Since the publication last week of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report into detainee abuse in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo (PDF), much has been made of a footnote containing a comment made by Maj. Paul Burney, a psychiatrist with the Army’s 85th Medical Detachment’s Combat Stress Control Team, who, with two colleagues, was “hijacked” into providing an advisory role to the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo.
In his testimony to the Senate Committee, Maj. Burney wrote that “a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link … there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”
In an article to follow, I’ll look at how Maj. Burney — almost accidentally — assumed a pivotal role in the implementation of torture techniques in the “War on Terror,” but for now I’m going to focus on the significance of his comments, which are, of course, profoundly important because they demonstrate that, in contrast to the administration’s oft-repeated claims that the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” foiled further terrorist attacks on the United States, much of the program was actually focused on trying to establish links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that would justify the planned invasion of Iraq.
Maj. Burney’s testimony provides the first evidence that coercive and illegal techniques were used widely at Guantánamo in an attempt to secure information linking al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, but it is not the first time that the Bush administration’s attempts to link a real enemy with one that required considerable ingenuity to conjure up have been revealed.
Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: the tortured lie that underpinned the Iraq war
In case anyone has forgotten, when Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the head of the Khaldan military training camp in Afghanistan, was captured at the end of 2001 and sent to Egypt to be tortured, he made a false confession that Saddam Hussein had offered to train two al-Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons. Al-Libi later recanted his confession, but not until Secretary of State Colin Powell — to his eternal shame — had used the story in February 2003 in an attempt to persuade the UN to support the invasion of Iraq.
It’s wise, I believe, to resuscitate al-Libi’s story right now for two particular reasons. The first is because, when he was handed over to US forces by the Pakistanis, he became the first high-profile captive to be fought over in a tug-of-war between the FBI, who wanted to play by the rules, and the CIA — backed up by the most hawkish figures in the White House and the Pentagon — who didn’t. In an article published in the New Yorker in February 2005, Jane Mayer spoke to Jack Cloonan, a veteran FBI officer, who worked for the agency from 1972 to 2002, who told her that his intention had been to secure evidence from al-Libi that could be used in the cases of two mentally troubled al-Qaeda operatives, Zacarias Moussaoui, a proposed 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, and Richard Reid, the British “Shoe Bomber.”
Crucially, Mayer reported, Cloonan advised his colleagues in Afghanistan to interrogate al-Libi with respect, “and handle this like it was being done right here, in my office in New York.” He added, “I remember talking on a secure line to them. I told them, ‘Do yourself a favor, read the guy his rights. It may be old-fashioned, but this will come out if we don’t. It may take ten years, but it will hurt you, and the bureau’s reputation, if you don’t. Have it stand as a shining example of what we feel is right.’”
However, after reading him his rights, and taking turns in interrogating him with agents from the CIA, Cloonan and his colleagues were dismayed when, in spite of developing what they believed was “a good rapport” with him, the CIA decided that tougher tactics were needed, and rendered him to Egypt. According to an FBI officer who spoke to Newsweek in 2004, "At the airport the CIA case officer goes up to him and says, ‘You’re going to Cairo, you know. Before you get there I’m going to find your mother and I’m going to f*** her.’ So we lost that fight.” Speaking to Mayer, Jack Cloonan added, “At least we got information in ways that wouldn’t shock the conscience of the court. And no one will have to seek revenge for what I did.” He added, “We need to show the world that we can lead, and not just by military might.”
In November 2005, the New York Times reported that a Defense Intelligence Agency report had noted in February 2002, long before al-Libi recanted his confession, that his information was not trustworthy. As the Times described it, his claims “lacked specific details about the Iraqis involved, the illicit weapons used and the location where the training was to have taken place.” The report itself stated, “It is possible he does not know any further details; it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers. Ibn al-Shaykh has been undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest.”
Had anyone asked Dan Coleman, a colleague of Cloonan’s who also had a long history of successfully interrogating terrorist suspects without resorting to the use of torture, it would have been clear that torturing a confession out of al-Libi was a counter-productive exercise.
As Mayer explained, Coleman was “disgusted” when he heard about the false confession, telling her, “It was ridiculous for interrogators to think Libi would have known anything about Iraq. I could have told them that. He ran a training camp. He wouldn’t have had anything to do with Iraq. Administration officials were always pushing us to come up with links, but there weren’t any. The reason they got bad information is that they beat it out of him. You never get good information from someone that way.”
This, I believe, provides an absolutely critical explanation of why the Bush administration’s torture regime was not only morally repugnant, but also counter-productive, and it’s particularly worth noting Coleman’s comment that “Administration officials were always pushing us to come up with links, but there weren’t any.” However, I realize that the failure of torture to produce genuine evidence — as opposed to intelligence that, though false, was at least “actionable” — was exactly what was required by those, like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, “Scooter” Libby and other Iraq obsessives, who wished to betray America doubly, firstly by endorsing the use of torture in defiance of almost universal disapproval from government agencies and military lawyers, and secondly by using it not to prevent terrorist attacks, but to justify an illegal war.
