When I called the Kiriakou interview a Rorschach test I had in mind the probability that he wasn’t being entirely above-board. First, while he was part of the team that captured Zubaydah, he wasn’t present for the interrogations he describes. Second, his testimony gives aid and comfort to the Bush administration while simultaneously seeming to evince deep reflection on the moral quandary of torture in the “war on terror.” Third, Kiriakou’s description of the “valuable” intel extracted from Zubaydah does not square with previous reports about the Al Qaeda operative’s mental instability. Sure, Kiriakou appears to throw torture opponents a bone by saying that every step of the harsh-interrogation practices were approved by higher-ups, but he also claims that doctors were present and that the CIA was desperate to make sure they stayed within the law (apparently as determined by an unmoored Justice Department) . Again, he wasn’t there.
Now comes today’s Washington Post story detailing the FBI’s disagreement with Kiriakou and the CIA’s version of events. (Bear with me–the whole article is worth reading, but here are some highlights.)
While CIA officials have described him [Zubaydah] as an important insider whose disclosures under intense pressure saved lives, some FBI agents and analysts say he is largely a loudmouthed and mentally troubled hotelier whose credibility dropped as the CIA subjected him to a simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding and to other “enhanced interrogation” measures.
FBI officials, including agents who questioned him after his capture or reviewed documents seized from his home, have concluded that even though he knew some al-Qaeda players, he provided interrogators with increasingly dubious information as the CIA’s harsh treatment intensified in late 2002.
In legal papers prepared for a military hearing, Abu Zubaida himself has asserted that he told his interrogators whatever they wanted to hear to make the treatment stop.
A rift nonetheless swiftly developed between FBI agents, who were largely pleased with the progress of the questioning, and CIA officers, who felt Abu Zubaida was holding out on them and providing disinformation. Tensions came to a head after FBI agents witnessed the use of some harsh tactics on Abu Zubaida, including keeping him naked in his cell, subjecting him to extreme cold and bombarding him with loud rock music.
“They said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” said [Daniel] Coleman [retired FBI agent who worked the case], recalling accounts from FBI employees who were there. ” ‘This guy’s a Muslim. That’s not going to win his confidence. Are you trying to get information out of him or just belittle him?’ ” Coleman helped lead the bureau’s efforts against Osama bin Laden for a decade, ending in 2004.
Coleman, a 31-year FBI veteran, joined other former law enforcement colleagues in expressing skepticism about Abu Zubaida’s importance. Abu Zubaida, he said in an interview, was a “safehouse keeper” with mental problems who claimed to know more about al-Qaeda and its inner workings than he really did.
Abu Zubaida’s diary, which Coleman said he examined at length, was written in three distinct personalities — one younger, one older and one the same age as Abu Zubaida. The book was full of flowery and philosophical meanderings, and made little mention of terrorism or al-Qaeda, Coleman said.
Looking at other evidence, including a serious head injury that Abu Zubaida had suffered years earlier, Coleman and others at the FBI believed that he had severe mental problems that called his credibility into question. “They all knew he was crazy, and they knew he was always on the damn phone,” Coleman said, referring to al-Qaeda operatives. “You think they’re going to tell him anything?”
CIA officials concluded to the contrary that Abu Zubaida was a major player, and they saw any lack of information as evidence that he was resisting interrogation. Much of the threat information provided by Abu Zubaida, Coleman said, “was crap.”
“There’s an agency mind-set that there was always some sort of golden apple out there, but there just isn’t, especially with guys like him,” Coleman said.