The Forgotten Story of Abu Zubaydah

Today's coverage of the president's speech about the interrogation of terrorists leaves out some choice bits of information.
September 7, 2006

One of the highlights of the president’s speech yesterday about sending fourteen al Qaeda operatives to Guantanamo Bay was his description of the intelligence gleaned from captured al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah — specifically that he cracked under questioning when the “CIA used an alternative set of procedures … designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations.” He also characterized Zubaydah as “a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden.” Both statements deserve some unpacking.

In reading the coverage of the speech last night and this morning, however, it appears that no reporter recalled a few choice nuggets reported earlier this year by Ron Suskind in his book, The One Percent Doctrine, describing these procedures and Zubaydah’s mental state — both important parts of the story that deserve a full airing.

The Zubaydah case is a particularly ugly one, and it would be silly to expect the president to go into details about his torture, mental capacity and his true role in al Qaeda — but thanks to Suskind’s book, we have a revealing glimpse into the particulars. Reporters covering the speech could have done readers a favor by adding a bit of this context.

As part of his look into the capture and interrogation of Zubaydah, Suskind quotes Dan Coleman, the FBI agent who was the bureau’s first case agent on Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, and who had been working the terror beat since the 1980s. Soon after his capture, Coleman described Zubaydah as “insane, certifiable, a split personality” — an opinion, according to Suskind, that was shared by the CIA’s top brass, and conveyed to the president and vice president. Despite this, Suskind reports that when the president learned that Zubaydah was mentally ill, he told then-CIA director George Tenet, “I said he was important …You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?” Tenet, ever the company man, replied, “No sir, Mr. President.”

But more to the point is the case of Zubaydah’s diaries, seized during his capture in March 2002. In making the case that Zubaydah was mentally ill, Suskind explains that his diaries were written in the voices of three people, Hani 1, Hani 2 and Hani 3. Hani 1 was a boy, ten years younger than Zubaydah, Hani 2 was the same age as Zubaydah, and Hani 3 was a decade older. “What was being observed,” Suskind writes about the diaries, “by three pairs of eyes, meanwhile, was often less than compelling — what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said … in page after page. Zubaydah was a logistics man, a fixer, mostly for a niggling array of personal items, like the guy you call who handles the company health plan, or benefits, or the people in human resources. There was almost nothing ‘operational’ in his portfolio. That was handled by the management team. He wasn’t one of them.”

Despite this, every bit of information extracted from Zubaydah through torture (Suskind recounts the particulars of his treatment in gruesome detail) sent teams of FBI agents and local law enforcement officials scrambling across the country, trying to put out fires that didn’t really exist. It was only after a CIA interrogator decided to try a more even-handed approach, in which he talked to Zubaydah about the Koran, that he began to give up useful information — information that led to the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an al Qaeda operative who played a major role in planning the attacks of September 11.

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But nowhere in our reading this morning could we find a reporter who laid out this complicated story. Instead we’re given — yet again — a variety of bland transcriptions of the president’s speech, with support from Republican politicians and rebuttals by Democrats.

In the end, there’s no doubt that Zubaydah gave up some important information. And for that he was useful. But the upshot of the Zubaydah story, as Suskind describes it, is that “the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.” Sounds like something the readers of our nation’s newspapers and the viewers of our TV news shows should know. After all, it’s the truth — and whether it hurts the president or helps him, that’s something reporters are hired to disseminate.

Paul McLeary is a former CJR staff writer. Since 2008, he has covered the Pentagon for Foreign Policy, Defense News, Breaking Defense, and other outlets. He is currently a defense reporter for Politico.