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"certifiable, insane"

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"The United States does not torture."
Pres. Bush,
Sept. 6, 2006

Zubaydah, Bush and the Bureaucracy of Torture

Michael Collins
Washington, D.C.

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

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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.

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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.

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