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The Foot-Dragging Continues

By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 06/16/2009

In the latest example of the extraordinarily and indefensible foot-dragging of the Obama administration when it comes to releasing information about the Bush torture legacy, the CIA yesterday -- under court order -- released a few tiny, additional fragments from still extensively blacked-out documents in which detainees described their brutal treatment in CIA custody.

Even those fragments include some shocking new revelations. For instance, Abu Zubaida, the first CIA detainee extensively tortured by direct order of the White House, is quoted as saying that his jailers apologized to him after they determined he wasn't the senior al-Qaeda figure President Bush and others had repeatedly insisted to the world that he was. And 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who Bush defenders still insist provided critically important information after being subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques," said he repeatedly lied to make his torturers happy.

Meanwhile, nothing in the newly un-redacted portions supports the earlier, Bush-era decision to keep them secret. And there are still vast portions being kept from the public -- now by the Obama administration -- for what look like equally specious reasons.

As I wrote last week, President Obama appears to be blatantly violating his promise not to "protect information merely because it reveals the violation of a law or embarrassment to the government." And as I wrote yesterday, his position appears to be rooted not in legitimate national security concerns -- nor even in misplaced loyalty to holdovers in his administration -- but in the cold miscalculations of his political advisers.

What makes them miscalculations is the near-certainty that, bit by bit, most of this stuff will come out eventually. Whether that happens thanks to Obama or despite his willing and active participation in a cover-up is the only thing that's really in doubt.

Here are the newly-released versions of the transcripts. Here's the ACLU press release. You can compare the new version of the Zubaida transcript with the one released in 2007 to see the minor difference.

Peter Finn and Julie Tate write in The Washington Post:

An al-Qaeda associate captured by the CIA and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques said his jailers later told him they had mistakenly thought he was the No. 3 man in the organization's hierarchy and a partner of Osama bin Laden, according to newly released excerpts from a 2007 hearing.

"They told me, 'Sorry, we discover that you are not Number 3, not a partner, not even a fighter,' " said Abu Zubaida, speaking in broken English, according to the new transcript of a Combatant Status Review Tribunal held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

President George W. Bush described Abu Zubaida in 2002 as "al-Qaeda's chief of operations." Intelligence, military and law enforcement sources told The Washington Post this year that officials later concluded he was a Pakistan-based "fixer" for radical Islamist ideologues, but not a formal member of al-Qaeda, much less one of its leaders.

Indeed, it's hard to overstate just how central Zubaida was and still is to the Bush defense of torture. For background, please read my extensive March 30 post, "Bush's Torture Rationale Debunked."

Much of the information that remains blacked-out appears to be detailed descriptions of how the detainees were treated. Finn and Tate write, for instance:

Although little new information was released in the hearing transcript for Majid Khan, an alleged associate of Mohammed and a former resident of Baltimore, the extent of the redactions is more apparent in the latest document. When referring to his treatment at CIA "black site" prisons, the Pakistani's transcript is blacked out for eight consecutive pages. In the version released earlier, this entire section was marked by a single word: "REDACTED."

The continued classification is particularly puzzling considering how many details of their treatment was disclosed in April, when Mark Danner of the New York Review of Books Web-published a confidential report from the International Committee of the Red Cross, in which Zubaida, Mohammed and others described their experiences being subjected to forced nudity, isolation, bombardment with noise and light, deprivation of sleep and food, forced standing, repeated beatings and countless applications of cold water including, of course, waterboarding.

Julian E. Barnes and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times:

Self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed told U.S. military officials that he had lied to the CIA after being abused, according to documents made public Monday. The claim is likely to intensify the debate over whether harsh interrogation techniques generated accurate information.

Mohammed made the assertion during hearings at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was transferred in 2006after being held at secret CIA sites since his capture in 2003.

"I make up stories," Mohammed said, describing in broken English an interrogation probably administered by the CIA concerning the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. "Where is he? I don't know. Then, he torture me," Mohammed said of his interrogator. "Then I said, 'Yes, he is in this area.' "

Mohammed also appeared to say that he had fingered people he did not know as being Al Qaeda members in order to avoid abusive treatment. Although there is no way to corroborate his statements, Mohammed is one of the militants whom the CIA repeatedly subjected to the simulated-drowning technique known as waterboarding.

Also just unredacted: Mohammed's statement that the CIA explicitly told him that he had no constitutional rights.

"This is what I understand he told me: You are not American and you are not on American soil," Mohammed said in the military hearing. "So you cannot ask about the Constitution."

Ben Wizner, the lead ACLU lawyer in the lawsuit seeking an unclassified version of the transcripts, said the fact that the CIA had previously sought to classify that statement was extraordinary.

"Why would the Bush administration suppress [Mohammed's] statement that he was told by the CIA that he was not protected by the Constitution?" Wizner said. "This was suppressed to avoid embarrassment."

I should point out, by the way, that this is not the first time it's been abundantly clear that detainees made up stories to please their torturers. Fully three years ago, in his explosive book The One Percent Doctrine, investigative reporter Ron Suskind described at length how Zubaida "confessed" to made-up plots, thereby sending "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target."

And the version of Zubaida's hearing transcript released in 2007 included the following exchange with the presiding officer:

Q. So I understand that during this treatment, you said things to make them stop and then those statements were actually untrue, is that correct?

A. Yes.

The CIA's decision to keep so much of these transcripts redacted is akin to CIA director Leon Panetta's move last week to block the release of documents that detail the videotaped interrogations of CIA detainees, including Zubaida.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board, commenting on that decision, wrote:

The director, in other words, confirms that with "enhanced interrogation techniques" we got a three-for-one deal: They did no good. We shamed ourselves. And in the process, we created a grave risk to national security.

How tragic that the evidence of mistreatment is so damning that the best way to protect our nation is to suppress it.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow had ACLU lawyer Wizner on her show last night. "This is information the release of which will increase calls for criminal accountability -- and that is something the Obama administration has been fighting to avoid," Wizner said. "I think the disturbing trend right here, and we saw it last week as well, is that the Obama administration is now stepping back from transparency, because they see that it's an inevitable ingredient to accountability."

Meanwhile, AFP reports:

Former vice president Dick Cheney said Monday he hoped CIA chief Leon Panetta was "misquoted" in comments that Cheney appeared to be "wishing" for another attack on the United States, reports said.

The Central Intelligence Agency also scrambled to clarify that Panetta "does not believe the former vice president wants an attack," after The New Yorker magazine's report released on Sunday.

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