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Context of 'September 2002: Most Members of House and Senate Intelligence Committees Not Briefed on CIA Interrogations, Reportedly Because They Are Covert Activities'

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The house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, where Abu Zubaida is arrested.The house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, where Abu Zubaida is arrested. [Source: New York Times]Al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida is captured in Faisalabad, Pakistan. He is the first al-Qaeda leader considered highly important to be captured or killed after 9/11.
Zubaida Injured during Raid - A joint team from the FBI, the CIA, and the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, raids the house where Zubaida is staying. Around 3 a.m., the team breaks into the house. Zubaida and three others wake up and rush to the rooftop. Zubaida and the others jump to a neighbor’s roof where they are grabbed by local police who are providing back-up for the capture operation. One of Zubaida’s associates manages to grab a gun from one of the police and starts firing it. A shoot-out ensues. The associate is killed, several police are wounded, and Zubaida is shot three times, in the leg, stomach, and groin. He survives. About a dozen other suspected al-Qaeda operatives are captured in the house, and more are captured in other raids that take place nearby at the same time. [New York Times, 4/14/2002; Suskind, 2006, pp. 84-89] US intelligence had slowly been closing in on Zubaida’s location for weeks, but accounts differ as to exactly how he was found (see February-March 28, 2002). He had surgically altered his appearance and was using an alias, so it takes a few days to completely confirm his identity. [New York Times, 9/10/2006]
Link to Pakistani Militant Group - A later US State Department report will mention that the building Zubaida is captured in is actually a Lashkar-e-Toiba safehouse. Lashkar-e-Toiba is a Pakistani militant group with many links to al-Qaeda, and it appears to have played a key role in helping al-Qaeda operatives escape US forces in Afghanistan and find refuge in Pakistan (see Late 2001-Early 2002). [US Department of State, 4/30/2008]
Rendition - Not long after his arrest, Zubaida is interrogated by a CIA agent while he is recovering in a local hospital (see Shortly After March 28, 2002). He then is rendered to a secret CIA prison, where he is interrogated and tortured (see Mid-May 2002 and After). Throughout his detention, members of the National Security Council and other senior Bush administration officials are briefed about Zubaida’s captivity and treatment. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 4/22/2009 pdf file]
Is Zubaida a High-Ranking Al-Qaeda Leader? - Shortly after the arrest, the New York Times reports that “Zubaida is believed by American intelligence to be the operations director for al-Qaeda and the highest-ranking figure of that group to be captured since the Sept. 11 attacks.” [New York Times, 4/14/2002] But it will later come out that while Zubaida was an important radical Islamist, his importance was probably overstated (see Shortly After March 28, 2002).
Tortured While in US Custody - Once Zubaida has sufficiently recovered from his injuries, he is taken to a secret CIA prison in Thailand for more interrogation. [Observer, 6/13/2004; New York Review of Books, 3/15/2009] One unnamed CIA official will later say: “He received the finest medical attention on the planet. We got him in very good health, so we could start to torture him.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94-96, 100] Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly vows that Zubaida will not be tortured, but it will later come out that he was (see Mid-May 2002 and After and April - June 2002). [New York Times, 4/14/2002]

Entity Tags: Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, National Security Council, Donald Rumsfeld, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), Abu Zubaida

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, 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

