Tuesday, December 11, 2007
A former CIA officer who participated in the capture and questioning of the first al-Qaeda terrorist suspect to be waterboarded said yesterday that the harsh technique provided an intelligence breakthrough that "probably saved lives," but that he now regards the tactic as torture.
Zayn Abidin Muhammed Hussein abu Zubaida, the first high-ranking al-Qaeda member captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, broke in less than a minute after he was subjected to the technique and began providing interrogators with information that led to the disruption of several planned attacks, said John Kiriakou, who served as a CIA interrogator in Pakistan.
Abu Zubaida was one of two detainees whose interrogation was captured in video recordings that the CIA later destroyed. The recent disclosure of the tapes' destruction ignited a recent furor on Capitol Hill and allegations that the agency tried to hide evidence of illegal torture.
"It was like flipping a switch," said Kiriakou, the first former CIA employee directly involved in the questioning of "high-value" al-Qaeda detainees to speak publicly.
In an interview, Kiriakou said he did not witness Abu Zubaida's waterboarding but was part of the interrogation team that questioned him in a hospital in Pakistan for weeks after his capture in that country in the spring of 2002.
He described Abu Zubaida as ideologically zealous, defiant and uncooperative -- until the day in mid-summer when his captors strapped him to a board, wrapped his nose and mouth in cellophane and forced water into his throat in a technique that simulates drowning.
The waterboarding lasted about 35 seconds before Abu Zubaida broke down, according to Kiriakou, who said he was given a detailed description of the incident by fellow team members. The next day, Abu Zubaida told his captors he would tell them whatever they wanted, Kiriakou said.
"He said that Allah had come to him in his cell and told him to cooperate, because it would make things easier for his brothers," Kiriakou said.
Kiriakou's remarks came a day before top CIA officials are to appear before a closed congressional hearing to account for the decision to destroy recordings of the interrogations of Abu Zubaida and another senior captive, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Last Thursday, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden announced that the recordings were destroyed in 2005 to protect the identities of CIA employees who appear on them.
The recordings were destroyed despite orders from judges that required the government to preserve records related to its interrogation programs. The lawsuits were filed by captives at the Guantanamo Bay military prison who were contesting their detentions.
Also yesterday, the House intelligence committee's chairman, Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), and ranking Republican Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) announced that the panel is launching its own investigation into the tapes' destruction. Reyes and Hoekstra said in a statement that Hayden's assertion that the committee had been "properly notified" of the destruction "does not appear to be true."
The Justice Department and the CIA inspector general's office also have begun a preliminary inquiry into the tapes' destruction. Members of the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks have said they were repeatedly told that the CIA did not have videotapes of interrogations.