At a Secret Interrogation, Dispute Flared Over Tactics
By DAVID JOHNSTON
WASHINGTON, Sept. 9 — Abu Zubaydah, the first Osama bin Laden
henchman captured by the United States after the terrorist attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001, was bloodied and feverish when a C.I.A.
security team delivered him to a secret safe house in Thailand for
interrogation in the early spring of 2002. Bullet fragments had ripped
through his abdomen and groin during a firefight in Pakistan several
days earlier when he had been captured.
The events that unfolded at the safe house over the next few weeks
proved to be fateful for the Bush administration. Within days, Mr.
Zubaydah was being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques — he
was stripped, held in an icy room and jarred by earsplittingly loud
music — the genesis of practices later adopted by some within the
military, and widely used by the Central Intelligence Agency in handling
prominent terrorism suspects at secret overseas prisons.
President Bush pointedly cited the capture and interrogation of Mr.
Zubaydah in his speech last Wednesday announcing the transfer of Mr.
Zubaydah and 13 others to the American detention center in Guantánamo
Bay, Cuba. And he used it to call for ratification of the tough
techniques employed in the questioning.
But rather than the smooth process depicted by Mr. Bush, interviews with
nearly a dozen current and former law enforcement and intelligence
officials briefed on the process show, the interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah
was fraught with sharp disputes, debates about the legality and utility
of harsh interrogation methods, and a rupture between the Federal Bureau
and the C.I.A. that has yet to heal.
Some of those interviewed offered sharply contrasting accounts, but all
said that the disagreements were intense. More than four years later,
these disputes are foreshadowing the debate that Mr. Bush’s new
proposals are meeting in Congress, as lawmakers wrangle about what rules
should apply as terrorism suspects are captured, questioned and,
possibly, tried before military tribunals.
A reconstruction of Mr. Zubaydah’s initial days of detention and
interrogation, based on accounts by former and current law enforcement
and intelligence officials in a series of recent interviews, provides
the first detailed account of his treatment and the disputes and
uncertainties that surrounded it. The basic chronology of how the
capture and interrogation unfolded was described consistently by sources
from a number of government agencies.
The officials spoke on the condition that they not be identified because
many aspects of the handling of Mr. Zubaydah remain classified and
because some of the officials may be witnesses in future prosecutions
involving Mr. Zubaydah.
This week, President Bush said that he had not and never would approve
the use of torture. The C.I.A. declined to discuss the specifics of the
case on the record. At F.B.I. headquarters, officials refused to
publicly discuss the interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah, citing what they
said were “operational sensitivities.”
Some of the officials who were interviewed for this article were briefed
on the events as they occurred. Others were provided with accounts of
the interrogation later.
Before his capture, Mr. Zubaydah was regarded as a top bin Laden
logistics chief who funneled recruits to training bases in Afghanistan
and served as a communications link between Al Qaeda
leadership and extremists in other countries.
As interrogators dug into his activities, however, they scaled back
their assessment somewhat, viewing him more as the terror network’s
personnel director and hotelier who ran a string of guest houses in
Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mr. Zubaydah’s whereabouts in Pakistan had been determined in part
through intercepted Internet communications, but for days after his
capture his identity was in doubt. He had surgically altered his
appearance and was using an alias. But when agents used a nickname for
Mr. Zubaydah, he acknowledged his true identity, which was confirmed
through analysis of his voice, facial structure and DNA tests.
By all accounts, Mr. Zubaydah’s condition was rapidly deteriorating when
he arrived in Thailand. Soon after his capture, Mr. Zubaydah nearly died
of his infected wounds. At one point, he was covertly rushed to a
hospital after C.I.A. medical officers warned that he might not survive
if he did not receive more extensive medical treatment.
According to accounts from five former and current government officials
who were briefed on the case, F.B.I. agents — accompanied by
intelligence officers — initially questioned him using standard
interview techniques. They bathed Mr. Zubaydah, changed his bandages,
gave him water, urged improved medical care, and spoke with him in
Arabic and English, languages in which he is fluent.
To convince him they knew details of his activities, the agents brought
a box of blank audiotapes which they said contained recordings of his
phone conversations, but were actually empty. As the F.B.I. worked with
C.I.A. officers who were present, Mr. Zubaydah soon began to provide
intelligence insights into Al Qaeda.
For the C.I.A., Mr. Zubaydah was a test case for an evolving new role,
conceived after Sept. 11, in which the agency was to act as jailer and
interrogator for terrorism suspects.
According to accounts by three former intelligence officials, the C.I.A.
understood that the legal foundation for its role had been spelled out
in a sweeping classified directive signed by Mr. Bush on Sept. 17, 2001.
