"'I said he was important,' Bush said to Tenet at one of their daily meetings. 'You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?' Dan Froomkin
March 30, 2009

"'I said he was important,' Bush said to Tenet at one of their daily meetings. 'You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?'

Dan Froomkin has written a comprehensive piece making the case there was simply no logical reason for the Bush administration to torture suspects. He thinks it was about retribution for the World Trade Center attacks.

I figured out a few decades ago that when there's no logical reason for an action, there's usually a subconscious, compulsive one. Froomkin reminds us there were simply no intelligence gains to be had, yet the Bush administration was very, very focused on torturing prisoners, anyway. It seems obvious to me that the question is the answer: George W. Bush.

What do you know about his character that makes you think he would be something other than vindictive and vicious? I mean, the only job at which he was ever really successful was running the dirty tricks operation for his father's campaign. Why wouldn't he authorize torture? It made him feel presidential.

And if we've learned anything in the past eight years, it's that it's all about George:

Abu Zubaida was the alpha and omega of the Bush administration's argument for torture.

That's why Sunday's front-page Washington Post story by Peter Finn and Joby Warrick is such a blow to the last remaining torture apologists.

Finn and Warrick reported that "not a single significant plot was foiled" as a result of Zubaida's brutal treatment -- and that, quite to the contrary, his false confessions "triggered a series of alerts and sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms."

Zubaida was the first detainee to be tortured at the direct instruction of the White House. Then he was President George W. Bush's Exhibit A in defense of the "enhanced interrogation" procedures that constituted torture. And he continues to be held up as a justification for torture by its most ardent defenders.

But as author Ron Suskind reported almost three years ago -- and as The Post now confirms -- almost all the key assertions the Bush administration made about Zubaida were wrong.

Zubaida wasn't a major al Qaeda figure. He wasn't holding back critical information. His torture didn't produce valuable intelligence -- and it certainly didn't save lives.

All the calculations the Bush White House claims to have made in its decision to abandon long-held moral and legal strictures against abusive interrogation turn out to have been profoundly flawed, not just on a moral basis but on a coldly practical one as well.

Indeed, the Post article raises the even further disquieting possibility that intentional cruelty was part of the White House's motive.

The most charitable interpretation at this point of the decision to torture is that it was a well-intentioned overreaction of people under enormous stress whose only interest was in protecting the people of the United States. But there's always been one big problem with that theory: While torture works on TV, knowledgeable intelligence professionals and trained interrogators know that in the real world, it's actually ineffective and even counterproductive. The only thing it's really good as it getting false confessions.

So why do it? Some social psychologists (see, for instance, Kevin M. Carlsmith on NiemanWatchdog.org) have speculated that the real motivation for torture is retribution.

And now someone with first-hand knowledge is suggesting that was a factor in Zubaida's case.

Quoting a "former Justice Department official closely involved in the early investigation of Abu Zubaida," Finn and Warwick write that the pressure on CIA interrogators "from upper levels of the government was 'tremendous,' driven in part by the routine of daily meetings in which policymakers would press for updates...

"'They couldn't stand the idea that there wasn't anything new,' the official said. 'They'd say, "You aren't working hard enough." There was both a disbelief in what he was saying and also a desire for retribution -- a feeling that 'He's going to talk, and if he doesn't talk, we'll do whatever.'"'

The Post story also makes it clear that some people with great reality-denying skills remain at the upper levels of the government: "Some U.S. officials remain steadfast in their conclusion that Abu Zubaida possessed, and gave up, plenty of useful information about al-Qaeda," Finn and Warwick write.

"'It's simply wrong to suggest that Abu Zubaida wasn't intimately involved with al-Qaeda,' said a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because much about Abu Zubaida remains classified. 'He was one of the terrorist organization's key facilitators, offered new insights into how the organization operated, provided critical information on senior al-Qaeda figures...and identified hundreds of al-Qaeda members. How anyone can minimize that information -- some of the best we had at the time on al-Qaeda -- is beyond me.'"

But who are these people? How can they still possibly believe this given all the evidence to the contrary? What are they doing still in government?

Author and investigative reporter Suskind first exposed the rampant fallacies of the administration's Zubaida narrative in his explosive June 2006 book, The One Percent Doctrine. See my June 20, 2006 column for a summary.

But mainstream news organizations, unable to match Suskind's sources, largely refused to acknowledge his reporting.

Indeed, in September 2006, when the White House for the first time publicly acknowledged the existence of a secret CIA detention and interrogation program, Bush had no qualms about putting Zubaida front and center.

In a major speech, he proudly described how Zubaida -- "a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden" -- was questioned using the CIA's new "alternative set of procedures" and then "'began to provide information on key al Qaeda operatives."

All lies and euphemisms. But all reported pretty much straight at the time by a mainstream media that, if it noted Suskind's reporting at all, did so as an afterthought.

There's no doubt that Zubaida's capture in spring 2002 was what sent the administration down the path to state-sanctioned torture. Last April, ABC News reported that starting right after his capture, top Bush aides including Vice President Dick Cheney micromanaged his interrogation from the White House basement. "The high-level discussions about these 'enhanced interrogation techniques' were so detailed," ABC's sources said, "some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic." Bush has acknowledged he was aware of those meetings at the time.

Techniques that created damage short of "the level of death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant body function" were later authorized in an August 2002 Justice Department memo, known as the Torture Memo.

Just two weeks ago, in a New York Review of Books article based on a confidential report from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Mark Danner described the techniques used on Zubaida in harrowing detail.

Here is what Zubaida told the ICRC, via Danner: "'I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck; they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room.'

"The prisoner was then put in a coffin-like black box, about 4 feet by 3 feet and 6 feet high, 'for what I think was about one and a half to two hours.' He added: The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside.... They put a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.'"

It goes on and on. Waterboarding -- and Zubaida is one of three detainees known to have been subjected to that notorious torture technique -- was only a part of it.

Bush's personal investment in Zubaida was obvious even in public statements. As early as April 9, 2002, Bush bragged to fellow Republicans at a political fundraiser: "The other day we hauled in a guy named Abu Zubaydah. He's one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States. He's not plotting and planning anymore. He's where he belongs."

In a June 6, 2002, address, Bush called Zubaida al Qaeda's "chief of operations" and said that "[f]rom him and from hundreds of others, we are learning more about how the terrorists plan and operate, information crucial in anticipating and preventing future attacks."

At a Republican fundraiser on October 14, 2002, Bush called Zubaida "one of the top three leaders in the organization."

But according to Suskind, even as Bush was publicly proclaiming Zubaida's malevolence, he was privately being briefed about doubts within the intelligence community regarding Zubaida's significance -- and mental stability. Suskind quotes the following exchange between Bush and then-CIA director George Tenet:

"'I said he was important,' Bush said to Tenet at one of their daily meetings. 'You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?'

"'No Sir, Mr. President.'"

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