April 23, 2009
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.
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.
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.
Nevertheless, Bush administration defenders cite the information wrested from Zubaydah as justification for the interrogation tactics that have been widely denounced as torture.