What the Tapes Would Have Shown

WHAT THE TAPES WOULD HAVE SHOWN….Yesterday we learned that in 2005, despite earlier warnings from Congress, the White House, and the Justice Department, the CIA destroyed two videotaped interrogations of al-Qaeda operatives who had been captured shortly after 9/11. Why? CIA director Michael Hayden says the tapes were destroyed because of fears that they might leak and give away the identity of CIA interrogators, but that’s an excuse so thin that I hesitate to even call it laughable. In fact, the decision was made just as questions were starting to be raised about the torture of CIA prisoners, and the tapes were almost certainly destroyed for fear that they’d be subpoenaed and it would become clear just how harsh our “harsh interrogation” measures really were.

So what would investigators have seen if they’d had access to the tapes? One of the captured prisoners was an al-Qaeda operative named Abu Zubaydah, and it turns out we have a pretty good idea of what his tape would have shown. First, Spencer Ackerman gives us this from James Risen’s State of War:

Risen charges that Tenet caved to Bush entirely on the torture of al-Qaeda detainees. After the 2002 capture of Abu Zubaydah, a bin Laden deputy, failed to yield much information due to his drowsiness from medical treatment, Bush allegedly told Tenet, “Who authorized putting him on pain medication?” Not only did Tenet get the message — brutality while questioning an enemy prisoner was no problem — but Tenet also never sought explicit White House approval for permissible interrogation techniques, contributing to what Risen speculates is an effort by senior officials “to insulate Bush and give him deniability” on torture.

And here is Barton Gellman’s gloss of Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine:

Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be….Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda’s go-to guy for minor logistics.

[Other unrelated bungling described, all of which is worth clicking the link to read.]

Which brings us back to the unbalanced Abu Zubaydah. “I said he was important,” Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. “You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?” “No sir, Mr. President,” Tenet replied. Bush “was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,” Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, “Do some of these harsh methods really work?”

Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each…target.” And so, Suskind writes, “the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”

So here’s what the tapes would have shown: not just that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative, but that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative who was (a) unimportant and low-ranking, (b) mentally unstable, (c) had no useful information, and (d) eventually spewed out an endless series of worthless, fantastical “confessions” under duress. This was all prompted by the president of the United States, implemented by the director of the CIA, and the end result was thousands of wasted man hours by intelligence and and law enforcement personnel.

Nice trifecta there. And just think: there’s an entire political party in this country that still thinks this is OK.