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Context of 'April 9, 2002 and After: Bush Administration Exaggerates the Value of Al-Qaeda Prisoner Zubaida for Political Gain'

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In the wake of al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida’s arrest (see March 28, 2002), the FBI discovers much useful information (see Shortly After March 28, 2002). FBI agent Dan Coleman leads a team to sort through Zubaida’s computer files and documents. However, at the same time, some US officials come to believe that Zubaida’s prominence in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy has been overestimated. Many FBI officials conclude that he was used as little more than a travel agent for training camp attendees because he was mentally ill. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94-96, 100]
FBI Agent Coleman: Zubaida Is Mentally Crippled - FBI counterterrorist operative Dan Coleman will go through Zubaida’s journals and other materials seized from his Faisalabad safe house. Coleman will say: “Abu Zubaydah was like a receptionist, like the guy at the front desk [of a hotel]. He takes their papers, he sends them out. It’s an important position, but he’s not recruiting or planning.” Because Zubaida is not conversant with al-Qaeda security methods, “[t]hat was why his name had been cropping up for years.” Of Zubaida’s diaries, Coleman will say: “There’s nothing in there that refers to anything outside his head, not even when he saw something on the news, not about any al-Qaeda attack, not even 9/11. All it does is reveal someone in torment. [Zubaida is physically and mentally crippled from wounds suffered fighting in Afghanistan in the early 1990s.] Based on what I saw of his personality, he could not be what they say he was.” [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008] Coleman will add: “He knew very little about real operations, or strategy. He was expendable.” Zubaida’s diary evidences his apparent schizophrenia; he wrote it in three different personas, or voices, each with a different and distinctive personality. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94-96, 100]
Islamist Al-Deen: Importance Overstated? - Noor al-Deen, a Syrian teenager, was captured along with Zubaida. The terrified al-Deen will readily answer questions from his captors, and will describe Zubaida as a well-known functionary with little knowledge of al-Qaeda operations. Al-Deen will be sent to a detention facility in Morocco and later to Syria; his subsequent whereabouts and status will remain unknown to the public. [Washington Post, 3/29/2009]
Informant Says Zubaida Behaved Oddly - Other accounts back up this assessment. For instance, Omar Nasiri, a former informant for European intelligence agencies who met Zubaida in the 1990s, will later describe Zubaida’s odd behavior, saying he “shuffled around his home in near-total darkness, carrying a gas lantern from room to room. He barely spoke and would often communicate by pointing.” [New Yorker, 1/22/2007]
CIA Officer Scheuer: Zubaida Served as Key Hub - Michael Scheuer, who previously ran the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see February 1996), will later say of Zubaida’s importance: “I’d followed him for a decade. If there was one guy you could call a ‘hub,’ he was it.” Scheuer will describe Zubaida not as an actual al-Qaeda member, but “the main cog in the way they organized,” a point of contact for Islamists from many parts of the globe seeking combat training in the Afghan camps. Scheuer will say that Zubaida, a Palestinian, “never swore bayat [al-Qaeda’s oath of allegiance] to bin Laden,” and he was bent on causing damage to Israel, not the US. [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008]
Involvement in Pre-9/11 Plots - However, Zubaida does appear to have been involved in numerous plots before 9/11 (see for instance November 30, 1999 and Early September 2001). Al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam cooperated with US investigators after being arrested. He worked with Zubaida and suggested Zubaida was of some importance, but not one of al-Qaeda’s highest leaders. According to Ressam, Zubaida “is the person in charge of the [training] camps. He receives young men from all countries. He accepts you or rejects you. He takes care of the expenses of the camps. He makes arrangements for you when you travel coming in or leaving.” [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 133] Furthermore, when Zubaida was caught, apparently he and several others staying with him were in the middle of building a bomb. According to one of the CIA officers who helped capture him, the soldering iron used in making the bomb was still hot when he was captured (see Shortly After March 28, 2002). [Senate Intelligence Committee, 4/22/2009 pdf file]
CIA Chief Tenet Rejects Diagnosis of Schizophrenia - In a 2007 book, former CIA Director George Tenet will claim that the reports that Zubaida was mentally unstable were “[b]aloney.… Apparently, the source of the rumor that Abu Zubaida was unbalanced was his personal diary, in which he adopted various personas. From that shaky perch, some junior Freudians leapt to the conclusion that Zubaida had multiple personalities. In fact, agency psychiatrists eventually determined that in his diary he was using a sophisticated literary device to express himself.” [Tenet, 2007, pp. 243]
Zubaida Touted as High-Level Terror Chief - Regardless, despite being briefed otherwise, President Bush and others in his administration will repeatedly tout the importance of capturing Zubaida and no hint of any doubts about his importance or sanity will be publicly expressed (see April 9, 2002 and After). [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94-96, 100]

