Sunday, July 19, 2009

There is an Important Article on the Interrogation of Abu Zubaidah by Joby Warrick and Peter Finn in the July 19 Washington Post.


The story so far is that FBI agent Ali Soufan and un-named others assert that the valuable information obtained from Abu Zubaida was obtained by the traditional and clearly legal method called rapport building, that cruel inhuman and degrading interrogation techniques caused him to stop talking, that the FBI refused to continue to participate in the high value detainee interrogation program because they thought that CIA tactics were illegal, that the illegal techniques were introduced by the contractor John Mitchell (Mitchell had never participated in an interrogation and based his approach in part on published experiments with dogs and rats who did not reveal actionable intelligence not being able to talk).

The article presents evidence suporting Soufan's claims. In particular Warrick and Finn assert as fact that the flow of information from Abu Zubaida stopped soon after Mitchell and Jessen arrived and took over and restarted with Soufan and his partner Steve Gaudin began questioning Abu Zubaida again. This is the first time I have read the name of Soufan's partner who cleaned Abu Zubaida after Abu Zubaida soiled himself and then almost immediately obtained Khalid Sheik Muhammad's alias and the information that he was the 9/11 mastermind. They also note that CIA employees who were in Thailand agree with Soufan (there is no hint in the article that any disagree).

The article is largely devoted to quoting an anonymous "former U.S. official" (from now on f.us.o who is clearly attempting to defend Mitchell and his fellow contractor John Jessen. I like the article, but the word I like best of all is the "former" in "former U.S. official." The case for the defense is extremely unconvincing. The case for the defense is extremely unconvincing. f.us.o confirms earlier claims that CIA officials based in Langeley insisted that Abu Zubaida be water boarded one more time after Mitchell and Jessen concluded that there was no point. This shows that they are not the only criminals involved, but does not even show that they weren't the worst criminals. The envoy from headquarters agreed to stop waterboarding after watching one session.

the f.us.o also notes that, as asserted by Soufan, that Abu Zubaida revealed information about José Padilla when interrogated by the FBI after the CIA had deprived him of sleep.

"In two different bits, after sleep deprivation, is when Abu Zubaida gave clues about who Padilla might be," the former U.S. official said. "When that was put together with other CIA sources, they were able to identify who he was. . . . The cables will not show that the FBI just asked friendly questions and got information about Padilla."


This insinuates that the sleep deprivation was useful, but the claims of fact are perfectly consistent with Soufan's claim that he (and Gaudin) got Abu Zubaida to cooperate again after and in spite of the harsh treatment. In substance, the claim is that, just as Soufan claimed, Abu Zubaida revealed useful information after he had been deprived of sleep and *not* that Abu Zubaida revealed useful information when exhausted. Should Abu Zubaida provide more useful information (for example a the trials of Mssrs Mitchell and Jessen) he would again provide useful information after sleep deprivation.

Warrick and Finn strongly suggest that they believe that f.us.o lied to them on a key point, but do not reveal his or her name as punishment.

The former U.S. official said that waterboarding forced Abu Zubaida to reveal information that led to the Sept. 11, 2002, capture of Ramzi Binalshibh, the key liaison between the Hamburg cell led by Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and al-Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan.

But others contend that Binalshibh's arrest was the result of several pieces of intelligence, including the successful interrogation by the FBI of a suspect held at Bagram air base in Afghanistan who had been in contact via satellite phone with Binalshibh, as well as information gleaned from an interview Binalshibh gave to the television network al-Jazeera.


note "others" plural making claims including details and not simply an assertion.

More disturbingly, Warrick and Finn quote a clearly false claim by another anonymous official without immediately presenting the proof that it is false (which comes later in the article) or, heaven forfend, naming the person who lied to them.

"It was not a job we sought out," said one former senior intelligence official involved in early decisions on interrogation. "The generals didn't want to do it. The FBI said no. It fell to the agency because we had the [legal] authorities and could operate overseas."


The claim tht it fell to the agency because "the FBI said no" is simply a lie. The rest of the article notes that the FBI did not say no, interrogated Abu Zubaida before the CIA did, obtained valuable information and only withdrew from the high value detainee interrogation program after the CIA took control of the interrogations and repeatedly broke the law. The FBI can and does operate overseas. The FBI said no after and because of the CIA's crimes. The senior intelligence officials claim about the direction of causation is a flat out lie. What possible useful goal could be served by refraining from naming someone who tells blatant obvious lies to reporters ? Is the problem the risk that it will prevent former officials from lying to reporters making it much harder to obtain Ballance ?

Warrick and Finn make two very odd claims in the own names too.

1) "The officials who authorized or participated in harsh interrogations continue to dispute how effective such methods were and whether important information could have been obtained from Abu Zubaida and others without them."

Later Warrick and Finn present as uncontroversial the claim that important information was obtained from Abu Zubaida without them. If it was obtained then it sure could have been obtained. Also they go on to desribe a debate over whether any important information was obtained from Abu Zubaida with them. People do tell plain lies in debates, but reporters should note that such lies are lies or not mention them at all.

2) Mitchell and Jessen "have been portrayed as eager proponents of coercion, but the former U.S. official, whose account was corroborated in part by Justice Department documents, said they also rejected orders from Langley to prolong the most severe pressure on the detainee. The former official's account, alongside the recollections of those familiar with events at the CIA's secret prison in Thailand, yields a more nuanced understanding of their role than has previously been available."

The only evidence supporting "a more nuanced understanding" is the fact that Mitchell and Jessen wanted to stop waterboarding Abu Zubaida one session before the last. This fact has been noted repeatedly by exactly those who portray Mitchell and Jessen as eager proponents of coercion. Warrick and Finn's claim to priority is simply false.

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