The kind of thing you wish were false

by Kieran Healy on June 20, 2006

What a disaster:

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. … 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.”…

Which brings us back to the unbalanced Abu Zubaydah. “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.”

I can practically hear the little tearing sounds as Jim Henley rips the remaining hairs out of the top of his own head.



y81 06.20.06 at 2:27 pm

That seems a little overwrought. I live in NY, and there haven’t been thousands of armed men rushed to the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty anytime since Abu Zubayah was captured. Also, the story strains credulity: one could believe that the government would, (i) initially, overestimate AZ’s significance, and (ii) not make any public acknowledgement that interrogation had led to a downgrading of his significance, and (iii) engage in some torture just to make sure that the guy had nothing to offer, but not that they would, (iv) simultaneously, repeatedly treat the utterances of an insane man being tortured as being significant enough to deploy thousands of troops. And, since (iv) strains credulity, it’s hard to know what to make of (i), (ii) or (iii), though they are not patently incredible.


John Emerson 06.20.06 at 2:30 pm

WTF? The Post published this? They also published a good piece about underequipped US troops being killed.

Has there been a cou d’etat? Is Donald E. Graham now rotting in the dungeon? We can only hope so.


Gene O'Grady 06.20.06 at 2:34 pm

On Bush’s “You’re not going to let me lose face” comment, I am reminded that a guy who was by no means the worst boss I ever worked for permanently alienated the best of his staff by making his mantra “Don’t make me look bad.” The business presidency scores again.


Steve 06.20.06 at 2:39 pm

That seems a little overwrought.

You think so?


nick s 06.20.06 at 2:53 pm

there haven’t been thousands of armed men rushed to the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty anytime since Abu Zubayah was captured.

Since March 2002? I think you’ve either got the long-term memory of a goldfish or have been deprived of the capacity to search news archives.

Has Tenet been talking to Suskind, as Paul O’Neill did before? More importantly, does he feel good whenever he looks at that fucking medal that Bush placed around his neck?


Brendan 06.20.06 at 2:58 pm

‘ At least four times in 2001-02, reports reached Washington that Zawahiri had died. One set of Afghan tribal chiefs said they could prove it. In June, they delivered a mud-caked head, and an intelligence officer flew it in a metal box to Dulles airport for DNA analysis. Coleman, the FBI analyst, held the jawless skull “as Hamlet did with Yorick’s.” It felt, he tells Suskind, “like a boccie ball.” Bush, who was tracking the transaction, reportedly told a briefer — “half in jest,” Suskind writes — that “if it turns out to be Zawahiri’s head, I hope you’ll bring it here.” It turned out to be someone else’s.’

Christ, I mean, bring me the head of Al Zawahiri? How close are we to the necklaces of human ears, a la Vietnam?


Steve LaBonne 06.20.06 at 3:23 pm

John, don’t get too excited until you start seeing stories like this on the front page of the Post rather than in the book review section.


cleek 06.20.06 at 3:41 pm

Christ, I mean, bring me the head of Al Zawahiri?

don’t forget, this is George “Please, Don’t Kill Me” Bush. the compassion in his conservatism knows no bounds.


Thomas Nephew 06.20.06 at 3:47 pm

For those of you who just can’t get worked up about torturing a mentally ill nincompoop so as to not “lose face”, there’s more in Gellman’s review: Bush told a CIA briefer who came out to personally emphasize the August 6 “Bin Laden wants to attack the US” memo: “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.”

Plus: the big one that got away! See for yourselves.

Our action prez in action!


abb1 06.20.06 at 4:31 pm

Well, at least he never used a sigar as a sex toy, it should count for something. Or anyway – if he did, that was probably before he got born again.


abb1 06.20.06 at 4:33 pm

I mean ‘cigar’


suresh sheth 06.20.06 at 4:41 pm

All the intelligence wonks in US miss to investigate the most important source of the captured terrorism planners, namely Pakistan. Thay do not realize that Pakistan vetted all these terrorist planners starting from KSM to Abu Zubayah and everyone in between to make sure that these terrorists kept Pakistani government in clear.

The fact was it was Pakistani government that planned, financed and facilitated 9/11 attacks to take revenge for US refusing to deliver F-16 jet fighters after Pakistan had already paid for them. Even kidnappers of Daniel Pearl demanded delivery of F-16 fighters! And still US government and media, blind as they are – intentionally or unintentionally – continue to ignore the central role played by Pakistani government in carrying out 9/11 attacks.

It was Pakistani ISI director General Mohammed Ahmed who asked Omar Sheikh (kidnapper of Daniel Pearl) to send $100,000 to Mohammed Atta (lead hijacker) one year before the attacks. Musharraf was forced to retire General Ahmed after Wall Street Journal exposed General’s financing of 9/11 attacks. Another Pakistani director Hamid Gul was the chief planner for Osama bin Laden. Why isn’t US demanding extradition of General Ahmed and General Gul for financing and planning 9/11 attacks?


Aidan Maconachy 06.20.06 at 4:48 pm

Interesting post Kieran.

I think this type of misrepresentation goes on all the time. Here in Canada recently the authorities busted a group of “urban lite” jihadists who had acquired a stash of ammonium nitrate and an eclectic mix of weapons – some more comical than lethal.

These asses went up to some rural retreat to play paintball shoot outs, alerting all the locals to their activities. It’s laughable really.