Jay Bybee.Jay Bybee. [Source: Public domain]The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) sends a non-classified memo to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, offering the opinion that a policy allowing suspected al-Qaeda members to be tortured abroad “may be justified.” [US Department of Justice, 8/1/2002 pdf file] This memo will later be nicknamed the “Golden Shield” by insiders in the hopes that it will protect government officials from later being charged with war crimes (see April 2002 and After). [ABC News, 4/9/2008]
Multiple Authors - The 50-page “torture memo” is signed and authored by Jay S. Bybee, head of OLC, and co-authored by John Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general. It is later revealed that Yoo authored the memo himself, in close consultation with Vice President Cheney’s chief adviser David Addington, and Bybee just signed off on it (see December 2003-June 2004). [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] Deputy White House counsel Timothy Flanigan also contributed to the memo. Addington contributed the claim that the president may authorize any interrogation method, even if it is plainly torture. Addington’s reasoning: US and treaty law “do not apply” to the commander in chief, because Congress “may no more regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.” [Washington Post, 6/25/2007]
Statute Only Prohibits 'Extreme Acts' - Gonzales had formally asked for the OLC’s legal opinion in response to a request by the CIA for legal guidance. A former administration official, quoted by the Washington Post, says the CIA “was prepared to get more aggressive and re-learn old skills, but only with explicit assurances from the top that they were doing so with the full legal authority the president could confer on them.” [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] “We conclude that the statute, taken as a whole,” Bybee and Yoo write, “makes plain that it prohibits only extreme acts.” Addressing the question of what exactly constitute such acts of an extreme nature, the authors proceed to define torture as the infliction of “physical pain” that is “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Purely mental pain or suffering can also amount to “torture under Section 2340,” but only if it results “in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g. lasting for months or even years.” [Washington Post, 6/9/2004]
Torture Legal and Defensible - Bybee and Yoo appear to conclude that any act short of torture, even though it may be cruel, inhuman or degrading, would be permissible. They examine, for example, “international decisions regarding the use of sensory deprivation techniques.” These cases, they notice, “make clear that while many of these techniques may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, they do not produce pain or suffering of the necessary intensity to meet the definition of torture. From these decisions, we conclude that there is a wide range of such techniques that will not rise to the level of torture.” More astounding is Bybee and Yoo’s view that even torture can be defensible. “We conclude,” they write, “that, under the current circumstances, necessity or self-defense may justify interrogation methods that might violate Section 2340A.” Inflicting physical or mental pain might be justified, Bybee and Yoo argue, “in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al-Qaeda terrorist network.” In other words, necessity or self-defense may justify torture. Moreover, “necessity and self-defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability.” [Washington Post, 6/8/2004] International anti-torture rules, furthermore, “may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations” of suspected terrorists. [US News and World Report, 6/21/2004] Laws prohibiting torture would “not apply to the president’s detention and interrogation of enemy combatants” in the “war on terror,” because the president has constitutional authority to conduct a military campaign. [Washington Post, 6/27/2004]
Protecting US Officials from Prosecution - In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write: “In case an interrogator was ever prosecuted for violating the antitorture law (see October 21, 1994 and January 26, 1998, Yoo laid out page after page of legal defenses he could mount to get the charges dismissed. And should someone balk at this strained interpretation of the law, Yoo offered his usual trump card: Applying the antitorture law to interrogations authorized by the president would be unconstitutional, since only the commander in chief could set standards for questioning prisoners.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 155-156]
Virtually Unrestricted Authority of President - “As commander in chief,” the memo argues, “the president has the constitutional authority to order interrogations of enemy combatants to gain intelligence information concerning the military plans of the enemy.” [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] According to some critics, this judgment—which will be echoed in a March 2003 draft Pentagon report (see March 6, 2003)—ignores important past rulings such as the 1952 Supreme Court decision in Youngstown Steel and Tube Co v. Sawyer, which determined that the president, even in wartime, is subject to US laws. [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] The memo also says that US Congress “may no more regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.” [Washington Post, 6/27/2004]
Ashcroft Refuses to Release Memo - After the memo’s existence is revealed, Attorney General John Ashcroft denies senators’ requests to release it, and refuses to say if or how the president was involved in the discussion. “The president has a right to hear advice from his attorney general, in confidence,” he says. [New York Times, 6/8/2004; Bloomberg, 6/8/2004; Washington Post, 6/9/2004] Privately, Ashcroft is so irritated by Yoo’s hand-in-glove work with the White House that he begins disparagingly referring to him as “Dr. Yes.” [New York Times, 10/4/2007]
Only 'Analytical' - Responding to questions about the memo, White House press secretary Scott McClellan will claim that the memo “was not prepared to provide advice on specific methods or techniques,” but was “analytical.” But the 50-page memo seems to have been considered immensely important, given its length and the fact that it was signed by Bybee. “Given the topic and length of opinion, it had to get pretty high-level attention,” Beth Nolan, a former White House counsel from 1999-2001, will tell reporters. This view is confirmed by another former Office of Legal Counsel lawyer who says that unlike documents signed by deputies in the Office of Legal Counsel, memorandums signed by the Office’s head are considered legally binding. [Washington Post, 6/9/2004]
Memo Will be Withdrawn - Almost two years later, the OLC’s new head, Jack Goldsmith, will withdraw the torture memos, fearing that they go far beyond anything countenanced by US law (see December 2003-June 2004).
Memo Addresses CIA Concerns - The administration, particularly the axis of neoconservatives centered around Cheney’s office, has enthusiastically advocated the use of violent, abusive, and sometimes tortuous interrogation techniques, though the US has never endorsed such tactics before, and many experts say such techniques are counterproductive. The CIA, responding to the desires from the White House, hastily put together a rough program after consulting with intelligence officials from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where detainees are routinely tortured and killed in captivity, and after studying methods used by former Soviet Union interrogators. The legal questions were continuous. The former deputy legal counsel for the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, Paul Kelbaugh, recalls in 2007: “We were getting asked about combinations—‘Can we do this and this at the same time?… These approved techniques, say, withholding food, and 50-degree temperature—can they be combined?’ Or ‘Do I have to do the less extreme before the more extreme?’” The “torture memo” is designed to address these concerns. [New York Times, 10/4/2007]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Paul Kelbaugh, Timothy E. Flanigan, Scott McClellan, John Ashcroft, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Jay S. Bybee, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), David S. Addington, Alberto R. Gonzales, Beth Nolan, Al-Qaeda, Charlie Savage, Central Intelligence Agency, Jack Goldsmith

