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Bush's Torture Rationale Debunked

By Dan Froomkin
10:40 AM ET, 03/30/2009


President Bush in September 2006: "We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking.... so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures." (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

Abu Zubaida was the alpha and omega of the Bush administration's argument for torture.

That's why Sunday's front-page Washington Post story by Peter Finn and Joby Warrick is such a blow to the last remaining torture apologists.

Finn and Warrick reported that "not a single significant plot was foiled" as a result of Zubaida's brutal treatment -- and that, quite to the contrary, his false confessions "triggered a series of alerts and sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms."

Zubaida was the first detainee to be tortured at the direct instruction of the White House. Then he was President George W. Bush's Exhibit A in defense of the "enhanced interrogation" procedures that constituted torture. And he continues to be held up as a justification for torture by its most ardent defenders.

But as author Ron Suskind reported almost three years ago -- and as The Post now confirms -- almost all the key assertions the Bush administration made about Zubaida were wrong.

Zubaida wasn't a major al Qaeda figure. He wasn't holding back critical information. His torture didn't produce valuable intelligence -- and it certainly didn't save lives.

All the calculations the Bush White House claims to have made in its decision to abandon long-held moral and legal strictures against abusive interrogation turn out to have been profoundly flawed, not just on a moral basis but on a coldly practical one as well.

Indeed, the Post article raises the even further disquieting possibility that intentional cruelty was part of the White House's motive.

The most charitable interpretation at this point of the decision to torture is that it was a well-intentioned overreaction of people under enormous stress whose only interest was in protecting the people of the United States. But there's always been one big problem with that theory: While torture works on TV, knowledgeable intelligence professionals and trained interrogators know that in the real world, it's actually ineffective and even counterproductive. The only thing it's really good as it getting false confessions.

So why do it? Some social psychologists (see, for instance, Kevin M. Carlsmith on NiemanWatchdog.org) have speculated that the real motivation for torture is retribution.

And now someone with first-hand knowledge is suggesting that was a factor in Zubaida's case.

Quoting a "former Justice Department official closely involved in the early investigation of Abu Zubaida," Finn and Warwick write that the pressure on CIA interrogators "from upper levels of the government was 'tremendous,' driven in part by the routine of daily meetings in which policymakers would press for updates...

"'They couldn't stand the idea that there wasn't anything new,' the official said. 'They'd say, "You aren't working hard enough." There was both a disbelief in what he was saying and also a desire for retribution -- a feeling that 'He's going to talk, and if he doesn't talk, we'll do whatever.'"'

The Post story also makes it clear that some people with great reality-denying skills remain at the upper levels of the government: "Some U.S. officials remain steadfast in their conclusion that Abu Zubaida possessed, and gave up, plenty of useful information about al-Qaeda," Finn and Warwick write.

"'It's simply wrong to suggest that Abu Zubaida wasn't intimately involved with al-Qaeda,' said a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because much about Abu Zubaida remains classified. 'He was one of the terrorist organization's key facilitators, offered new insights into how the organization operated, provided critical information on senior al-Qaeda figures...and identified hundreds of al-Qaeda members. How anyone can minimize that information -- some of the best we had at the time on al-Qaeda -- is beyond me.'"

But who are these people? How can they still possibly believe this given all the evidence to the contrary? What are they doing still in government?

Author and investigative reporter Suskind first exposed the rampant fallacies of the administration's Zubaida narrative in his explosive June 2006 book, The One Percent Doctrine. See my June 20, 2006 column for a summary.

But mainstream news organizations, unable to match Suskind's sources, largely refused to acknowledge his reporting.

Indeed, in September 2006, when the White House for the first time publicly acknowledged the existence of a secret CIA detention and interrogation program, Bush had no qualms about putting Zubaida front and center.

In a major speech, he proudly described how Zubaida -- "a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden" -- was questioned using the CIA's new "alternative set of procedures" and then "'began to provide information on key al Qaeda operatives."

All lies and euphemisms. But all reported pretty much straight at the time by a mainstream media that, if it noted Suskind's reporting at all, did so as an afterthought.

There's no doubt that Zubaida's capture in spring 2002 was what sent the administration down the path to state-sanctioned torture. Last April, ABC News reported that starting right after his capture, top Bush aides including Vice President Dick Cheney micromanaged his interrogation from the White House basement. "The high-level discussions about these 'enhanced interrogation techniques' were so detailed," ABC's sources said, "some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic." Bush has acknowledged he was aware of those meetings at the time.

Techniques that created damage short of "the level of death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant body function" were later authorized in an August 2002 Justice Department memo, known as the Torture Memo.

Just two weeks ago, in a New York Review of Books article based on a confidential report from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Mark Danner described the techniques used on Zubaida in harrowing detail.

Here is what Zubaida told the ICRC, via Danner: "'I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck; they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room.'

