Monday, September 01, 2008
As the first military commission trial at Guantanamo began this past July, after years of simmering intramural feuds and administration stonewalling, I was privileged to speak with one of the attorneys for Abu Zubaydah, allegedly al Qaeda’s “number three” official. I wanted to know how the case was going, who Zubaydah is, and about the military tribunals that the responsible men and women in Washington have set up before the world. The attorney, a gruff-sounding but amicable fellow named George Brent Mickum, spoke with me by telephone.
“The security classification is top secret,” Mickum said. “Anything that I’ve learned through my client I can’t tell you.” Apparently, I had asked about some of the specifics of the case, specifically what Mickum knew about the CIA’s involvement. Late last year, a controversy erupted over an incident in late 2003, when staffers at our Central Intelligence Agency destroyed several incriminating videotaped interrogations of Zubaydah. But if it were really true that our G-men were waterboarding him, it wouldn’t have been the first time Zubaydah knew brute force at the hands of mysterious captors. Much is also mysterious about him. In his testimony before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) in March 2007, of which I obtained an unclassified transcript, Zubaydah drew a distinction between military and civilian targets and claimed to oppose Bin Laden’s tactics, which he viewed as reactionary.
Abu Zubaydah, an alias for Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn Tariq among 35 others, “was severely injured in 1992 when he was fighting Afghan communists,” Mickum said, “hit with a mortar shell.” This is confirmed by several other sources, including the transcript of the CSRT hearing; in various accounts, he was greviously wounded by gunfire and shelling in Faisalabad, Pakistan. It is also alleged that Zubaydah is mentally ill. It almost approaches the absurd to extract actionable intelligence from a physically and mentally compromised figure such as Zubaydah, but the Kafkaesque nature of Gitmo and the entire extralegal superstructure of the “war on terror” defies empirical minds. “None of this makes any sense,” Mickum said with some exasperation. “The government does what it does and justifies it after the fact.”
A lot of information is already on the public record. Much of the supporting material in Mickum’s petition to get his client the writ of habeas corpus overlaps with mine, including Katherine Eban’s illuminating report in Vanity Fair. In it, Eban describes how, like the subjects in Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments, interrogators thought they had the imprimatur of respected scientific authority on their side.
Eban tells the story of how the CIA took over from the FBI’s successful “rapport-building” and substituted terror and domination for actual intelligence. This was done by using a program called SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) that trains soldiers to withstand torture at the enemy’s hands, and “reverse-engineering” these torture techniques—lifted wholesale from the Communist Chinese—to be used on detainees captured by the US military. Referring to the Chinese torture tactics manual, Mickum explained: “We have adopted it lock, stock and barrel. All we did was translate it into English and change the title.”
Zubaydah was the first Qaeda suspect to be captured and became the test case for an international system of CIA-run “black site” dungeons and the attendant methodology of medieval cruelty masked by 21st-century rhetoric of a “new kind” of war against barbarians plotting against us from caves. “Torture was the modus operandi,” said Mickum. “There were no limits.” Indeed, throughout the copious literature spelling out in macabre detail all of the legalistic wrangling, it is apparent that — scared witness of an impending terror attack — interrogators around the world in the archipelago of CIA detention camps (“black sites”) were intent on getting whoever they could capture to say anything. According to Mickum, “They were desperately afraid that there would be another attack, [and] desperately felt they needed to get intel.” The operative rule was to “extract pieces of information from the lowliest guy and then fill in the picture of who our enemy is.” Geneva protections were obstacles to the approach, therefore ignored.
In Jane Mayer’s much-acclaimed book, “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals” (2008), the reader is treated with the sheer scale of depravity and lawlessness that has characterized every major aspect of this administration’s approach to fighting terrorism. Zubaydah “would set the precedent for the abuse of U.S.-held prisoners, transforming U.S. practices starting with the CIA, but eventually spreading through the U.S. military, too” (p. 140). Abu Zubaydah himself “had left fingerprints all over Al Qaeda operations for years.” According to the 9/11 Commission report and other sources, Zubaydah ran two training camps for his “defensive jihad” and had conflicts with Bin Laden, whose agenda was more fanatical.
