Since a new editor took the helm last September, The Washington Post has become a much more fair and accurate newspaper. But in a story stripped across four columns at the top of the Sunday paper, the Post lapsed into its previous misleading coverage of the war on terror.
“Detainee’s Harsh Treatment Foiled No Plots,” the headline said. “Waterboarding, Rough Interrogation of Abu Zubaydah Produced False Leads, Officials Say,” the subhead said.
Attributing the information to unnamed former senior government officials, the story claimed that, beyond leading to the apprehension of José Padilla, the CIA’s interrogation of Abu Zubaydah produced little of value beyond names of al-Qaida operatives. The story said Abu Zubaydah identified Padilla as leading an effort to explode a radiological “dirty” bomb in the U.S. But, the story said, Padilla “was never charged in any such plot.”
The Post story never mentioned that on Aug. 16, 2007, Padilla was found guilty in Miami of conspiring to kill people in an overseas jihad. At the time, the Post reported the conviction on Page One.
The story in Sunday’s Post said Abu Zubaydah was not “even an official member” of al-Qaida. Minimizing what Abu Zubaydah gave up, the story mentioned almost in passing that he “quickly told U.S. interrogators of Mohammed and of others he knew to be in al-Qaida,” referring to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 plot.
That glossed over the fact that the CIA had no idea that Mohammed — known as KSM — was behind the 9/11 attacks until Abu Zubaydah pinpointed him. His leads led directly to the arrest of Mohammed, who was planning more terrorist plots.
Abu Zubaydah, who is now at Guantánamo Bay, had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained. He was like a U.S. Army recruiting station for al-Qaida.
“It’s not so much that he was high ranking as that he had access to all of the most high-ranking people,” an FBI official told me for my book “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack.”
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The FBI and CIA knew Padilla had gone through Abu Zubaydah’s operation on his way to joining al-Qaida, and they believed that Padilla had been tasked to detonate a dirty bomb plot in the U.S.
“They were showing Abu Zubaydah different photos, trying to get him to identify José Padilla,” says an FBI official. “And it was within the course of trying to get him to identify Padilla that he hesitated on Khalid Sheik Mohammed.”
Bluffing, an FBI agent said, “No, no, no. I know all about him. I ask the questions, you give the answers. I want to know about this other guy.”
FBI agents and CIA officers interrogating him went on to the photo of Padilla. But recognizing that the first photo had caught Abu Zubaydah’s eye, an FBI agent began thinking about how he could return to the first photo. As a ruse, he said, “We know Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.”
“How did you know he was the mastermind?” Abu Zubaydah said.
Abu Zubaydah revealed that KSM used the moniker “Mukhtar.” With that clue, analysts combed through previously collected intelligence and developed leads that helped with his capture.
Soon after, Abu Zubaydah stopped cooperating. Fearing that another attack was in the works, the CIA began developing coercive interrogation techniques — waterboarding high value terrorists or subjecting them to ear-splitting music or to icy temperatures and forcing them to stand for hours.
“We weren’t getting very much from him [Abu Zubaydah] at all,” Robert Grenier, who was the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad and later headed the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, told me. “And that’s when we began the process of putting together a properly focused interrogation process.”
After a few months, the agency began using some of the coercive techniques on Abu Zubaydah. As the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and other detained terrorists progressed, the CIA briefed the chairs, ranking members, and majority and minority staff directors of the House and Senate intelligence committees on the details of the procedures used.
Abu Zubaydah “turned out to be incredibly valuable,” Pat D’Amuro, who was assistant FBI director over counterterrorism and counterintelligence at the time, told me. “Abu Zubaydah provided information that helped stop a terrorist attack being planned against the Library Tower and other buildings on the west coast, the so-called second wave.
He provided physical descriptions of the operatives and information on their general location. Based on the information he provided, the operatives were detained, one while traveling to the United States.”
After coercive techniques were used on him, Abu Zubaydah identified Ramzi bin al Shibh, who was captured in Karachi in September 2002. He was a top al-Qaida recruiter and a member of bin Laden’s inner circle. Zubaydah identified him as one of KSM’s accomplices in the 9/11 attacks. After his arrest, al Shibh provided information that helped in the planning and execution of the operation that captured KSM.
The Post story said that despite the “poor results,” Bush White House officials and CIA leaders continued to insist that the harsh measures applied against Abu Zubaydah and others produced useful intelligence. The story said that two weeks ago, former Vice President Dick Cheney renewed that assertion in a CNN interview.
Cheney said he had seen a classified report itemizing specific attacks that were stopped “by virtue of what we learned through those programs.”
But the Post story said that since 2006, Senate intelligence committee members have pressed the CIA to provide examples of specific leads that were obtained from Abu Zubaydah through the use of waterboarding and other methods.
“The agency provided none,” the story said.
In fact, the committee has seen the report Cheney referred to and last week brought it to the attention of the CIA. The committee was allowed to take notes on it initially and has since requested a copy as part of its review of the Bush interrogation and detention program.
In the ninth paragraph, the Post’s story said some U.S. officials stick by their conclusion that Abu Zubaydah gave up “plenty of useful information about al-Qaida.”
Despite that disclaimer, the fact is the Post story was wrong. Rather than foiling no “significant” plots, as the Post story suggested, both before and after harsh tactics were used on him, Abu Zubaydah provided information that was instrumental in apprehending KSM and other key al-Qaida operatives, stopping a planned second wave of attacks.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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