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Bush and the Torture Tapes

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 7, 2007; 1:34 PM

Defending the destruction of videotapes showing the interrogations of two suspected al- Qaeda operatives, CIA Director Michael Hayden cited President Bush's approving comments about the handling of one of the detainees in question, Abu Zubaydah.

In an e-mail distributed to CIA employees yesterday in advance of a New York Times report, Hayden wrote: "When President Bush officially acknowledged in September 2006 the existence of CIA's counter-terror initiative, he talked about Zubaydah, noting that this terrorist survived solely because of medical treatment arranged by CIA. Under normal questioning, Zubaydah became defiant and evasive. It was clear, in the President's words, that 'Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking.'

"That made imperative the use of other means to obtain the information - means that were lawful, safe, and effective. To meet that need, CIA designed specific, appropriate interrogation procedures." (Here is a link to Hayden's entire email, annotated by legal blogger Marty Lederman.)

Indeed, in his September 2006 speech on treating and trying terrorist suspects, Bush proudly described how Zubaydah -- "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, including information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the 11th."

But soon after that speech Bush's statements about Zubaydah were almost entirely contradicted by authoritative accounts from two investigative reporters: author Ron Suskind and Times reporter David Johnston.

Zubaydah, it turns out, was a mentally ill minor functionary, nursed back to health by the FBI, who under torture sent investigators chasing after false leads about al-Qaeda plots on American nuclear plants, water systems, shopping malls, banks and supermarkets.

So as the White House tries to explain Bush's obviously misleading account Tuesday about when he learned that the Iranian nuclear program had been shelved (see below for the latest developments on that story), the destruction of the interrogation videos raise yet more questions about not just the CIA's behavior, but the president's candor.

Yesterday's Bombshell

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "The Central Intelligence Agency in 2005 destroyed at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two Qaeda operatives in the agency's custody, a step it took in the midst of Congressional and legal scrutiny about its secret detention program, according to current and former government officials.

"The videotapes showed agency operatives in 2002 subjecting terrorism suspects -- including Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee in C.I.A. custody -- to severe interrogation techniques. The tapes were destroyed in part because officers were concerned that video showing harsh interrogation methods could expose agency officials to legal risks, several officials said. . . .

"The destruction of the tapes raises questions about whether agency officials withheld information from Congress, the courts and the Sept. 11 commission about aspects of the program. . . .

"General Hayden has said publicly that information obtained through the C.I.A.'s detention and interrogation program has been the best source of intelligence for operations against Al Qaeda. In a speech last year, President Bush said that information from Mr. Zubaydah had helped lead to the capture in 2003 of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks."

Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick write in The Washington Post: "Whether the agency faces potential legal jeopardy depends on timing -- specifically, whether investigations into the interrogation practices had been launched when the tapes were destroyed, said A. John Radsan, a former federal prosecutor and CIA assistant general counsel.

'Once an investigation has begun -- whether it's an attorney general or an inspector general investigation -- it's much more problematic to have destroyed any kinds of documents or tapes that fall within the scope of the investigation,' Radsan said. . . .

"Zubaydah was captured in March 2002, becoming the first of the 'high-value' detainees in CIA custody and the first to be subjected to harsh interrogation methods, which included sleep deprivation as well as waterboarding. Zubaydah, who was shot and gravely wounded during his capture, later became 'defiant and evasive,' according to Hayden, leading to the decision to apply more aggressive measures. . . .

"Hayden said the methods shown on the videotapes were legal under guidelines approved by the Justice Department and the Bush administration, and he said the interrogation provided 'crucial information.'"

Reality Check

A few days after Bush's speech, David Johnston wrote in the New York Times that "rather than the smooth process depicted by Mr. Bush, interviews with nearly a dozen current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials briefed on the process show, the interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah was fraught with sharp disputes, debates about the legality and utility of harsh interrogation methods, and a rupture between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the C.I.A. that has yet to heal."

Zubaydah "was bloodied and feverish when a C.I.A. security team delivered him to a secret safe house in Thailand for interrogation in the early spring of 2002. Bullet fragments had ripped through his abdomen and groin during a firefight in Pakistan several days earlier when he had been captured. . . .

"According to accounts from five former and current government officials who were briefed on the case, F.B.I. agents -- accompanied by intelligence officers -- initially questioned him using standard interview techniques. They bathed Mr. Zubaydah, changed his bandages, gave him water, urged improved medical care, and spoke with him in Arabic and English, languages in which he is fluent."

But then a new C.I.A. team came in, and "concluded that under standard questioning Mr. Zubaydah was revealing only a small fraction of what he knew, and decided that more aggressive techniques were warranted.

