The Gitmo Files: Abu Zubaydah’s File

As bmaz posted, WikiLeaks is (finally) releasing the Gitmo Files, review files on 758 of the detainees who have passed through Gitmo. For background, here’s the story Carol Rosenberg (with Tom Lasseter) wrote about the files. Among other things, they write about the “mission creep” at Gitmo, as people unrelated to al Qaeda were flown there in an attempt to extract intelligence.

There’s not a whiff in the documents that any of the work is leading the U.S. closer to capturing Bin Laden. In fact, the documents suggest a sort of mission creep beyond the post-9/11 goal of hunting down the al Qaida inner circle and sleeper cells.

The file of one captive, now living in Ireland, shows he was sent to Guantanamo so that U.S. military intelligence could gather information on the secret service of Uzbekistan. A man from Bahrain is shipped to Guantanamo in June 2002, in part, for interrogation on “personalities in the Bahraini court.”

That same month, U.S. troops in Bagram airlifted to Guantanamo a 30-something sharecropper whom Pakistani security forces scooped up along the Afghan border as he returned home from his uncle’s funeral.

The idea was that, once at Guantanamo, 8,000 miles from his home, he might be able to tell interrogators about covert travel routes through the Afghan-Pakistan mountain region. Seven months later, the Guantanamo intelligence analysts concluded that he wasn’t a risk to anyone — and had no worthwhile information. Pentagon records show they shipped him home in March 2003, after more than two years in either American or Pakistani custody.

Apparently, Dick Cheney was so afraid of Afghan sharecroppers he had to build a camp to hold them.

As a way of assessing the files, I wanted to start with Abu Zubaydah’s file, since we have a good deal of information on him via other means. And it’s clear that AZ’s file, at least, is full of euphemism and half truths. One thing the report is clearly not: an attempt to get at the truth of the matter.

Before I get into the deceptions written into this report, note the admission the report makes on page 13 (of 14):

Detainee is assessed to be of HIGH intelligence value. Due to detainee’s HVD status, detainee has yet to be interviewed.

That is, the people writing this report apparently had never even interviewed AZ, more than two years after he passed into their custody.

The distance between those writing the summary and the information described in the report may explain the seeming contradictions in it. Consider how the report treats whether AZ was or was not a member of al Qaeda. The Executive Summary reports,

Detainee is a senior member of al-Qaida with direct ties to multiple high-ranking terrorists such as Usama Bin Laden (UBL).

Yet of course, AZ has revealed that his guards admitted this is not true. The very next line of the summary provides information that is true.

Detainee has a vast amount of information regarding al-Qaida personnel and operations and is an admitted operational planner, financier and facilitator of international terrorists and their activities.

Though note how the file doesn’t say that AZ is not an “admitted operational planner” for al Qaeda?

The body of the report later admits that AZ’s application to Al Qaeda was rejected.

Detainee submitted the requisite paperwork to join al-Qaida and pledge bayat (an oath of allegiance) to UBL. Detainee’s application to al-Qaida was rejected.

Note that the report doesn’t explain whether AZ tried to apply to al Qaeda before or after 1992, when (as the report admits) AZ suffered a head wound that caused his cognitive impairment? Even here, though, the report seems to cover up contradictory information.

In approximately 1992 or 1993, detainee sustained a head wound from shrapnel while on the front lines.8 Detainee stated he had to relearn fundamentals such as walking, talking, and writing; as such, he was therefore considered worthless to al-Qaida. Detainee asked Abu Burhan al-Suri for permission to repeat the Khaldan Camp training. Detainee did not pledge bayat to UBL and did not become a full al-Qaida member. Detainee refused to make the pledge unless al-Qaida agreed to stage an attack inside Israel or mount an operation to help free Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman aka (the Blind Shaykh).9

That is, the report suggests that al Qaeda rejected AZ’s application because he was “worthless” to al Qaeda. But it appears that AZ also refused to join al Qaeda because it did not meet his his priority–attacking Israel (remember, he’s Palestinian). AZ himself has said there were other differences in approach between him and al Qaeda (notably, on the topic of attacking innocent civilians), but the report doesn’t describe them.

