Bush's Exhibit A for Torture

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 18, 2007; 1:04 PM

At the heart of President Bush's defense of torture lies Abu Zubaida.

Bush has described Zubaida (alternately spelled Zubaydah) as a major al Qaeda figure who resisted questioning until the CIA applied its "alternative set" of interrogation procedures -- and who then provided crucial, life-saving intelligence.

Indeed, Bush has been personally invested, for more than five years, in the notion that Zubaida's capture and interrogation were momentous achievements.

As early as April 9, 2002, Bush bragged to fellow Republicans at a political fundraiser: "The other day we hauled in a guy named Abu Zubaydah. He's one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States. He's not plotting and planning anymore. He's where he belongs."

In a June 6, 2002, address, Bush called Zubaida al Qaeda's "chief of operations" and said that "[f]rom him and from hundreds of others, we are learning more about how the terrorists plan and operate, information crucial in anticipating and preventing future attacks."

At a Republican fundraiser on October 14, 2002, Bush called Zubaida "one of the top three leaders in the organization."

But investigative journalist Ron Suskind wrote in his 2006 book " The One Percent Doctrine" that even as Bush was publicly proclaiming Zubaida's malevolence, he was privately being briefed about doubts within the intelligence community regarding Zubaida's significance and mental stability. Suskind quotes the following exchange between Bush and then-CIA director George Tenet:

"'I said he was important," Bush said to Tenet at one of their daily meetings. 'You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?'

"'No Sir, Mr. President.'"

When Bush for the first time publicly acknowledged the existence of a secret CIA detention and interrogation program, in a September 2006 speech, Zubaida was front and center. Bush proudly described how Zubaida -- "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."

But Bush's Exhibit A in defense of torture may in fact be an exhibit for the prosecution.

As I wrote in my Dec. 7 column, evidence uncovered by Suskind suggests Zubaida was a mentally ill minor functionary, who under brutal questioning sent investigators chasing after false leads about al-Qaeda plots on American nuclear plants, water systems, shopping malls, banks and supermarkets.

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