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Bush's Exhibit A for Torture

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 18, 2007; 1:04 PM

At the heart of President Bush's defense of torture lies Abu Zubaida.

Bush has described Zubaida (alternately spelled Zubaydah) as a major al Qaeda figure who resisted questioning until the CIA applied its "alternative set" of interrogation procedures -- and who then provided crucial, life-saving intelligence.

Indeed, Bush has been personally invested, for more than five years, in the notion that Zubaida's capture and interrogation were momentous achievements.

As early as April 9, 2002, Bush bragged to fellow Republicans at a political fundraiser: "The other day we hauled in a guy named Abu Zubaydah. He's one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States. He's not plotting and planning anymore. He's where he belongs."

In a June 6, 2002, address, Bush called Zubaida al Qaeda's "chief of operations" and said that "[f]rom him and from hundreds of others, we are learning more about how the terrorists plan and operate, information crucial in anticipating and preventing future attacks."

At a Republican fundraiser on October 14, 2002, Bush called Zubaida "one of the top three leaders in the organization."

But investigative journalist Ron Suskind wrote in his 2006 book " The One Percent Doctrine" that even as Bush was publicly proclaiming Zubaida's malevolence, he was privately being briefed about doubts within the intelligence community regarding Zubaida's significance and mental stability. Suskind quotes the following exchange between Bush and then-CIA director George Tenet:

"'I said he was important," Bush said to Tenet at one of their daily meetings. 'You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?'

"'No Sir, Mr. President.'"

When Bush for the first time publicly acknowledged the existence of a secret CIA detention and interrogation program, in a September 2006 speech, Zubaida was front and center. Bush proudly described how Zubaida -- "a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden" -- was questioned using the CIA's new "alternative set of procedures" and then "began to provide information on key al Qaeda operatives."

But Bush's Exhibit A in defense of torture may in fact be an exhibit for the prosecution.

As I wrote in my Dec. 7 column, evidence uncovered by Suskind suggests Zubaida was a mentally ill minor functionary, who under brutal questioning sent investigators chasing after false leads about al-Qaeda plots on American nuclear plants, water systems, shopping malls, banks and supermarkets.

As I wrote for NiemanWatchdog.org in October, the White House has failed to document a single plot that was disrupted based on information gleaned from torture.

And, although most of the news media have allowed Bush to get away with his unsubstantiated narrative until now, the CIA's possibly illegal destruction of videotapes of Zubaida's interrogation is prompting new scrutiny of the matter.

Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus write on the front page of The Washington Post this morning: "Al-Qaeda captive Abu Zubaida, whose interrogation videotapes were destroyed by the CIA, remains the subject of a dispute between FBI and CIA officials over his significance as a terrorism suspect and whether his most important revelations came from traditional interrogations or from torture.

"While CIA officials have described him 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.

"The question of whether Abu Zubaida -- whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein -- was an unstable source who provided limited intelligence under gentle questioning, or a hardened terrorist who cracked under extremely harsh measures, goes to the heart of the current Washington debate over coercive interrogations and torture. . . .

"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."

Eggen and Pincus write that "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 [Retired FBI agent Daniel] Coleman, 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, 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."

And as for all that plot-thwarting, life saving intelligence Zubaida coughed up?

"Much of the threat information provided by Abu Zubaida, Coleman said, 'was crap.'"

There are also conflicting views on to how long Zubaida was tortured.

According to an account last week from former CIA agent John Kiriakou (see Friday's column), Zubaida broke after 35 seconds of waterboarding.

But Eggen and Pincus write that other official said "harsh tactics used on him at a secret detention facility in Thailand went on for weeks or, depending on the account, even months.

"The videotaping of Abu Zubaida in 2002 went on day and night throughout his interrogation, including waterboarding, and while he was sleeping in his cell, intelligence officials said. 'Several hundred hours' of videotapes were destroyed in November 2005, a senior intelligence officer said. The CIA has said it ceased waterboarding in 2003."

Judge Orders Hearing on Tapes

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "A federal judge has ordered a hearing on whether the Bush administration violated a court order by destroying CIA interrogation videos of terror suspects.

"U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy rejected calls from the Justice Department to stay out of the matter. He ordered lawyers to appear before him Friday morning."

Immunity Vote Delayed

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "In a setback for the White House, Senate Democrats on Monday put off until at least next month any decision on whether to give legal protection to the phone carriers that helped with the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program.

"The Bush administration had pushed for immediate passage of legislation to grant immunity to the phone companies as part of a broader expansion of the N.S.A.'s wiretapping authorities. But that will not happen now."

Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post that the turnabout came when Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) "abruptly withdrew" the legislation.

"Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) -- a presidential candidate who returned from Iowa Sunday night to fight the measure -- quickly claimed victory after the bill's withdrawal, and he again vowed to 'utilize all the tools available' to block passage once Reid calls it up in January. . . .

"The White House yesterday strongly defended its push for immunity and raised the prospect of a veto if Congress sends the president a surveillance bill without indemnity."

