By Renée Schomp
Apologists for post-9/11 Bush administration policies seem determined to convince us that torture is effective, justified, and necessary. Former Bush administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen’s commentary regarding detainees Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Jose Padilla misconstrues the facts on prolonged detention and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In so doing, he promotes a counterterrorism agenda that leads to the gathering of inaccurate intelligence, inadmissible evidence, and the destruction of our country’s moral standing in the eyes of the world.
On Monday, Thiessen publishes a book on CIA interrogation techniques entitled Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack. This book will likely follow the trend of his commentary on the subject to date. In December in USA Today, Thiessen used Umar Farouk Abdullmutallab’s attempt to detonate a bomb on Northwest Airlines flight 253 as a means of promoting Bush administration counterterrorism strategy. “In an earlier time, when we tracked down…big fish, we would take them in alive, hand them over to the CIA and find out their plans to kill Americans,” he states.
Making Abu Zubaydah talk
Citing evidence revealed in newly declassified sections of a Justice Department Inspector General’s report (IG report), Thiessen lambasted former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan in the National Review for speaking out against the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as simulated drowning. He cited evidence from the IG report to support his argument that such techniques are necessary for national security.
Contrary to Thiessen’s assertions otherwise, a review of the IG report shows that FBI interrogators Soufan and his colleague “Agent Gibson” played vital roles in the interrogation of detainee Abu Zubaydah. And according to the report, their use of “rapport-” and “relationship-building” techniques –not “enhanced interrogation techniques”—is what led Zubaydah to reveal to them the identity of KSM, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
“Gibson said that he and Thomas [aka Soufan] initially took the lead in interviewing Zubaydah at the CIA facility because the CIA interrogators were not at the scene when Zubaydah arrived…Gibson said he used relationship-building techniques with Zubaydah and succeeded in getting Zubaydah to admit his identity. When Zubaydah’s medical condition became grave, he was taken to a hospital and Gibson assisted in giving him care, even to the point of cleaning him up after bowel movements. Gibson told us he continued interviewing Zubaydah in the hospital, and Zubaydah identified a photograph of Khalid Sheik Muhammad as ‘Muktar,’ the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.” (68).
Based on the IG Report, it appears that authorities first learned of KSM, the alleged ringleader in the attacks of September 11th, because FBI interrogators chose to use time-tested relationship-building techniques to gather intelligence from detainee Abu Zubaydah—rather than spend years experimenting with “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
The interrogation that led to Jose Padilla
Soon after Abu Zubaydah provided information regarding KSM to FBI interrogators Soufan and “Agent Gibson,” he was transferred to the custody of the CIA and subjected to abusive interrogation techniques. In the National Review, Thiessen cited the IG report to demonstrate that Soufan lied about his role in gathering intelligence from Zubaydah regarding Jose Padilla.
The IG report, however, explains that the CIA “asked Gibson and Thomas [aka Soufan] to observe and assist” with Zubaydah’s interrogation after they took over. Shortly thereafter, the report quotes Gibson as stating that Zubaydah “’gave up’ Jose Padilla and identified several targets for future al Qaeda attacks, including the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty” (68).
In an April 2009 New York Times op-ed, FBI interrogator Ali Soufan stated, “There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.”
Harsher techniques, such as forced nudity and sleep deprivation imposed by the CIA on Zubaydah, may have contributed to the gathering of information that would lead to identification of Jose Padilla. We can’t prove that he would or would not have provided that information subject to humane interrogation, alone.
But we do know that the picture Thiessen tries to paint as fact is simply wishful thinking built on unknowable assumption and conjecture. The dangerous implications that Thiessen’s assertions have on long-term American counterterrorism strategy are perhaps best described by the FBI itself.
Expert on American counterterrorism strategy?
An important section of the IG report that Thiessen doesn’t address in his writings provides FBI Assistant Director Pasquale D’Amuro’s explanation for why FBI interrogators Soufan and “Agent Gibson” were eventually pulled out of Zubaydah’s interrogation.
“First…he felt that these techniques were not as effective for developing accurate information as the FBI’s rapport-based approach…if ‘aggressive’ techniques are used long enough, detainees will start saying things they think the interrogator wants to hear just to get them to stop…Second…the use of the aggressive techniques failed to take into account an ‘end game.’ D’Amuro stated that even a military tribunal would require some standard for admissibility of evidence…Third, in addition to being ineffective and short-sighted, using these techniques was wrong and helped al-Qaeda in spreading negative views of the United States” (71-72). [Emphasis added].
Thiessen’s spin betrays his pedigree as a professional political speechwriter, rather than a dispassionate reporter of facts and the conclusions they suggest. His upcoming book will likely only prove his dedication to the inhumane practices that prevailed in the Bush administration. In the interests of both security and respect for human rights, we would do well to place far more faith in the wisdom and knowledge of real experts on these issues such as Ali Soufan and FBI Assistant Director D’Amuro, who have actual working knowledge of interrogation techniques.