By Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
Retired FBI agent Daniel Coleman, who led an examination of documents after Abu Zubaida's capture in early 2002 and worked on the case, said the CIA's harsh tactics cast doubt on the credibility of Abu Zubaida's information.
"I don't have confidence in anything he says, because once you go down that road, everything you say is tainted," Coleman said, referring to the harsh measures. "He was talking before they did that to him, but they didn't believe him. The problem is they didn't realize he didn't know all that much."
Abu Zubaida's journey through the U.S. government's secret prison system began on March 28, 2002, when U.S. and Pakistani authorities conducted a series of night raids at 14 suspected terrorist safe houses aimed at capturing him. The CIA designed the operation with Pakistan's intelligence service and special forces police, and the FBI had agents at each location to take custody of any physical evidence, officials said.
Documents, cellphones and computers were seized at multiple sites. After a gunfight in a second-floor apartment in Faisalabad, Abu Zubaida was shot three times while attempting to leap from the roof of one apartment to another. Still unidentified, he was placed in the back of a pickup truck and taken to a local hospital. An FBI agent in the truck was the first to suggest he might be Abu Zubaida.
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials had long sought Abu Zubaida, whom Ahmed Ressam -- a key organizer of the failed attempt to bomb the Los Angeles airport in 1999 -- had named as a fellow plotter. The 9/11 Commission described Abu Zubaida as a "longtime ally of bin Laden" who helped run the Khalden terrorist training camp in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Once Abu Zubaida's identity was confirmed, the CIA station chief ordered him to be watched around the clock while U.S. officials made plans for intensive questioning at a secret site elsewhere, several officials said. He was flown out of Pakistan after three days.
In his book, "At the Center of the Storm: My Years in the CIA," Tenet wrote that a trauma physician from Johns Hopkins Medical Center was flown to Pakistan to help keep Abu Zubaida alive during his transfer to the new interrogation site. "Not that we had any sympathy for Zubaydah; we just didn't want him dying before we could learn what he might have to tell us about plans for future attacks," Tenet said.
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Abu Zubaida's captors first spoke to him in Arabic, but he began responding only when they addressed him in English, Kiriakou recalled. Abu Zubaida explained that he would not talk to infidels in what he said was "God's language," Kiriakou said.
During his first month of captivity, Abu Zubaida described an al-Qaeda associate whose physical description matched that of Padilla, leading to Padilla's arrest at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago in May 2002. A former CIA officer said in an interview that Abu Zubaida's "disclosure of Padilla was accidental." The officer added that Abu Zubaida "was talking about minor things and provided a small amount of information and a description of a person, just enough to identify him because he had just visited the U.S. Embassy" in Pakistan.
Other officials, including Bush, have said that during those early weeks -- before the interrogation turned harsh -- Abu Zubaida confirmed that Mohammed's role as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
A rift nonetheless swiftly developed between FBI agents, who were largely pleased with the progress of the questioning, and CIA officers, who felt Abu Zubaida was holding out on them and providing disinformation. Tensions came to a head after FBI agents witnessed the use of some harsh tactics on Abu Zubaida, including keeping him naked in his cell, subjecting him to extreme cold and bombarding him with loud rock music.
"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.