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On torture-21: The case of Abu Zubaydah again

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

What has emerged is that research by psychologists on “learned helplessness” has formed the basis of the current torture techniques practiced by the US. The goal is to destroy the victim’s mind until that person feels total dependence on the interrogator. It turns out that this is fairly easy to do. They succeeded with Jose Padilla and with Abu Zubaydah. But destroying a mind is one thing. Getting useful information is another.

I have written before about Abu Zubaydah. He was the person you may recall whom George W. Bush insisted was a valuable high-ranking al Qaeda operative from whom valuable information was gleaned using torture, although Bush of course did not use that word. This case was seized upon by the media and by those who used it to justify torture, claiming it ‘worked’. But Ron Suskind’s book The One Percent Doctrine says the reality is quite different, as can be seen from this excerpt in Barton Gellman’s review of it:

One example out of many comes in Ron Suskind’s gripping narrative of what the White House has celebrated as one of the war’s major victories: the capture of Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002. Described as al-Qaeda’s chief of operations even after U.S. and Pakistani forces kicked down his door in Faisalabad, the Saudi-born jihadist was the first al-Qaeda detainee to be shipped to a secret prison abroad. Suskind shatters the official story line here.

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.”

Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda’s go-to guy for minor logistics — travel for wives and children and the like. That judgment was “echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President,” Suskind writes. And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.” And over the months to come, under White House and Justice Department direction, the CIA would make him its first test subject for harsh interrogation techniques.

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.”

After they had destroyed him mentally, the interrogators then proceeded to destroy the videotapes that had recorded the torture sessions, hardly the behavior of people who thought they were acting legally or morally or who at least thought that they were practicing an effective technique.

As Kevin Drum says:

So here’s what the tapes would have shown: not just that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative, but that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative who was (a) unimportant and low-ranking, (b) mentally unstable, (c) had no useful information, and (d) eventually spewed out an endless series of worthless, fantastical “confessions” under duress. This was all prompted by the president of the United States, implemented by the director of the CIA, and the end result was thousands of wasted man hours by intelligence and and [sic] law enforcement personnel.

Torture produced similar false information in the case of Khalid Shekh Mohammed:

In other words, not only was torture unnecessary, but it was actually counterproductive. KSM produced no new information under torture, only a litany of false confessions — maybe out of vanity, maybe in an effort to protect other al-Qaeda operatives. Who knows. What we do know is that torturing KSM did no good, sent hundreds of agents scurrying after phantoms, and has made his prosecution far more difficult than it needed to be.

This is what torture leads to.

POST SCRIPT: Rewriting Hamlet

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