"At times, Mr. Zubaydah, still weak from his wounds, was stripped and placed in a cell without a bunk or blankets. He stood or lay on the bare floor, sometimes with air-conditioning adjusted so that, one official said, Mr. Zubaydah seemed to turn blue. At other times, the interrogators piped in deafening blasts of music by groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. . . .

"F.B.I. agents on the scene angrily protested the more aggressive approach, arguing that persuasion rather than coercion had succeeded. But leaders of the C.I.A. interrogation team were convinced that tougher tactics were warranted and said that the methods had been authorized by senior lawyers at the White House."

Also soon after Bush's speech, author Ron Suskind wrote in Time: "What the President wouldn't say, especially in a political season, is that he and the rest of the government have learned quite a bit from their early errors. What is widely known inside the Administration is that once we caught our first decent-size fish -- Abu Zubaydah, in March 2002 -- we used him as an experiment in righteous brutality that in the end produced very little. . . .

"Complicating matters is that Zubaydah was more a facilitator--a glorified al-Qaeda travel agent--than the operational master the Administration trumpeted him as. Also, he suffers from multiple personalities. His diary, which the government refuses to release, is written in three voices over 10 years and is filled with page after page of quotidian nonsense about housekeeping, food and types of tea."

Suskind writes that in his speech, Bush "put special emphasis on Zubaydah--the insane travel agent--saying that, under duress, he gave interrogators information that identified Binalshibh and 'helped lead' to the capture of both Binalshibh and the prized K.S.M. This is the sort of thing that has steadily eroded Bush's relationship with the intelligence community: presidential sins of omission, or emphasis, that would be clear only if you happened to know lots of classified information. In fact, according to senior intelligence officials past and present, Zubaydah helpfully confirmed that 'Mukhtar' was K.S.M.'s code name--something key intelligence officials already suspected--and had nothing to do with identifying Binalshibh, who had come to the attention of investigators a few weeks after 9/11 because he had sent wire transfers to Zacarias Moussaoui."

In his June 2006 book, The One Percent Doctrine, Suskind had described Zubaydah's interrogation: "According to CIA sources, he was water-boarded, a technique in which a captive's face is covered with a towel as water is poured atop, creating the sensation of drowning. He was beaten, though not in a way to worsen his injuries. He was repeatedly threatened, and made certain of his impending death. His medication was withheld. He was bombarded with deafening, continuous noise and harsh lights. . . .

"Under duress, Zubaydah told them that shopping malls were targeted by al Qaeda. That information traveled the globe in an instant. Agents from the FBI, Secret Service, Customs, and various related agencies joined local police to surround malls. Zubaydah said banks -- yes banks -- were a priority. FBI agents led officers in a race to surround and secure banks. And also supermarkets -- al Qaeda was planning to blow up crowded supermarkets, several at one time. People would stop shopping. The nation's economy would be crippled. And the water systems -- a target, too. Nuclear plants, naturally. And apartment buildings.

"'Thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each flavor of target,' Suskind wrote, and so, 'the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.'"

Pattern and Practice

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon that the destruction of the videos is "part of a long-standing pattern of such obstruction.

"In April, I compiled a long list of the numerous court proceedings and other investigations which were impeded by extremely dubious claims from the Bush administration that key evidence was mysteriously 'missing.' Much of the 'missing' evidence involved precisely the type of evidence that the CIA has now been forced here to admit it deliberately destroyed: namely, evidence showing the conduct of its agents during interrogation of detainees."

And last month over on NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, I wrote about all the reasons why journalists should be skeptical when Bush makes undocumented assertions about terrorist attacks he says his administration prevented thanks to CIA interrogations.

Congress and Waterboarding

Eggen and Warrick write in The Washington Post that the startling disclosure about the CIA videos "came on the same day that House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement on legislation that would prohibit the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics by the CIA and bring intelligence agencies in line with rules followed by the U.S. military.

"The measure, which needs approval from the full House and Senate, would effectively set a government-wide standard for legal interrogations by explicitly outlawing the use of simulated drowning, forced nudity, hooding, military dogs and other harsh tactics against prisoners by any U.S. intelligence agency.

"The proposed ban sets the stage for a potential election-season standoff between congressional Democrats and the Bush administration, which has fought vigorously on Capitol Hill and in the courts to preserve intelligence agencies' ability to use aggressive interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects."

New York Times reporter Scott Shane describes the congressional action as "a sharp rebuke to White House counterterrorism policy. . . .

"A White House spokesman, Tony Fratto, denounced the measure and said it would face a presidential veto if it passes.

"'The C.I.A. interrogation program has yielded extremely valuable information that has led to the capture of Al Qaeda operatives and the prevention of terrorist attacks,' Mr. Fratto said. 'Congress should not be looking for ways to weaken this effective program.'"

'Could Have Been More Precise'

It's about as close as the White House ever gets to admitting that President Bush really blew it. But it isn't really an answer.