Also note, the report makes no other mention–none!–of AZ’s cognitive impairments that remained from that injury and which were almost certainly exacerbated by the torture he underwent in 2002. Indeed, the report says AZ is in good health, though he suffers from seizures.

And the report doesn’t even try to explain the discrepancy between its explanation that al Qaeda found him worthless and the other detainees who said he was a member of al Qaeda.

Detainee continues to deny being a member of al-Qaida. However, multiple sources and other al-Qaida members have identified detainee as an al-Qaida member.

Now, the report does explain this in detail, with references to the sources (I’ll return to this in the future, but just as an example of the problems with their evidence, they refer to Zarqawi as an al Qaeda commander, even though he didn’t become one until long after AZ was captured; also, they refer to what Ahmed Ressam said about AZ, without noting he recanted much of his testimony or describing whether Ressam had means to know the organizational structure of al Qaeda). The most important of these sources is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (whom they refer in the body of the report as KU-10024).

Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, ISN US9KU-010024DP (KU-10024) identified detainee as a senior al-Qaida lieutenant.16 KU-10024 and detainee each played key roles in facilitating travel for al-Qaida operatives.17

Now the first of those citations is to an interrogation report. But the second one is to (!) the 9/11 Commission Report. So this Gitmo report relies on analysis conducted by a bunch of people who suspected–but didn’t know–that KSM was tortured, relying in part on those tortured interrogation reports, to confirm one key tie between AZ and al Qaeda.

And note how the file plays with time. Under a bullet point asserting AZ provided refuge for Osama bin Laden after 9/11 (one that, given the absence of further details, feels like something they know to be an overstatement), it includes this sub-bullet point that doesn’t apparently follow logically.

In February 2007, detainee admitted that he expressed his support of the 11 September 2001 attacks against the US during a meeting with UBL, KU-10024, and IZ-10026;

I’m not sure what statement that was, but the report makes no mention of this public statement AZ made in March 2007.

Yes, I write poetry against America and, yes, I feel good when operations by others are conducted against America but only against military targets such as the U.S.S Cole. But, I get angry if they target civilians such as those in the World Trade Center. This I am completely against [redacted].

Moreover, the reference to the actual date of a statement–2007, after AZ arrived at Gitmo (the second time), hints that statements made before that time might be less reliable.

But the file obfuscates more than just AZ’s membership in al Qaeda.

For example, the report says AZ was transferred to Gitmo on September 4, 2006, “to face prosecution for terrorist activities against the United States.” It doesn’t say, though, that AZ had already been held at Gitmo once before he arrived for the final time in 2006, from 2003-2004. And the report jumps almost immediately from the report of AZ’s condition being “stabilized” after he was captured…

Detainee was transferred to US authorities immediately after his arrest and once his condition stabilized, he was transported out of Pakistan.

… to his arrival in Gitmo (the second time) in 2006.

In short, the report on Abu Zubaydah reads partly like an attempt to glue together a lot of contradictory information–without assessing the credibility of any one piece of that information–and an either willful or unconscious effort to tell a narrative that justifies what those in charge of Gitmo were doing.

But a close reading reveals that it doesn’t succeed.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

  1. bmull says:

    It doesn’t make sense that AZ wasn’t interviewed for more than two years. Maybe he was interviewed elsewhere, or in a top secret setting.

    • emptywheel says:

      He was probably interviewed by CIA or FBI.

      But it appears he wasn’t interviewed by military personnel (presumably that excludes DIA).

      Or maybe he wasn’t interviewed at all. Some of the other HVDs don’t have up to date reports (al-Nashiri’s, Ghailani’s, and bin Attash’s are all dated December 2006). And Omar Khadr’s is dated 2004.

      I need to look much more closely, but there are a number of details that suggest DOD custody of these people might be nominal.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        I wonder if that nominal custody continues at Gitmo, in Afghanistan and elsewhere (at our “closed” secret prisons). Team Obama has shown itself to be capable of more fluid contortions than Team Bush in claiming to do one thing while actually doing another.

