Above Photo: “Abu Zubaydah Redacted.” Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t.
The CIA agent who captured top al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah traces the Guantanamo prisoner’s 20 years of torture, ending with the government’s failure to put him and four others on trial.
The Guardian reported last week that a recently-declassified CIA Inspector General’s report from 2008 found that CIA officers at a covert detention site in Afghanistan used a prisoner, Ammar al-Baluch, as a “training prop,” taking turns smashing his head against a plywood wall and leaving him with permanent brain damage. Baluch is currently one of five defendants before a military tribunal at the US military prison at Guantanamo charged with participating in the planning for the September 11 attacks. The case has been stuck in the pre-trial phase for 10 years, in part because much of the information that the government wants to use against the defendants was collected using torture.
The article comes amid reporting from the New York Times that lawyers for the five are in talks with military prosecutors on a plea deal that would have them plead guilty to terrorism in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table, agreeing to sentences of either 30 years to life or to life without parole, and promising to keep them in Guantanamo, rather than to transfer them to the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
This all sounds great on the surface of things. But in fact, it represents a failure, perhaps of historic proportions, for the CIA. More than 20 years after the September 11 attacks, these cases are still pending for the sole reason that the CIA carried out a brutal and patently illegal torture program that resulted in confessions that cannot be used against the defendants in a court of law, military or otherwise.
The CIA’s torture program was born out of failure, frustration, and hubris. The September 11 attacks were arguably the worst intelligence failure in American history. Three thousand Americans died because the CIA hadn’t done its job. CIA leaders were humiliated. They wanted revenge. And so when they decided to “take off the gloves,” in the words of former CIA Counterterrorism Director Cofer Black, the rule of law went out the window. What also went out the window was any hope of cooperation with the FBI on terrorism-related legal matters.
The CIA knew that the FBI was the organization with expertise in interrogations. The CIA didn’t even offer a training class in interrogations at the time. The FBI, though, had been doing interrogations successfully since the Nuremberg trials in 1946. Their process was actually quite simple: Establish a rapport with the subject. Speak to him respectfully. Perhaps offer him a cigarette or an apple or some paper to write a letter to his parents. Once the rapport is established, the prisoner opens up and starts talking. That’s how to collect intelligence. But that’s not at all what the CIA did. They went directly to the use of force. The case of Abu Zubaydah—one of the five currently engaged in plea negotiations—is the clearest example of what the CIA did and how it went wrong so quickly.
I was an officer in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center at the time. In January 2002, I became the chief of CIA counterterrorism operations in Pakistan. Under my leadership, our team captured Abu Zubaydah who, at the time, we believed was the third-ranking official in al-Qaeda. He wasn’t. But he was still a bad man, and we wanted him for questioning. During the course of his capture in Faisalabad, Pakistan, a Pakistani policeman shot Abu Zubaydah in the thigh, the groin, and the stomach, with an AK-47. We rushed him to a local hospital and he underwent emergency surgery. Hours later, we flew him to a Pakistani military base, where I sat with him for the next 56 hours.
Abu Zubaydah was in a coma when we first arrived at the military hospital. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know exactly where we were, I didn’t know the doctors or nurses, and I didn’t think that I could trust anybody. I was also exhausted, already having been awake for nearly 24 hours. So I tore a sheet into strips and tied Abu Zubaydah by the wrists and ankles to the bed, thinking that if I fell asleep and somebody tried to free him, I could wake up and react in time. Abu Zubaydah finally stirred about 20 hours later.
He was terrified, having realized that he had been captured by Americans. I hovered over him and said in Arabic, “Shou ismak?” “What is your name?” He shook his head and responded to me in English. “I will not speak to you in God’s language.” “That’s ok, Abu Zubaydah,” I said. We know who you are.” He started to cry and said, “Kill me, brother. Take the pillow and kill me.” I told him that nobody was going to kill him, we had been looking for him for a long time and he was valuable to us. He was terrified and asked me repeatedly what was going to happen to him. I was honest. I said that I had no idea. “But let me give you one piece of advice,” I said. “I’m the nicest guy you’re going to meet in this experience. My colleagues aren’t as nice as I am. If you do only one thing, it should be that you cooperate.” His response was quick. “You seem like a nice man. But you’re the enemy. I’ll never cooperate.”
We spent the next 30 hours or so talking about our families. Abu Zubaydah cried a lot. He said that he would never know the touch of a woman. He would never know the joy of fatherhood. It was the only time that I raised my voice with him. “You’re not the victim here,” I said. “There were 50,000 people in those towers. What did you think we would do? Did you think we wouldn’t try to find bin Laden? Did you think we wouldn’t try to find you?” He responded, perhaps disingenuously: “I didn’t want to attack the United States, I wanted to attack Israel. I just wanted to kill Jews.”
