Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Torture of Abu Zubayda

The subject of torture of captured Al-Qaeda members is back in the news with new revelations about the torture of Abu Zubayda. The CIA destroyed videotapes of its interrogation of Abu Zubayda, which opponent of torture take as evidence that it was so graphic that it would turn public opinion against torture, even of the worst terrorists. At the same time, the CIA leaked that Democratic leaders in Congress were briefed about the torture and approved, actions which proponents of torture take as proof of its necessity.

Two participants in the interrogation have given differing accounts; John Kiriakou of the CIA, defends the use of torture and Daniel Coleman of the FBI (as reported by the Washington Post) criticizes it. Needless to say, neither man is a neutral witness. Kiriakou, as one the the CIA participants in waterboarding, has strong reason to argue that it was necessary, while Coleman, one of the FBI agents who stuck to orthodox methods of interrogation, is eager to defend those techniques as sufficient.

Both accounts agree certain facts. Intelligence determined that Abu Zubayda shuttled among 14 safehouses in Pakistan. On March 28, 2002, US and Pakistani forces raided all 14 at once. Abu Zubayda was in one of the houses, had a shootout with the raiding forces, and was seriously wounded. His condition did not allow him to be interrogated for at least several days. He was then transferred to a secret location in Thailand, where the FBI questioned him using orthodox interrogation techniques and got some limited information. Some time later (neither acount specifies when, possibly in May, although they did not receive legal approval until August,) the CIA began using stronger techniques, including waterboarding. Abu Zubayda then gave them additional information.

The accounts differ on the value of what Abu Zubayda had to offer. According to the CIA, he was a high-level Al-Qaeda operative who gave very limited information with orthodox methods and much valuable iformation after waterboarding.

Kiriakou reports that the raid discovered a bomb being assembled in the safehouse with the soldering arm still hot and plans for a school that was presumably the target. Agents were alarmed because of the immediate threat. Once Abu Zubayda recovered sufficiently to be questioned, Kiriakou reports that he was friendly, cooperative, and willing to talk about generalities, but not to give any actionable intelligence. Kiriakou emphatic that every escalation in coercion against Abu Zubayda was approved at the highest levels in Washington. Five years after the event, he did not recall whether it included all techniques such as sleep deprivation, but the agents definitely slapped their prisoner and waterboarded him. Abu Zubayda held out 35 second against waterboarding. (By constrast, when the agents attempted it on themselves, Kiriakou was able to withstand about 5 seconds and none of them were able to hold out more than 10 or 12). The next day Abu Zubayda said Allah told him to cooperate because it would be easier on the others captured.

As a high-level Al-Qaeda operative, Abu Zubayda had valuable information. He did not know the locations of Bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but he was able to give information on ongoing but hterrorist plots that allowed them to be disrupted. Five years after the fact, Kiriakou did not remember details about those plots, other than to say that he gave information that disrupted "dozens" of attacks though none, to his recollection, on US soil. Once these plots were thwarted, Abu Zubayda was, of course, not able to give information on further plots that developed after he was captured. But he was able to continue giving information on how Al-Qaeda was organized and operated, and which individuals filled different roles. He was always cooperative and never lied, Kiriakou reported. All information he gave was collaberated from other sources. Apparently the threat of being waterboarded again was sufficient to overcome all resistence.

Although Kiriakou said that most of the interrogation videotape would consist of "a lot of very long and very boring conversations about the minutiae surrounding the leadership of al Qaeda," he acknowledges that the part showing waterboarding would, indeed, be graphic enough to alarm most people:

It-- it's-- it's sort of a violent thing to-- to see or to go through. You may be of, you know, one persuasion or the other where you think it's a necessary thing or--or you think it's torture. But either way you dice it-- it-- it's not something that's pretty to watch. . . . To me it's almost like being shocked. Where you tense up because you wanna-- you wanna wiggle out of the way of the water, and you can't, because you're strapped down. And-- and your head is immobilized.
As for whether torture is justified, Kiriakou is ambivilent. He is unwilling to forego torture in the future because:

I think that this is an ongoing battle that we're gonna be fighting for the next generation, at least. And it's always going to be a game of one-upmanship. We always have to have information that is at least as good as what they're planning. It's the only way that we can-- that we can stop these attacks. What happens if we don't water-board a person and we don't get that nugget of information, and there's an attack on a-- on a movie theater or a shopping mall or-- or in midtown Manhattan, you know, at rush hour? Then-- then what do we do? I-- I would have trouble forgiving myself.
Yet at the same time he is inclined to believe that that time immediately following September 11 was different and could justify things that are no longer justified.

You know, the-- the months after September 11th were different. Because we were-- we were really reactive at the time. And we were-- we were stunned by the-- by the magnitude of-- of the attacks on September 11th. And we were afraid that something of-- of equal-- scope was-- was in the works. And we were really trying to do anything that we could to stop another major attack from happening. I don't think we're in that mindset right now. I think we're chasing them all over the world. I think we've had a great deal of success chasing them, not just by ourselves but with other-- with other governments. And-- as a result, water-boarding, at least right now, is unnecessary.
Daniel Coleman, as reported in the Washingon Post disagrees. By his account, documents, cell phones and computers were seized as multiple sites. Coleman led the review of the captured documents and found they gave "crucial information" about Al-Qaeda and its network. Abu Zubayda himself, however, was mentally unbalanced (perhaps as a result of an earlier head injury) and played only a limited role in Al-Qaeda, as a safehouse keeper and travel agent. Coleman says that Abu Zubayda gave the limited information he had without coercion, but the CIA, hoping for more, tortured him and got only "crap." Other, unnamed sources dispute that Abu Zubayda was broken with a single session of waterboarding and say that "harsh treatment" continued for weeks or months.

I intend to give my own, more complete, opinion on the subject in my next post. Just for a preliminary, however, I will say that I agree with Andrew Sullivan. Even taking Kiriakou at his word, he unknowingly points out the flaw in the whole ticking bomb scenario. The torture of Abu Zubayda was not a ticking bomb. It was a situation in which there might be a ticking bomb, but no one knew. And Kiriakou acknowledges where the approach can easily lead. It is never possible to know that any situation is not a ticking bomb. The temptation will always be there to torture, just to be sure. "What happens if we don't water-board a person and we don't get that nugget of information, and there's an attack on a-- on a movie theater or a shopping mall or-- or in midtown Manhattan, you know, at rush hour? Then-- then what do we do? I-- I would have trouble forgiving myself." Taken to its logical conclusion, when would we not waterboard.

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