Where Is Abu Zubaydah?

Am I the only one who is disturbed that our government has disappeared all the Al Qaeda leadership rather than dealing with them transparently?

I just finished James Risen’s new book in which Abu Zubaydah features prominently. First there’s the anecdote where, a few days after Abu Zubaydah’s capture and transfer to Thailand, Bush asked Tenet what kind of intelligence they had gotten from Zubaydah. None, Tenet explained, he’s still so doped up for his injuries he can’t talk coherently.

Bush turned to Tenet and asked: "Who authorized putting him on pain medication?" (22)

Then there’s the story near the end of the book about finding–and not pursuing–Zubaydah’s ATM cards. Don’t want to know who’s filling Zubaydah’s bank accounts, you see, for fear you’ll discover it’s your crack oil dealer.

Reading of Zubaydah’s capture made me ask, for the umpteenth time, why haven’t we hard of Zubaydah’s military tribunal and execution? Why are we still holding him in an undisclosed location, almost 4 years after we captured him, and presumably long after he’s been of any intelligence value?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Let me just say, too, that I’m not saying the fate of those unjustly imprisoned in Gitmo is terrible–it is. I’m more worried about the outcome of, for example, the Chinese Uigurs there who have been found to be innocent than I am about Zubaydah. It just strikes me that, if we’re complascent that Zubaydah has been disappeared, then we legitimize the whole system of disappearances which the Bush Administration has put into place. Do what you will to Zubaydah. But do it transparently.

  2. SaltinWound says:

    The government has succeeded in limiting our information to the point it’s sometimes hard to comment. For instance, I didn’t fully understand the Iraqi kidnappers’ demands to release all female prisoners, but then it comes out we’ve basically been kidnapping Iraqi women to get to their husbands. For me, the main effect of all this government secrecy is that whenever a story comes out, my first question is â€what haven’t they told me?†I wonder what they haven’t told us in this case.

  3. Anonymous says:


    That’s kind of why I’m obsessing about Abu Z.

    There’s a lot we don’t know. There’s a lot we would debate if we knew about it. But I think few would really debate executing Abu Z for sponsoring the 9/11 attacks. But they can’t even do that transparently?

    At some point, the secrecy is more about us and less about AQ. Not sure that’s true in this case. But I am sure there’s no rational reason not to try Abu Z somewhat transparently.

  4. pontificator says:

    What’s frightening is, if they’re doing this to one person, how many others are they doing this to?

    The government won’t tell us.

    What is the criteria for determining whether someone will be disappeared?

    The government won’t tell us

    Is there any check or accountability on the government’s action?

    the government won’t tell us

  5. Mimikatz says:

    He is probably in no condition at this point, and putting him on trial would make that clear. I agree it makes us all complicit in the disappearances. We should keep asking the larger question why so few terrorists of any kind have actually been put on trial.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, I thought about that, Mimikatz. You might be able to get around that fact in a military tribunal. But not an open trial.

  7. landreau says:

    Study the rise of the Nazi’s in the 1930’s and you see so many of the elements displayed here. Thank you, EW. Great work, as always. In fact, your work is so good that, though I feel I’m watching some sort of epochal national train wreck, I can’t turn way.

  8. John Casper says:

    emptywheel, I really appreciate you introducing the issue of â€traceability†to this discussion. It, at least, leaves open the possibility of a minimal level of untimely oversite. Your post made me for the first time revisit press accounts of the â€rise†in â€terrorist kidnappings.†Evidently, Bush/Cheney led the way in this â€rise†and the factions in Iraq do not want to fall too far behind.
    OT Speilberg and Hanks produced BAND OF BROTHERS about Easy Company of the 101st Airborne in WWII. Mr. emptywheel may have caught it on video. It brought the home the carnage that these men endured and simply had to deal with in later life as well as they could. Bush/Cheney are paying U.S. citizens and others to learn and apply the finer points of kidnapping and torture, as a condition of further employment with the United States government. My guess is that all these activities are â€classified,†which would prohibit a soldier from mentioning this to a counselor or a religious leader. McCain’s anti-torture legislation, I think, revealed that he understood the double inhumanity of torture, both to the victim and to the perpetrator. I don’t mean to imply here that the damage to the two sides is equal, it isn’t, but it is an inherently anti-human process, which is why Bush/Cheney wants to keep it a secret.
    OT Another unpublicized issue wrt to â€secret†U.S. prisons is the suffering they inflict on the relatives who don’t know whether their loved one’s are alive or dead. It brings to mind the relatively speaking benign â€impressment†that led to our War of 1812. I can’t think of much that Bush/Cheney hasn’t done to breed undying hatred of the U.S in the Islamic world.