What is most noteworthy about all of the escapades is the role of the medical profession, chiefly psychologists, in helping legitimate torture and other coercion — even methods known to produce nothing but bullshit — to extract valuable and actionable intelligence, ostensibly to save lives. As Eban records, “Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the C.I.A.,” adding that the “central role” belonged to James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Both had been versed in the SERE methods. “We are proud of the work we have done for our country,” Eban quotes them as saying in a joint press release. Eban quotes Steve Kleinman, described as “an Air Force Reserve colonel and [an] expert in human-intelligence operations,” as declaring somberly that Mitchell-Jessen “have caused more harm to American national security than they’ll ever understand.”
In a serious attempt to find out the identity of Zubaydah and his actual role, I spent long hours amassing information and putting together the pieces. The end-result seems to be a study in contradictory claims, but more or less a clear picture emerges. According to a BBC News profile, Abu Zubaydah “had used at least 37 aliases” — another one of which was Abd Al-Hadi Al-Wahab — “and was considered a master of disguise.” His shape-shifting repute is repeated elsewhere. The top source for Zubaydah’s notoriety as a world-class terrorist is Ahmed Ressam, “an Algerian witness,” who alleged that Zubaydah was the “chief recruiter” for al Qa’ida, and that he was behind “a thwarted plot to bomb hotels [in Jordan] during millennium celebrations” (hereafter “the millennium plot”).
An Associated Press dispatch also relied upon Ressam’s testimony, which again alluded to Zubaydah’s role as a recruiter and middle-management operative. We also read of Zubaydah’s “combat skills and organizational talent that pushed him to the top ranks” of Osama bin Laden’s global criminal enterprise. Born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on March 12, 1971, he “developed a unique talent in mortars and other heavy weaponry” and “was apparently named bin Laden’s second deputy in 1995, responsible for screening recruits and devising terrorist plans” on a logistical basis. He was not a policy-maker; he was simply tasked to carry out the wishes of Bin Laden and his second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. Yet, for some reason, Zubaydah “doesn’t appear on the FBI’s list of top wanted terrorists.” “Jordanian military documents” also allege that Zubaydah “recruited Raed Hijazi,” who was himself “named as a recruiter of suspects in plots to bomb U.S. Embasses in Paris and Sarajevo.”
Also, the AP reported that Zubaydah “is believed to have been a field commander for the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed”; his co-operative was a man named Khader Abu-Hosher, another Palestinian. Along with Jordanian tourist hotels, other targets of the foiled millennium plot were Israeli draws like the “site on the Jordan River where Jesus Christ was believed to have been baptized.” “In September 2000,” Zubaydah “was found guilty of conspiracy to carry out terror attacks in Jordan” and “sentenced in absentia to 15 years of hard labor.”
A lengthy report in Time magazine put forward a rap sheet connecting Zubaydah with someone named Omar al-Faruq, a Kuwaiti who, after “three months of psychological interrogation tactics … finally broke down” and, “according to a secret CIA summary of the interview, al-Faruq confessed that he was, in fact, al-Qaeda’s senior representative in Southeast Asia.” The Time report breathlessly continues, “Then came an even more shocking confession: according to the CIA document, al-Faruq said two senior al-Qaeda officials, Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, had ordered him to ‘plan large-scale attacks against U.S. interests in Indonesia, Malaysia, (the) Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam and Cambodia.’ … Fearing an attack could come at any moment, al-Faruq’s interrogators relayed his revelations to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center [hereafter “CTC”] in Langley, Va. … Al-Faruq’s threatened attacks never occurred.”
Abu Zubaydah was captured almost by accident, with the crucial aid of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency — for a price. “On the outskirts of Pakistan’s militant tribal area” in a city called Faisalabad, Mayer wrote that ISI “officers had noticed had noticed a caravan carrying several exceptionally tall burka-clad women who turned out to be male Islamic extremists in disguise. … For a bribe, their driver gave away their destination. This enabled the U.S. government to mount a major surveillance operation on their neighborhood. In the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, translators and analysts among the agency’s 38,000 employees pored over every fragment of electronic information vacuumed by enormously powerful eavesdropping equipment trained on the spot, until they could pinpoint what they believed was a nest of top Al Qaeda suspects” (p. 140).
