Water-boarding Abu Zubaydah as a last resort to find out what he knew about pending terrorist plots was a justifiable act of self-defense.
Two weeks before the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to the 9/11 Commission, a foreign intelligence service issued a report on the following topic: "Consideration by Abu Zubaydah to Attack Targets in the United States."
That threat should have been taken more seriously.
The commission described Abu Zubaydah as a "sympathetic peer" of Osama bin Laden. In the years before 9/11, he operated the Khaldan and Derunta terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. "While the camps were not al Qaeda facilities," the 9/11 Commission said, "Abu Zubaydah had an agreement with bin Laden to conduct reciprocal recruiting efforts whereby promising trainees at the camps could be invited to join al Qaeda."
Some of the terrorists Abu Zubaydah trained and directed were American citizens.
On Nov. 30, 1999, for example, according to the commission, Abu Zubaydah placed a call to one of his lieutenants, Khadr Abu Hoshar. It was intercepted by Jordanian intelligence. During their chat, Abu Zubaydah told Abu Hoshar: "The time for training is over."
The Jordanians interpreted this as a "go" signal for an attack. They arrested Abu Hoshar and 15 others. "One of the 16, Raed Hijazi, had been born in California to Palestinian parents," said the commission. "After spending his childhood in the Middle East, he had returned to northern California, taken refuge in extremist Islamist beliefs, and then made his way to Abu Zubaydah’s Khaldan camp in Afghanistan, where he learned the fundamentals of guerilla warfare. He and his younger brother had been recruited by Abu Hoshar into a loosely knit plot to attack Jewish and American targets in Jordan."
This Northern Californian, according to the commission, spent the late 1990s working as a cabdriver in Boston, traveling back and forth between there and Jordan "gathering" money and supplies, recruiting would-be terrorists in Syria, Jordan and Turkey for Zubaydah’s camps, and finally returning to one of those camps to get specialized training in explosives.
The foiled plot involving Hijazi and Abu Hoshar, according to the commission, aimed to attack the Radisson Hotel in Amman, the border crossing between Israel and Jordan, two Christian holy places and an airport. The idea was to hit them "at a time when all these locations were likely to be thronged with American and other tourists." Abu Zubaydah approved the plan.
After he was captured, according to the commission, Hijazi’s little brother bragged that the terrorist group’s motto was: "The season is coming, and the bodies will pile up in sacks."
Two weeks after these terrorists were detained in Jordan, Customs arrested Ahmed Ressam trying to enter the U.S. from Canada. Ressam had a bomb in his car that he intended to detonate at Los Angeles International Airport. The August 6, 2001 intelligence briefing prepared for President Bush said that Ressam told the FBI that "Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own U.S. attack."
In the spring of 2001, the alarm was sounded at the White House about Abu Zubaydah.
"On May 29," the commission reported, "[Richard] Clarke suggested that [then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza] Rice ask DCI [George] Tenet what more the United States could do to stop Abu Zubaydah from launching ‘a series of major terrorist’ attacks.’"
In an email to Rice and her then-assistant Stephen Hadley, Clarke said: "When these attacks occur, as they likely will, we will wonder what more we could have done to stop them."
After 9/11, Congress authorized war against al Qaeda. The following March, Abu Zubaydah was severely wounded while being captured. Reports in the Washington Post and New York Times over the past week have revealed that after Zubaydah was nursed out of a coma in Pakistan, officers of the Central Intelligence Agency tried to get him to reveal what he knew about terrorist plans against the United States. He was not forthcoming.
Eventually, he was flown to another country where he was water-boarded for 35 seconds. John Kiriakou, a CIA interrogator who had failed to get valuable information out of Zubaydah by softer means, and who did not participate in the water-boarding, told the Washington Post that the waterboarding "was like flipping a switch."
Afterward, according to Kiriakou, Abu Zubaydah surrendered information that "probably saved lives."
The CIA inspector general, the Justice Department and both the House and Senate intelligence committees are now launching investigations of why the CIA destroyed videotapes of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and another detainee. We are about to see an election-year politicization of intelligence gathering that will amount to a war-time criminalization of intelligence gathering.