Their presumed associates in the UK seemed more interested in warrior style video games and play acting the radical Islamist lifestyle, than actually posing any type of genuine threat.

The fact that Bush tried to make political capital off Abu Zubaydah, is no surprise. The White House has continually engaged in this type of hyperbole when it comes to “dressing up” the bad guys for FOX consumption.


y81 06.20.06 at 4:52 pm

nick s, which day was that that there were thousands of armed men rushed to the Brooklyn Bridge? And which day were thousands of armed men rushed to the Statue of Liberty?


Rrose Sélavy 06.20.06 at 5:43 pm

which day was that that there were thousands of armed men rushed to the Brooklyn Bridge? And which day were thousands of armed men rushed to the Statue of Liberty?
It’s called overtime for the NYPD you fucking idiot.


Rrose Sélavy (s.e.) 06.20.06 at 5:45 pm

My AutoFill function seems stuck on dada mode



nick s 06.20.06 at 6:10 pm

y81: you may be aware of a website called Use it.

I find, for instance, this from May 2002:

The FBI also heightened anxiety levels in New York yesterday by advising officials that landmarks there could be terrorist targets. Officials said the advisory was based on the same kind of uncorroborated information that has led to other notices to law enforcement in recent weeks about threats to banks, nuclear power plants, water systems, shopping malls, supermarkets and apartment buildings.

The latest warning came from captured al Qaeda fighters detained at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials said.

New York police immediately bolstered security at the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and other landmarks.



nick s 06.20.06 at 6:18 pm

And if you’re going to quibble on ‘thousands’ or ‘racing’, then you really do need to take a dip in the cold bath of priorities.


luc 06.20.06 at 7:47 pm

Even in May 2002 this Zubaydah and the truth thing wasn’t taken that seriously. Here’s the entertainments bizz take on “Operation Rent-a-Movie”: Godzilla Links To New Terrorist Attack.

“You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?” “No sir, Mr. President,”


Functional 06.20.06 at 8:46 pm

“New York police immediately bolstered security” = “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target.”



Belle Waring 06.21.06 at 1:16 am

right, because everybody knows the NYPD doesn’t employ thousands of officers, and no police officers in NYC would possibly ever race in a panic to a NYC landmark which the feds had told them might be in imminent danger of a catastrophic terrorist attack. that’s just crazy talk!


abb1 06.21.06 at 2:46 am

Nah, they wouldn’t race for sure, too heavy for that. Which, of course, makes the whole story totally implausible.


Brendan 06.21.06 at 5:10 am

I think we are all losing track of the point here, which is, apparently, that the US was torturing a guy with a mental handicap, and then apparently acting in some form on the highly dubious information produced. Moreover, the implication of the post is that Bush knew the guy was being tortured and didn’t care.

This makes the President of the United States a torturer, and it also (presumably) opens him up to the threat of legal prosecution.



Katherine 06.21.06 at 5:47 am

I don’t know about thousands of armed men, but Zubaydah is listed over and over and over again and the source of the allegations of people we’re detaining indefinitely, including:
1. Jose Padilla (who I guess we’re no longer detaining without charge)
2. Benyam Mohamed, Padilla’s supposed accomplice, who has rendered to Morocco, allegedly tortured there, then sent to a CIA prison & to GTMO, where he remains
3. The Yemeni “high level Al Qaeda terrorist” who just killed himself at Guantanamo.

And many many more than that; that’s off the top of my head.


Wax Banks 06.21.06 at 8:11 am

Excellent cover design on Suskind’s book, memorable and vaguely archaic-sounding title, great press so far, and Suskind’s a trusted name. A lot of things have been done right here! It awakens hope that intra-government action will result from an expansive new conversation about these revelations. (…if only hope.)

@Nick S: I believe I’ve read in a couple of places that Tenet was a source for the book, yeah.


Uncle Kvetch 06.21.06 at 4:14 pm

I think we are all losing track of the point here

Nonsense. It’s not the policy that matters, it’s the words used to describe the policy. If there were only hundreds of police/soldiers involved, not thousands, and if they didn’t literally “race” to the scene, then the torturing of a mentally ill flunky by the US is completely inconsequential. Just like Amnesty using the word “Gulag” to describe G’tmo and other places of its ilk instantly rendered all of those places, and everything going on within, utterly insignificant.

So watch what you say, hmm?


John Quiggin 06.22.06 at 6:09 am

In fact, as y81 and functional will no doubt point out next time Suskind is cited, the very fact that he used the word “thousands”, even though the first news report produced by Google has no numbers proves that he is objectively pro-Al Qaeda. Any any “facts” that he reports can be put in scare quotes and excluded from the official Republican universe.


Kevin Donoghue 06.22.06 at 1:03 pm

According to a commenter at Obsidian Wings, the actual text is: “Thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each flavor of target”.


Liam 06.25.06 at 6:13 pm

My only scepticism is that cops believed anything coming out of the ‘intelligence’ community enough to rush. After the 911 ‘surprise’ and Iraqs elusive WMD, surely cops would know better.

Blind Freddy in Baku knows that the US tortures men, women, minors, the mentally disabled, you name it, and has been doing so for years. Any shock-horror on the part of anyone in the english speaking world is simply evidence of RightThink induced brain damage.

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