Abu Zubaydah was:
A) A high-ranking Al Qaeda operative who largely confounded U.S. interrogators with his literary and tactical genius until they submitted him to waterboarding and other forms of torture. After that, he provided key information that likely preempted future attacks.
B) A low-ranking and mentally ill Al Qaeda operative who provided valuable information under gentle questioning, but whose confessions made under torture were useless. Much of the threat information he provided was “crap.”
A is the CIA’s version (and the President’s). B is the FBI’s. And in today’s Washington Post, Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus walk through the competing profiles. Zubaydah, remember, was one of the two detainees whose interrogations appeared on the destroyed CIA tapes.
It’s clear off the bat that the version of events provided by John Kiriakou, the former CIA agent who launched something like a PR blitz last week, is not quite right. In his telling, Zubaydah held out until waterboarded; after only 35 seconds of that, he gave in and “from that day on, he answered every question.”
By contrast, both CIA and FBI agents tell the Post that he provided valuable information before he was waterboarded. And there wasn’t just one session: “Instead, [other former and current officials] said, harsh tactics used on him at a secret detention facility in Thailand went on for weeks or, depending on the account, even months.”
And then you get to the real discrepancies.
A CIA agent says that Zubaydah was a “wily adversary” under questioning who seemed “very selective in what he protected and what he gave up.”
Retired FBI agent Daniel Coleman, “who led an examination of documents after Abu Zubaida’s capture in early 2002 and worked on the case,” responded that Zubaydah was talking before he was waterboarded, but the CIA agents couldn’t believe that he knew so little.
Coleman, in fact, emerges as an effective foil to Kiriakou (who, incidentally, participated in the capture of Zubaydah but wasn’t present during the torture) in the piece. Coleman says that Zubaydah was a “safehouse keeper” for Al Qaeda who had suffered a serious head injury years earlier.
Zubaydah’s mental instability was manifest in his diary, Coleman says, which was “written in three distinct personalities — one younger, one older and one the same age as Abu Zubaida. The book was full of flowery and philosophical meanderings, and made little mention of terrorism or al-Qaeda.”
Former CIA Director George Tenet, by contrast, writes in his book that Zubaydah used a “sophisticated literary device to express himself” in the diary.
And you get the impression that Tenet’s reading is typical of the way the CIA agents tended to see Zubaydah:
Coleman said reports of Abu Zubaida’s statements during his early, traditional interrogation were “consistent with who he was and what he would possibly know.” He and other officials said that materials seized from Abu Zubaida’s house and other locations, including names, telephone numbers and computer laptops, provided crucial information about al-Qaeda and its network.
But, Coleman and other law enforcement officials said, CIA officials concluded to the contrary that Abu Zubaida was a major player, and they saw any lack of information as evidence that he was resisting interrogation. Much of the threat information provided by Abu Zubaida, Coleman said, “was crap.”
“There’s an agency mind-set that there was always some sort of golden apple out there, but there just isn’t, especially with guys like him,” Coleman said.
Note: This tidbit reported by Newsweek last week seems worth noting here:
[The interrogation of Zubaydah] sparked an internal battle within the U.S. intelligence community after FBI agents angrily protested the aggressive methods that were used. In addition to waterboarding, Zubaydah was subjected to sleep deprivation and bombarded with blaring rock music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. One agent was so offended he threatened to arrest the CIA interrogators, according to two former government officials directly familiar with the dispute.