"The prisoner was then put in a coffin-like black box, about 4 feet by 3 feet and 6 feet high, 'for what I think was about one and a half to two hours.' He added: The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside.... They put a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.'"

It goes on and on. Waterboarding -- and Zubaida is one of three detainees known to have been subjected to that notorious torture technique -- was only a part of it.

Bush's personal investment in Zubaida was obvious even in public statements. As early as April 9, 2002, Bush bragged to fellow Republicans at a political fundraiser: "The other day we hauled in a guy named Abu Zubaydah. He's one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States. He's not plotting and planning anymore. He's where he belongs."

In a June 6, 2002, address, Bush called Zubaida al Qaeda's "chief of operations" and said that "[f]rom him and from hundreds of others, we are learning more about how the terrorists plan and operate, information crucial in anticipating and preventing future attacks."

At a Republican fundraiser on October 14, 2002, Bush called Zubaida "one of the top three leaders in the organization."

But according to Suskind, even as Bush was publicly proclaiming Zubaida's malevolence, he was privately being briefed about doubts within the intelligence community regarding Zubaida's significance -- and mental stability. Suskind quotes the following exchange between Bush and then-CIA director George Tenet:

"'I said he was important,' Bush said to Tenet at one of their daily meetings. 'You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?'

"'No Sir, Mr. President.'"

And on the Guardian Web site today, Brent Mickum, an attorney who represents Zubaida, writes: "For many years, Abu Zubaydah's name has been synonymous with the war on terror because of repeated false statements made by the Bush administration, the majority of which were known to be false when uttered....

"[T]he man described by President Bush and others within his administration as a 'top operative', the 'number three person' in al-Qaida, and al-Qaida's 'chief of operations' was never even a member of al-Qaida, much less an individual who was among its 'inner circle'."

I've written extensively about Zubaida before, and about how the facts of his case as unearthed by Suskind thoroughly undermine the Bush administration's arguments. See, for instance, my Dec. 18, 2007 column, Exhibit A for Torture, in which I suggested that "Bush's Exhibit A in defense of torture may in fact be an exhibit for the prosecution." We learned in December 2007 that the CIA had destroyed videotapes of its secret interrogations -- 92 in all, it turns out, 90 of them of Zubaida. In February 2008, I wrote about how the White House's torture argument had now officially become that the ends justify the means.

Over the years, I've made something of a point of debunking the Bush White House's unsupported assertions that any really useful information was gleaned from torture.

And earlier this year, I got into a back-and-forth with one of the remaining torture apologists, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen. Thiessen wrote a particularly strident Washington Post op-ed on January 22, in which he asserted that President Obama's torture ban would "effectively kill a program that stopped al-Qaeda from launching another Sept. 11-style attack." I explained that Thiessen was making stuff up. Thiessen posted a heated response on the National Review Web site, which I debunked in this post.

Thiessen unsurprisingly responded yesterday to the Post story, calling it a product of "The Left's assault on the CIA program" and warning darkly that "if America is attacked again, those responsible for the disclosure of this information will bear much of the blame."

His attempted rebuttal to the Post's reporting, however, is laughable. "[W]hat Abu Zubaydah disclosed to the CIA during this period was that the fact that KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] was the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks and that his code name was 'Muktar'," Thiessen writes. "This information provided by Zubaydah was a critical piece of the puzzle that allowed them to pursue and eventually capture KSM....

"This fact, in and of itself, discredits the premise of the Post story – to suggest that the capture of KSM was not information that 'foiled plots' to attack America is absurd on the face of it."

But Thiessen's case falls apart under even the mildest scrutiny. According to the 9-11 Commission report, for instance, the CIA had connected KSM to the alias "Mukhtar" on August 28, 2001 -- seven months before Zubaida was captured, and two weeks before 9/11.

Of course the prime torture apologist remains Cheney, who as recently as two weeks ago asserted in a CNN interview that the administration's interrogation tactics had saved lives. Asked to prove it, he replied lamely: "I've seen a report that was written based upon the intelligence that we collected then that itemizes the specific attacks that were stopped by virtue of what we learned through those programs. It's still classified. I can't give you the details of it without violating classification, but I can say there were a great many of them."

And, finally, in other torture-related news, Marlise Simons writes for the New York Times: "A Spanish court has taken the first steps toward opening a criminal investigation into allegations that six former high-level Bush administration officials violated international law by providing the legal framework to justify the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an official close to the case said....

"The move represents a step toward ascertaining the legal accountability of top Bush administration officials for allegations of torture and mistreatment of prisoners in the campaign against terrorism. But some American experts said that even if warrants were issued their significance could be more symbolic than practical, and that it was a near certainty that the warrants would not lead to arrests if the officials did not leave the United States."

The complaint names former attorney general Albert Gonzales, fomer Justice Department officials John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, former under secretary of defense for policy Douglas J. Feith, former general counsel for the Department of Defense William J. Haynes II, and former vice presidential chief of staff and legal adviser David S. Addington.

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