a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Kiriakou: apologist or whistleblower?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 24th, 2007

Maybe a little of both, maybe neither.

John Kiriakou is the ex-CIA man who spoke earlier this month to ABC News about what he knew about the waterboarding of Al Qaeda figure Abu Zubaydah. Now the Department of Justice has reportedly received a criminal referral from the CIA to investigate Kiriakou. The McClatchy news story says the probe is about whether Kiriakou illegally revealed classified information — and implies waterboarding was the secret involved. But Harper’s Scott Horton reports his intelligence source tells him that may not be the real focus — or at least the real motive — behind the investigation:

It was not Kiriakou’s discussion of waterboarding which gave rise to concern, according to the source, but the fact that he described the decision-making process, linking it straight to the Department of Justice and the White House.

On the other hand, Kiriakou also managed to simultaneously convey second thoughts about waterboarding while all the while claiming that it was effective at coercing Zubaydah into becoming cooperative — moreover, a Zubaydah he claimed then gave valuable testimony:

…a short time afterwards, in the next day or so, he told his interrogator that Allah had visit him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate because his cooperation would make it easier on the other brothers who had been captured. And from that day on he answered every question just like I’m sitting here speaking to you. […]

The threat information that he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.

This is all in contrast to the picture painted for Ron Suskind by FBI sources in his 2006 book “One Percent Solution.” In Suskind’s account (mentioned here in June, 2006) Zubaydah was a low-level Al Qaeda schlemiel with severe mental health issues, put in charge of arranging transportation because he wasn’t capable of much else. Suskind:

Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries “in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3” — a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail “what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said.” Dan Coleman, then the FBI’s top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.”

But pressure was high to get something out of him:

‘I said he was important,’ Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. ‘You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?’ ‘No sir, Mr. President,’ Tenet replied. Bush ‘was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,’ Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, ‘Do some of these harsh methods really work?’ Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, ‘thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target.’ And so, Suskind writes, ‘the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.’

(Emphases mine) As Jim Henley suggested when Kiriakou’s interview was aired, the accounts aren’t entirely impossible to reconcile:

Suskind stresses the wild goose chases. Kiriakou emphasizes “a number, maybe dozens” of genuine terror plots stopped. Zubaydah could well have provided a mix of useful and useless leads, all of which needed running down, all of which incurred expense and opportunity costs to pursue.

Moreover, the value of Zubaydah’s information — particularly the information revealed after interrogations got rougher — remains a matter of dispute. Reporting for the Washington Post last week, Walter Pincus and Dan Eggen write :

…some FBI agents and analysts say he is largely a loudmouthed and mentally troubled hotelier whose credibility dropped as the CIA subjected him to a simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding and to other “enhanced interrogation” measures. […]

There is little dispute, according to officials from both agencies, that Abu Zubaida provided some valuable intelligence before CIA interrogators began to rough him up, including information that helped identify Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and al-Qaeda operative Jose Padilla. Footnotes in the 9/11 Commission report attribute information about a variety of al-Qaeda personnel and activities to interrogations of Abu Zubaida beginning in April 2002 and lasting through February 2004. […]

But FBI officials, including agents who questioned him after his capture or reviewed documents seized from his home, have concluded that even though he knew some al-Qaeda players, he provided interrogators with increasingly dubious information as the CIA’s harsh treatment intensified in late 2002.

In legal papers prepared for a military hearing, Abu Zubaida himself has asserted that he told his interrogators whatever they wanted to hear to make the treatment stop.

Of course, Zubaydah would say that. But also of course, the same could be said of counterclaims by Kiriakou, the CIA top brass,Tenet, and their superiors at the White House, who have either their own consciences or legal consequences on the line. It’s convenient to at least the latter’s talking points these days that the videotapes of Zubaydah’s interrogations were destroyed and that Kiriakou is so handsomely conflicted — a kind of kinder, gentler Jack Bauer — about waterboarding.

And it may even be convenient that he is now under investigation. Noting the Pincus/Eggen article, Matthew Yglesias wrote:

…it’s hard to see what motive FBI people would have for going forward with their story if it’s false. It’s easy, by contrast, to see why administration and CIA sources who’d been torturing this guy might want to exaggerate how useful their torturing had been.

Horton and his sources argue that the motive for Kiriakou’s criminal referral is because he’s linked waterboarding to the “highest levels” — i.e., the White House. But the connection between Bush and Zubaydah’s waterboarding had already been established by Suskind, so Kiriakou merely provided a name and a face for a source for the charge. Meanwhile, Kiriakou’s evaluation of waterboarding’s efficacy has already reached the House Judiciary Committee, where Rep. Stephen Cohen (D-TN) mused about the procedure’s effectiveness (without condoning it) in proceedings last week.

So why the criminal referral against Kiriakou? Maybe it really is simply that Kiriakou spoke out of turn about the torture and its approval at highest levels. But another answer is: why not? After all, maybe nothing will come of the investigation — other than establishing Kiriakou’s bona fides with the mainstream press. Meanwhile, Kiriakou’s statements have made the “value” of Zubaydah’s waterboarding a “he said/she said” dispute between the CIA and the FBI — and that may unfortunately be the most lasting result of his ABC interview.

NOTES: “ex CIA man”: “Coming in From the Cold: CIA Spy Calls Waterboarding Necessary But Torture,” ABC News interview of John Kiriakou by Brian Ross, 12/10/2007. “reported”: “FBI, CIA Debate Significance of Terror Suspect,” Washington Post, 12/18/07.

3 Responses to “Kiriakou: apologist or whistleblower?”

  1. eRobin Says:

    “Just because torturing prisoners is something we did, it doesn’t me that it’s something we would do.”

  2. eRobin Says:

    Merry Christmas!!!

  3. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Merry Christmas to you too!

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