Entity Tags: Ron Suskind, George J. Tenet, Dan Coleman, Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, Abu Zubaida, Ahmed Ressam, Omar Nasiri, Noor al-Deen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In a 2006 book, New York Times reporter James Risen will claim that shortly after al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida is captured in March 2002, “According to a well-placed source with a proven track record of providing extremely reliable information to the author, [CIA Director] George Tenet soon learned that [President] George Bush was taking a very personal interest in the Zubaida case.” Just days after Zubaida’s arrest, Tenet goes to the White House to give his usual daily Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB). Bush asks Tenet about what the CIA is learning from Zubaida’s interrogation. Tenet replies that nothing has been learned yet because Zubaida is heavily wounded and is too groggy from painkillers to talk coherently. Bush then allegedly asks Tenet, “Who authorized putting him on pain medication?” Risen will comment, “It is possible that this was just one more piece of jocular banter between the two plain-speaking men, according to the source who recounted this incident. Bush’s phrasing was ambiguous. But it is also possible that the comment meant something more. Was [Bush] implicitly encouraging [Tenet] to order the harsh treatment of a prisoner?” Risen notes that some of Tenet’s associates claim they have never heard of the incident and doubt that it is true. [Risen, 2006, pp. 22-23] Later, it appears Bush will be deliberately kept out of the loop regarding the treatment of Zubaida and other detainees in order to avoid culpability for the harsh interrogation methods used (see April 2002 and After).

Entity Tags: James Risen, Abu Zubaida, George W. Bush, George J. Tenet

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

After the capture of al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002), the US government is forced to review procedures on how Zubaida and future detainees should be treated. One CIA source will later say, “Abu Zubaida’s capture triggered everything.” The legal basis for harsh interrogations is murky at best, and the Justice Department will not give any legal guidelines to the CIA until August 2002, after Zubaida has already been tortured (see March 28-August 1, 2002 and August 1, 2002).
Bush Kept out of Discussions - New York Times reporter James Risen will later claim in a 2006 book that after showing some initial interest in Zubaida’s treatment (see Late March 2002), President Bush is mysteriously absent from any internal debates about the treatment of detainees. The CIA’s Office of Inspector General later investigates evidence of the CIA’s involvement in detainee abuse, and concludes in a secret report that Bush is never officially briefed on the interrogation tactics used. Earlier meetings are chaired by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and attended by, among others, Vice President Cheney’s chief lawyer David Addington, Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, White House lawyer Timothy Flanigan, and Pentagon chief counsel William J. Haynes. Later, CIA Director George Tenet gives briefings on the tactics to a small group of top officials, including Vice President Cheney, National Security Adviser Rice, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and future Attorney General Gonzales, but not Bush.
CIA: 'No Presidential Approval' Needed for Torture - Risen will note that “Normally, such high-stakes—and very secret—CIA activities would be carefully vetted by the White House and legally authorized in writing by the president under what are known as presidential findings. Such directives are required by Congress when the CIA engages in covert action.” But through a legal sleight-of-hand, the CIA determines the interrogations should be considered a normal part of “intelligence collection” and not a covert action, so no specific presidential approval is needed. Risen concludes: “Certainly, Cheney and senior White House officials knew that Bush was purposely not being briefed and that the CIA was not being given written presidential authorization for its tactics. It appears that there was a secret agreement among very senior administration officials to insulate Bush and to give him deniability, even as his vice president and senior lieutenants were meeting to discuss the harsh new interrogation methods. President Bush was following a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy on the treatment of prisoners.” Later, Flanigan will say of the meetings, “My overwheming impression is that everyone was focused on trying to avoid torture, staying within the line, while doing everything possible to save American lives.” [Risen, 2006, pp. 23-27; Savage, 2007, pp. 154]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John C. Yoo, William J. Haynes, Timothy E. Flanigan, John Ashcroft, David S. Addington, George W. Bush, Abu Zubaida, James Risen, Central Intelligence Agency, George J. Tenet, Alberto R. Gonzales, Condoleezza Rice

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

The capture of al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002) is leaked to the press shortly after it occurs and on April 9, 2002, President Bush says in a speech: “The other day we hauled in a guy named Abu Zubaida. He’s one of the top operatives planning death and destruction on the United States. He’s not plotting and planning anymore.” In the weeks and months that follow, Bush and others in his administration will repeatedly tout the importance of capturing Zubaida. He is frequently described as “chief of operations” for all of al-Qaeda and the group’s number three leader. Zubaida is the only significant al-Qaeda capture in the first year after 9/11, so there is pressure to hype his importance. However, at the time there is a raging debate among US intelligence analysts as to Zubaida’s actual importance and even his mental sanity (see Shortly After March 28, 2002). According to journalist Ron Suskind, one day, when CIA Director George Tenet reminds Bush that Zubaida was not such a top leader after all, Bush reportedly says to him: “I said he was important. You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?” Tenet replies, “No sir, Mr. President.” Suskind will later comment: “In the wide, diffuse ‘war on terror,’ so much of it occurring in the shadows—with no transparency and only perfunctory oversight—the administration could say anything it wanted to say.… The administration could create whatever reality was convenient.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 99-100] But in 2006, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) will issue a report containing the biographies of al-Qaeda detainees held at Guantanamo. In marked contrast to previous announcements, this biography downgrades the importance of Zubaida. It merely calls him a “leading extremist facilitator” and “one of al-Qaeda’s senior travel facilitators,” and says he is “not believed to be directly linked to the attacks on 11 September 2001.” [Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 9/6/2006 pdf file; Time, 9/6/2006; Dickey, 2009, pp. 77] In 2006, Bush will make new claims about Zubaida’s capture that are at odds with the known facts (see September 6, 2006).

Entity Tags: Ron Suskind, George W. Bush, Bush administration (43), Abu Zubaida, George J. Tenet

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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