The first of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogations,” that of Abu Zubaida, described as “torture” in recently leaked portions of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s report on CIA interrogation tactics, led to nothing other than tens of thousands of investigatory hours wasted chasing fairy stories he told to get the pain to stop, the Washington Post reports today. All reliable information obtained from him was obtained prior to the torture.
Since 2006, Senate intelligence committee members have pressed the CIA, in classified briefings, to provide examples of specific leads that were obtained from Abu Zubaida through the use of waterboarding and other methods, according to officials familiar with the requests.
The agency provided none, the officials said.
However, when the torture began, Zubaida did talk, he told, not the banal truth, but what his interrogators and their bosses wanted to hear:
Abu Zubaida’s revelations triggered a series of alerts and sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms. The interrogations led directly to the arrest of Jose Padilla, the man Abu Zubaida identified as heading an effort to explode a radiological “dirty bomb” in an American city. Padilla was held in a naval brig for 3 1/2 years on the allegation but was never charged in any such plot. Every other lead ultimately dissolved into smoke and shadow, according to high-ranking former U.S. officials with access to classified reports.
“We spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms,” one former intelligence official said.
Though the Post doesn’t say this, similar claims were reported in July 2007 by Vanity Fai r reporter Katherine Eban in her account of the role psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen played in designing, conducting, and training for the CIA’s torture program. Eban added the detail that the pre-torture information was obtained primarily by FBI [rather than CIA] agents.
While other accounts have disputed the Bush administration’s claims that Zubaida was an important al Qaeda figure, the Post story reports that he wan’t even an al Qaeda member until after 911:
Abu Zubaida was not even an official member of al-Qaeda, according to a portrait of the man that emerges from court documents and interviews with current and former intelligence, law enforcement and military sources. Rather, he was a “fixer” for radical Muslim ideologues, and he ended up working directly with al-Qaeda only after Sept. 11 — and that was because the United States stood ready to invade Afghanistan.
“He was the above-ground support,” said one former Justice Department official closely involved in the early investigation of Abu Zubaida. “He was the guy keeping the safe house, and that’s not someone who gets to know the details of the plans. To make him the mastermind of anything is ridiculous.”
The Post also reports that the idea of torturing Zubaida came, not from the CIA operatives, but from the very top:
As weeks passed after the capture without significant new confessions, the Bush White House and some at the CIA became convinced that tougher measures had to be tried.
The pressure from upper levels of the government was “tremendous,” driven in part by the routine of daily meetings in which policymakers would press for updates, one official remembered.
“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 application of techniques such as waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning that U.S. officials had previously deemed a crime — prompted a sudden torrent of names and facts. Abu Zubaida began unspooling the details of various al-Qaeda plots, including plans to unleash weapons of mass destruction.