  9. viget says:

    The conspiracist in me believes that this is all done by design. That Abu is being kept in Miniluv, and O’Brien’s just grinding his boot heel into his face. That some people in these black prisons do it just because, as O’Brien says, power is not merely a means to an end, it IS an end. Or maybe they honestly believe he’s holding out on them, that more info can be extracted. Or he’s their guinea pig in some cruel and twisted medical experiment to innovate â€better†methods of interrogation and torture. I just don’t know.

    Then, of course, there’s the relatively bland reason, probably the most likely of all: Bush and Cheney don’t want to admit that Abu’s intelligence might have been bogus and thus serve as repudiation for their torture policies. Maybe it’s so obvious that even a military tribunal couldn’t overlook that fact (you know like even a FISA court would turn down a warrant for spying on a political operative or a clear non-terrorist?). So, then, it’s better to keep all that stuff secret than riske even the tiniest chance that a military tribunal might actually rebuke the administration.

    You’re right EW, it boggles the mind.

  10. Meteor Blades says:

    Obviously, you’re NOT the only one disturbed by the disappearing of Abu Zubaydah and others in the Al Qaeda leadership. Either they’ve been summarily executed or they are still imprisoned somewhere outside the reach of morality and law, and, either way, the precedent set is ominous. Because disappearing people can get to be a habit, as the U.S.-funded and -trained and sometimes -operated death squads of Central America and Southeast Asia proved. Thousands gone. How many of them utterly innocent of the crimes and thought-crimes they supposedly committed? We’ll never know.

    I certainly agree that trials are the appropriate venue for dealing with these men. That some should not be tried, cannot be tried, but should just vanish into a secret grave or U.S. gulag in a foreign land, and that nobody should ask questions about it is a policy which ought to be abhorrent to all who call themselves American.

    But I am an extremist, and some of your other premises I disagree with.

    Shortly after they get off the beach in Saving Private Ryan, there’s a brief scene of some American soldiers shooting a few surrendering German soldiers. It’s understandable. I’ve known a couple of Vietnam veterans who’ve said they witnessed similar situations. The adrenaline is flowing, you’re deafened by the battle, you’re immersed in fear and anger over having just seen compatriots die next to you, you’re uncertain of what’s actually happening as those who were seconds ago shooting at you throw up their hands. It would take a fierce purist to hold anyone responsible for killing others under the circumstances, when the reptile brain is cranking full-bore.

    Thirty seconds later, however, and it’s murder. And that applies even if one of those surrendering (or surrendered) later returns to the fight and kills again.

    That’s how I view the death penalty, even for the likes of bin Laden. In the heat of the battle, it’s self-defense. In the calm aftermath, it’s, well, uncivilized. So I’m definitely one of the few you mention who would argue against executing Abu Zubaydah (and his ilk) even AFTER a trial.

    But, my absolutist objections aside, is 21st Century America above putting Abu Zubaydah on trial the way Israel did with Eichmann, or the Allies did with the Nuremberg defendants, in full view of the world? Some kinds of government secrecy is cancerous, with the same eventual results if it is not excised.

    As for torture, once the line is breached for a little torture of a few â€deserving†people under the imminent threat scenario, it becomes, like disappearances, easier somewhere down the slippery slope to extend to a great deal of torture, under additional circumstances, for more categories of people.

  11. John Casper says:

    Meteor->Your ability above to very accurately capture in two or three sentences, the relevant ethical points of complex and opposite decisions, is in my experience, as rare for its brevity, as it is for its humanity.

