An undated photo provided by U.S. Central Command shows Abu Zubaydah. His case is often held up as the quintessential example of why enhanced interrogation techniques are a necessary evil. But several FBI agents and others involved say Zubaydah provided pivotal intelligence on the Sept. 11, 2001, plot before brutal tactics were ever used.
One of the critical questions in the debate over the CIA's use of harsh interrogation tactics is this: Did they work?
The case of Abu Zubaydah is often held up as the quintessential example of why enhanced interrogation techniques are a necessary evil. Former CIA director Michael Hayden said as much on Fox News last Sunday: "The critical information we got from Abu Zubaydah came after we began the EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques]."
Anchor Chris Wallace pressed him, "Not before?"
Hayden was emphatic. "No."
In a recent editorial, Hayden was even more specific. He claimed that the enhanced interrogation techniques led to the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
That said, one of Zubaydah's FBI interrogators, Ali Soufan, remembers it differently. Soufan wrote in The New York Times that Zubaydah talked without being coerced.
Two high-ranking former FBI sources remember it that way, too. They say that intelligence breakthroughs came before Zubaydah was subjected to harsh techniques, not after. Another person close to the interrogation, Rohan Gunaratna, has similar recollections. He is an al-Qaida expert who has worked with U.S. government agencies on terrorism issues.
"Gen. Hayden is dead wrong" about harsh techniques getting information from Zubaydah, he says. "I have tremendous respect for Gen. Hayden, but he is wrong in this case."
Tending To The Prisoner
Gunaratna and FBI agents familiar with the Zubaydah case say he was shot and near death when he was captured. FBI agents, including Soufan, tended to Zubaydah during his convalescence. The idea was partly to bond with him.
When he was well enough, the agents began showing Zubaydah pictures of suspected members of al-Qaida. When he saw a photograph of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Zubaydah apparently asked, "How do you know about Muktar?"
"We know all about Muktar," the agent said, without missing a beat. He flipped through several other photos and then went back to the picture of Mohammed.
Zubaydah looked up and added, "How did you know he was the mastermind of 9/11?"
Gunaratna says that was a critical revelation — and there were others. "In fact, most of the information that was exceptionally useful to the fight against al-Qaida came from Abu Zubaydah," he says, "and it came before the U.S. government decided to use enhanced techniques."
The Padilla Lead
There is a second important claim: That harsh interrogation tactics also led to the arrest of American Jose Padilla. Gunaratna was the government's expert in the Padilla case. He said they got the key lead on Padilla from Zubaydah without using torture.
Zubaydah apparently told the FBI about a Puerto Rican kid — in Jordan — who had instructions from Khalid Sheik Mohammed to get a clean passport and head back to the U.S.
The FBI asked the U.S. Embassy in Jordan to look for a young man of Hispanic descent who had tried to get a new passport. Padilla's name popped up. The FBI got his picture, showed it to Zubaydah and said, "Is this the guy?" Zubaydah nodded.
The authorities picked up Padilla when he got to Chicago.
Matthew Alexander was a military interrogator in Iraq. He thinks that the FBI's techniques work and says the results of the CIA techniques speak for themselves.
"The fact that [the CIA] waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed 183 times and he never lead them to Osama bin Laden is a glaring failure," he said.
The dispute over whether harsh interrogations led to the capture of Mohammed and Padilla won't settle the debate over whether torture actually works. And certainly the FBI has a stake in claiming it succeeded where the CIA failed. But according to FBI accounts, critical information was obtained before harsh techniques were ever used.