by Eric Martin
The only surpsing part of this story is that the protagonist actually admitted that he lied:
Well, it's official now: John Kiriakou, the former CIA operative who affirmed claims that waterboarding quickly unloosed the tongues of hard-core terrorists, says he didn't know what he was talking about.
Kiriakou, a 15-year veteran of the agency's intelligence analysis and operations directorates, electrified the hand-wringing national debate over torture in December 2007 when he told ABC's Brian Ross and Richard Esposito in a much ballyhooed, exclusive interview that senior al Qaeda commando Abu Zubaydah cracked after only one application of the face cloth and water.
"From that day on, he answered every question," Kiriakou said. "The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."
...And the pro-torture camp was quick to pick up on Kiriakou's claim.
"It works, is the bottom line," conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh exclaimed on his radio show the day after Kiriakou's ABC interview. "Thirty to 35 seconds, and it works."
A cascade of similar acclamations followed, muffling -- to this day -- the later revelation that Zubaydah had in fact been waterboarded at least 83 times.
Had Kiriakou left out something the first time?
Now comes John Kiriakou, again, with a wholly different story. On the next-to-last page of a new memoir, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror (written with Michael Ruby), Kiriakou now rather off handedly admits that he basically made it all up.
"What I told Brian Ross in late 2007 was wrong on a couple counts," he writes. "I suggested that Abu Zubaydah had lasted only thirty or thirty-five seconds during his waterboarding before he begged his interrogators to stop; after that, I said he opened up and gave the agency actionable intelligence."
But never mind, he says now.
"I wasn't there when the interrogation took place; instead, I relied on what I'd heard and read inside the agency at the time."
In a word, it was hearsay, water-cooler talk.
"Now we know," Kiriakou goes on, "that Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in a single month, raising questions about how much useful information he actually supplied."
Indeed. But after his one-paragraph confession, Kiriakou adds that he didn't have any first hand knowledge of anything relating to CIA torture routines, and still doesn't. And he claims that the disinformation he helped spread was a CIA dirty trick: "In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in how the CIA uses the fine arts of deception even among its own."
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano dodged that mud ball.
"While I haven't read John's book, the line about deception doesn't make any sense," Gimigliano told me last week. "He apparently didn't know as much as he thought he did. That's a very different matter."
Kiriakou's story never did make much sense considering the contradictory accounts previously reported by journalist Ron Suskind and others involved more closely in the actual interrogation. Kiriakou's version of events didn't seem to fit at all. This is from a post of mine from 2006:
So, in an effort to back up Bush's earlier boasts, and after Bush inquired as to the efficacy of the "harsh methods" used by interrogators, Tenet's CIA proceeded to employ those "aggressive interrogation" techniques including water-boarding, threats of imminent death, withholding medication, sleep depravation, etc. [against Zubaydah], a mentally unstable individual already physically weakened by the multiple gun shot wounds he suffered during his capture. From a Washington Post review of Suskind's book:
Under that duress, [Zubaydah] began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each...target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."
None of those leads panned out - despite the "strong" approach taken during his interrogation. Nevertheless, actionable intelligence was eventually extracted from Zubaydah - but observe the method that finally yielded results:
Then there was a small break. A CIA interrogator...was skilled in the nuances of the Koran, and slipped under Zubaydah's skin. The al Qaeda operative believed in certain ideas of predestination - that things happen for reasons preordained. The interrogator worked this, pulling freely from the Koran. Zubaydah believed he had survived [his violent capture], when several of his colleagues were killed, for a purpose. He was convinced that that purpose, in the fullness of time, was to offer some cooperation to his captors, something a dead man couldn't do.
Zubaydah provided his interrogators with the name and whereabouts of Jose Padilla and none other than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - the planner of the 9/11 attacks itself. It was a major breakthrough. As Suskind notes:
On the issue of interrogation, Zubaydah represented a first test, with results that could now be reviewed. It seemed as though the FBI - and those inside the CIA advocating a gentler model of interrogation - might be right.
Unfortunately, Kiriakou kicked up a lot of dust and created a lot of confusion about the efficacy of torture, a practice that should be abandoned purely on moral grounds, but which also has terrible track record for success compared to more thoughtful interrogation methods. His mea culpa is too little too late considering the blatant lie he told in the face of actual evidence, and the harm caused.