Old Claims, New “Understandings”

Early this month we learned that even the U.S. government has abandoned its claim that Abu Zubaydah was a top al Qaeda conspirator. In a recently declassified document filed in Abu Zubaydah's habeas corpus proceedings, the U.S. now says that “individual Government agents have disagreed with past Government assessments and analyses” and that its “understanding of [Abu Zubaydah's] activities has evolved since his capture.”

The August 1, 2002 memo authorizing his torture described Abu Zubaydah as “one of the highest ranking members of the al Qaeda terrorist organization” who “has been involved in every major terrorist operation carried out by al Qaeda.”

Now, in this document submitted to the court last October and publicly released last month—a document, ironically, that argues against releasing materials that Abu Zubaydah's lawyers are seeking to challenge the Bush administration's characterizations of their client—the Justice Department concedes that “[e]vidence indicating that Petitioner is not a member of al-Qaida” is “not inconsistent” with its new position. Moreover, the government no longer claims that Abu Zubaydah “had any direct role in or advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001” or in fact “had knowledge of any specific impending terrorist operations other than his own thwarted plans” at the time he was captured.

Compare the U.S. government's new “understanding” with this document, titled “The CIA Interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, March 2001 (sic) – Jan. 2003,” part of the new batch of documents released last week in contempt proceedings stemming from the destruction of the Abu Zubaydah and al Nashiri interrogation tapes.

We learn some news things about Abu Zubaydah's interrogation from this document. It confirms, for example, that at least one of the “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” was used—and misused—within days of Abu Zubaydah's capture, presumably during the tug-of-war we described in Chapter 2 between FBI and CIA interrogation teams:

After consulting with NSC and DOJ, CTC/[redacted] originally approved 24-48 hours of sleep deprivation. In April 2002, CTC[redacted] learned that due to a misunderstanding that time frame had been exceeded.

 However, CTC[redacted] advised that since the process did not have adverse medical effects or result in hallucination (thereby disrupting profoundly Abu Zubaydah's senses or personality) it was within legal parameters.”

We also learn that during the later use of the full range of EITs, “Where a time period was allowed for a particular technique, a timekeeper was used to ensure that the techniques was only employed within the time frames authorized.” And we are (not exactly) reassured that

It is not and has never been the Agency's intent to permit Abu Zubaydah to die in the course of interrogation and appropriately trained medical personnel have been on-site in the event an emergency medical situation arises.

Drafted as the CIA's Inspector General was reviewing the CIA's Detention, Rendition, and Interrogation program in early 2003, “The Interrogation of Abu Zubaydah” repeatedly hammers three main points: that Abu Zubaydah was a top al Qaeda lieutenant who had knowledge of impending attacks, that his interrogation thwarted those attacks, and that the interrogation was not torture. Transparently self-justifying, it's painful reading in light of everything we've seen in the first four chapters of the Report.

It's hard, for example, to finish Chapter 4 and then to come upon, and consider all the implications of, this:

Abu Zubaydah identified Jose Padilla and Binyam Muhammad as al-Qa'ida operatives who had plans to detonate a uranium-topped “dirty bomb” in either Washington , DC , or New York City . Both have been captured.

© ACLU, 125 Broad Street, 18th Floor, New York NY 10004

This is the website of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. Learn more about these two components of the ACLU.