      • lysias says:

        Khalid Sheikh Mohamed was waterboarded at the secret CIA prison in Szymany, Poland in 2002, and he seems to have been held there for years. Wouldn’t it have made sense for all the waterboarding to take place at a single site?

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Indubitably. The question is where, for how long, and with what effects on his mental health. Marcy may know.

  2. Jason Leopold says:

    Did you happen to catch the reference to “The Security Encyclopedia” written and published by “The Research and Media Division of the Abu Zubaydah Center for Mujahidin Services” and compiled and edited after his capture?

    Intel folks say that is an example of his cognitive impairment.

  3. rkilowatt says:

    Sorta OT

    Each month I send a first-class letter, with a taped dime or dollar bill, to the IRS requesting proper care and feeding of Bradley Manning, and thank whoever opens and handles the mail. I want to be helpful.

    Perhaps others at FDL will choose a worthy recipient and do similarly, mailing it to their own choice of gov’t agency.

    And thanks EW et al on this site. I read most all and benefit much.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    AZ is in “good health” but “suffers from seizures” and cognitive impairment from prior head trauma – a predictor for a host of well-documented, long-term mental health problems, including impaired memory, judgment and decision-making.

    Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    But a close reading reveals that it doesn’t succeed.

    Are you describing the report that cobbles together contradictory information about AZ without sorting out its inconsistencies; the “success” of the Gitmo prison/interrogation experiment; or the Obama administration’s choice to keep it open and continuing, while claiming to its base that that decision was forced on a reluctant president by an obstreperous Congress?

  6. scribe says:

    Interesting how the NYT repeatedly says the docs were released by wikileaks, but that the NYT got them from a different source.

    Gotta wonder about that.

  7. eCAHNomics says:

    A whole collection of powerless brown people who U.S. can torture without consequences. What a great opportunity to get good stuff for all loyal U.S. allies like Uzbekistan. I’m a little surprised that there wasn’t mission explosion instead of mission creep, but that only bc U.S. is so incompetent, it just can’t figure out how to use a good thing when it has it.

  8. harpie says:

    Yes. This is from the McClatchy/Rosenberg article:

    McClatchy Newspapers obtained the documents last month from WikiLeaks on an embargoed basis to give reporters from seven news organizations — including McClatchy, The Washington Post, the Spanish newspaper El Pais, and the German magazine Der Spiegel — time to catalogue, evaluate and report on them. WikiLeaks abruptly lifted the embargo Sunday night, after the organization became aware that the documents had been leaked to other news organizations, which were about to publish stories about them.

    As Greg Mitchell was Tweeting yesterday: “Who leaked the docs to the NYT?”

  9. Skilly says:

    interesting article. I had a bit of trouble with this line though: “Though note how the file doesn’t say that AZ is not an “admitted operational planner” for al Qaeda?” Did I get that right?

  10. scribe says:

    Smells like a backfire, deliberately set to undermine the original wiki leak.

    In other words, I’m betting the Admin, to control the story through the NYT.

    I know. I’m so obvious.

  11. pdaly says:

    The Carol Rosenberg (withTom Lasseter) article linked to in the main post had this detail that was news to me:

    The documents also show that in the earliest years of the prison camps operation, the Pentagon permitted Chinese and Russian interrogators into the camps — information from those sessions are included in some captives’ assessments

    Read more:

    I do not recall previous reporting that the Russians and Chinese were interrogating captives. So USA, UK, Russia and China–it’s the roster of permanent member nations of the UN Security Council (save France, about which I have heard nothing in regards to interrogation of camp prisoners). Is France involved too? or is it being actively left out for some reason?

    • emptywheel says:

      Spain too. I’d be surprised if the French didn’t get a shot, too.

      We did know about the Chinese, though. They got to interrogate teh Uighurs. I’ve always believed that’s because only the Chinese believe they’re terrorists, so maybe we hoped that it’d make it easier to hold them.

      Also, the Saudis got a shot. They got one of their detainees to recant his testimony afterwards. One of the things that I think these will show is the degree to which we set up the system such that Saudi detainees were easily released to SA.