Where are Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and the other 79 “ghost prisoners”?
In addition, a second reason for revisiting al-Libi’s story emerged two weeks ago, when memos approving the use of torture by the CIA, written by lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 2002 and 2005, were released, because, in one of the memos from 2005, the author, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Steven G. Bradbury, revealed that a total of 94 prisoners had been held in secret CIA custody. As I noted at the time, what was disturbing about this revelation was not the number of prisoners held, because CIA director Michael Hayden admitted in July 2007 that the CIA had detained fewer than 100 people at secret facilities abroad since 2002, but the insight that this exact figure provides into the supremely secretive world of “extraordinary rendition” and secret prisons that exists beyond the cases of the 14 “high-value detainees” who were transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA custody in September 2006.
Al-Libi, of course, is one of the 80 prisoners whose whereabouts are unknown. There are rumors that, after he was fully exploited by the administration’s own torturers (in Poland and, almost certainly, other locations) and by proxy torturers in Egypt, he was sent back to Libya, to be dealt with by Colonel Gadhafi. I have no sympathy for al-Libi, as the emir of a camp that, at least in part, trained operatives for terrorist attacks in their home countries (in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East), but if there is ever to be a proper accounting for what took place in the CIA’s global network of “extraordinary rendition,” secret prisons, and proxy prisons, then al-Libi’s whereabouts, along with those of the other 79 men who constitute “America’s Disappeared” (as well as all the others rendered directly to third countries instead of to the CIA’s secret dungeons), need to be established.
Torturing Abu Zubaydah “to achieve a political objective”
Al-Libi’s story is, of course, disturbing enough as evidence of the utter contempt with which the Bush administration’s warmongers treated both the truth and the American public, but as David Rose explained in an article in Vanity Fair last December, al-Libi was not the only prisoner tortured until he came up with false confessions about links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.
According to two senior intelligence analysts who spoke to Rose, Abu Zubaydah, the gatekeeper for the Khaldan camp, made a number of false confessions about connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, above and beyond one particular claim that was subsequently leaked by the administration: a patently ludicrous scenario in which Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq) were working with Saddam Hussein to destabilize the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. One of the analysts, who worked at the Pentagon, explained, “The intelligence community was lapping this up, and so was the administration, obviously. Abu Zubaydah was saying Iraq and al-Qaeda had an operational relationship. It was everything the administration hoped it would be.”
However, none of the analysts knew that these confessions had been obtained through torture. The Pentagon analyst told Rose, “As soon as I learned that the reports had come from torture, once my anger had subsided I understood the damage it had done. I was so angry, knowing that the higher-ups in the administration knew he was tortured, and that the information he was giving up was tainted by the torture, and that it became one reason to attack Iraq.” He added, “It seems to me they were using torture to achieve a political objective.”
This is the crucial line, of course, and its significance is made all the more pronounced by the realization that, as one of Bradbury’s torture memos also revealed, Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding (an ancient torture technique that involves controlled drowning) 83 times in August 2002. The administration persists in claiming that this hideous ordeal produced information that led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Jose Padilla, but we have known for years that KSM was seized after a walk-in informer ratted on him, and those of us who have been paying attention also know that, in the case of Padilla, the so-called “dirty bomber,” who spent three and a half years in solitary confinement in a U.S. military brig until he lost his mind, there never was an actual “dirty bomb” plot. This was admitted, before his torture even began, by deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who stated, in June 2002, a month after Padilla was captured, “I don’t think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk.”
All this leaves me with the uncomfortable suspicion that what the excessive waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah actually achieved — beyond the “30 percent of the FBI’s time, maybe 50 percent,” that was “spent chasing leads that were bullshit,” as an FBI operative explained to David Rose — were a few more blatant lies to fuel the monstrous deception that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq.
A single Iraqi anecdote, and a bitter conclusion
It remains to be seen if further details emerge to back up Maj. Burney’s story. From my extensive research into the stories of the Guantánamo prisoners, I recall only that one particular prisoner, an Iraqi named Arkan al-Karim, mentioned being questioned about Iraq. Released in January this year, al-Karim had been imprisoned by the Taliban before being handed over to US forces by Northern Alliance troops, and had been forced to endure the most outrageous barrage of false allegations in Guantánamo, but when he spoke to the review board that finally cleared him for release, he made a point of explaining, “The reason they [the U.S.] brought me to Cuba is not because I did something. They brought me from Taliban prison to get information from me about the Iraqi army before the United States went to Iraq.”
However, even without further proof of specific confessions extracted by the administration in an attempt to justify its actions, the examples provided in the cases of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and Abu Zubaydah should be raised every time that Dick Cheney opens his mouth to mention the valuable intelligence that was extracted through torture, and to remind him that, instead of saving Americans from another terror attack, he and his supporters succeeding only in using lies extracted through torture to send more Americans to their deaths than died on September 11, 2001.