When we caught Abu Zubaydah, we also recovered what has become known in the media as his “diary.” It wasn’t really a diary, so much as it was a doodle book. He sketched in it, wrote lots of poetry, and did this odd thing where he wrote himself letters as a young man, meaning the 2002 Abu Zubaydah was writing to the 1985 Abu Zubaydah, telling him not to make certain mistakes in life, documenting where he went wrong, and trying to teach his younger self how to be a better man. It was strange, and CIA and FBI psychiatrists debated for years what it meant. Abu Zubaydah recited a lot of his poetry to me. He talked about the mistakes he made as a younger man. We talked about beliefs common among both Muslims and Christians. We talked about his family. He was worried about how his mother would react to his capture. But he was especially worried about where we would send him and what would happen to him.
I had never taken an interrogation class at the CIA, the FBI, or anywhere else. I had no expertise in interrogations. But I’m a human being. I understood then, as I understand now, that you capture more flies with honey than with vinegar. Playing good cop/bad cop is one thing. But torturing somebody to within an inch of his life is something entirely different. Abu Zubaydah spoke freely with me, freely enough that I was able to write an extensive classified report back to CIA Headquarters with the information he had provided.
After 56 hours together, a CIA plane flew to the military base. Three FBI agents and I carried Abu Zubaydah on a gurney out to the runway, which abutted the small clinic where he was being treated. He asked me to hold his hand, which I did. We maneuvered him onto the small jet and tied his gurney down onto the luggage rack at the back of the plane. I leaned in and whispered, “Remember, you have to cooperate.” He squeezed my hand and I wished him luck. I never saw him again.
CIA officers then flew Abu Zubaydah to the first of a half-dozen secret prisons. The location has been reported extensively in the media, but the CIA has never declassified it, so I’m not allowed to disclose its location. Abu Zubaydah was allowed to recover from his wounds for about six weeks and then his FBI interrogation began. He was interviewed daily by FBI agent Ali Soufan, who, in that well-known FBI style, established a rapport, built trust, and got Abu Zubaydah talking. And talk he did. There were two critical pieces of intelligence that he gave us.
The first was al-Qaeda’s wiring diagram. We knew, of course, that Osama bin Laden had created the terrorist group with his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, formerly the head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad terrorist group. The head of al-Qaeda’s “military wing” was Muhammad Atef, who was killed in a US bombing raid in Afghanistan in October 2001. We also knew that there was a very bad character out there using the nom de guerre “Mukhtar” who likely had planned the September 11 attacks. But that’s all we knew. We had no idea where around the world al-Qaeda was located, how it operated, how it came up with attack plans, and how it communicated with its leadership. We also didn’t know anything about Mukhtar.
Abu Zubaydah explained to Ali Soufan in great detail just how al-Qaeda was constructed. He explained the concept of “cells” and he told us how targets were chosen. He gave us the names and locations of al-Qaeda sleepers around the world, which enabled the CIA to inform its liaison partners overseas, resulting in the arrest of dozens of al-Qaeda operatives and the disruption of countless attacks. Even more important, Abu Zubaydah told Ali Soufan that Mukhtar was Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, the mastermind of 9/11 and the planner of an earlier, disrupted, attack called Bojinka. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef had planned in 1995 a series of terrorist attacks, whereby they would first assassinate Pope John Paul II, then they would blow up 11 airliners in flight between Asia and the United States, killing approximately 4,000 people and, finally, they would crash a plane into CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The plot was disrupted in Manila after apparently being compromised to the Filipino police. But the CIA didn’t know who Mukhtar was until Abu Zubaydah told Ali Soufan.
By July 2002, though, the CIA was frustrated. It was frustrated that the FBI had primacy in the Abu Zubaydah interrogations and it was frustrated that it had spent millions of dollars coming up with an “enhanced interrogation program” and hadn’t been able to put it into practice. In late July, CIA Director George Tenet went to President George W. Bush and asked him to remove the FBI from the case and to allow the CIA to take over. For reasons that have never been fully explained, Bush did exactly that. And on August 1, the CIA took over and immediately began torturing Abu Zubaydah.
