Did waterboarding really work on Abu Zubaydah?

Last week, a former CIA agent came out to defend one instance of waterboarding, saying it had produced valuable information; now, former FBI agents are hitting back.

By Alex Koppelman

Published December 18, 2007 9:25PM (EST)

Last week, John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent, was out in the media, telling the press and the country that waterboarding -- which he admitted was torture -- had been necessary and useful in the case of one suspected al-Qaida leader, the man known as Abu Zubaydah. But, reflecting the sharp divide that tends to exist between the CIA and the FBI on the issue, the Washington Post runs today with a story saying that Kiriakou's claims may not hold that much water.

Post reporters Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus talked with Dan Coleman, a retired FBI agent who worked on Zubaydah's case. Coleman told Eggen and Pincus, "I don't have confidence in anything he says, because once you go down that road, everything you say is tainted ... He was talking before they did that to him, but they didn't believe him. The problem is they didn't realize he didn't know all that much."

This fits with what we learned the last time Zubaydah was trotted out as an example of the good waterboarding can do, in that case by President Bush himself. At the time, I interviewed author Ron Suskind, who had discussed Zubaydah with informed sources for his book "The One Percent Doctrine." The problem, Suskind said, was that in this case waterboarding served the purpose it had originally, when used by dictatorial regimes interested only in eliciting a confession, but not in the veracity of the confession. Zubaydah started to talk, but much of what he said was just an attempt to make the harsh treatment stop. "In the case of Zubaydah," Suskind said, "when it comes to some of the harsh interrogation tactics he was put through, what occurred then was that he started to talk. He said, as people will, anything to make the pain stop. And we essentially followed every word and various uniformed public servants of the United States went running all over the country to various places that Zubaydah said were targets, and were not.

"Ultimately, we tortured an insane man and ran screaming at every word he uttered ...

"The fact is that the history of interrogation shows that you do not do particularly well when you confirm expectations, when everybody plays their preordained role. In this case, al-Qaida operatives are trained to believe that the United States, and representatives of the U.S., are bloodthirsty mobsters who will dismember and disembowel. The fact is, when we use harsh techniques we essentially say, 'We are going to confirm your expectations.'

"What has largely worked in all the interrogations, what we got -- and in many cases it's not very much -- but whatever we got, for the most part occurred because we were, let's just say, a little more clever than that. Instead of going medieval, which is the tactic our enemies here embrace, we essentially find a way to confuse their expectations. In many cases, just by treating them as human beings we have created an environment where we get what we so desperately need, which is information that might help save American lives."

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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