Have you watched the videotape of the torture of Abu Zubaydah? No. See how easy that is? The vast majority of folks reading this blog can answer that question succinctly. You do not have to parse. When presidents parse, they are hiding something.
So let me explain why I am certain that George W. Bush, and probably Dick Cheney, watched the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and maybe that of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
Let’s begin with the White House smoke screen on this issue. When spokeswoman Dana Perino was asked the other day:
QUESTION: . . . On these CIA videotapes, did either the President or Vice President or Condoleezza Rice, when she was National Security Advisor, or Steve Hadley, see them before they were destroyed?
Perino offered this artful phrasing:
PERINO: I spoke to the President, and so I will have to defer on the others. But I spoke to the President this morning about this. He has no recollection of being made aware of the tapes or their destruction before yesterday. He was briefed by General Hayden yesterday morning.
No recollection of being made aware? Sorry, if he did not know anything about the tapes then the answer is very simple–Never heard of them, never saw them, and this is the first we have heard of this matter. No room for doubt with that answer.
I know from my time at the CIA how presidents and national security staffs react to intelligence on high priority matters. They are ravenous and they are constantly pushing for more info. I remember, for example, being tasked on an urgent basis to review and analyze Spanish language documents the CIA obtained from a Nicaraguan military defector that described the mutual concern of Soviet and Sandinista officials about U.S. supplied shoulder fired surface to air missiles that were downing helicopters in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. At the time, the war in Nicaragua was one of the top five policy priorities of the White House. And the White House was eager to know what the defector had to say.
So please answer these questions. In the summer of 2002 was terrorism and the threat of terrorism at least one of the top three policy priorities for the Bush Administration? Was the White House interested in any details about the capture or interrogation of Abu Zubaydah?
You know the answers–not only yes, but hell yes.
Take a look at page 241 of George Tenet’s account of where the White House stood on these matters. He wrote:
Detainees, in general, had become a critical issue. . . . Abu Zubaydah’s capture altered that equation. Now that we had an undoubted resource in our hands–the highest-ranking al-Qa’ida official captured to date–we opened discussions within the National Security Council as to how to handle him, since holding and interrogating large numbers of al-Qa’ida operatives had never been part of our plan. But Zubayda and a small number of other extremely highly placed terrorists potentially had information that might save thousands of lives. We wondered what we could legitimately do to get that information. . . .Out of those conversations came a decision that CIA would hold and interrogate a small number of HVDs (i.e., High Value Detainees).
So who is the “we”. When you are talking special interrogation techniques at a National Security Council meeting you are talking with George Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, George Tenet, and John Ashcroft at a minimum. The White House lead on the legal issues was handled by Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales. And we also know that John Yoo at the Department of Justice drafted the letters ultimately used to assure CIA that torture tactics were legal.
Tenet is quite precise in identifying August 2002 as the moment that CIA was given clear guidance from the White House and Department of Justice about the techniques and methods the CIA could employ against terrorist suspects (also p. 241 of his book).
The respective works of Jim Risen (State of War) and Ron Suskind (The One Percent Doctrine) provide a consistent portrait of George Bush as a president keenly interested in Abu Zubaydah. And George Tenet was just the man to feed Bush the information he so desperately wanted. Senior intelligence officers I know describe Tenet’s dealings with the White House as both obsequious and enthusiastic. He would dash to the White House like an excited puppy dog eager for a romp. He was not known as “Slam Dunk” George for nothing.
The ops cables detailing the results of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah were not widely distributed. They most likely were kept in compartmented channels–in other words, just because you held a Top Secret clearance did not mean you were seeing the most sensitive information. If you have seen the latest exploits of Jason Bourne in the Bourne Ultimatum then you are familiar with “Blackbriar”. That’s an example of a compartmented program/reporting channel.
Although not widely distributed you can be sure that these messages made their way to the head of the Counter Terrorsim Center at the time, Cofer Black. His boss, Jim Pavitt also got the reports. And both George Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin, had the info as did the staff who put together the Presidential Daily Brief.
We are not talking about some third-rate piece of intelligence on a backwater of foreign policy. The terrorist threat posed by Al Qa’ida was a consuming priority, along with prepping for war with Iraq, and any information about that threat made its way to the Oval Office of the White House.
Ron Suskind quotes John McLaughlin talking knowingly about the methods employed on Zubaydah:
Imagine him (Zubaydah) sitting with a lawyer. That would be an utter cop-out. We would never know what we missed (see pp. 117-8, The One Percent Doctrine).
It remains to be seen whether or not the White House played a role in the CIA’s decision to destroy the videotape interrogations of Zubaydah and Nashiri. But this much is certain, Bush knew about the tapes and probably received a personal screening from none other than George Tenet. What did they snack on while watching Zubaydah hold his breath under water? That’s what I want to know.