For nearly the entire summer of 2002, Abu Zubaydah was kept in isolation. That was valuable lost time, and that doesn’t square with claims about the “ticking bomb scenarios” that were the basis for America’s enhanced interrogation program, or with the commitment to getting life-saving, actionable intelligence from valuable detainees. The techniques were justified by those who said Zubaydah “stopped all cooperation” around the time my fellow FBI agent and I left. If Zubaydah was in isolation the whole time, that’s not really a surprise.
One of the hardest things we struggled to make sense of, back then, was why US officials were authorizing harsh techniques when our interrogations were working and their harsh techniques weren’t. The answer, as the long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee report now makes clear, is that the architects of the program were taking credit for our success, from the unmasking of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of 9/11 to the uncovering of the “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla. The claims made by government officials for years about the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation”, in secret memos and in public, are false. “Enhanced interrogation” doesn’t work.
It’s maddening enough to learn that while we were working around the clock and often under dangerous circumstances, from Yemen to Afghanistan, the “enhanced” interrogators took the weeks off from interrogating the only high-value detainee in American custody. And the entire Senate report makes for painful reading. But not just because of the new details on the futility of those techniques and the orchestrated campaign of deception and lies told about their efficiency. The hardest part about the report is what it doesn’t answer: How do we prevent this from happening again?
At the time, I witnessed some CIA officials objecting to what was happening – and I watched them leave. What I learned from the report is that so many more officials were objecting to harsh interrogations through their official channels – they were just ignored. Memos in the report show that those responsible “marginalized and ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections concerning the operation and management of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program”. The report says that tears were shed, and knowing the officials who shed them, I know those were tears over lost time and lost intelligence – and lost American values.
Those responsible for the program have tried to portray this as a CIA-versus-FBI matter, or as a debate between those who will do whatever it takes to defend the homeland versus those with softer hearts. The reality is that these techniques endangered our homeland. They didn’t work. We lost valuable time – years of time. Intelligence that could have been gained wasn’t. And plots that could have been stopped weren’t.
The sad truth is that today there are more people around the world who follow the ideology Osama bin Laden espoused than there were before 9/11. America’s turn to the dark side damaged our reputation and played into our enemy’s narrative.
The responses in defense of the program are predictable. Those at the top who authorized the program, or who didn’t do the do diligence they should have, are defensive because they are embarrassed – and they should be. They really owe an apology to the American people.
We knew Abu Zubaydah’s background well: We had been investigating terrorist attacks in which he was involved in Jordan and terrorists who had come through his training camp. The reality is that Abu Zubaydah was an independent operator with close ties to al-Qaida, but he was never a member. He had actually tried to join earlier on in his career, but al-Qaida deemed him unstable; later, when they wanted him to join, Abu Zubaydah refused.
We pointed this out at the time, but the “enhanced” interrogators refused to listen. A few years ago, very quietly, the US government changed its claims about Abu Zubaydah, reflecting the reality that he was never a member.
If such a basic fact is still misunderstood by former directors of the CIA and others – about a terrorist subjected to America’s harsh techniques, and who was the basis for using them on others – it’s no wonder the debate isn’t closed. These officials are so committed to their narrative they haven’t paid attention to reality.
This is why reading the Senate report is so painful. What it does provide is great detail on our failures and shortcomings. What it doesn’t do is prevent them from happening again. That isn’t the responsibility of Senate investigators; that is the responsibility of the president of the United States. Upon the release of the report, President Obama pledged that it would never again happen under his watch. He’s only got two more years left on the clock. He has the responsibility to ensure something like this never happens again.