From Sen. Edward Kennedy's floor statement: "Think about what we've been hearing from the White House in this debate. The President has said that American lives will be sacrificed if Congress does not change FISA. But he has also said that he will veto any FISA bill that does not grant retroactive immunity. No immunity, no new FISA bill. So if we take the President at his word, he is willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies. . . .

"It's painfully clear what the President's request for retroactive immunity is really about. It's a self-serving attempt to avoid legal and political accountability and keep the American public in the dark about this whole shameful episode. Like the CIA's destruction of videotapes showing potentially criminal conduct, it's a desperate attempt to erase the past."

And from Sen. Russell Feingold: "Let me say now to my colleagues: Do not believe everything you hear. Last week I sat with many of you in the secure room in the Capitol, S-407, and listened to arguments made by the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that several of the examples they gave were simply wrong. I am happy to have a classified meeting with anyone in this body who wishes to discuss this. . . .

"Based on what I have learned, I have very serious questions about the way that the Administration is interpreting and implementing the Protect America Act, including its effect on the privacy of Americans."

Plame Watch

In a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman today reiterated his request for documents from special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson's identity. (See my Dec. 3 column, Bush Blocking Fitzgerald Cooperation.)

Writes Waxman: "Since I wrote you on December 3, Lewis I. 'Scooter' Libby has dropped the appeal of his criminal conviction arising from the Fitzgerald investigation. With that action, there remains no further pending litigation associated with the Fitzgerald investigation.

"I do not regard the existence of an on-going investigation or pending litigation as a sufficient reason to withhold information from Congress. Now that Mr. Fitzgerald's investigation and Mr. Libby's appeal have both ended, however, there should be no basis for further delay in responding to the Committee's request."

Bush at the Yak-a-Doo

Bush helicoptered to exurban Stafford County, Va. yesterday to talk about the economy.

Kristen Mack writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush attempted yesterday to calm Americans' anxiousness about the economy, even as he acknowledged that the nation's financial forecast is not entirely sunny because of the credit-market and mortgage crises.

"'There's definitely some storm clouds and concerns. But the underpinning is good, and we'll work our way through this period,' Bush told a group of business and community leaders at a Rotary Club meeting in Fredericksburg, Va.. . . .

"Democratic leaders countered that the White House continues to see the economy through rose-colored glasses. Bush should restore fiscal discipline at home and stop spending billions on another country's civil war, said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid.

"'President Bush's claim that 'we've had a pretty good economic run here in the country' is detached from the reality of most middle-class Americans,' said Reid (Nev.). 'The middle class is facing declining wages and rising prices for everything from health care to gas to college tuition.'"

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "The White House, eager to put Bush in a community environment, chose the Yak-A-Doo's restaurant in a Holiday Inn. . . . Inside gathered the members of the Rotary Club of Stafford, the Fredericksburg Rotary Club, the Rappahannock Rotary Club and the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"To keep an authentic setting without upstaging the locals, Bush's team put up no banners or backdrop this time. Gone was the usual announcement of the president's presence over the public address system. He just seemed to show up, prompting some surprised applause.

"After the meeting began with the normal business routine of the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, Bush was introduced as the guest speaker. Yet even that was a bit hard to hear, because someone forgot to turn off the Christmas music for a couple minutes."

Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman marvels at how far Bush has fallen -- to "the matinee headliner in the dining room next to the Yak-A-Doo's restaurant in a small-town Holiday Inn where kids eat free, pets are allowed and the marquee promises Wednesday night karaoke."

Here's the transcript of Bush' hour-long talk: "People say, they're probably wondering why would -- old George W. has got something important to say, why would he bother to come to a place out in the country? And the answer is because this is where jobs are created; this is where dreams are lived; this is where values are upheld. And so I'm proud to be with you."

Bush's message, in a nutshell: "I hope you can tell I'm an optimistic fellow."

Wrong on Both Counts

From the question-and-answer session after Bush's speech:

Q: "My question is, I have three children in the school system here, and I'm very concerned about their well-being, living in this country -- and you've done a wonderful job of protecting our nation. But I'm concerned about the nations like Iraq, who now have nuclear weapons --"

Bush: "Iran."

Q: "Iran and Iraq both."

Bush: "Not Iraq."

Not Iran, either.

Judge Declares White House Logs Public

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "A federal judge ruled yesterday that White House visitor logs created by the Secret Service are public records, and he ordered information involving the visits of nine religious figures with Bush administration officials to be released to an advocacy group.

"The dispute involved an effort by the administration to keep secret records that have traditionally allowed the news media or Congress to keep tabs on who has visited the White House or vice president's residence. Administration lawyers have taken the position that the logs are presidential records, outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. . . .

"In 2006, The Washington Post won a court order requiring Vice President Cheney's office to turn over visitor logs, but the order was blocked by an appellate court. During that litigation, it was revealed that the White House and the Secret Service had agreed to declare that such logs are not public records subject to disclosure.

