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US Walks Back Terrorist Claims Against High-Value Detainee Abu Zubaydah

The Justice Department has quietly recanted nearly every major claim the Bush administration made about Abu Zubaydah the alleged al-Qaeda leader who was the first suspected terrorist subjected to the torture of waterboarding and other White House-approved “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Editor’s note: This report was originally published on March 30, 2010. We have reposted it due to some technical issues with the original version.

The Justice Department has quietly recanted nearly every major claim the Bush administration made about Abu Zubaydah the alleged al-Qaeda leader who was the first suspected terrorist subjected to the torture of waterboarding and other White House-approved “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

In a federal court filing, Justice backed away from the Bush administration’s statements that Zubaydah was the No. 2 or No. 3 official in al-Qaeda who had helped plan the 9/11 attacks, as well as even earlier claims from the Clinton administration that he was directly involved in planning the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. The government now says its understanding of Zubaidah’s “role in terrorist activities has necessarily evolved with further investigation.”

The US government’s retreat underscores yet another problem with President George W. Bush’s use of torture. Besides its illegality and immorality, torture can be applied to suspected terrorists who have been falsely identified and who thus don’t possess the expected information, which can lead frustrated interrogators to escalate the torture until the subject provides something, whether true or not.

Such false expectations appear to have been a factor in the case of Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan on March 28, 2002. He appeared to respond cooperatively to FBI interrogators using “rapport-building” techniques, but his failure to supply details that the CIA had anticipated led the agency to obtain high-level permission to subject him to the near-drowning experience of waterboarding and other torture techniques.

After those techniques were cleared by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in mid-summer 2002 – and were sanctioned by Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior Bush administration officials – CIA interrogators applied the methods to Zubaydah In their frustration, they ultimately waterboarded him 83 times before concluding that many of his claims of ignorance were truthful.

In recent months, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen has been on a public relations campaign promoting his book, “Courting Disaster,” in which he defended the torture of Zubaydah, claiming that he reviewed classified intelligence that revealed Zubaydah’s torture produced actionable intelligence that thwarted imminent plots against the United States.

The Justice Department has now backed away from the Bush administration’s more extreme claims in a 109-page court document filed in US District Court in Washington last September in response to 213 discovery requests from Zubaydah’s attorneys in his habeas corpus case, which demands evidence to support his continued detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In the filing, the Justice Department asked the judge presiding over the case to deny virtually every discovery request sought by Zubaydah’s attorneys, explaining, in some instances, that the US government no longer relied upon the explosive allegations that President Bush and other top officials made about Zubaydah after he was captured and tortured in 2002.

For instance, the document refutes Bush’s direct statements about Zubaydah, including a claim that he was one of al-Qaeda’s “top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.”

For the first time, the government officially admitted that Zubaydah did not have “any direct role in or advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,” and was neither a “member” of al-Qaeda nor “formally” identified with the terrorist organization.

Retreat’s Impact

The government’s retreat also could add to the mounting criticism of US Appeals Court Judge Jay Bybee, who in August 2002 as head of the Office of Legal Counsel signed memos authorizing the torture techniques that were applied to Zubaydah and other “high-value” detainees.

At the time, Bybee asserted, based on information he received from the CIA, that Zubaydah “is one of the highest ranking members of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization,” “has been involved in every major terrorist operation carried out by al-Qaeda,” and was “one of the planners of the September 11 attacks.” Bybee approved the harsh interrogation as necessary to thwart pending attacks on US interests, which the CIA claimed Zubaydah knew about.

While backing away from the extravagant claims of the Bush era, the Obama administration says Zubaydah should still be detained based on his “actions” as an “affiliate” of al-Qaeda.

The Justice Department filing alleged that Zubaydah “supported enemy forces and participated in hostilities” and “facilitat[ed] the retreat and escape of enemy forces” after the US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001.

The government acknowledged that its case against Zubaydah is based entirely on the first six volumes of his diaries that he wrote beginning in 1992 and an undated “propaganda video [Zubaydah] recorded before his capture in which [he allegedly] appears on camera expressing solidarity with Usama Bin Laden and al-Qaida.”

The government’s new charges, according to the court filing, include allegations that “[Zubaydah] was present in [the Afghan city of] Kandahar in November 2001, and a number of prominent terrorist figures converged on Kandahar around the same time,” including self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But the government does not “specify whether any of these figures met during that that time period.”

