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FBI, CIA Debate Significance of Terror Suspect

"They said, 'You've got to be kidding me,' " said Coleman, recalling accounts from FBI employees who were there. " 'This guy's a Muslim. That's not going to win his confidence. Are you trying to get information out of him or just belittle him?' " Coleman helped lead the bureau's efforts against Osama bin Laden for a decade, ending in 2004.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III eventually ordered the FBI team to withdraw from the interrogation, largely because bureau procedures prohibit agents from being involved in such techniques, according to several officials familiar with the episode.

Whether harsh tactics were used on Abu Zubaida prior to official legal authorization by the Justice Department is unclear. Officials at the CIA say all its tactics were lawful. An Aug. 1 Justice document later known as the "torture memo" narrowly defined what constituted illegal abuse. It was accompanied by another memo that laid out a list of allowable tactics for the CIA, including waterboarding, according to numerous officials.

According to Kiriakou's account, which he said is based on detailed descriptions by fellow team members, Abu Zubaida broke after just 35 seconds of waterboarding, which involved stretching cellophane over his mouth and nose and pouring water on his face to create the sensation of drowning.

But other former and current officials disagreed that Abu Zubaida's cooperation came quickly under harsh interrogation or that it was the result of a single waterboarding session. Instead, these 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.

The videotaping of Abu Zubaida in 2002 went on day and night throughout his interrogation, including waterboarding, and while he was sleeping in his cell, intelligence officials said. "Several hundred hours" of videotapes were destroyed in November 2005, a senior intelligence officer said. The CIA has said it ceased waterboarding in 2003.

According to the 9/11 Commission, which had access to FBI and CIA summaries of the interrogation, after August 2002 -- when the harsh questioning is said to have begun -- Abu Zubaida identified Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri as a productive recruiter for al-Qaeda. Nashiri was subsequently captured and subjected to harsh interrogation, including waterboarding, but videotapes of that questioning were also destroyed by the CIA.

The commission also said Abu Zubaida provided further information in 2003 and 2004 about Mohammed's conversations with bin Laden and about Abu Turab, a key trainer for the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Even under intense pressure, Abu Zubaida remained a wily adversary, according to a former senior intelligence official familiar with the interrogation, who explained that he seemed "very selective in what he protected and what he gave up." Another former official said that when the measures turned harsh, Abu Zubaida constructed a rationale for why he should cooperate. He decided that "God will not try you beyond your ability to resist," as the former official put it.

Coleman, a 31-year FBI veteran, joined other former law enforcement colleagues in expressing skepticism about Abu Zubaida's importance. Abu Zubaida, he said in an interview, was a "safehouse keeper" with mental problems who claimed to know more about al-Qaeda and its inner workings than he really did.

Abu Zubaida's diary, which Coleman said he examined at length, 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, Coleman said.

Looking at other evidence, including a serious head injury that Abu Zubaida had suffered years earlier, Coleman and others at the FBI believed that he had severe mental problems that called his credibility into question. "They all knew he was crazy, and they knew he was always on the damn phone," Coleman said, referring to al-Qaeda operatives. "You think they're going to tell him anything?"

Tenet disagreed, writing in his book that CIA psychiatrists concluded that Abu Zubaida "was using a sophisticated literary device to express himself" in the diary, which was "hundreds of pages" long.

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.

Staff writer Joby Warrick and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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