Bush and the Torture Tapes

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 7, 2007; 1:34 PM

Defending the destruction of videotapes showing the interrogations of two suspected al- Qaeda operatives, CIA Director Michael Hayden cited President Bush's approving comments about the handling of one of the detainees in question, Abu Zubaydah.

In an e-mail distributed to CIA employees yesterday in advance of a New York Times report, Hayden wrote: "When President Bush officially acknowledged in September 2006 the existence of CIA's counter-terror initiative, he talked about Zubaydah, noting that this terrorist survived solely because of medical treatment arranged by CIA. Under normal questioning, Zubaydah became defiant and evasive. It was clear, in the President's words, that 'Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking.'

"That made imperative the use of other means to obtain the information - means that were lawful, safe, and effective. To meet that need, CIA designed specific, appropriate interrogation procedures." (Here is a link to Hayden's entire email, annotated by legal blogger Marty Lederman.)

Indeed, in his September 2006 speech on treating and trying terrorist suspects, Bush proudly described how Zubaydah -- "a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden" -- was questioned using the CIA's new "alternative set of procedures" and then "began to provide information on key al Qaeda operatives, including information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the 11th."

But soon after that speech Bush's statements about Zubaydah were almost entirely contradicted by authoritative accounts from two investigative reporters: author Ron Suskind and Times reporter David Johnston.

Zubaydah, it turns out, was a mentally ill minor functionary, nursed back to health by the FBI, who under torture sent investigators chasing after false leads about al-Qaeda plots on American nuclear plants, water systems, shopping malls, banks and supermarkets.

So as the White House tries to explain Bush's obviously misleading account Tuesday about when he learned that the Iranian nuclear program had been shelved (see below for the latest developments on that story), the destruction of the interrogation videos raise yet more questions about not just the CIA's behavior, but the president's candor.

Yesterday's Bombshell

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "The Central Intelligence Agency in 2005 destroyed at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two Qaeda operatives in the agency's custody, a step it took in the midst of Congressional and legal scrutiny about its secret detention program, according to current and former government officials.

"The videotapes showed agency operatives in 2002 subjecting terrorism suspects -- including Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee in C.I.A. custody -- to severe interrogation techniques. The tapes were destroyed in part because officers were concerned that video showing harsh interrogation methods could expose agency officials to legal risks, several officials said. . . .

"The destruction of the tapes raises questions about whether agency officials withheld information from Congress, the courts and the Sept. 11 commission about aspects of the program. . . .

"General Hayden has said publicly that information obtained through the C.I.A.'s detention and interrogation program has been the best source of intelligence for operations against Al Qaeda. In a speech last year, President Bush said that information from Mr. Zubaydah had helped lead to the capture in 2003 of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks."

Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick write in The Washington Post: "Whether the agency faces potential legal jeopardy depends on timing -- specifically, whether investigations into the interrogation practices had been launched when the tapes were destroyed, said A. John Radsan, a former federal prosecutor and CIA assistant general counsel.

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