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A key figure in the CIA torture debacle

Abu Zubaydah  (AP Photo/U.S. Central Command)
Abu Zubaydah
(AP Photo/U.S. Central Command)

Abu Zubaydah was the CIA’s guinea pig.

He was the first high-profile al Qaida terror suspect captured after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the first to vanish into the spy agency’s secret prisons, the first subjected to grinding white noise and sleep deprivation tactics and the first to gasp under the simulated drowning of waterboarding. Zubaydah’s stark ordeal became the CIA’s blueprint for the brutal treatment of terror suspects, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report released Tuesday.

The newly released report cites Zubaydah’s detention in Pakistan in March 2002 as a turning point in the Bush administration’s no-holds-barred approach to terror suspects and the CIA’s development of coercive interrogation tactics.

The United States brutalized scores of terror suspects with interrogation tactics that turned secret CIA prisons into chambers of suffering and did nothing to make America safer after the 9/11 attacks, Senate investigators concluded Tuesday.

The committee report accused the CIA of offering a misleading version about what it was doing with its “black site” captives and deceiving the nation about the effectiveness of its techniques. The report was the first public accounting of tactics employed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and it described far harsher actions than had been widely known.

The tactics employed included confinement to small boxes, weeks of sleep deprivation, simulated drowning, slapping and slamming, and threats to kill, harm or sexually abuse families of the captives. The report catalogued the use of ice baths, death threats, shackling in the cold and much more, including waterboarding. Many detainees developed psychological problems.

The case of Abu Zubaydah offers a personal view of those experiences.

While CIA officials subjected Zubaydah to a growing array of harsh interrogations, legal officials working for President George W. Bush wrote memos citing Zubaydah as a key test case to justify the extreme measures, the report said.

Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002 alone, according to a previously released Bush-era legal document. The new Senate report said CIA interrogators had a pre-arranged plan about how to dispose of Zubaydah’s body if he were to die during questioning: He would be cremated.

The physical effects on the terror suspect were immediate and pronounced. Straining under a waterlogged cloth clamped over his face, Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth,” according to CIA emails cited in the report. He was body-slammed by his captors. He was hooded, then unmasked and ominously shown a coffin-like box. He was locked in a cramped cell, reduced to wailing and hysteria, the report said.

Zubaydah’s torment became the template for the CIA’s black-site interrogations, the Senate report said. It provided interrogators with reams of data, CIA medical specialists with the limits of human endurance and Bush administration officials with the legal outlines of how they would deal with future terror suspects. At the CIA’s request, the report said, top Bush administration Justice Department officials approved the use of waterboarding and other coercive tactics to humble Zubaydah and enshrined a harsh regime that controlled every aspect of his life.

U.S. and Pakistani officials grabbed Zubaydah in the town of Faisalabad and wounded him in a firefight in March 2002. He was taken to a prison site in an unidentified country described as “Detention Site Green” in the report, but confirmed as Thailand, according to prior legal documents, media accounts and international investigations. While healing, Zubaydah was questioned by FBI and CIA interrogators. But the FBI veterans soon withdrew from the black site after protesting that CIA interrogators were using abusive techniques on Zubaydah.

In his first waterboarding session in early August 2002, CIA interrogators hooded and shackled Zubaydah and pitched him into a wall. They repeatedly asked “questions about threats” to the U.S., but Zubaydah insisted he had no information to give.

The interrogators strapped Zubaydah to a board, covered his face with a cloth and poured water over it. Zubaydah choked, vomited, then blacked out, coming to under medical supervision after expelling “copious amounts of liquid,” according to CIA records cited by the Senate. “So it begins,” a CIA officer wrote to superiors in a cable from the prison.

Zubaydah was waterboarded as often as twice a day over the following weeks. Even some CIA veterans at the Thai prison were horrified by the scene, according to the Senate report. In one cable, a staffer said “several on the team profoundly affected … some to the point of tears and choking up.” The harsh tactics continued through the month until staffers concluded that the detainee was cooperative.

In a 2006 speech that confirmed the detention and interrogation program and cited Zubaydah, Bush said the detainee was a “senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden.” Jose Rodriguez, the senior CIA official who oversaw Zubaydah’s questioning from agency headquarters in Virginia, said on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that Zubaydah became “compliant within three weeks” and “gave us a roadmap that allowed us to capture a bunch of al Qaida senior leaders.”

The Senate report disputes both accounts, saying Zubaydah was a low-level minnow in the al Qaida hierarchy and offered no substantive information about real terror plots or structure.

Senate investigators quote an internal CIA report from 2006 that acknowledged Zubaydah was miscast as a senior terror leader. While the CIA told Bush’s National Security Council that the tactics were effective and “produced meaningful results,” the Senate committee said other CIA documents indicate Zubaydah never provided information such as the next terrorist attack or identities of operatives inside the U.S.

The report also branded as “inaccurate” previous CIA contentions that Zubaydah’s harsh treatment coerced him into providing critical early information about the “Dirty Bomb” plot,” a purported plan by terror suspect Jose Padilla to ignite a radiological device in a U.S. city. Arrested in Chicago in 2002, Padilla was convicted in a 2007 trial of conspiracy to commit murder overseas, but not charged with the bomb plot. Zubaydah mentioned Padilla as a possible threat to FBI interrogators before he was subjected to waterboarding and other severe techniques, the report said.

In the official CIA response to the Senate committee, the agency said that Zubaydah named Padilla as a result of harsh interrogations. But the CIA acknowledged that “it took us too long to stop making references to his infeasible ‘Dirty Bomb’ plot.”

More than 12 years after his capture, Zubaydah remains confined to the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He has yet to be charged with any crimes under the government’s military tribunals — a limbo predicted in 2002 by CIA terror experts, according to the Senate report.

In a 2002 email to CIA headquarters, the CIA’s interrogators said they wanted assurances that Zubaydah would never be allowed to publicly describe what they were doing to him, recommending that he should “remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”


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