“In the predawn hours [around 4 AM] of March 28,” Mayer continued, “dozens of armed CIA, FBI, and Pakistani law-enforcement and intelligence officers raided a shambling compound on the suburban outskirts of Faisalabad, taking Zubayda by surprise along with some twenty-five other suspected Al Qaeda followers, including one with a valid Arizona driver’s license. In an attempt to escape, Zubayda leapt from the roof to that of a neighboring house, where a gun battle ensued before he dropped twenty-five feet to the ground. By the time it was over, Zubayda had been shot in the thigh, stomach, and groin. A Pakistani doctor told [novice CIA officer John] Kiriakou that he’d never seen anyone with such egregious injuries survive. In truth, Zubayda had nearly slipped into sepsis in the back of a pickup truck where, unrecognized, he had been piled with several other wounded suspects after the gunfight. An agent with a flashlight identified him just in time to rush him to the hospital for resuscitation” (pp. 140-41).
“Zubayda left behind computers, cell phones, computer disks, phone books, and two Western-style bank cards for accounts in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He also left behind a voluminous personal diary—in all, there were nearly 10,000 pages of potentially invaluable intelligence. Adding urgency, according to Kiriakou, were the remnants of a bomb that he and two other men had been building on a table, along with plans for what appeared to be an attack on a British school in Lahore. … What put Zubayda in CIA custody was not toughness, it was money. The Pakistani intelligence service bought the original tip leading to his whereabouts with a small bribe to the taxi driver. Afterward, the CIA bought Pakistan’s help for a much larger sum. A CIA source involved at the time disclosed, ‘We paid $10 million for Abu Zubayda.’ [$25 million, according to Mickum] He said the money went to the ISI” (p. 141).
“The FBI took him first to Faisalabad’s Allied Hospital and then to Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, 170 miles to the north,” wrote al Qaeda expert Jason Burke, in the Observer. From there “he was whisked by the CIA to Thailand where he was housed in a small, disused warehouse on an active airbase,” according to ABC News investigators Brian Ross and Richard Esposito.
After a few days of FBI interrogations in which “phenomenal” information was divulged (Mayer, p. 156), CIA-contracted military psychologists John Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen arrived with their SERE program, angered and frightened the FBI agents and completely destroyed any chance of getting at valuable information. Zubaydah was stripped naked, put in a cage, waterboarded repeatedly. “Once healthy,” Ross-Esposito wrote, Zubaydah “was slapped, grabbed, made to stand long hours in a cold cell, and finally handcuffed and strapped feet up to a water board under after 0.31 seconds he begged for mercy and began to cooperate.” His insanity worsened; he remains in prison without charge. On the bright side, he ID’d Jose Padilla, the suspected “dirty bomber,” gangbanger and U.S. citizen (ibid, p. 155).
Burke described Zubaydah as Bin Laden’s “most influential henchman,” “an apparently mild-mannered … bespectacled, slim-shouldered Arab” who “is trained in every weapon from kalashnikovs to heavy mortars to truck bombs” and possessed “a reputation for efficiency and ruthlessness.” In Burke’s account, Zubaydah was indeed a dangerous terrorist, “linked to British Islamists accused of being al-Qaeda operatives” and, from 1996, “was appointed ‘chief of operations’ … [of] the camps where thousands of volunteers flocking to bin Laden’s [jihadi] banner from across the Islamic world were to be trained.” Burke also cited Ressam, the captured Algerian terrorist. The 9/11 Commission report also leans heavily on Ressam’s testimony, perhaps coerced.
“The government has tried to suggest that all Islamic militants are al Qaeda,” Mickum said. “That’s ludicrous. Most of the camps were for defensive jihad, defense of Afghanistan and Kashmir.” In his testimony, Zubaydah concurred: “…if an aggressor or invader invades Muslim lands, no matter where, then it is every Muslim’s duty to defend the land against the invader.” He referred to Russia and Serbia as examples of aggressors against Muslims (Verbatim Transcript of CSRT Hearing for ISN 10016, Oral Statement, p. 9).
The story of Abu Zubaydah, a thirty-something schizoid who acted as a go-to intermediary and middle-man for logistics but not proven to have done operational planning on a terrorist attack, is in reality a story about ourselves and how we have acted around the world in the name of fighting barbarism. “I think we oversold [Zubaydah’s] value — the administration did — to the American public,” commented Ron Suskind, the author of “The One-Percent Doctrine” and “The Way of the World,” his latest. Abu Zubaydah is “psychologically imbalanced, he has multiple personalities. And he was not involved in various events that we thought he was involved in. During various bombings in the late ‘90s, he was not where we thought he would be.”
“Ultimately, we tortured an insane man and ran screaming at every word he uttered,” Suskind said.