The directive, known as a memorandum of notification, authorized the
C.I.A. for the first time to capture, detain and interrogate terrorism
suspects, providing the foundation for what became its secret prison system.
That 2001 directive did not spell out specific guidelines for
interrogations, however, and senior C.I.A. officials began in late 2001
and early 2002 to draw up a list of aggressive interrogation procedures
that might be used against terrorism suspects. They consulted agency
psychiatrists and foreign governments to identify effective techniques
beyond standard interview practices.
After Mr. Zubaydah’s capture, a C.I.A. interrogation team was dispatched
from the agency’s counterterrorism center to take the lead in his
questioning, former law enforcement and intelligence officials said, and
F.B.I. agents were withdrawn. The group included an agency consultant
schooled in the harsher interrogation procedures to which American
special forces are subjected in their training. Three former
intelligence officials said the techniques had been drawn up on the
basis of legal guidance from the Justice Department, but were not yet
supported by a formal legal opinion.
In Thailand, the new C.I.A. team concluded that under standard
questioning Mr. Zubaydah was revealing only a small fraction of what he
knew, and decided that more aggressive techniques were warranted.
At times, Mr. Zubaydah, still weak from his wounds, was stripped and
placed in a cell without a bunk or blankets. He stood or lay on the bare
floor, sometimes with air-conditioning adjusted so that, one official
said, Mr. Zubaydah seemed to turn blue. At other times, the
interrogators piped in deafening blasts of music by groups like the Red
Hot Chili Peppers. Sometimes, the interrogator would use simpler
techniques, entering his cell to ask him to confess.
“You know what I want,” the interrogator would say to him, according to
one official’s account, departing leaving Mr. Zubaydah to brood over his
F.B.I. agents on the scene angrily protested the more aggressive
approach, arguing that persuasion rather than coercion had succeeded.
But leaders of the C.I.A. interrogation team were convinced that tougher
tactics were warranted and said that the methods had been authorized by
senior lawyers at the White House.
The agents appealed to their superiors but were told that the
intelligence agency was in charge, the officials said. One law
enforcement official who was aware of events as they occurred reacted
with chagrin. “When you rough these guys up, all you do is fulfill their
fantasies about what to expect from us,” the official said.
Mr. Bush on Wednesday acknowledged the use of aggressive interview
techniques, but only in the most general terms. “We knew that Zubaydah
had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped
talking,” Mr. Bush said. He said the C.I.A. had used “an alternative set
of procedures’’ after it became clear that Mr. Zubaydah “had received
training on how to resist interrogation.
“These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our
Constitution and our treaty obligations,’’ Mr. Bush said. “The
Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and
determined them to be lawful.’’
In his early interviews, Mr. Zubaydah had revealed what turned out to be
important information, identifying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
— from a photo on a hand-held computer — as the chief planner of the
Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Zubaydah also identified Jose Padilla
an American citizen who has been charged with terrorism-related crimes.
But Mr. Zubaydah dismissed Mr. Padilla as a maladroit extremist whose
hope to construct a dirty bomb, using conventional explosives to
disperse radioactive materials, was far-fetched. He told his questioners
that Mr. Padilla was ignorant on the subject of nuclear physics and
believed he could separate plutonium from nuclear material by rapidly
swinging over his head a bucket filled with fissionable material.
Crucial aspects of what happened during Mr. Zubaydah’s interrogation are
sharply disputed. Some former and current government officials briefed
on the case, who were more closely allied with law enforcement, said Mr.
Zubaydah cooperated with F.B.I. interviewers until the C.I.A.
interrogation team arrived. They said that Mr. Zubaydah’s resistance
began after the agency interrogators began using more stringent tactics.
Other officials, more closely tied to intelligence agencies, dismissed
that account, saying that the C.I.A. had supervised all interviews with
Mr. Zubaydah, including those in which F.B.I. agents asked questions.
These officials said that he proved a wily adversary. “He was lying, and
things were going nowhere,” one official briefed on the matter said of
the early interviews. “It was clear that he had information about an
imminent attack and time was of the essence.”
Several officials said the belief that Mr. Zubaydah might have possessed
critical information about a coming terrorist operation figured
significantly in the decision to employ tougher tactics, even though it
later became apparent he had no such knowledge.
“As the president has made clear, the fact of the matter is that Abu
Zubaydah was defiant and evasive until the approved procedures were
used,” one government official said. “He soon began to provide
information on key Al Qaeda operators to help us find and capture those
responsible for the 9/11 attacks.”
This official added, “When you are concerned that a hard-core terrorist
has information about an imminent threat that could put innocent lives
at risk, rapport-building and stroking aren’t the top things on your
"*What a fine kettle of fish you've gotten us into this time" - Ollie