By Peter Finn and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.
The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.
In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.
Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations,” and other top officials called him a “trusted associate” of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.
Abu Zubaida was not even an official member of al-Qaeda, according to a portrait of the man that emerges from court documents and interviews with current and former intelligence, law enforcement and military sources. Rather, he was a “fixer” for radical Muslim ideologues, and he ended up working directly with al-Qaeda only after Sept. 11 — and that was because the United States stood ready to invade Afghanistan.
Abu Zubaida’s case presents the Obama administration with one of its most difficult decisions as it reviews the files of the 241 detainees still held in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Abu Zubaida — a nom de guerre for the man born Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein — was never charged in a military commission in Guantanamo Bay, but some U.S. officials are pushing to have him charged now with conspiracy.
The Palestinian, 38 and now in captivity for more than seven years, had alleged links with Ahmed Ressam, an al-Qaeda member dubbed the “Millennium Bomber” for his plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999. Jordanian officials tied him to terrorist plots to attack a hotel and Christian holy sites in their country. And he was involved in discussions, after the Taliban government fell in Afghanistan, to strike back at the United States, including with attacks on American soil, according to law enforcement and military sources.
Others in the U.S. government, including CIA officials, fear the consequences of taking a man into court who was waterboarded on largely false assumptions, because of the prospect of interrogation methods being revealed in detail and because of the chance of an acquittal that might set a legal precedent. Instead, they would prefer to send him to Jordan.
Some U.S. officials remain steadfast in their conclusion that Abu Zubaida possessed, and gave up, plenty of useful information about al-Qaeda.
“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.”
Until the attacks on New York and Washington, Abu Zubaida was a committed jihadist who regarded the United States as an enemy principally because of its support of Israel. He helped move people in and out of military training camps in Afghanistan, including some men who were or became members of al-Qaeda, according to interviews with multiple sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He was widely known as a kind of travel agent for those seeking such training.
That role, it turned out, would play a part in deciding his fate once in U.S. hands: Because his name often turned up in intelligence traffic linked to al-Qaeda transactions, some U.S. intelligence leaders were convinced that Abu Zubaida was a major figure in the terrorist organization, according to officials engaged in the discussions at the time.