Yesterday, with White House reporters clamoring for an explanation of Bush's misleading statement on Tuesday about when he learned that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program, Press Secretary Dana Perino said that the president "could have been more precise" in his language. (In fact, she said it precisely three different times.)

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The White House sought Thursday to clarify remarks on the new intelligence report on Iran by President Bush that have been called into question.

"At a news conference on Tuesday, Bush said he was told in August by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell that 'we have some new information' that would delay a new assessment of Iran's nuclear activities by the U.S. intelligence community.

"'He didn't tell me what the information was; he did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze,' Bush said then. The president added that 'nobody ever told me' that he should back down on heated rhetoric about Iran as a result of the potential new findings.

"However, White House press secretary Dana Perino said in a statement Wednesday night and in more detail at her daily briefing with reporters on Thursday that McConnell did tell Bush in August that Iran may have halted its nuclear weapons program and that, if confirmed, it could result in a new Iran view from the intelligence community.

"The only thing Bush didn't get then, she explained, were 'the raw detail in terms of the sources and methods' and what sort of checking was going to be done.

"'I can see where you could see that the president could have been more precise in that language,' she said. 'But the president was being truthful.'

"At the same time, she offered no apologies for the provocative remarks on Iran from Bush, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, that continued even after that August notification from McConnell."

Loven also points out that Perino actually had to correct herself about something after the briefing: "During her daily briefing with reporters, Perino initially said that 'what we know right now, for sure, is that Iran is enriching uranium, which is fissile material, to get a bomb.'

"Later, she said that what she meant was that Iran is enriching uranium 'which can lead to fissile material to get a bomb.'"

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of yesterday's appropriately contentious press briefing:

Q: "[T]he President said, 'He didn't tell me what the information was.' But you're now saying he was told that Iran may have halted its nuclear weapons program and also that there may be a new assessment, right?"

Perinio: "Right, but he doesn't -- he didn't get any of the details of what the information, in terms of what the actual raw intelligence was.

Q: "He didn't say, he didn't tell me what the information --"

Perino: "Okay, look, I can see where you could see that the President could have been more precise in that language, but the President was being truthful. . . ."

Q: "Can I just clarify, is the President briefed every day by Director McConnell, when he gets his daily intelligence briefing?"

Perino: "I don't know if it's him every day, but he does get a briefing, sure."

Q: "But on a regular basis, Director McConnell is in the Oval Office?"

Perino: "Sure. . . ."

Q: ". . . . So from August until last week, the President never asked Director McConnell, hey, how's that going, are we getting any more on Iran? He never asked --"

Perino: "I'm not saying that. But if I --"

Q: "Well, so he did ask for --"

Perino: "I don't know exactly what the President asked in the presidential daily brief. . . ."

Q: "How about just being curious and asking, hey, is there a new assessment; I'm out there talking about World War III."

For more background: In yesterday's column, Misleading at Best, I raise many still unanswered questions about what Bush knew and when he knew it. In Wednesday's column, A Pattern of Deception, I document Bush's unexplained change in rhetoric back in August, when he simultaneously stopped speaking definitively about an Iranian nuclear weapons program, while ratcheting the rhetorical stakes up higher.

About That NIE

Jim Mannion writes for AFP: "The US reversal on Iran's nuclear weapons program has exposed a breaking of ranks within a waning administration, with US intelligence and military professionals asserting themselves on issues of war and peace, analysts said Friday.

"Senior US intelligence officials said this week they were responding to new information, subjected to more rigorous analysis than in the past, in declaring with 'high confidence' that Iran halted a covert nuclear weapons program in 2003.

"But their willingness to set aside all previous assumptions flowed from a determination not to repeat the errors made in 2002, when bogus intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction set the United States on a course to war, they said.

"And unlike 2002, when US intelligence officials complained of administration pressure to 'cherry-pick' intelligence that supported going to war, the intelligence community this time has asserted its independence."

Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post: "Senate Republicans are planning to call for a congressional commission to investigate the conclusions of the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran as well as the specific intelligence that went into it, according to congressional sources."

The move "comes amid growing backlash from conservatives and neoconservatives unhappy about the assessment that Iran halted a clandestine nuclear weapons program four years ago."

Opinion Watch

The Philadelphia Daily News editorial board writes that "downplayed by the media were the confusing set of answers from the White House and President Bush on when, exactly, they learned of this intelligence. That's important, because until recently, Bush and his administration had been adamant that Iran sought nuclear weapons, and therefore, we must consider military strikes. . . .

"If the president and his administration knew there was no immediate security threat from Iran, and decided to lie and pretend there was to whip up the winds of war, it certainly would have to be at least considered to rise to the level of 'high crimes and misdemeanors.'

"We deserve the truth. Congress must begin an investigation into what the president knew on Iran, and when he knew it."

