This article originally appeared on December 17, 2007, at radaronline.com. It is reposted here with the permission of the rightsholder, Charles Kaiser.
One night last week, ABC’s World News Tonight with Charles Gibson led with what seemed, at first, to be a spectacular scoop: an exclusive interview with an ex-CIA agent who revealed that waterboarding had worked like a magic bullet on one of the first important terrorists captured by the United States since 9/11. Before torture, Abu Zubaydah had told his CIA interrogators nothing useful; after 35 seconds of waterboarding—presto change-o—he told everything he knew, disrupting “a number of attacks—or maybe dozens.”
The piece by veteran investigator Brian Ross about ex-CIA man John Kiriakou was dream television—the kind of story an executive producer locked in a neck-and-neck ratings race with NBC’s Nightly News might torture for himself. The CIA man was young, good-looking, amiable, and articulate; he had “high Q score” (TV-speak for likability) written all over him. A longer version of the same piece aired later that evening on Nightline.
Both pieces worked beautifully—as public service announcements in favor of torture. This was a happy coincidence for an administration fighting desperately to preserve its right to violate the Geneva Convention. The House has just passed a bill that would force the CIA to go back to that hopelessly 20th-century notion that we have a moral obligation to behave like a civilized nation, but the Administration still has high hopes of killing that idea yet again in the Senate.
The ABC piece was presented as an open-and-shut case in favor the CIA’s techniques. Best of all—giving it the gloss of balance—Kiriakou is now having second thoughts about waterboarding. Now he thinks it is torture, and we probably shouldn’t do it anymore. But the first time around, if we hadn’t done it, and there had been another attack, he “wouldn’t have been able” to sleep at night. By the way, Kiriakou said that he never participated in the waterboarding himself, so everything he told us is second-hand, including the 35 seconds he says it took for the waterboarding to take effect.
That was what passed for balance in this piece: a single source who never saw what he described, providing all the details and acknowledging just a tad of ambivalence about the whole thing. No time to show any of the 45 retired American generals and admirals who think waterboarding is illegal and ineffective; nothing from John McCain; nothing from any human rights activists.
That might have been defensible if the story was as black and white as ABC portrayed it. Unfortunately, almost every single “fact” offered by the retired CIA man—including the claim that it was waterboarding that turned the terrorist into a useful source—was directly contradicted in a piece by Katherine Eban, which was posted last summer on vanityfair.com.
It turns out that ABC’s amiable source is at the center of an all-out war between the CIA and the FBI over which agency actually got the terrorist Abu Zubaydah to talk—and whether or not any of the CIA’s coercive techniques were useful, or totally counterproductive. But Brian Ross never mentioned that. Here are some of the discrepancies between the ABC and the Vanity Fair versions:
* The FBI says that after Zubaydah was shot during the effort to capture him, he was stabilized at the nearest hospital. There, the FBI questioned him, using its typical rapport-building techniques. An FBI agent showed him photographs of suspected al Qaeda members until Zubaydah finally spoke up, blurting out that “Moktar,” or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, had planned 9/11. He then laid out the details of the plot. According to Eban, “America learned the truth of how 9/11 was organized because a detainee had come to trust his captors after they treated him humanely”—exactly the opposite of what ABC reported.
* ABC’s CIA man says he was the first person to speak to Zubaydah when he came out of his coma, and he learned nothing useful from him before he was waterboarded. The FBI says no CIA man was present when Zubaydah first started to talk.
* Vanity Fair says Zubaydah’s cooperation actually evaporated “with the arrival of the CIA’s interrogation team.”
* According to Eban, after Zubaydah clammed up, the CIA was left to conclude that Zubaydah would talk only when he had been reduced to complete helplessness and dependence.
Eventually, the FBI withdrew its team, and the CIA began to use the coercive techniques, which ABC’s source said included waterboarding.