      You know, because it makes sense that the country that produced the most 9/11 hijackers should have the most lenient terms for Gitmo detention.

      • scribe says:

        It does, when the capturing/holding country’s military is serving as the military carrying out the wishes of the family ruling the country that produced so many 9/11 hijackers.

        Amazing, the things energy dependence will make advanced societies do….

        • wendydavis says:

          The same entities, though, made *sure* we stayed dependent on oil; that may even be the larger crime, as all else follows from that, and so much filthy lucre flowed into their pockets vis the MICC, IMO.

          • waynec says:

            Wow Wendy!
            I guess it should be obvious, but you really got this right.
            Not only is the war on terror about the US having access to ME oil,
            but also about keeping us dependent on oil.
            Sometimes, all too often, I’m slow on the uptake.

      • powwow says:

        Spain too. I’d be surprised if the French didn’t get a shot [at interrogating the “armed conflict combatant”/non-POW-by-default prisoners held by the American military at Guantanamo], too. – EW

        The French did indeed get and use that chance, according to this new interview by Cageprisoners of Khaled Ben Mustapha, one of the seven French citizens held at Guantánamo, who was released in March 2005 (an interview reprinted last week by Andy Worthington, who apparently has also received the Guantanamo documents from WikiLeaks, and will doubtless be providing some of the best-informed analysis of their contents):

        Cageprisoners: What did the Americans question you about?

        Khaled Ben Mustapha: The Americans dearly wanted us to say that we were terrorists, that we were Al Qaeda members and that we knew Osama Bin Laden. “Where is Bin Laden?” Questions were always the same … Each time our answers were not good to them, they would torture us …

        Cageprisoners: Were you accused of anything specifically?

        Khaled Ben Mustapha: No. No precise charges. Questions were very broad. “What did we do there?” I answered them that I was willing to live under shari’ah, that living with the Taliban did not bother me and that they did not harm me in any way whatsoever. It needs to be known that the Americans called over the secret services from all over the world in order to interrogate the GITMO detainees. During the four years I spent over there, several secret services from different countries came to question pretty much everybody. We could be interrogated by anybody. For sure, I was interrogated by the Americans. I was also interrogated by the French. The French came several times in order to interrogate us under the American torture. They wanted us to denounce people in France. The British used to interrogate the British but they used to interrogate everybody. I was also questioned by people with an accent. They were neither English nor American. All the services could interrogate whomever they wanted. For sure, the Mossad was part of the delegation.

        Cageprisoners: Were you interrogated by the Tunisian services?

        Khaled Ben Mustapha: They came and interrogated all the Tunisian nationals, threatening them with torture when they would be back in Tunisia. That was at the time of the tyrant Ben Ali.

        Cageprisoners: To summarise, you were interrogated by the Americans, the French …

        Khaled Ben Mustapha: And many other interrogators with different accents in English. But I do not have any means to know what nationality they were exactly. It is simple. I spent four years of interrogations. That is what needs to be understood. Four years of non-stop interrogations. Four years …

        Cageprisoners: What were the conditions of these interrogations?

        Khaled Ben Mustapha: It depended on people … If they were not satisfied, they would torture us in different ways. There was physical torture. There was psychological torture; they would not allow us to sleep, rooms would be highly refrigerated. It was very cold. They would fill the room with noise using very big speakers. The volume of the music was extremely high. We were deprived of many things. We had almost nothing. The only thing I had was a “short”. I was put in a room for months and all I had was a “short”. I had nothing. No blanket, no towel. There was no hygiene. Torture was very harsh.

  12. scribe says:

    Per The Guardian, the US considered that if the captive had had links (of any kind) to the Pakistani ISI, that was sufficient to prove he was a terrorist.

    That will surely go over well in Pakistan….

  13. Mary says:

    “The very next line of the summary provides information that is true.”

    In what way was Zubaydah an operational planner? I don’t remember anyone tieing him to being anything other than a coordinator of housing, travel, etc. – nothing about him planning terrorist operations.