly, the administration's success in the war on terror was at stake.
Abu Zubaydah's metamorphosis in myth from mailman to mastermind was complete. Once he was labeled a mastermind, his questioners had to use "enhanced interrogation" techniques to save lives. The ends justified the means. Judging their own work, the authors determined that their project was a success. Other prisoners of equal or greater importance were lined up for torture. The evidence was there from the test case, Abu Zubaydah. Torture worked.
At a September 2006 White House briefing, the president continued to defend the original rationale for torture after a series of charges that the interrogations were, in fact, torture.
Within months of September the 11th, 2001, we captured a man known as Abu Zubaydah. We believe that Zubaydah was a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden. Our intelligence community believes he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained …
We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures.
Zubaydah was questioned using these procedures. President George W. Bush, White House, Sept. 6, 2006
Special Handling Instructions
And what was that "alternative set of procedures" that Bush authorized to get the prisoner to talk? What were the means? Ron Suskind describes the various techniques.
"According to CIA sources, he was waterboarded [subjected to simulated drowning]…beaten …repeatedly threatened and made certain of his impending death. His medication was withheld … [he was] bombarded with deafening, continuous noise and harsh lights … as a man, already diminished by serious injuries [to the groin, he was more fully at the mercy of interrogators than an ordinary prisoner." Suskind, 2006, p. 115
The following analysis was conveniently omitted. It is from one of the most experienced and respected anti-terrorism agents to serve in the U.S. government:
This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality. That's why they let him fly all over the world doing meet and greet. That's why people used his name on all sorts of calls and e-mails. He was like a travel agent, the guy who booked your flights.… He knew very little about real operations, or strategy. He was expendable…. Dan Coleman, retired senior FBI terrorism agent, quoted from Suskind, 2006, p. 100. Also see Cooperative History Research Commons.
Coleman confirmed the analysis he shared with Suskind in an April 16, 2007, National Public Radio interview by Mary Louise Kelly, who reported this on NPR on April 17, 2007.
Coleman had worked on this case and reviewed the diaries, ten years of strange reflections captured with Zubaydah in 2002.
CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries "in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3" -- a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail "what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said." Dan Coleman, then the FBI's top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official. Barton Gellman, Review of The One Percent Doctrine, June 20, 2006, Washington Post.
Coleman evaluated the highly coercive interrogation techniques used in the Abu Zubaydah case in late 2007.
"I don't have confidence in anything he says, because once you go down that road, everything you say is tainted," Coleman said, 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." Washington Post, Dec. 18, 2007
How did someone characterized as "a mailman" and "certifiable, insane" became one of the great masterminds of al Qaeda? This act of will formed the rationale for policies that lack any contact with reality; policies that are more in place in the most chaotic periods of history than in a society that produced two separate teams of scientists that cracked the DNA code.
What is Torture?
Torture is defined as follows in the UN Convention on Torture:
torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering,
whether physical or
mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." Signed by the United States, 1988; ratified by the United States, 1994.
The various techniques of "interrogation" cited by Suskind are torture by any imaginable reading of the UN convention. To argue otherwise is simply ridiculous. Dialog or debate on whether this or that act of "intentionally inflicted" "pain or suffering" is torture represents an affront to the notion of intellectual honesty.
Torture is outlawed by the various Geneva Conventions, all signed by the United States. The conventions cover everyone imprisoned in times of conflict, not just military combatants: "There is no ' intermediate status; nobody in enemy hands can be outside the law. We feel that that is a satisfactory solution -- not only satisfying to the mind, but also, and above all, satisfactory from the humanitarian point of view." International Committee of the Red Cross
Individuals who order violations of international law, torture for example, are said to have "command responsibility." A 1998 decision by the international court in The Hague ruled that civilians found responsible for committing or facilitating torture can be charged and convicted under international law. (Celebici Case, 1998)
A Bureaucracy Mired in the Details of Torture
We found out last week that the vice president and senior Bush appointees "discussed and approved" the highly abusive interrogation techniques applied to U.S. detainees, according to reports by ABC News and the Associated Press. Those techniques include waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and physical assault.
In dozens of top-secret talks and meetings in the White House, the most senior Bush administration officials discussed and approved specific details of how high-value al Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency, sources tell ABC News. ABC News, Apr. 10, 2008
The list of officials includes Vice President Cheney, along with Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, and John Ashcroft -- who were cabinet members at the time -- and Condoleezza Rice." They "discussed and approved" torture scripts that were followed to the letter:
The high-level discussions about these "enhanced interrogation techniques" were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic. ABC News, Apr. 10, 2008
The choreography of torture was revealed by the Boston Globe (Apr. 15, 2006). The story exposed Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's personal involvement in monitoring the interrogation and torture of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner. The Globe may have uncovered the tip of comprehensive story offered by ABC.