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Although some members of both the House and Senate intelligence committees are briefed about a CIA detainee interrogation program around this time (see September 2002), the briefing is not received by all committee members. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham (D-FL) will later say that the information is not shared with all committee members because the activities are regarded as covert. Within the intelligence committees, the information is restricted to the “gang of four”—the two top members from each committee. Graham will later complain about this: “Not only should I have been briefed [about the CIA interrogation program] but the entire committee [should have] been briefed. The only basis for what they called these covert gang of four briefings is where the president has indicated there’s an action that’s being undertaken for which the United States wants to have deniability. It’s not a blanket for every subject that the intelligence community might be involved with. In my judgment, this was not a covert operation and should have been briefed to the entire intelligence committee.” [CNN, 12/13/2007] However, President Bush, who would usually be briefed on activities like the interrogation program, is not briefed on it, precisely because it is not regarded as a covert activity, but is classified as a normal part of “intelligence collection” (see April 2002 and After).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Senate Intelligence Committee, Daniel Robert (“Bob”) Graham, House Intelligence Committee

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

President George Bush says he was unaware that the CIA had videotaped detainee interrogations. The CIA had videotaped some interrogations in 2002 (see Spring-Late 2002), but the tapes were destroyed in late 2005 (see November 2005), and this was disclosed five days previously (see December 6, 2007). Bush says, “My first recollection of whether the tapes existed or whether they were destroyed was when [CIA Director] Michael Hayden briefed me.” [ABC News, 12/11/2007] Bush took an interest in information coming from one of the detainees who was videotaped, Abu Zubaida (see Late March 2002), and normally a president would be informed about activities like the detainee interrogations. However, there appears to have been a long-standing deliberate policy of keeping Bush out of the loop regarding aggressive interrogation methods to protect him from any adverse consequences that might arise (see April 2002 and After).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Michael Hayden

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

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