FBI, CIA Debate Significance of Terror Suspect
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Al-Qaeda captive Abu Zubaida, whose interrogation videotapes were destroyed by the CIA, remains the subject of a dispute between FBI and CIA officials over his significance as a terrorism suspect and whether his most important revelations came from traditional interrogations or from torture.
While CIA officials have described him as an important insider whose disclosures under intense pressure saved lives, some FBI agents and analysts say he is largely a loudmouthed and mentally troubled hotelier whose credibility dropped as the CIA subjected him to a simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding and to other "enhanced interrogation" measures.
The question of whether Abu Zubaida -- whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein -- was an unstable source who provided limited intelligence under gentle questioning, or a hardened terrorist who cracked under extremely harsh measures, goes to the heart of the current Washington debate over coercive interrogations and torture.
The House has approved legislation that would require U.S. intelligence agencies to follow Army rules adopted last year that explicitly forbid waterboarding and other harsh measures, but it has stalled in the Senate under a veto threat by President Bush.
A public assessment of Abu Zubaida's case has been complicated by the newly revealed destruction of the videotaped record of his questioning, according to congressional sources. Intelligence officials say no verbatim transcripts were made, although classified daily summaries were prepared.
Bush has sided publicly with the CIA's version of events. "We knew that Zubaida had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking," Bush said in September 2006. "And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures," which the president said prompted Abu Zubaida to disclose information leading to the capture of Sept. 11, 2001, plotter Ramzi Binalshibh.
But former FBI officials privy to details of the case continue to dispute the CIA's account of the effectiveness of the harsh measures, making the record of Abu Zubaida's interrogation hard for outsiders to assess.
There is little dispute, according to officials from both agencies, that Abu Zubaida provided some valuable intelligence before CIA interrogators began to rough him up, including information that helped identify Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and al-Qaeda operative Jose Padilla. Footnotes in the 9/11 Commission report attribute information about a variety of al-Qaeda personnel and activities to interrogations of Abu Zubaida beginning in April 2002 and lasting through February 2004.
Former CIA officer John Kiriakou -- who participated in Abu Zubaida's capture, was present for the next three days and later saw classified reports of the agency's harsh interrogations -- attracted attention last week when he said that information obtained from Abu Zubaida under measures that Kiriakou now regards as torture "probably saved lives."
Former CIA director George J. Tenet, in his book recounting his tenure at the agency, also said claims that Abu Zubaida's importance was overstated were "baloney." Tenet wrote: "Abu Zubaydah had been at the crossroads of many al-Qaida operations and was in position to -- and did -- share critical information with his interrogators."
But FBI officials, including agents who questioned him after his capture or reviewed documents seized from his home, have concluded that even though he knew some al-Qaeda players, he provided interrogators with increasingly dubious information as the CIA's harsh treatment intensified in late 2002.
In legal papers prepared for a military hearing, Abu Zubaida himself has asserted that he told his interrogators whatever they wanted to hear to make the treatment stop.