Zubaydah’s attorneys say the new allegations are baseless and have asked the government for “evidence that would undermine an ‘insinuation that [Zubaydah’s] presence in Kandahar … was related to the presence of known terrorists in the city’ is vague and insufficiently specific and is not supported by any allegations about whether [Zubaydah] in fact was present in Kandahar or for what purpose.”

Zubaydah’s attorneys claim that “the persons whom [Zubaydah] assisted in escaping Afghanistan in 2001 included ‘women, children, and/or other non-combatants'” and that the government has evidence to support those assertions. The lawyers also questioned the government’s history of falsehoods about their client.

“The Government’s accounts frequently have been at variance with the actual facts, and the government has generally been loath to provide the facts until forced to do so,” said Zubaydah’s attorney, Brent Mickum, in an interview.

“When the Government was forced to present the facts in the form of discovery in Zubaydah’s case, it realized that the game was over and there was no way it could support the Bush administration’s baseless allegations. So it changed the charges.”

No Formal Allegiance

In seeking to block Zubaydah’s discovery motions, the Justice Department also said the government was no longer contending that Zubaydah “was a ‘member’ of al-Qaida in the sense of having sworn bavat (allegiance) or having otherwise satisfied any formal criteria that either [Zubaydah] or al-Qaida may have considered necessary for inclusion in al-Qaeda.

“Nor is the government detaining [Zubaydah] based on any allegation that [Zubaydah] views himself as part of al-Qaida as a matter of subjective personal conscience, ideology or worldview. Rather, [the government’s] detention of [Zubaydah] is based on conduct and actions that establish [Zubaydah] was ‘part of’ hostile forces and ‘substantially supported’ those forces.”

That retreat contradicts initial claims made by senior Bush administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who described Zubaydah as a “close associate of [Osama bin Laden], and if not the number two, very close to the number two person in the organization. I think that’s well established.”

Even after Zubaydah’s interrogators apparently apologized to him for that mistaken impression – at his Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing, Zubaydah said “they told me sorry we discover that you are not number three [in al-Qaeda], not a partner, even not a fighter” – the Bush administration continued to hype his role.

John Bellinger, legal adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said during a June 2007 briefing about Guantanamo Bay detainees that Zubaydah, who was transferred to Guantanamo in 2006, helped plan the 9/11 attacks and was “extremely dangerous.”

But the Justice Department now says “the Government has not contended in this [habeas] proceeding that [Zubaydah] had any direct role in or advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, so [to] the extent that this request seeks information ‘tending to show … that [Zubaydah] did not know of the planned attacks of 9/11’, the request seeks evidence about contentions the Government has not made.”

The Justice Department also asked US District Court Judge Richard Roberts, who is presiding over the habeas case, to deny defense requests for evidence that would “undermine” government claims that Zubaydah worked on bin Laden’s “military and security plan to confront an American counterattack” in Khost, Afghanistan, after 9/11.

“The Government does not rely on any contention that [Zubaydah] did this work as an ‘al-Qaida’ deputy or because he was subject to al-Qaida command,” according to the court document.

Blocking a KSM Interview

And the Justice Department opposed Zubaydah’s lawyers’ request to question Khalid Sheikh Mohammed about whether he met Zubaydah, when the two were allegedly in Kandahar at the same time in November 2001.

“It is difficult to imagine how any answer from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would substantially help [Zubadyah],” the government filing said. “Even if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were to say he did not meet with Petitioner while they were in Kandahar, the fact that [Zubaydah’s] presence in Kandahar coincided with the presence of major terrorist figures in Kandahar would still weigh in favor of [his continued] detention.”

According to lawyer Mickum, the government’s “entirely new position” about Zubaydah was revealed last year to in a 44-page Factual Return that included more than 2,000 pages of exhibits.

“I’m not surprised at all that the Government has dropped the old charges against our client and is alleging new charges against him,” Mickum said in an interview. “That is their tried-and-true modus operandi. That’s exactly what they did with my client Bisher al Rawi. He was initially charged with associating with a known al-Qaeda figure in London.