"The Post subsequently dropped the case, but CREW, interested in similar information, pursued its own lawsuit. Among the visitors whose names [U.S. District Judge Royce C.] Lamberth ordered released yesterday were James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Gary Bauer."

Why did The Post drop the case? I have no idea.

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times, however, that the blow to the administration "could, however, be largely symbolic; the White House seemed likely to appeal the decision, which could hold up the release of any documents until after President Bush leaves office in 13 months."

Here is Lamberth's 40-page opinion.

Budget Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The House last night approved a $515.7 billion domestic spending measure that shaves billions from spending levels desired by Democrats and uses emergency spending and other tactics to challenge President Bush on his budget demands."

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Despite complaints from conservative Republicans that the measure was bloated and unacceptable, Mr. Bush offered guarded praise for the legislation and Democrats said they expected he would sign a final version. . . .

"Mr. Bush's positive reaction to the measure after months of disagreement with Democrats was complicating the maneuvering of leading Republicans who, had hoped to use the issue to showcase a philosophical divide with Democrats over spending. . . .

"Unable to lure Mr. Bush to the negotiating table over possible spending increases, Democrats rewrote the spending measure, largely meeting the president's overall demands while shifting money within accounts to increase investment in health care, education and other domestic programs.

"Democrats also eliminated some policy provisions opposed by the White House, like a measure that would have overturned a ban on federal aid to overseas family planning clinics that provide abortions or help women obtain one.

"Authors of the spending bill also eliminated or diluted provisions on prevailing construction wages, federal benefits for domestic partners and sanctions on Cuba in order to avoid a veto while building Republican support.

"In a move that drew attacks from environmental groups, the budget agreement would provide substantial new loan guarantees for low-carbon energy sources or projects that make wider uses of coal."

Small-Ball Watch

Last month, to great fanfare, Bush announced measures intended to curb airline delays during the Thanksgiving travel frenzy, including freeing up military airspace for commercial use. But when push came to shove, all that meant was adding two north-south routes to the hundreds that already existed. And Thanksgiving air traffic delays ended up being worse than the year before no one reported it.

So what's next? Christopher Conkey writes for the Wall Street Journal: "The Bush administration this week is expected to announce its strategy for reducing air-travel delays next summer, including capping the number of flights at New York's Kennedy airport. Consumers may see higher fares as a result, and opposition from lawmakers and aviation groups may prevent some aspects of the plan from being implemented.

"Details of the administration's proposals remain in flux, but a general outline has emerged, according to government and industry officials familiar with the matter. They say the plan will contain a mix of tried and untested ideas, some intended to stem congestion before the summer travel season and others designed to tap market-based mechanisms to relieve congestion longer term."

Poll Watch

So it was a blip after all.

A Gallup Poll conduted Dec. 6 to 9 had Bush's approval rating up substantially, to (a still-dismal) 37. The increase sparked all sorts of conversation about whether Bush's fortunes were improving.

But the latest Gallup poll, taken Dec. 14 to 16, shows Bush's approval rating back at 32.

Rove's Advance Retreats

Matthew Flamm writes for Crain's New York: "The auction for Karl Rove's memoir drags on a month after the Republican strategist made the rounds of publishers with Washington power lawyer Robert Barnett at his side.

"'It's very, very slow,' says an executive at one of the few houses left in the bidding. Early reports had predicted a $3 million sale, but some insiders are wondering if Mr. Barnett has had trouble getting to that number. He declined to comment."

The Ghost Following Bush

H.D.S. Greenway starts his Boston Globe op-ed about Bush's foreign policy with this story: "On an Autumn night 300 years ago, Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell, hero of the British Navy, was approached on his quarterdeck by a sailor with a warning. According to the sailor's calculations, the fleet was headed straight for disaster. But Sir Clowdisley was a bold leader unburdened by doubt. He was dead certain he was headed in the right direction.

"'Such subversive navigation by an inferior was forbidden in the Royal Navy,' according to Dava Sobel in her brilliant book 'Longitude,' and so 'Admiral Shovell had the man hanged for mutiny on the spot.'

"The 57-year-old Sir Clowdisley stayed the course, oblivious in his ignorance and upright in his optimism, until, one by one, his ships wrecked in the Scilly Isles with great loss of life, including his own."

Will 41 Mop Up After 43?

Peter Hamby writes for CNN: "Former President Bill Clinton said Monday that the first thing his wife Hillary will do when she reaches the White House is dispatch him and his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush, on an around-the-world mission to repair the damage done to America's reputation by the current president -- Bush's son, George W. Bush.

"'Well, the first thing she intends to do, because you can do this without passing a bill, the first thing she intends to do is to send me and former President Bush and a number of other people around the world to tell them that America is open for business and cooperation again,' Clinton said in response to a question from a supporter about what his wife's 'number one priority' would be as president."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's aim; Jim Morin on Bush's pet Democrats; Dwane Powell on the mad hatter and the Cheney cat; John Sherffius on Bush's carbon footprints.

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