The original torture plan called for CIA officers to begin with the least harsh method that had been approved by the Justice Department. That was called the “attention grab.” It was where a CIA officer would grab Abu Zubaydah by the shirt or the lapels, give him a shake, and yell “Answer my questions!” The interrogator was then supposed to graduate to more severe techniques by their degree of harshness. The attention grab was supposed to be followed by the “insult slap,” a quick whack across the face, and then by the “belly slap,” which is an open-handed smack on the belly that makes a loud sound, leaves a red mark, and is supposed to be humiliating. This would be followed by stress positions, where the prisoner would be forced to stand chained to an eye bolt in the ceiling so that he could not get into a comfortable position, couldn’t sit, and couldn’t lay down. This leads to extreme pain and then to muscle failure. The “cold cell” was then supposed to follow. The prisoner would be stripped naked, chained to the eye bolt in the ceiling again, and his cell would be chilled to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, then every hour, a CIA officer would throw a bucket of ice water on him. The CIA murdered people using this technique.
The final technique, the one that was supposed to be so awful that it was reserved for last, was waterboarding. That is where the prisoner is tied to a board, his feet are elevated above the level of his head, his face is wrapped with fabric, like a towel, and water is poured on his face. It causes a feeling of drowning. And in truth, a great deal of water gets down the throat. Abu Zubaydah did indeed drown during this technique, and he had to be revived by a CIA doctor, according to the Senate Torture Report. The CIA interrogators were supposed to begin with the most basic technique and slowly work their way up to waterboarding. Instead, they decided to start with waterboarding.
All of the enhanced interrogation techniques were used on Abu Zubaydah. He was slapped, punched, beaten, subjected to mock executions, and kept locked in a coffin and in a dog cage for weeks at a time. When his interrogators learned that he had an irrational fear of insects, they made sure to throw a box of cockroaches in the coffin with him, just so that he would go mad. He had his head slammed repeatedly against both plywood and concrete block walls. He was chained to eye bolts and kept awake for more than nine days, long enough for most people to go insane. He was subjected to hypothermia. And he was waterboarded 83 times.
Of course, as soon as the CIA began torturing Abu Zubaydah, he stopped talking. He gave the CIA literally nothing. But at CIA Headquarters, people were none the wiser. The FBI and CIA computer systems at the time were incompatible. The information that Ali Soufan had received from Abu Zubaydah and had reported back to the FBI remained at the FBI. What the two contract CIA psychologists who were torturing Abu Zubaydah did was to take Ali Soufan’s information, retype it in the CIA system, and say, “We waterboarded him and he gave us this incredible information! The enhanced interrogation techniques work!” But it was a lie. They nearly killed Abu Zubaydah and he went silent. (The CIA Inspector General wrote a classified report saying exactly this in 2005. That report was not declassified and made public until 2009.)
Once the psychologists had reported all of Ali Soufan’s information back to the CIA, the FBI began agitating to take over the case again. Ali Soufan returned to the secret site and started building a relationship with Abu Zubaydah from scratch again. Abu Zubaydah was furious. He believed that Soufan had sold him out and it was more than a month before he would even agree to a conversation. But, finally, he did. And he began answering Soufan’s questions again. The intelligence flow began anew. The CIA was not sated, though. They had to prove that the torture program worked and that it was worth the $81 million they had charged the American taxpayers for it. Yet again, Soufan and the FBI were thrown out of the country. Yet again, the contract psychologists took over. And yet again, Abu Zubaydah and others were tortured.
By the end, Abu Zubaydah was utterly broken. But that had been the CIA’s goal all along. They called it “learned helplessness.” Abu Zubaydah had gotten to the point where his interrogator merely walking into the room was enough to make him cry. He would tell his interrogators literally anything he thought they wanted to hear just to make them stop torturing him, whether the information was true or not.
Abu Zubaydah is now one of the five Guantanamo defendants who apparently are negotiating plea deals. But does it really matter? The CIA told US Senate investigators that Abu Zubaydah will never go free. Never. He’ll die at Guantanamo someday. And when he does, they said, they would cremate him and throw his ashes into the Caribbean. It’ll be as though he never existed.
This doesn’t make America stronger. It makes us weaker. Besides ceding the moral high ground by exhibiting behavior as reprehensible as what the terrorists have done to Americans and others over the years, the CIA’s torture program forced countless analysts to waste countless hours poring through false and worthless information collected through torture. How many Americans were endangered because of that? How many terrorist attacks went forward because of the way the CIA tried to “collect” information?
And now, worst of all, our government is unable to prosecute its most dangerous prisoners because the CIA violated their constitutional rights. The torture program was wrong and ineffective from the very beginning. There was no upside. The CIA, in fact, was not gathering intelligence. It was committing a crime against humanity.