“Unfortunately, Bisher was associating with him at the express request of Britain’s MI5 [intelligence service]. After we established that he [Bisher] worked for MI5, the US simply changed the charges against him, alleging that he had terrorist training in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

“Once again, we were able to show those charges were utterly bogus when we proved that Bisher had never left England from 1998 until his fateful business trip to Africa, where he was arrested by the CIA, rendered to the ‘Dark Prison’ in Afghanistan and tortured, tortured at Bagram Air Force base and tortured in Guantanamo.

“What all these cases have in common is torture, and [Zubaydah’s] case has that in spades. Given, the government’s history, it is not likely they would simply let him go and apologize. No, when their case falls apart, they re-jigger the evidence, and come up with new charges and [say] ‘we will defend the new charges with the same zeal we defended the earlier bogus charges.’”

Zubaydah’s attorneys argued in his initial petition for habeas corpus filed in February 2008 that he was not a member of al-Qaeda, that he had no knowledge of any terrorist operations, and that the military camp he was alleged to be affiliated with, Khaldan, was closed by the Afghan Taliban after refusing to let it go under the formal control of bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

“We have never deviated from that position, and now the government admits that we were correct all along,” Mickum said.

Indeed, the Justice Department’s response agrees that Khaldan was “organizationally and operationally independent” of al-Qaeda’s camps. The filing also backed off other claims made by Bush administration officials that Zubaydah knew the identities of specific individuals who trained at Khaldan and later went on to al-Qaeda-operated camps and allegedly took part in terrorist activities.

“The Government has not contended in this proceeding that Petitioner selected or knew the identities of specific persons who were selected to leave Khaldan for training at al-Qaida camps,” the filing states.

Undermining 9/11 Report

The US government’s new position also undercuts the 9/11 Commission’s report as it relates to Zubaydah. The report called him the leader of Khaldan.

The 9/11 report added that Zubaydah was a “major figure” in the “Millennium plot,” claiming he was a mastermind behind a plan to bomb a hotel in Jordan and Los Angeles International Airport.

The 9/11 report cited several intelligence memoranda from then-counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke that Zubaydah was planning “a series of major terrorist attacks” on Israeli and possibly US targets and was working closely with bin Laden. Clarke declined numerous requests for comment.

Terrorist suspicions about Zubaydah predated the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, in the infamous Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US,” he was identified as bin Laden’s “lieutenant” and alleged to have “helped facilitate” the plot to detonate a bomb at LAX.

FBI officials obtained that information from Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted in the LAX plot in April 2001. In exchange for a lighter sentence, Ressam cooperated with the government and identified alleged terrorists, including Zubaydah, who Ressam said was a key figure in al-Qaeda, ran Khaldan and had close connections to bin Laden. Ressam also said Zubdaydah told him in 1998 that, independent of bin Laden, he was preparing his own attack against the United States. Ressam later recanted his statements.

When asked about what the 9/11 Commission was told regarding Zubaydah, Mickum suggested that the panel was lied to by the CIA.

“After torturing our client, the CIA knew he was never a member of al-Qaeda and that he had no knowledge of any al-Qaeda terrorist activities,” Mickum said. “And this fact was confirmed after other members of al-Qaeda like [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] and the [alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing] al-Nashiri were tortured.”

In an interview last year, Jack Cloonan, a former FBI special agent assigned to the agency’s elite bin Laden unit, said the CIA and the Bush administration were flat wrong in designating Zubaydah as a top official in al-Qaeda.

“To cast him and describe him as the al-Qaeda emir or leader for the subcontinent or worse … I think was a mistake. … Based on his age and ethnicity, [he] would [n]ever be brought into the inner circle of al-Qaeda,” Cloonan said.

There was also the question of Zubaydah’s personality. “My partner had a chance to look at a lot of Abu Zubaydah’s diaries [which forms the basis of the government’s case], poems and other things that he has written and he said that after reading this you just come away with the feeling that this is a guy who can’t be trusted or be given huge amounts of responsibility.”

Zubaydah began keeping a diary in 1992, after he suffered a severe head injury while fighting communist forces in Afghanistan. The injury left “significantly impaired both his long- and short-term memory,” states a Jan. 14, 2009, motion his attorneys filed related to his diaries.

“Long after his 1992 injury, once [Zubaydah] had recovered the ability to speak and write, he began to keep a diary. It is his memory. Without it, he is lost.”

The diary now appears to be the chief element of the US government’s remaining case against him.

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