Over a six-week period, according to subsequent investigations, the detainee was subjected to sleep deprivation, stripped naked, forced to wear women's underwear on his head, denied bathroom access until he urinated on himself, threatened with snarling dogs, and forced to perform tricks on a dog leash, among other things. Boston Globe, Apr. 15, 2006 (describing activities "monitored" weekly by Donald Rumsfeld)
(Clockwise) Rumsfeld (center) with Brig. General Janis Karpinski (left) in Iraq prison; the reported Rumsfeld torture choreography from the Boston Globe illustrated in photographs taken in Iraq prisons
All of this was justified by an executive memorandum signed by President George W. Bush on Feb. 7, 2002, in which the president said, "I accept the legal conclusion of the Department of Justice and I determined that none of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with al Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world. … " The "legal conclusion" from Justice was produced to meet the needs of the task at hand, avoiding the legal restrictions on torture. There were lesser memos to follow the president's declaration of independence, of sorts, but none could match the brutality inducing elegance of the February 2002 document. All manner of intentionally inflicting physical pain and emotional distress relied on jettisoning the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners.
While evidence has yet to surface linking Bush to specific torture scripting, the Feb. 7, 2002, waiver of adherence to the Geneva Conventions was the green light for unrestrained physical and mental abuse assaulting those deemed to be enemies of the state.
Top Ranking Rookies in Charge
Who would have thought that the most senior members of the Bush administration would be "discussing and approving" the torture of select prisoners in the war on terror? It is truly a struggle to imagine their discussions.
Top executive participating in torture fails to survive the test of simple logic. Even if one agreed that the president's "alternative set of techniques" (i.e., torture) were necessary, the assumption is that accurate information is critical to saving lives. How could senior administration leaders ever be deemed qualified to determine the torture scenarios?
The following questions must have occurred to participants and others in the administration. Why were they -- Rice, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Tenet, and Ashcroft -- the ultimate source for the choreography of torture? There is a long history and literature, as well, on effective interrogation techniques. Were they conversant with that history and body of literature? Were they experienced interrogators? As the ultimate source of "approval" for techniques and sequences used in critical interrogations, what quality of results would be expected from these individuals?
It simply makes no sense to argue that invaluable information was available from these prisoners yet interrogation "rookies" were put in charge as the ultimate authorities on techniques used to extract that information.
Obedience to Authority
What was behind the willingness of this top ranking group to participate in torture? What went on in their minds as they did so? One can only imagine.
Cheney and the other participants are political survivors, if nothing else. How did they reconcile the notion of survival with their actions? Did they think that this would be a secret in perpetuity? Did they delude themselves that the Iraq war would end with such success that no one would care?
Former CIA Director and Medal of Freedom recipient George Tenet (Image - receiving the medal)) provides an important clue. In response to top agent Coleman's charge that Abu Zubaydah was "insane, certified, a split personality," Tenet called the agent and others who agreed "junior Freudians" who didn't know what they were talking about.
But Ron Suskind got a different version of Tenet's thoughts on the "first al Qaeda prisoner captured after 9/11."
… one day, when CIA Director George Tenet reminds Bush that Zubaida was not such a top leader after all, Bush reportedly says to him, "I said he was important. You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" Tenet replies, "No sir, Mr. President. Suskind, 2006, pp. 99-100, also see Cooperative History Research Commons
Did Tenet and the rest of them do what they did in the service of a man who demanded their loyalty to preserve his war, his reputation, and his sense of control?
It all started with a prisoner who was mentally ill, by a very reliable account, and then it expanded into a collaborative effort involving Cheney and the most senior Bush appointees in the intimate details of torture.
It didn't matter to the senior officials if the detainee was mentally ill and a spent vessel in terms of new information. His capacity to deliver information in a reliable fashion was not an issue. They needed a "mastermind." It didn't matter that the officials were involved in morally repellant and illegal acts of torture. All that mattered was the opinion of President George W. Bush "I said he was important."
That's all it took.
N.B. Abu Zubaydah is a major source of information in the 911 Commission Report.
Resources: Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11 and "April 9, 2002 and After: Bush Administration Exaggerates the Value of Al-Qaeda Prisoner Zubaida for Political Gain," Cooperative History Research Commons
Special thanks to Jill Hayroot and Susannah Pitt for their contributions to this article.