Here's MSNBC's Keith Olbermann in his "Special Comment" last night. He's very upset: "We have either a president who is too dishonest to restrain himself from invoking World War Three about Iran at least six weeks after he had to have known that the analogy would be fantastic, irresponsible hyperbole -- or we have a president too transcendently stupid not to have asked -- at what now appears to have been a series of opportunities to do so -- whether the fairy tales he either created or was fed, were still even remotely plausible.

"A pathological presidential liar, or an idiot-in-chief. It is the nightmare scenario of political science fiction: A critical juncture in our history and, contained in either answer, a president manifestly unfit to serve, and behind him in the vice presidency: an unapologetic war-monger who has long been seeing a world visible only to himself."

He's Lost the Military Families

Faye Fiore writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Families with ties to the military, long a reliable source of support for wartime presidents, disapprove of President Bush and his handling of the war in Iraq, with a majority concluding the invasion was not worth it, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.

"The views of the military community, which includes active-duty service members, veterans and their family members, mirror those of the overall adult population, a sign that the strong military endorsement that the administration often pointed to has dwindled in the war's fifth year.

"Nearly six out of every 10 military families disapprove of Bush's job performance and the way he has run the war, rating him only slightly better than the general population does.

"And among those families with soldiers, sailors and Marines who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, 60% say that the war in Iraq was not worth the cost, the same result as all adults surveyed.

"'I don't see gains for the people of Iraq . . . and, oh, my God, so many wonderful young people, and these are the ones who felt they were really doing something, that's why they signed up,' said poll respondent Sue Datta, 61, whose youngest son, an Army staff sergeant, was seriously wounded in Iraq last year and is scheduled to redeploy in 2009. 'I pray to God that they did not die in vain, but I don't think our president is even sensitive at all to what it's like to have a child serving over there.'"

The Subprime Backlash

Here are Bush's remarks yesterday announcing his support for an agreement negotiated by his Treasury secretary and financial companies to freeze rates on some subprime adjustable-rate mortgages.

Renae Merle writes in The Washington Post: "The agreement has sparked bitterness and anger among those who either sat out the housing boom or endured friends' snickers when they stuck with a traditional mortgage and a smaller house. To some who watched prices rise out of their reach or who moved to cheaper cities, the agreement looks like a penalty for those who didn't gamble. . . .

"The resentment is apparent on blogs that chronicle the mortgage crisis. It has some Republican lawmakers worried about a backlash."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "The plan was the target of criticism from consumer advocates who said its scope was too narrow, and from investment firms, who said it went too far. Others warned that the plan, by letting some stretched homeowners off the hook, could encourage more reckless borrowing in the future."

Liz Moyer writes for Forbes: "The expected backlash to the plan started immediately after the Administration announced it. Housing advocates said it leaves millions of struggling borrowers at risk of foreclosure. Others decried it as a shameful bailout of irresponsible lenders and borrowers."

Wrong Number

Reuters reports: "U.S. homeowners who could face crippling mortgage payments will have a hard time getting help if they call a telephone number President George W. Bush recommended on Thursday -- he gave them the wrong number.

"'I have a message for every homeowner worried about rising mortgage payments: The best you can do for your family is to call 1-800-995-HOPE,' Bush said after a White House meeting with administration officials and lenders on a new plan to help.

"Unfortunately he was a couple digits off, it is actually 1-888-995-HOPE (4673)."

The number Bush gave belongs to the Freedom Christian Academy, which offers religious-based curricula for home schooling and is based in Ponder, Tex., northwest of Dallas.

Dear Leader

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "President Bush, directly engaging the man he publicly called a 'tyrant,' wrote a letter to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, in which he held out the prospect of normalized relations with the United States if North Korea fully disclosed its nuclear programs and dismantled its nuclear reactor, administration officials said Thursday. . . .

"The White House letter is a huge reversal from the veritable cold war that has existed between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kim for most of the Bush administration. In 2002, Mr. Bush referred to Mr. Kim as a 'pygmy' and compared him to a 'spoiled child at a dinner table' during a meeting with Republican senators, according to news reports at the time."

Karl Rove Watch

Speaking at an Associated Republicans of Texas fundraising dinner in Austin last night, Rove said he still talks to Bush often. Writes Peggy Fikac of the Houston Chronicle: "'He's a remarkable human being,' Rove said. 'His spirits are really up.'"

Contempt Watch

Susan Crabtree writes in The Hill: "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Thursday postponed a vote on contempt resolutions against former White House adviser Karl Rove and Chief of Staff Josh Bolten after Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) objected to language in the measures.

"Committee rules allow for a one-week delay, so the vote will likely take place next Thursday. Committee approval of the resolution would trigger a full Senate vote on the resolutions early next year."

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger and David Horsey on Bush and the new intelligence.

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