  12. Anonymous says:


    I’m not say I’m arguing those cases. I’m saying they can be argued. The torture case I’d argue strenuously against, because it breaks our own and international law. The death penalty case? I’d accept, given that it is the law of our (unlawful) land. But argue more generally against the death penalty.

    Although I have a sick suspicion that Zubaydah might be in the â€put him out of his misery†condition, as Mimikatz pointed out.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Mostly agree with MB about this, being something of an absolutist. But I do have to add, there are lots of people in Colombia who would argue that U.S. support/training of death squads is not some past horror, but an ongoing response to present day movements, albeit ones deeply enmeshed in drug trafficking. Colombia serves as a terrible example, along with failed state in pre-Taliban Afghanistan, of how sending people off to fight in these ways devolves into grotesque, largely meaningless, brutality.

  14. Anonymous says:

    WaPo has a new frontpager about one of BinLaden’s inner circle who was quietly released to morocco, and apparently freedom – for reasons that appear quite mysterious.

  15. prostratedragon says:

    Am I the only one who is disturbed that our government has disappeared all the Al Qaeda leadership rather than dealing with them transparently?

    No, as the others have made clear. Let me add one more voice, so it seems that much less of an idiosyncrasy. I was a child on Nov. 22, 1963, and while I was very sad and angry at what happened to the President, I was frightened a couple of days later when Oswald was killed, poof!, on live television, because I though that our only chance at the truth would have to begin by judging whatever account he had to offer. Subsequent events suggest that wasn’t a bad instinct on my part. The Badministration’s actions regarding the Al-Qaeda men, as so much else in connection with the planes enterprise, gives me a middle-aged, revamped for the 21st century version of the same feeling, in addition to my agreement with what has been said about the nastiness of disappearing people, and the need for us to move away from, rather than toward, making such policies seem normal.

  16. KenBee says:

    EW, it was Nancy Pelosi who said it succinctly in her town meeting. She said something like, that the torture for immediate information from a person in a ’24’type situation was understandable, and that responsibility should be taken for the event, but that we shouldn’t want this to be the pattern.
    I’ve been trying to remember it more exactly, should search for the quote..
    Never the less, we’re all trying to boil that problem down to it’s verbal essence, and for me she came the closest I’ve heard or read.
    The Salvador option- not working real good in Iraq. Soj had a diary at dkos yesterday that said the kidnapings of enemy family members is hostage talking, and violates the Geneva Conventions. The punishment, as she broke it down, was execution OR life imprisonment!
    This situation is so wrong headed.

  17. Mr Nice says:

    Why have they disappeared him? Because 9/11 was an intelligence agency operation. When they plan to undertake events like 9/11, the most important part of the planning is the back story. No doubt AZ was contacted and set up, probably with lots of money changing hands. He would have had no idea what was about to happen. I am sure he was very worried after 9/11 happened, and pennies probably started dropping.

    The neocons could not afford the release of any information about what AZ would say happened before 9/11. Any kind of trial or tribunal was too risky. Disappearance (and probably death) was the only safe option for them.

    That seemingly intelligent people still believe that 19 amatuers could hijack 4 passenger jets, take them on a joy ride around the north east and then fly them unimpeded into buildings in the most monitored and guarded airspace on earth just boggles the mind.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I just finished Risen’s book last night.

    Though the strategy may have been ’let them wonder and worry’ about Zubaydah’s fate, Abu Ghrab completely undermined that tactic and now it just plays into the hands of those who would point to the faithlessness of our culture.

    Did you catch the part about the Saudi intelligence screen savers? THAT is one of the big stories. Osama is being set up as the next Caliph. Regardless of whether it makes sense from our perspective, it is the path for the Ababs to make it through the coming oil wars. It is a balance to the hardware.

  19. Anonymous says:

    But I think few would really debate executing Abu Z for sponsoring the 9/11 attacks.

    Altho’, I am, in general, opposed to death punishment, I would not object, in the end, that fate for the organizers of the 9/11 attacks. All the same, it should be after a trial in Manhattan in front of a judge and a jury of 12. If they can’t do that, then we should hear—on the record and in public—why not. (Because he was tortured, of course, but Alberto G. should at least say that, and not on a Friday at midnight, either.)